Friday, October 31, 2008
...take a closer look at Emma's right hand.
Here's a picture from the summer of 2007 of the Rosieks in Times Square. Here's the quiz part: what's Tom looking at? Best answer (who cares if its correct?) gets a prize (if I can think of something appropriate). Leave your answers in the comments for all to see.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Back in the 1930s, as the American Communist Party tried to beef up its membership, they targeted African-American communities especially for recruitment. Their thinking was that this group represented the most victimized segment of society (especially hard hit with the coming of the Great Depression) and therefore most likely to gravitate towards a radical alternative, whether out of desperation or spite. Some of this organizing was somewhat covert, conducted in low key fashion by organizing house parties, community events, jazz concerts, etc. but also coordinated with highly publicized efforts to show that the Communists were willing to fight for civil rights (perhaps most famously through their legal support for the Scottsboro Boys). Their success was minimal to say the least, though they did manage to sway a couple of high profile leaders in the black community like Paul Robeson to at least lend vocal support to their efforts. Again, this was largely a failed effort, but it did result in the right-wing deciding that if any one was in favor of civil rights for minorities, they were by definition at least fellow travelers with the communists. As late as the mid-1950s, around the time of the Brown decision desegregating schools, there were southern Congressmen who were willing to state unequivocally that anyone who supported that decision must be a red. After the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the FBI circulated photos of Martin Luther King Jr. that they claimed were taken at a communist indoctrination camp (actually they were from his time at the Highlander School, a place where labor and progressive activists were taught the value of non-violent protest). I'm sure there are other examples that a little research would uncover.
Thankfully, the issue of race has been a relatively minor distraction in the current campaign (at least compared to what many expected following the Jeremiah Wright nonsense in the primaries), but given that history, one has to wonder if the McCain camp isn't counting on some residual memory playing out in their invocation of socialism. For a good thirty years, race and radicalism were regularly tied together by many seeking to keep the black folk in their place, and McCain is certainly old enough to remember that.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
That year, a somewhat popular new program was launched on, I believe, the NBC network called That Was the Week That Was. It was an early example of an Americanized version of a hit British show, and much like the current Daily Show, it's bread and butter was political satire. The British show was created by David Frost, and he was part of the US cast as well, along with a lot of folks associated with Second City (including Alan Alda) and other famous comedy figures (including many who would reach greater fame later). Tom Lehrer provided musical numbers in his inimitable fashion. Anyway, the show got a fair amount of hype, not least because it was launched in America in the midst of a presidential campaign, Johnson v. Goldwater. Apparently, as the election drew closer, and the Goldwater campaign was way behind, they decided to buy big blocks of time on NBC in the last couple of weeks, and coincidentally(?) asked for and were given TWTWTW's timeslot. At the time it raised a few eyebrows, suggesting to pundits that the Republicans were upset at their candidate being picked on during the program, and chose this as the best way to stifle that "criticism." It certainly did not end up helping Goldwater, but it did destroy the show's ratings, as viewers fell out of the habit of tuning in during its absence (some speculated they also were turned off by the Republican campaign ads in its place); even though it came back on after the election had passed, it was canceled by the end of the season.
I had the chance to view an episode of TWTWTW at the Museum of Radio and Television Broadcasting in Los Angeles a couple of years ago (part of that aforementioned research). It was an entertaining show, but by almost any measure much more benign than what candidates are subjected to today via the Daily Show, Colbert Report, and even David Letterman. I'm not entirely sure what this says about the evolution of our political discourse, but one can certainly make the case that it has become more integrated with show business in all its various permutations.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
One can go back to the first half of the 19th century to see a couple of the earliest versions of this phenomenon, with the Slave Power Conspiracy and the Mason Conspiracy. The first asserted that powerful southerners, who basically owed their wealth and hence political clout to the production of their slaves, were calling the shots on national policy. As is usually the case in conspiracy theories, there's some circumstantial evidence to make a case for such an assertion, such as the fact that of the first twelve presidents (through 1850), nine were southerners (perhaps a function of the 3/5's compromise in the Constitution, which increased Southern representation to the Electoral College based on the slave population). The reality, as is usually the case, is more complicated. Southern interests were often supported by northern allies in Congress due to the economic links between the regions, not as a result of a cabal of slave-owning puppet-masters manipulating decisions behind the scenes.
The Mason Conspiracy was prompted in part by the boom in fraternal organizations in the same period, and the fact that many of them conducted their official "business" in secret. The boom happened to correspond with an era of increasing immigration, universal manhood suffrage, industrialization, and urbanization, all of which contributed to a general sense that things were changing in dramatic ways in certain parts of the country. This also fed the Papist Conspiracy theory, a counterpart to the Mason Conspiracy theory, which suggested the growing numbers of Irish immigrants were coming to take over the country on behalf of the Pope. The Masons were subjected to similar charges, though their allegiance apparently was to a some ill defined notion of secular humanism, which had marked them as enemies of the church going back to their Medieval European roots. It was widely suggested that many of our national leaders were Freemasons (which was probably true) and in the service of some sinister plot, the goal of which had to be dangerous to the democratic body politic, otherwise, why are they keeping it a secret?
The point is, this type of nonsense seems to periodically take hold of the public imagination, and lends itself to the kind of coded charges made by politicians in campaigns ("What do we really know about Senator Obama?" is a tacit charge that he's hiding something). I have a theory (not of the conspiracy type) that this phenomenon is actually a response to the nature of the American political system, namely democracy. Given the generally messy way that things function in our system (with all these endless debates, arguments, campaigns, etc., which at best lead to compromises rather than definitive answers to perceived problems), it's easy to lose sight of who, if anyone, is really in control. In the absence of a clear-cut leader (like a dictator or king, or an oligarchy), we're sometimes left to wonder if anyone is truly in charge. When that doubt is prompted by frustration that things are not going your way, it may be inevitable to imagine some group of enemies secretly plotting the destruction of your version of society. I think pols kind of understand this, and a big measure of their integrity is whether they play to those unwarranted fears, or do their best to defuse them. I think that distinction is on eminent display in the current campaign.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
I don't happen to think that even that justifies the adoption of violence as a tactic, but one can at least understand how some might come to that conclusion, given the temper of the times, and what was likely a high level of frustration on the part of many who initially tried to make their points in a more reasonable way. Evidently, Ayers was, in part, a product of those times.
But here's what I've been wondering, especially after going back to find the New York Times article from September 11, 2001 from which he is widely quoted as saying "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." First, it's not entirely clear to me that he meant they should have planted more bombs, though I can understand that reading. Second, don't let the date of the article throw you, he was obviously not responding in any way to the attacks that would occur that day in New York and Washington-- the paper had gone to press long before the planes hit the World Trade Center, and his interview had clearly been conducted some time earlier. Third, and my main point, regardless of his comment about what he did and might have done forty years earlier, why doesn't what we know of his life since then, and especially over the past twenty years, count in our evaluation of him and his purported relationship with Barack Obama?
It seems like those most hotly on the attack against Ayers are also those who count themselves among (or at least allies to) groups like the Christian Coalition, and proclaim themselves as concerned about "values." Isn't it a cornerstone concept of Christianity that one can redeem him or herself, atone for sins, and achieve salvation? I don't know enough about Ayers to say with any certainty that he has truly atoned for his sins, but given his seeming commitment to public education and service to his community in a variety of charitable causes (earning an award as Chicago's Citizen of the Year), earns him at least some benefit of the doubt. Heck, even the attorney who prosecuted Ayers and the Weathermen forty years ago acknowledged in a recent letter to the New York Times that Ayers had become a respectable citizen (letter published October 10, 2008). Or is that those sounding this spurious alarm about the Obama/Ayers connection don't actually believe that people can change, can redeem themselves? If that's the case, then they better realize that that calls into question the foundation of their professed "most cherished" beliefs.
Okay, I know that the Sarah Palins of the world are really only interested in doing whatever it takes to score political points, and don't really give any thought to the stupid things they utter on the campaign trail. But that doesn't mean the rest of us have to follow that lead, does it?
Saturday, October 25, 2008
I think of that girl when I see Sarah Palin. There's no doubt that she has great ambition, an engaging persona, and even some talent as a politician. But it appears that the first of those has trumped all other considerations-- she evidently sees little need for for knowledge or expertise or understanding of complex issues; little need to be in the least bit curious about what's going on in the world beyond her own immediate setting; little need to recognize that true empathy transcends mere stereotyping (whether its the "hockey mom" or "Joe Sixpack"). The story coming out today that Palin feels that she is being constrained by her handlers in the McCain campaign clearly speaks to her ambition-- apparently she believes that if she could just be herself, she might single-handedly rescue the candidacy. But there is nothing in her history (at least what we've seen of it so far) to indicate that that would involve anything more than reiterating platitudes, provoking bigotry, and coasting on her looks. I guess she thinks that is all she needs to do to realize her dreams-- after all, women today can have it all.*
* Just to be clear-- it's not that I think women can't have it all, I just don't think saying so is enough to make it happen.
That's Liz & Richard, along with Gerik & Marenka. Gee, you guys have hardly changed at all (well, maybe Gerik)!
Friday, October 24, 2008
Now, if I can ever find my flash-drive, I should have some pictures that are a little more recent.
I fully expect to write a post for virtually all the new movies I see (probably a couple a month, more in the summers). I may not be quite so prolific on music, since I generally listen to new releases in fits and starts, rather than in one sitting. If I have time, I'll no doubt start writing some historical commentary on older stuff as well. I hope you find it interesting (and if so, leave a comment).
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The first occurred in the early 1850s, following Europe's revolutionary generation of 1848, from which Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto" first sprang. In the US, the concern was with immigrants who may or may not have participated in those uprisings (the bulk of the immigrants came from Ireland, where revolution was much less a factor for emigration than hunger; many from the continent were probably actually trying to escape the the violence). The real concern was that the swelling ranks of foreigners in the country were diluting the political clout and economic opportunities of the native-born population (by becoming easily manipulated voters in the first instance and competition for jobs in the second). This led to the rise to several nativist groups, most notably the American Party (popularly known as the Know-Nothings). Ultimately they weren't too successful, though it's possible that their candidate for president in 1856, Millard Fillmore, might have thrown the election to Democrat James Buchanan by siphoning votes away from the Republican John C. Fremont.
The second instance came in the late 1870's following the bloody wildcat Railroad Strike of 1877. Again, immigrant "agitators" were among those targeted as responsible, for introducing foreign ideas into the mix of more "traditional" labor/management relations (that is, where the bosses held all the cards). This also came on the heels of radical uprisings in Europe, most notably seen in the establishment of the Paris Commune a few years earlier, though as in the earlier era described above, this was probably more coincidental than instrumental in the events that unfolded in the US. Still, it provided a handy, and largely effective, rhetorical device to help swing middle class public opinion against the workers, and against organized labor in general for decades thereafter. The bloody battles at Haymarket Square, Homestead, Lawrence, and elsewhere were among the consequences.
The third instance occurred after World War I, with the Palmer Raids against radical groups and individuals who threatened the emerging conformist notion of "Americanism" (or as Warren Harding would term it in the following presidential election, "normalism"). Again, immigrants comprised a large component of those targeted, especially those who came from Russia, where the revolutionary Bolsheviks were still consolidating power following the 1917 takeover. This may have been the generation when immigrants comprised the largest percentage of Americans (well, with the exception of the early colonists, of course), and in the wake of the mess that was World War I, it was perhaps inevitable that many here would fear the potential unsettling effects of so many "others" amongst us. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ended up deporting a significant number of suspected radicals, and also set the stage for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (which became bigger in the 1920s than it was after the Civil War).
The last case is, of course, the Red Scare of the late 40s and early 50s, the so-called McCarthy era. Again, "Americanism" became the by-word, and although we'd finally clamped down on those pesky immigrants (quotas having been established in the 1920s, limiting the masses who could emigrate to the states), foreign ideas (like "socialism," "communism," "totalitarianism," but also for many "civil rights," "freedom of speech," and "self-determination") were still pretty scary. This period created such a stifling atmosphere of political and cultural anxiety, that eventually the suspicion and charges of hypocrisy were turned upon our core institutions during the upheavals of the sixties.
Obviously, these are brief, and somewhat over-simplified summaries, but the point they lead to is, I think, quite valid: if you can't effectively demonstrate that an idea or plan or policy or campaign promise is faulty through reasoned argument, slap what you think is a derogatory label on it ("Anti-American" and "socialist" being particularly effective) and hope enough people are suckered to allow you to get your way without actually making the case. What the examples described above suggest about this strategy is that, while often politically expedient and immediately effective, over the long term they sow the seeds of deeper division and conflict.
Okay, since that last picture sparked the most comment of anything I've posted so far (hello Marenka!), I'm going to pander to the base and give you another one. In addition to the lovely Emma, this photo also includes my lovely niece Maria and lovely sister Catherine (taken last summer around the time of the Powers family reunion).
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I found the film to be mildly entertaining, not least because it focuses on the media and its corruption through celebrification (is that a word?). Living in a remote corner of the Northern Rockies, I also get a nostalgic kick out of seeing images of the Manhattan skyline on the big screen. The film starts out strong and funny, but slowly devolves into a pretty standard love story/revelation that success is not all its cracked up to be. The cast is uniformly strong, though I wish Jeff Bridges had more to do. I also liked that, in a kind of backhanded way, the film gave some respect to the study of philosophy and philosophers, which in movies like this are more often subjects of ridicule. I wish I had something more interesting to say about the film, but it just wasn't that consequential, though as I said above, at least entertaining throughout.
A couple of footnotes: the director Robert Weide some years ago directed a documentary for PBS on the great political comedian Mort Sahl, who I've also done some research on recently. I believe How to Lose Friends... is Weide's first feature film, and I'd say a worthy effort. Also, I'm a long-time fan of Kirsten Dunst (going back to her work in a really funny political satire on Watergate called Dick), and in watching her in this film, I was struck by a comparison with an earlier starlet who she reminds me of in many ways, namely Paula Prentiss. They don't exactly look alike, except for their slender physiques, but there's definitely something similar in the way they speak, although Dunst's voice isn't as deep as Prentiss' was. Anyway, that's one of the things I do at the movies, think of who contemporary stars remind me of from earlier films.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
The key point here is not just that ACORN has been falsely accused, but in fact it was the organization itself that called attention to the problem. What a shock that that isn't the way the McCain camp is spinning the story, huh?
First of all, rhetorically speaking, both phrases are meant to appeal to the less fortunate (after all, who is the purported beneficiary of that trickle down?). Trickle down is more clearly tied to a particular policy, though I assume the basis of the question is the Obama campaign's use of the phrase "share the wealth," so I'll address the specifics of his plan related to that concept. Here's how I see the difference:
"Trickle down" is speculative in two senses. First, it is premised on the belief that if money is made available to wealthier individuals and corporations (usually through tax breaks), they will turn around and reinvest the savings in operations that will create jobs, and better pay, for the less well-off members of society. In practice, that is a pretty big if, especially since the nature of the American economy has evolved over the past thirty years or so away from being primarily production-based, and become more centered on what might broadly be called the service sector (including things like sales, insurance, and investment trading). The quality, and pay for the bulk of jobs created in these areas are not as secure or lucrative to middle class Americans as those in the production sector of earlier generations. And that's assuming that the money is actually being re-invested into job-producing enterprises, which is not always (or maybe even often) the case. This is the second element of trickle down's speculative nature: those with cash (or credit) to invest often look for the quickest route to profit, and in recent years, those opportunities were not in true job-producing areas. In the 1980s, it was junk bonds, for example; in the 1990's it was the dot.coms; in recent years it was mortgages. That is, you could make more money quickly by turning over paper until somewhere along the line, someone realized it didn't have inherent value equal to what was paid for it. Sure, plenty of investors got rich on these schemes, but how much of that really trickled down? In the end, this just created massive amounts of debt, which only counts as wealth if you're already pretty rich (remember the old joke: if you owe the bank $200,000 the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $200 million, you own the bank).
As mentioned above, the concept of "spread the wealth" is not by itself tied to any particular method-- trickle down is sold as a means of spreading the wealth too. But the way the phrase is being used in relation to Obama's current tax proposal is certainly different from trickle down. In this instance the idea is that if the tax breaks go to the middle class, they are more likely to spend the money in a way that puts it to work directly into the economy: buying groceries and consumer goods that increase demand on those products and therefore sparks increased supply. They'll make payments on mortgages that provide money back to banks for further investment (as opposed to foreclosing and leaving the banks, and now the government, holding the unpaid bill). They'll send their kids to college, they'll take a vacation, they'll buy a new car, whatever-- they are a much better bet to pump those extra dollars back into the true economy (that is, the economy that creates a flow of wages, goods and services, as opposed to just profits) than the upper 10% have been willing to do in recent years (just look at the figures showing how far the gap has widened between the wealthy and the rest of the country since 1981, when trickle down was embraced by Reagan).
If you are interested, you can find a nice chart summarizing the two candidates' tax plans at the following address:
I'd be interested to know if anyone sees any problems with my explanation (and remember, my perspective is that of a historian, not an economist).
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Let's be honest-- there's no race card in American politics, there's a whole suit, and any game you want to play requires some acknowledgment of their equal value. Some years back a more astute commentator than I (it might've been the great American essayist Hal Crowther) noted that whenever someone said that s0-and-so won only because blacks voted for them, they were insinuating that African-American votes somehow weren't as legitimate as white votes. It's a notion that has its roots in the ugliest part of America's past, and can only be comforting to those who harbor some misguided sense of nostalgia for those earlier periods of segregation or even slavery. Those same benighted souls are always among the first to protest when an African-American invokes those days, telling them to get over it. Comments like Kurtz's (and I suspect we'll hear more of the same from his media colleagues over the next few days) and recent actions taken to suppress minority voting are a pretty clear indication that racial politics remain central to our system; but let's not mistake who put it in the forefront (it ain't Obama).
Saturday, October 18, 2008
"SOMETHING ABOUT YOU…When I was 15, I met the Four Tops on a downtown
"Phil Spector once said that “Bernadette” was a black man singing Bob Dylan. The name of that black man was Levi Stubbs. And for those of you who are Bruce Springsteen fans, go find the Tops greatest album, The Four Tops Second Album, and listen to “Love Feels Like Fire” and “Helpless,” two of my alltime Motown tracks (and they weren’t even singles). You’ll feel the same thing. Those crazed sax breaks are as close to free jazz as Motown ever let itself come, and they got away with it there solely because the Tops were such a perfect machine with the most powerful voice of its time at the fore. I could never figure out whether Levi was the toughest or the tenderest singer at Motown, so I finally accepted that he was both.
"Yeah, a lot of the Tops is formula Holland Dozier Holland. Sometimes even I think it’s the Supremes when the intro to “It’s the Same Old Song” or “Something About You” comes on. So what? To begin with, HDH created the greatest formula in the history of rock and soul. Now: Go listen again to “Reach Out” and see if you can think of a Supremes record that could grab you in the gut that way. It’s the “Like a Rolling Stone” of soul—with a flute and hand percussion leading the way! The group always got Eddie Holland’s greatest lyrics (and he the most under-rated lyricist of the ‘60s) and that’s one.
"They got those songs because Levi could sing the most impossible stuff. Any other soul singer I know would have insisted on editing. The great, long, image rich lines in “Bermandette” and “Ask the Lonely” were too long, that they needed more space to really sing. Not Levi. He charged into those words and wrestled everything out of them, and somehow, he sounded graceful as he did. “Loving you has made my life sweeter than ever” is so multisyllabic that they had to shorten it for the title: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” fit the label better, I guess.
"The Tops got away with that as a group because they knew how to work with such vocal intricacy. By the time they had their first Motown hit they’d already been together for ten years. Duke told me recently that their earlier sojourn at Columbia Records in the late ‘50s came after a brief appearance at the Apollo. The talent scout who signed them was John Hammond—the same guy who found Bob, Bruce, and Aretha. That’s the company the Four Tops, and Levi Stubbs, in particular belong in. Who else could turn “Walk Away Renee” into soul music? Who else could get away with “7 Rooms of Gloom” as a love song without a hint of irony, let alone comedy?
"I will testify. Levi and the Tops were among the graces of my own soul. When I get nervous before an interview, I always remember how kind those guys were to that 15 year old kid, and I feel beyond harm. When I listen to “The Same Old Song,” I remember once again the sweetness of sour. “Bernadette” calls to my mind the futility of believing you’re in control, and how easy it is to confuse passion with obsession. “Reach Out” is simply as colossal an extravaganza as rock and soul music have ever produced, as monumental in its way as “Like a Rolling Stone.” The focal point of all that musical gingerbread and the mighty Funk Brothers is not the group—it’s one man, Levi Stubbs, pushed not to his limit but way past it. But there’s not a hint—not a second—where Levi Stubbs sounds like anything but a guy from down the street, across the way or in your mirror. Imagine a Pavarotti on the corner. There he is. All of it helped, somehow, make my own life possible.
"This is no case of “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over).” Levi Stubbs was 72 years old. He hadn’t been in good health for several years. This isn’t Marvin Gaye or David Ruffin or Tammi Terrell. This is a man who made his full contribution to our culture, our lives. That doesn’t make it all that much easier to hear the word.
"At the Tops’ golden anniversary show in
Permission to reprint this article (with full credit) given to all.
Permission to reprint this article (with full credit) given to all.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Sunday, October 12, 2008
As a neophyte blogger, I'm still trying to figure out how the whole process works, so let me experiment a bit and see if I can post a picture. If I did this right, then above (below?) is a photo of four of my favorite people, nephews Ben and Nikolaus, and nieces Helen and Natalie. Aren't they cute?
This is my first blog post-- the first of many, I hope. I don't know what all may eventually find its way to this page, but I will try my best to keep it interesting and make your visits worthwhile. There'll be a fair amount of family stuff, but also some commentary on events both current and past, and the occasional movie or music review as well. My goal is to adhere to a three-times-a-week posting schedule, but that's the minimum, and may increase if it turns out I like this blogging stuff. Anyway, thanks for checking the site out, and come back soon!