Bush, Cults, and Idol

I honestly don’t understand George W. Bush.

According to the Drudge Report, he’s about to make a proposal that the U.S. will “halt greenhouse gas rise by 2025.”

Since he’s a lame duck and what he’s proposing is nigh unto impossible, I doubt he will be successful. And since the people who buy into this crap – the Philips of the world – are going to continue to hate him regardless of what he does, I don’t understand why he’s doing it. If he truly believes in it, then where was he seven years ago when he – wisely, in my opinion – yanked the US out of the Kyoto Treaty? Does he believe it or doesn’t he? He loses either way.

I get the impression from this kind of nonsense that Bush occasionally chooses to do things in order to deliberately offend people. This has been the most successful aspect of his second term. Unfortunately, he’s running out of people to offend.

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Bill Maher is saying nasty things about the Pope and the Catholic Church, comparing Catholicism to the FLDS folks and essentially labeling both organizations as “cults.”

I learned long ago that the word “cult” is entirely useless, because, in practice, it now has no objective definition. It used to have reference to any religion and was essentially a measure of size – i.e. a cult is “a small group of religious followers.” In today’s vernacular, though, the word “cult” is reserved for spurious or unorthodox religions that deserve scorn and ridicule. Bill Maher ironically hearkens back to the traditional sociological definition when he uses the term, since, to him, the only difference between run-of-the-mill cults and the Catholic Church is one of size. “If you have a few hundred followers, and you let some of them molest children, they call you a cult leader,” he says. “If you have a billion, they call you ‘Pope.’ “

I can think of a number of things I’d like to call Bill Maher, and, like the word “cult,” none of them are very nice. Except namecalling reveals nothing about your target and reveals everything about you. People who throw the word “cult” around with regularity and think they’re saying something factual are simply telling you which religions they don’t like.

The best and most useful definition of “cult” came from my brilliant high school government teacher, Lee Shagin, who put it thusly:

“A cult is someone else’s religion.”

Dr. Walter Martin, arguably the most influentially vitriolic critic of the LDS Church in the 20th Century, wrote a book titled “The Kingdom of the Cults” in which he derided several different groups that went afoul of his thinking of what Christianity ought to be. However, in order to begin mudslinging at all the cults he despised, he had to have an ironclad definition of same to anchor the discussion.

The problem was that every part of Martin’s definition could also be applied to early Christianity. All cults, according to Martin, follow a charismatic leader and insist that they’re the only way to heaven. They require sacrifices; they have their own vocabulary. Sounds like he’s describing all those folks following Jesus of Nazareth circa 33 AD. Martin spewed an awful lot of words in an attempt to clarify what a cult is, but ultimately, Lee Shagin’s definition is the better one.

But back to Bill Maher. He thinks the Catholicism is a cult. Since Maher has no religion, it’s not surprising that he thinks so little of someone else’s. Whereas I think, personally, that Bill Maher is a jerk. Nyah nya ne nyah nyah.

Glad we had this useless little exchange.

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What was interesting about Mariah Carey as the mentor on last night’s American Idol was that Carey is one of the few mentors who could actually win American Idol. Dolly Parton, mentor from a couple weeks back, wouldn’t make it past the audition round.

Carey is doubtless a fantastic singer, but as a songwriter, there’s just not much there. The reason the boys did so much better than the girls was that they did weird things to forgettable songs – except frontrunner David Archuleta, who’s straightforward rendition of “When You Believe” was technically proficient but kind of boring, really. Jason Castro – who looks EXACTLY like John Travolta – was much more fun, and, while I also enjoyed David Cook’s moody, emo version of “Always Be My Baby,” I’m continually amazed that the judges applaud him for taking risks while never noticing that he keeps taking the SAME risk – his emo “ABMB” from last night is interchangeable with his emo “Billie Jean” and his emo “Eleanor Rigby” and his emo “Hello.” When he takes a different risk, like he did with last week’s “Give Back” hand thing, he looks silly. And could he take a risk and comb his stinkin’ hair?

The girls were all pretty lousy, but I was very glad that Carly covered up her grotesque tattoos. Brooke’s unplugged “Hero” was probably the worst of the lot, but I’ll bet Syesha gets sent home tonight.

In the end, it’s all moot. If David Archuleta doesn’t win it all, I’ll eat my hat. I don’t have a hat, but that’s beside the point, as I won’t be called upon to eat it.

How to Survive a Staff Meeting

I’ve been in a staff meeting ALL STINKIN’ DAY. Yikes. I survived by reading a travel brochure from Kazakhstan – not a Borat fake, mind you, but the real thing – and trying to wade through the English translation, which, like most of what Languatron writes, reads like it was composed by a committee of drunken, angry monkeys.

Allow me to share some excerpts:

“Gourmets from all worlds come also to try here Uzbek plov and to inhale aroma of hot national flat cakes.”

“The tourists coming to Turkestan, mark that fact, that the smell of slavery as it occurs at a kind of the Egyptian pyramids here is not felt. But an atmosphere of spiritual freedom Ahmed Yassaui’s mausoleum spreads across all Turkestan the greatest architectural masterpiece.”

“Dry you will not leave a breeze is a draught a body through clothes.”

“These are underground labyrinthes – rooms for a pray, solitudes or listenings of ethnic musical instruments.”

“In addition to services of tourists – walks on horses, excursions in reserve. For household convenience the shower works. There is a cold and hot water.”

“The most famous traditional in the South Kazakhstan is national game Kokpar. Equestrians on their horses should show the best qualities of racing. The person who catch a goat the first will be considered as a winner.”

“Kumyz – it’s not only delicious drink made of horse milk. It has many curative properties. Propagation of this drink became the basic purpose of a traditional holiday in South Kazakhstan.”

“And all together taken creates the certain power by which air of city is impregnated.”

You get the idea. I don’t need to keep impregnating your air.

Politically Fatalistic Optimism

Talk radio is ablaze with condemnation of Barack Obama, and rightfully so. What he said was pathetically stupid and elitist, and it ought to be condemned. I just don’t care enough to condemn it.

Really, does it come as any surprise that a Democrat would slam religious people and gun owners? What’s really disgusting is watching Hillary Clinton pretend to be aghast, when you know she’s loving every minute of it. What, she’s the God and Guns candidate now? And why does everyone, especially Clinton, seem to think that the Second Amendment is somehow about the right to hunt ducks?

All of this should have pushed me into the McCain fold by now, but, sorry, folks, I’m still not there yet. John McCain reminds me of Captain Bob Morris, a rich loon up in Jackson Hole who pays for everything in two dollar bills and buys airtime on Jackson Hole television to call for the legalization of drugs. Captain Bob runs for office every few years as a Republican, not to advance Republican ideals but rather to “destroy the Republican Party from the inside.”

The only real difference between Captain Bob and John McCain is one of rank, not substance.

Right now, listening to these people shoot of their mouths, the most conservative person in the race is Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton! The most reprehensible human being ever to run for the office, with the possible exception of her husband, who George Will famously noted was not the worst president ever, but rather the worst man ever to be president.

I’m so deeply disengaged from this political season that it’s startling to me. I’m not working on a campaign for the first time in several election cycles, and I have no interest in working on a campaign. I’m not a state or a county delegate. I’m pretty much out of it. I’m just a guy who turns the station every time politics comes up on the radio or television. I still drift past the odd political blog and catch a few comments on the radio now and then, but I can only take it in small doses. I know that whatever the outcome this November, I’m not going to like it.

Part of what’s pulling me through is sort of a politically fatalistic optimism. I know that, politically, the Federal Government will continue to expand rapaciously no matter who’s in office. I know that the Supreme Court is not going to get any more conservative than it already is. I know that taxes are going to go up. I know that our military will end up abandoned to one degree or another. All these things are awful, but they’re foregone conclusions. So I have to look beyond government and find solace in my faith.

And things on that front have never looked brighter. The promise is that as the world gets darker, the faithful will continue to grow stronger. The divide between the people of faith and the people of the world will grow ever larger, and my job now is to stay on the right side of that divide. All indications are that it’s going to get darkest before the dawn. So I hunker down, focus on what’s really important, and know that eventually, the dawn will come.

GINO 4.2 Review – Spoilers

Woody Allen’s output has been wildly uneven over the years, but one of his best films is 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, in which a 1930s mobster bankrolls a Broadway play in order to give his horrifically untalented actress girlfriend a starring role – and something to do. At one point, an understudy goes on for her, and everyone notices that not only does this improve every scene in which she appears, but also the scenes in which she does not appear. Suddenly, all of the other characters have more heft, because you can believe that they take the girlfriend’s character seriously, even when she is offstage.

Witness a real-life example of this principle in the third Godfather movie, where Sofia Coppola single-handedly mutilates the franchise with her limpid, vacant performance. It’s impossible to believe she’s Michael Corleone’s daughter, or that Andy Garcia is truly in love with her, and consequently the movie unravels completely by the third act. The final scene, when she dies in her father’s arms, is supposed to be the ultimate tragedy for the Corleone character, and, instead, it’s unintentionally funny. One bad acting apple truly spoils the whole bunch.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

Moore and Co. have made the fatal mistake of hanging this entire series on the shoulders of one Katee Sackhoff, who’s performance as Kara Thrace ranges all the way from really loud to really, really loud. She screams a lot. She seems to like screaming a lot. She’s like a Spinal Tap amplifier constantly turned up to 11, and that leaves her with nowhere else to go. She’s incapable of subtlety; she’s incapable of dynamics; she’s ultimately incapable of acting.

She ruins not only her own scenes, but also the scenes where she is not present.

Consider the moment in Adama’s quarters, when Olmos and Roslin are sparring over whether it’s appropriate to believe Starbuck. It’s actually a fairly well-written scene, and both Olmos and Roslin have the chops to carry it off. But it doesn’t work, and it’s only when you consider Sackhoff as the poison pill that you realize why. They’re taking Starbuck seriously, and it’s impossible for the audience to follow suit. All their gravitas can’t add enough heft to ground Sackhoff’s angry wisp of a character.

In the end, though, fixing Sackhoff would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. This is a show that lost its way a long time ago, and its only now that everyone will notice that the wheels are truly coming off.

If you doubt it, compare the Season 4 Cylons with the omnipresent nightmares that fueled this show’s premiere – and still finest – episode, “33.” Back then, the Cylons were fierce, unrelenting, and attacked every 33 minutes with mechanical, unfeeling precision. They held all the cards. They were hunting the human race to extinction. And, yes, they had a plan.

Now we’re left with the ludicrous spectacle of squabbling Cylons who settle their differences in makeshift caucus meetings based on the rantings of naked women lying in bubble baths. Remember when the Cylons infiltrated the human networks and shut down the fleet because they were wired into everything? Now they agree on nothing and can’t even get everyone together for a roll call vote.

And what’s this that one #8 Cylon has never disagreed with another #8 Cylon? Um, did anyone notice that there’s a #8 Cylon on the Galactica, openly supporting the humans? It’d be nice if the writers watched their own show once in awhile. ‘Cause won’t all those models that get blown away by Centurions just get resurrected before the next caucus? Don’t get me wrong; it was fun to see them get blown away in a “wow, man, cool” kind of way. But wasn’t it supposed to mean something?

Nothing means anything.

The really sad thing, however, is to watch this ridiculous “final four” twist mangle, ex post facto, some of the greatest moments of the series. Remember “Exodus Part II,” when Tigh makes the wrenching decision to poison his own wife, who collaborated with the Cylons to save his skin? That was a singular example of the moral complexity Moore promises and never delivers. Now it’s worthless. Tigh is a Cylon. And if he were truly the same man who had to make the decision to murder his own wife, he would have blown himself away by now. He’s not that man anymore; that character is gone. Rebooted. Now he’s plotting in secret with his fellow reboots. Anything interesting about the character has been erased, much like any semblance of promise this show once held.

I don’t really care about the ratings much anymore, and they truly don’t matter. This show should have been cancelled when Enterprise reruns started pulling in a bigger share. This thing will undoubtedly lumber on to its unsatisfying conclusion, but I am willing to make a prediction.

The only people who are still watching, at this point, are the die hard fans. And, sooner or later, these fans are going to get uncomfortable when they’re forced to realize that the show has become meandering and aimless. The people who are truly invested in it will grow more uneasy as it becomes clearer and clearer that the emperor has no clothes. This show, even more than the 1978 original, is a product of its time – glib, fashionable, and wafer thin. Sooner or later, those die hards, if they haven’t already, are going to resent being taken on a ride to nowhere.

Mark it. And don’t shoot the messenger.

Sparring with Philip

Glancing back over the comments on previous posts, I discovered that Philip did, indeed, respond to my enviro slams, and I was thrilled beyond measure. I think Foodleking is right – this blog is better when it has a good foil, and Philip definitely qualifies. I’m not being disingenuous when I say that this guy is truly one of the world’s great people, although we clearly don’t see eye-to-eye politically. He’s a great musician, though, and he actually sings now, which I found surprising. We have much in common except when it comes to politics. When he found me on Facebook, he put it this way:

“Well, first of all, I’m not going to discuss politics with you, because we established long ago that you were dropped on your head as a child.”

So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I will momentarily cease to praise Philip for his many virtues and proceed to eviscerate his political errors, which are legion.

In my post, I quoted Paul Ehrlich’s dire warning in the 70s that only massive population control would prevent worldwide famines. I glibly stated:

“No population control. And no worldwide famines, either. Go figure.”

Philip responded thusly:

“Well, yes, in fact, massive localized famines all over Africa, caused by many things including runaway population growth. See also: streets of urban India, etc.”

To which I now respond:

Glad to see the “many things” qualifier in there, since ascribing Africa’s famines solely to overpopulation presumes that the world doesn’t have enough food to feed everyone. And that’s just plain not true. Back in the ‘80s, when Bob Geldof and the Band Aid/Live Aid/We Are The World crowd made famine relief fashionable, Geldof himself often noted that the world runs a surplus of food production, so it’s criminal that anyone, anywhere should go hungry. The problem is flawed distribution due primarily to corruption among African governments, not a lack of food, as Ehrlich wrongly predicted.

As for the streets of urban India, the streets of Hong Kong have a far greater population density and an almost non-existent poverty rate. India’s inept, socialistic government causes far more problems than the number of people. Indeed, underpopulation is crippling Russia and destroying the EU welfare state. As the Baby Boomers retire, we’re likely to see similar problems here in the U.S. because of our reliance on massive entitlement programs that don’t have a large enough population base to sustain them.

Moving on:

I pointed out that the oceans haven’t all died as both Ehrlich and eminent scientist/sitcom star Ted Danson predicted.

Philip begged to disagree:

“Giant dead zones extend miles off the gulf coast, salmon fishing BANNED in CA for this year because (probably, but not conclusively) ocean temperature rising has changed estuary patterns and they’re not breeding. Killer whales seen thousands of miles south of any previously-charted migration patterns. all marine scientists warn of impending crashing of all important sea life populations. this is not some isolated crank case, but the outcome of the studies of a science as a whole. read up and get back to me.”

Philip’s right that I would need to read up quite a bit to refute any of this. Like George Costanza, I can only pretend to be a marine biologist. The best I can do is say that it sounds like hyperbole to me, and it certainly isn’t consistent with Ehrlich’s prediction that “all important animal life in the sea will be extinct [by 1980]” – clearly not true about the ‘80s or now – or that “large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish” – also nonsense. Danson was recently forced to admit that his earlier doom-and-gloom statements were inaccurate.

So even conceding Philip’s point that “all marine scientists warn of [an] impending crash of all important sea life populations” scares me about as much as it scared me when they did the same thing thirty some-odd years ago. You can only cry wolf so many times.

Philip, probably due to the fact that he has a life and has better things to do than respond to an obscure blog, didn’t try to defend the other ludicrous statements I cited re: the global cooling lunacy , the nation’s rivers boiling, the end of England, Kuwait’s oil fires causing nuclear winter, et al. If anyone can defend that stuff, I’d like to hear it.

He summed up thusly:

“and so it goes. this is what happens, oftentimes, when one argues with conservatives (even ones like mr. bennett who happen to be MUCH smarter than I) – denial of reality coupled with personal attacks = good radio ratings on AM dial.”

Brighter? Doubtful. Poorer? Probably. Would that I were on the AM dial. Although I like to think I went easy on the personal attacks. I did take an unnecessary swipe at Danson’s career, but come on. Cut me some slack.

And then the ultimate putdown: “very very GWB of you, JB. I expect more. try again.”

If only GWB could muster the intellectual stamina to make these arguments. We conservatives have got nowhere to turn, especially since John McCain buys into all this crap. Yes, I’ll try again. I’m going to have to keep trying to get my point across. It feels like nobody else is.

Philip also responded to my little blurb from the BBC about global temperatures not rising since 1998 as follows:

“he who judges global patterns by one year changes will bounce like superball in the brain.
– confucious.”

Perhaps that’s true. Ten years of no warming, however, might be indicative of a pattern. If present trends continue, we’re never going to get any warmer!

Hopefully, present trends will continue and Philip will continue to respond to this blog.

Polygamy

Feeling better about the world today, although my sister keeps kicking my butt in Scrabulous on Facebook. I suck.

Anyway, this whole raid on the FLDS compound in Texas is making polygamy front-page news again, and it’s got me thinking. That’s always dangerous, but bear with me.

My great-grandfather was a polygamist. My grandmother was his youngest daughter, and she lived in hiding for twelve years, raised by her sister and unable to use her real name. The whole history of polygamy in the LDS Church is fraught with difficulty, and everyone would just as soon forget that it ever happened. That’s pretty hard to do, though, especially since it was the defining doctrine of the church for about half a century. So where there ought to be frank discussion, there’s awkward silence.

That’s mainly because modern Mormons find the practice abhorrent, including me. I had never met an actual polygamist until I moved to St. George and saw polygamous women crowding into the local Wal-Mart and Costco, their dowdy homespun dresses and strange, braided, non-bangs hair making them stick out like sore thumbs. I had been operating under the illusion that my ancestors weren’t nearly this weird, but that’s much harder to do when confronted with actual polygamists. My ancestors were probably were just as weird. Maybe even weirder.

Where does that leave me?

Still in denial, actually. Because, first off, my grandmother wasn’t weird. She was an accomplished woman who, to my knowledge, was never forced to wear an ugly burlap dress or yank her hair back in a strange, swooshy coiffure. I don’t know when dowdiness became part and parcel with the polygamy experience, but they could certainly do without it. And in the second place, I’ve seen no evidence that the systemic physical and sexual abuse that is rampant in these polygamous subcultures was part of polygamy back in the day. I have no proof one way or the other, but I want to believe the best.

Yet the modern practice of polygamy invites everyone to see the worst.

Every young Mormon missionary is deluged with questions about polygamy, and few of them give substantive or satisfying answers. Some talk about the glut of single ladies on the frontier who needed the protection of a land-owning husband, so Mormon men dutifully obliged them in a historical anomaly that vanished when conditions changed. I’ve never used that line, because, frankly, it’s not true. Polygamy was always a religious principle, and to minimize its importance in the early history of the church is the height of disingenuity. But it’s a principle that repulses me in practice, so how do I reconcile its previous sanction by my church with my present faith?

I do it the same way the Book of Mormon does.

Many anti-Mormons take delight in pointing out that the Book of Mormon rails on polygamy with more ferocity than anything in the Bible. The Lord condemns the unauthorized practice of polygamy as an “abomination” and refers to the taking of multiple wives as “whoredoms,” and then says the following:

“Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.” (Jacob 2:27)

That seems to be a pretty clear-cut standard, which makes you wonder how Joseph Smith could possibly lead the church to go contrary to the plain language of the scripture he himself translated.

Until you read on to verse 30:

“For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.”

In other words, monogamy is the norm, unless commanded otherwise by the Lord to “raise up seed” unto Him. That’s exactly what happened when the Church practiced polygamy in the 19th century. The doctrine bound the church together through a torturous time and raised up a large second generation to carry the gospel forward. And now, when it is no longer necessary, the Lord has commanded us to revert back to the norm.

Still, while the doctrine seems clear, the practice remains disturbing, to me and to most other Mormons I know. Sooner or later, if we want to truly be accepted as a “mainstream” faith, we’ll need to find some way to come to terms with our past.

My Thomas S. Monson Experience

This was a difficult and yet rewarding conference for me, mainly because Gordon B. Hinckley’s absence seemed almost like an open wound, and I wasn’t quite ready to jump on the Thomas S. Monson train.

I didn’t realize just how hard it would be for me to make this transition.

I hope this doesn’t come across as faithless or sniping, but President Monson’s style has never really been my cup of tea, figuratively speaking. I think the problem is that I’m not a particularly sentimental guy, and I appreciated President Hinckley’s no-nonsense delivery, whereas President Monson can seem mawkish and syrupy in comparison. He has such an odd, affected, almost Muppet-like speech pattern, and the endless tearjerking stories about miracles with widows always seemed aimed at someone else, not me. Believe me, I’ve met a whole lot of Someone Elses who adore President Monson and are thrilled to see him as the new President of the Church. But after his cutesy ear-wiggling story at the Priesthood Session, I began to feel a pit of lead somewhere deep in my gut. Oh, dear, I thought. Is there something wrong with me? If I’m bugged by the President of the Church and find him somewhat annoying, does that mean I’m losing my faith?

During each session as every General Authority stood up to sing his praises, it felt like overkill to me. Methought they did protest too much. Then, listening to President Monson himself speak during the Sunday morning session, I started to feel something truly rancid. I really don’t like this guy, I thought. He’s going to drive me crazy for the next fifteen years. I shared these thoughts with my wife and other family members, and everyone was surprised by how deep my feelings on this were. So was I. I’ve had no experiences with President Monson that would justify this kind of animosity. Indeed, I’ve met him on several occasions, and he has always been kind and gracious. I had no reason to feel what I was feeling, but I was feeling it all the same.

Sunday afternoon, my wife and I attended conference live at the Conference Center. When President Monson walked in, all 21,000 attendees stood up out of respect for the Prophet. I felt a little silly. President Monson seemed like a usurper, a pretender. Why are we standing up for this guy? Where’s the real prophet? President Hinckley, why couldn’t you have stuck around just a little while longer?

It occurred to me that almost everyone who ends up leaving the Church, whether in modern or ancient times, does so out of allegiance to a prophet that they can’t seem to let go, and they reject living prophets in the name of dead ones. Thus Christ was pilloried by followers of Abraham, and Joseph Smith was and is consistently rejected in the name of Christ. I remember when Elder George P. Lee was excommunicated back in the 1980s, and his fury at President Benson for not being President Kimball. In every time of transition, there are a handful of complainers who walk away. There are those who thought Joseph Fielding Smith would destroy the Church after President McKay died. There were plenty who thought Ezra Taft Benson’s ascendancy to the church presidency was a sure sign of the apocalypse. And every time, the Church rolls forward, leaving the disgruntled few to kick against the pricks and fight against God.

I didn’t want to be a prick kicker. I wanted to accept Thomas S. Monson as the church’s new leader, but I didn’t know how to do it.

It helped when Elder Holland, unscripted and unplanned, spoke of the “mantle of the Prophet” falling on President Monson during these conference sessions. I hadn’t seen that happen, but Elder Holland clearly had, and somewhere in my soul, I knew he was telling the truth. I was able to open up a bit more, give up a piece of my pride and resentment, and allow the Spirit to tell me what I should have realized in the first place.

Then President Monson spoke at the end of the meeting.

We were sitting close enough to the teleprompter to see when the text was moving and when it was not. It was not moving for President Monson’s speech, at least for the first half of it. In that moment, he was not some animatronic wind-up toy; he was genuine, disarming, and free of guile. That’s precisely when I realized he was exactly who the Lord would have leading His church. Everything was fine. It was a very simple thing, yet it’s hard to overstate how significant it was. People receive spiritual confirmations in different places and at different times. That was when I received mine.

Does that mean there was something wrong with me earlier? Maybe. It doesn’t matter, really. Nobody says I have to like his style or his clothing or the color of his hair. I just have to sustain and support him, and that’s something I now feel I can do wholeheartedly. As my uncle is fond of saying to ark-steadiers who worry about this or that in church leadership: “It’s the Lord’s name over the door; let Him worry about it.”

Today, this is who the Lord wants at the head of His church. I’m very grateful that He let me know that. It keeps me from worrying; it keeps me humble, and it reminds me who’s really in charge.