On a Mission or Simply Under Duress

Let’s start with the good news, especially for those who live in New England or have become admirers of the Belichick-Brady dynasty. Akin to getting a smile out of Chuck Norris in a movie role, it’s downright odd—almost creepy—to see a smile from Belichick. There were some afterwards, but much more in character is Belichick here gripping the victory trophy, eyebrow cocked in wary appraisal of the world around him while his eyes and mouth are tightly gripped in a look of determination. Maybe when Brady turns 50, Belichick will tire of winning. Meanwhile, . . . the victories and trophies accumulate.

Who also won this soporific Super Bowl? Many think it was the Bud Light / Game of Throne mash-up. What’s the Bud Light Knight’s facial expression? In his everyman role, beer-drinker as knight saving himself from sobriety, Budweiser doesn’t want us to know. We should be projecting ourselves into the role. Is he happily soused and sporting a smile, or brandishing the equivalent of Belichick’s scowl? The great mystery lingers.

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If there are winners, there must be losers, too, and there were this past Sunday. One was the Rams’ coach, Sean McVay, who admitted to having been “outcoached” by Belichick.  Both coaches have their chins pulled up in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. The difference between them: notice also how the corners of McVay’s mouth are turned downwards, tilting the emotions displayed more in the direction of sadness for the moment. (Don’t worry, Rams’ fans: there’s determination being expressed as well, a determination to win again and often.) Besides the Rams, I think Burger King lost the Super Bowl. I’m sure some clever ad agency guy thought pulling out the old footage of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger showed his artiness, but mostly it revealed a lack of emotional intelligence. Time and again while eating the burger, Andy smirks—a sign of disrespect (for the product). It’s hard for the company’s offer to be the hero when it’s actually the goat (and I don’t mean GOAT as in Roger Federer being the Greatest Of All Time).

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Meanwhile, everyone’s running for president, inspired by Donald Trump’s example. If blatant incompetency and dishonesty can get you to the White House, why not give it a shot? Cory Booker has joined the Democratic field (looking delighted but not at ease), and maybe Howard Schultz is going to run an independent campaign. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal is Schultz’s promise. Whether a tepid smile and a lip turned down in disgust, as shown here, is an emotional formula for winning I doubt it.

020519-03 Booker & Schultz

Who’s definitely going to lose? That’s easier to say. Playing a losing hand is an apt description of the ultimate fate of both Virginia governor Ralph Northam (looking mighty uneasy given the raised inner eyebrow, a sign of sadness and fear) and Venezuela’s leader Nicholas Maduro (trying his best to imitate Belichick, but the eyebrows pinched together give away Maduro’s existential fear of being shot by rebels within his own military). In Northam’s case, he held the most insane of press conferences last Saturday. Among the highlights, denying he was one of the men dressed up as a Klansman or in blackface in a medical school yearbook picture (after admitting the night before that, in fact, yes, that was him in the photo). A safe prediction: he won’t join the others running for the Democratic presidential nomination. In Maduro’s case, inflation is running at something like 10 million percent and there’s no food left . . . except at his residence. When people are literally starving to death en masse, rubber bullets won’t matter. Next stop, Moscow, Mr. Maduro, if only you’re so lucky.

020519-05 Northam & Maduro

 

Week 4, 2019: From Indifference to Mendacity

Sometimes a muted emotional response is commendable. When called for a foot fault on match point during her quarterfinal at the Australian Open this past week, Serena Williams hardly “batted an eyelid.” What a contrast to the ruckus that ensued during last fall’s U.S. Open. On the other hand, a lack of emoting can and usually does signal indifference. Cue Wilbur Ross, the billionaire in charge of the Commerce Department. “I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why,” Ross said on national TV in response to being asked about furloughed federal workers going to food banks to make ends meet. Quite honestly, a dead man would have shown more compassion than Ross did as he then suggested those same workers might apply instead for emergency, “low interest” loans. Did he mean like the almost 9% loans his department’s federal credit union was offering during the crisis?

Here is Ross as dead man walking during the federal shut-down on CNBC.

And here is Ross earlier this year telling Congress (in effect): “Yes, I’m not only tone deaf I’m literally deaf, too.”

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The good news is that we’re not yet Russia, though Ross’s cabinet colleague, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, is trying to help bring America and the former “Evil Empire” together by ending sanctions on Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska. Study this next photo and ask yourself: does this guy have the look of a nice man? Most of Deripaska’s smiles could be mistaken for snarling, and his eyes are typically narrowed in an angry expression I refer to as “snake eyes.” Then there are Deripaska’s cocked eyebrows. There I don’t blame in. The further East you travel in Europe, the less people genuinely smile as a rule of thumb in the belief that if you’re happy you’re a fool. As in, don’t you realize the true nature of the socio-political environment you inhabit?

012919-02 Oleg Deripaska

I’d say this woman does. She’s Anastasia Vashukevich, a Belaursian escort and blogger who was just returned—against her wishes—to Russia, where as she noted strange things happen. Among her clients is none other than Deripaska, Putin’s buddy, of whom Vashukevich claims she has evidence of Russian collusion. How long she stays alive now that she’s back in Russia from Thailand is anybody’s guess, Putin aside (as he no doubt knows exactly how long he’ll go before “intervening”).

012919-03 Anastasia Vashukevich

Notice a visual theme (hint: cocked eyebrows, the sign of those who are wary in a lawless land).

Speaking of festering sore spots around the world, there’s little chance of Zimbabwe improving anytime soon. Yes, Robert Mugabe is gone—replaced by his former, loyal lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Here is the man known as “the crocodile” returning to Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare this past week after making a pit-stop at the Davos Conference. Why was Mnangagwa there? To insist he’s a great guy, eager for foreign investment. Notice in this case how not only the Crocodile’s upper lip is raised in a sign of disgust, but also how emotionally in synch his aides are. The three men to Mnangagwa’s right in this photo are all spotting the same look. As a spurning emotion, a sign of something “stinks” or tastes bad, disgust hardly suggests openness.

012919-04 Emmerson Mnangagwa

One final note here among the photographs that caught my eye this week. Let’s admit that being “open” (as in “open for business”) doesn’t necessarily provide a safety net when it comes to ensuring good governance. Roger Stone has been mugging for the TV cameras during the past few days, doing his best to imitate Richard Nixon’s “victory salute”: the very same one Nixon gave even on boarding the helicopter that took him away from the White House after resigning his presidency. I could be showing Stone’s imitation of Nixon’s victory salute or even the Nixon tattoo he’s got on his upper back.

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But somehow this photo of an eyes-wide-open, eager to cash-in Stone flanked by his fellow swamp mates Paul Manafort and Lee Atwater on the occasion of opening their K-Street lobbying firm back in the 1980’s was just too sweetly bitter for me to pass up. Among their clients were foreign dictators, overseas political parties with likely ties to drug trafficking and, of course, also some guy named Donald Trump.

From Incompetent Officials to Something’s Great (But It’s Not Trump)

Welcome to a very different version of “Faces of the Week.” Focusing on a single story per posting is, frankly, too limiting. There’s always so much of interest going on. So while the occasional posting may focus on a single specific story, by and large I’m going to move to a potpourri of stories, going with whatever catches my eye (and engages my heart).

Let’s start with incompetency and Brexit.

012219-01 Boris Johnson Double

Pity the British prime minister, Teresa May, as she struggles with plans B-Z now that Plan A was sounded defeated in Parliament. All the while, where, oh where is Boris Johnson, the man who helped lead the charge in favor of leaving the E.U. because the world would be coming up roses if England went its own way? As usual, he’s lost somewhere in his own mix of bluster and bafflement as to what it was he actually was thinking. “I said what?” seems to be the caption to many a moment of lip curling, mouth ajar Johnson caught on camera.

As pointed out in Pankaj Mishra’s article for The New York Times, however, a mediocre “chumocracy” has often ruled England. Case in point is Lord Mountbatten, whose hurried declaration of independence for India led to an estimated one million deaths as the country unraveled. The article came complete with this photo:

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From left seated at the table, Jawaharlal Nehru, vice president of India’s interim government; Earl Mountbatten, viceroy of India; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League, discuss Britain’s plan for India, June 2, 1947. 

As a facial coder, what struck me immediately was the anger on Jinnah’s face. Could anybody have imagined independence was going to be a cake-walk? More specifically, did Mountbatten even really notice the emotions roiling around him? He himself admitted the transfer of power he chose was a “ludicrously early date.” Then he gave the task of drawing the new boundaries to a British lawyer who had never visited India. Like Brexit, a mess was certain and that’s putting it mildly.

Speaking of incompetent officials, the stakes were a wee bit lower when the NFL official failed to call pass interference on this play late in the NFC championship game. Would you say that New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Peyton was stunned by the no-call?

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Seeking to move from U.S. Senator (D-CA) to the White House, Kamela Harris joined the ranks of contenders for the Democratic nomination this past week. With Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) already declared, how can Harris distinguish herself? For starters, she has the best smile of the three women. But a wide-eyed, on alert look is her other signature expression. Warmth and concern: it’s a great combination. My hunch is that of the three, she might prove the most effective on the campaign trail (time and the voters and the money raised will tell; remember what a 20th century Republican party boss said: Only two things matter in politics . . . money and I can’t remember the other thing.” Well, actually emotion is the other currency!)

012219-04 Kamala Harris Double

What was great in the past few days was this man, the rising Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, managing to beat his idol, Roger Federer, in a thrilling match at the Australian Open. “I’m the happiest man on earth” Tsitsipas said afterwards and it wasn’t hard to believe him. Just look at the elation on his face.

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Maybe the question of the week, however, was what was on the face (and in the heart) of the student from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. to join an anti-abortion protest. Nick Sandmann said he stood this close to a Native American activist trying to step in between two opposing groups. No disrespect was intended, Sandmann said. But in wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) red hat, linked to Donald Trump and his disparaging reference to senator Warren as “Pocahontas” (among many other racist or all but racist remarks, over time), one is left wondering.

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The Native American shown here to the right, Nathan Phillips, sure felt uneasy about Sandmann being so in his face. There’s a slight smirk to the right on Sandmann’s face, and an upper lip curled in disgust. Despite the accompanying smile, it’s hard to reconcile Sandmann’s expression with the notion that no disrespect was intended.

What’s easier to judge for sure than Sandmann’s expression? That would be the look on the face of the Confederate soldier emblazoned on the digital sign outside his school back in Kentucky. Note the eyes tight with anger, and for that matter the street on which the school sits. I rest my case, even if Sandmann is still protesting his innocence.

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North Korea’s Reliably Erratic Kim Jong-un

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Nobody should doubt who killed Kim Jong-nam, the estranged older half-brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur’s airport earlier this month. Sure, the immediate culprit were the young women who grabbed the elder brother from behind at the airport and wiped his face with a poisoned cloth. But they were what intelligence officers call “lizard’s tails,” people who can be disposed of after an assignment is over.  The new revelation that the poison involved was VX nerve gas – a substance banned under the international Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1997 and 2005 – changes everything, and nothing.

Kim Jong-nam was harmless, a playboy living in Macau who had gone into exile after being caught trying to enter Japan in 2001 to visit Tokyo Disneyland. That the portly Mr. Kim had used the name Pang Xiong, Chinese for “fat bear,” on a fake Dominican Republic passport establishes his character clearly enough.

In contrast, understated humor isn’t exactly what distinguishes the now 33-year-old man who succeeded his father as North Korea’s ruler in 2011. Follow the timeline. In 2013, Kim Jong-un arranged for the execution of his uncle and closest advisor, Mr. Jang, as part of a blood purge of anybody who might threaten his hold on power. In 2014, how did Sony Pictures fare in the run-up to its release of The Interview, a comedy about an assignation attempt on Kim Jong-un?  Not too well, given a cyberattack, leaked emails, and embarrassed Sony executives initially halting the movie’s release.

It’s just not natural for somebody to be characterized both by eyes glinting with joy and eyes narrowed in cold fury.

Not one to be placated easily, North Korea’s ruler almost monolithically veers between two primary emotions: anger and happiness. When Mr. Kim isn’t cackling with mirth as he inspects military hardware or factory output, he scowls. While the old saying, when momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, has struck fear in more than one husband, Mr. Kim has put not only his country on edge. In reality, the entire world is watching and wondering what he’ll do next.

It’s just not natural for somebody to be characterized both by eyes glinting with joy and eyes narrowed in cold fury. Ever watchful and on guard is the one consistency. That, and North Korea’s ever expanding nuclear weapons capabilities. The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is becoming irrelevant as tests prove North Korea can send its missiles in increasingly longer flights. A cloth doused with nerve gas is but a proxy for a nuclear-tipped missile.

Joyful people have a tendency to play fast and loose with the details. Angry people hit out. Reliably erratic, Mr. Kim may have met his match in Donald Trump should America’s new leader choose to diplomatically engage with North Korea. For the world’s sake, we can only hope that their (most likely) indirect contact goes better than it did for Fat Bear. For the elder half-brother who never even once met his homeland’s new feudal leader, the ending was quick and merciless. On the way to the hospital, Fat Bear ’s last words were “Very painful, very painful.”

Kim Jong-nam’s death in Malaysia changes everything by signaling that North Korea’s ruler will carry his grievances across borders and strike in public. But at the same time, the murder changes nothing when it comes to Kim Jong-un’s basic emotional make-up. Note the willingness to hit hard, only to then laugh it off by having a North Korean government organization say the real responsibility for whomever may have been poisoned “rests with the government of Malaysia.” After all, the lucky guy didn’t die in Pyongyang, right, and who can dispute that?