Friday, October 31, 2008

Italy Trip!

This will likely be my last post for about ten days, as I am heading off to Italy tomorrow with a group from my school (Venice, Florence, Rome, Assisi, maybe Pompei). If you've gotten into the habit of checking in every day or so, don't forget about me-- the payoff will be when I get back, I'll have lots of photos, and probably some stories to share. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments on the earlier posts, and don't forget to vote. Incidentally, being in Italy when the returns come in mean I'll be in the perfect place to celebrate if things turn out the way I hope (you can probably guess), or to be pleasantly distracted if they don't. Either way, it also means that when I get back, the ratio of political comments to other things on this blog will go way down-- I hope I'll still have something to say worth your attention! So, for awhile at least, ciao.

More Friday Family Blogging

I have to post this one because I think it's quite hilarious. Some of you have seen it before, but for those who haven't, I think you may get a kick out of it. If at first it looks like a fairly innocuous picture of Sally and Emma...

...take a closer look at Emma's right hand.

Friday Family Blogging

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

Family Photo Fun

Okay, I'll have to have another quiz soon, since it sparked so many comments (Hi Sharon!). But in the meantime, here's a nice one with both east and west branches of the clan represented. I'd ask if anyone can remember when this was, but it's such an uncommon occurrence (and so recent) that it really isn't much of a challenge. I'll see if I can find something more "mysterious" for tomorrow.

Historical Comment

Here's a little more historical context relevant to the little debate in the comments section about "redistribution" and the more general leveling of charges of "socialism" against the Obama campaign in the past couple of weeks:

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

Historical Comment

I guess this could've been labeled a Political Comment too, as it is prompted (as usual) by something going on in the current presidential campaign. Apparently, a number of commentators on the right are upset about the Obama campaign's purchase of a half-hour block of time on several networks this evening (see the story here). It reminds me of something that happened back during the 1964 election (that is, I remember learning about this while researching political humor, I don't actually have a first-hand recollection of the event).

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.

Political Comment

A little while back, I posted a comment about the charges of "socialism" being thrown out by the Republicans in the current campaign against Obama. There's a story in the current New Yorker that does a good job of explaining some of the background for why and how the charge has been applied through recent American history, its distinct lack of relevance to the Obama tax plan, and also the blatant hypocrisy exhibited by Sarah Palin especially in leveling the charge (turns out Alaska directly distributes oil tax revenue to the citizens of the state, who themselves pay no income or sales taxes, and she actually has increased the amount since she became governor). Just to be clear, I'm not criticizing that idea, which probably makes sense given the economic realities in Alaska. But to turn around and accuse someone else for a far more meager "redistribution" of wealth suggests either painfully inadequate self awareness, or blatant dishonesty. Neither quality should inspire much faith in the candidate.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pop Family Photo Quiz

Anyone recognize this somewhat motley crew? Leave your guesses in comments.

Political Comment

Last week I posted a message arguing that tax breaks that went to the lower segments of the working citizenry would have a better chance of stimulating the economy than additional tax breaks for the upper 5% (with the idea that the benefits would somehow trickle down). I came across a chart that backs up my assertion, though it covers other areas than just tax breaks, including expanding Unemployment Insurance, spending on infrastructure, and various other ways to put money in the hands of those who would actually spend it. Check it out.

Historical Comment

I've been thinking a bit lately about conspiracy theories and their place in shaping the American political character. This is prompted in part by the endless calls by the McCain campaign to Barack Obama to answer the questions being raised about his association with William Ayers, even long after Obama has answered those questions. The suggestion that Obama harbors socialist tendencies also hints at some sinister associations of which no real evidence has been proffered. Why are some of us susceptible to falling for such allegations of dark secret factors that are assumed to be more powerful than the actual public record and utterances of our leaders (or prospective leaders)?

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

Political Comment

I've been wondering about something related to the whole William Ayers business associated with the current presidential campaign. As you know, Ayers is a former leader of the Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society that, in the aftermath of the notorious 1968 Democratic Convention (amongst other things), vowed to bring the violence of the Vietnam conflict home to America. They were involved (and Ayers has admitted complicity) in a number of bombings of university and government offices in the late sixties/early seventies. The Weathermen were big contributors to an era of political violence that included everything from assassinations (John & Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Ngo Dinh Diem, Salvador Allende, etc.) to campus uprisings (culminating in the deaths at Jackson State and Kent State) to official crackdowns on supposed "troublemakers" (the Chicago convention, the clash over People's Park in Berkeley, FBI provocations of the Black Panthers). This was a period where virtually every stripe of political activist found themselves confronted with the prospect of violent retribution from those they opposed, and it did not matter if one's initial methods were non-violent in nature (see Dr. King).

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?

On the Road to Butte

While driving along I-15 yesterday morning heading from Dillon to Butte (about 60 miles away), there was some beautiful sunlight dancing through the overcast skies along the edge of the Pioneer Mountains. So I stopped to take a picture. This doesn't quite do it justice, but gives you some idea of the often stunning natural beauty common to the area where I live.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Political Comment

About twenty years ago when I was in graduate school, I made a little extra money by substitute teaching in a local high school. I did that for several years and since it was also the district in which I student taught, I got to know most of the students there fairly well. There was one girl who I remember talking to at some length about her ambitions and plans. She was in mostly remedial classes (I remember filling in a number of times for her English teacher) and clearly struggling (for whatever reason) just to pass these basic courses. There was nothing about academics that held the least bit of interest for her, and it was pretty obvious that she had little intention of doing anything more than the bare minimum to, hopefully, eke by in her classes. But here's the interesting thing: she was incredibly ambitious with regard to how she imagined her life turning out. She was going to be a successful, highly paid lawyer, she told me , get married when she reached thirty, have a couple of kids, but have nannies or her husband take care of them so she would not have to derail her prosperous , glamorous career. She had it all mapped out, the kind of house she'd have, the money, the clothes, the fancy car, etc. As she talked about all this stuff that she frankly felt was her due, all I could think about was "don't you think it would help you reach those goals if you were to pass a basic high school English class?" When I broached that question to her, she sniffed and countered that women today can have it all, as if that somehow made the question moot.

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.

Happy Anniversary Liz & Richard!

I know this is a little late, but mucho kudos to Liz and Richard Dobes on their 20th Anniversary. Here's a picture that may spark some memories from (I think) about the halfway point. Do you remember this?

That's Liz & Richard, along with Gerik & Marenka. Gee, you guys have hardly changed at all (well, maybe Gerik)!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Family Blogging

As you may know, a lot of political blogs (and maybe others too) set aside Fridays as a time to get away from the more serious stuff and post pictures of their cats. It's called "Friday Cat Blogging." Well, I don't have a cat, but I do have 12 nieces and nephews, and I have a lot of pictures of them. Also, since my siblings and their progeny are about evenly slip between Western New York and the Seattle/Tacoma area, the two groups don't always get to see each other very often (being single, an academic, and located between the two spots- though not equally- I actually do visit both sides of the country at least a couple of times a year, and as such serve as the conduit for up-to-date pictures). Therefore, I will use this site, especially (but not exclusively) on Fridays for family picture blogging. Here's the first entry, a picture of Raechelle:

Now, if I can ever find my flash-drive, I should have some pictures that are a little more recent.

Movie and Music Lists

Since I hope to use this platform as a means of offering some critical comments on music and movies, I figured that it might be useful for readers to have some sort of frame of reference for my particular tastes. So I have included, way at the bottom of this page, two lists. The first includes a sampling of my all-time favorite movies; the second a selection of my all-time favorite musical acts. Neither list is meant to be exhaustive. In fact, I will probably wake up in the middle of the night in horror that I left something special off, like Buddy Holly or The Big Sleep [don't worry-- I checked and they are both there] . Periodically, I'll probably go in and add or subtract items according to my current whims, but again, that will provide some context for what I have to say about new movies and music I'm writing about. The lists are slanted towards older material, because I think those will more likely be familiar, and therefore more helpful as reference points, to readers. Please don't take that to mean that I don't like new stuff. As you'll note from the Record Shelf setlists at left, I'm a great fan of new music, and I try to see new movies as often as possible too.

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

Historical Comment

With the recent invocation of charges like "socialism" and "Anti-American" as critiques of Barack Obama's economic proposals, I started thinking about the various times that similar charges were hurled in American political history. I came up with four specific eras where similar charges were made against a group or party in order to create some level of hysteria, usually in an effort to preserve the status quo in terms of political and economic power.

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.

Dr. John's Record Shelf

You'll notice a new heading in the column at left titled "Dr. John's Record Shelf." That's the title of the radio show I do every Sunday evening from 5 to 7 on KDWG, 90.9 fm (the University of Montana Western station). If you are in SE Montana, you might be able to pick it up, as our signal only really extends through the Beaverhead River Valley. But for those too far away to listen in, I thought I would post weekly listings of the highlights from my playlist. I generally try to mix genres and eras, to focus on material that doesn't often get heard on the radio. If I figure out how to embed audio clips, I may insert some other material from the show (not the songs, since I don't want to have to pay the licensing fees) such as our weekly Top Five Lists, editions of Record Shelf Theater (where my co-host Art Vandelay and I try to out-ham each other in a scene from a classic movie, play or TV show), or The Cultural Corner (where we pontificate on art, literature, etc.). Doing the show is about the most fun I have every week (at least as a regular thing), so I hope to spread a little of that around here as well. If you want to request a song, feel free to do so in the comments.

More Emma

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


This is for my sisters out in Washington. Though the picture is a few months old, and Emma no doubt looks very different now, it's the only one of about twenty I shot on this particular afternoon that turned out. So--- worthy of a post.

The Last Movie I Saw

I never intended this blog to be primarily about politics, but the first couple of weeks are certainly slanted that way. To try and balance the scales a little, I thought I'd give a capsule review of the last new movie I saw: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, directed by Robert Weide, and starring Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst, Danny Huston, Gillian Anderson, Megan Fox, and Jeff Bridges.

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.

Snarky Political Comment

Now I understand all the hubbub in right-wing hackdom over the recent Sarah Palin Newsweek cover: $150,000 spent on clothes, hair & makeup, and virtually none of it was on display in that image. Not much bang for the bucks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

More Politics: ACORN

As many of you are aware, there has been a concerted effort over the past couple of weeks by the McCain campaign to impugn the reputation of ACORN, an organization that has done considerable good work in low income and minority communities around the country for many years. The main focus of this attack has been on the group's efforts to register voters, which is being characterized by McCain supporters as some kind of massive fraud perpetrated against the nation's democratic ideals. This is typical campaign nonsense, clearly intended to drive down voter turnout among groups that are thought to lean heavily towards supporting Obama rather than McCain. Anyway, at least one reporter has tried to cut through the malarkey and actually look at the facts. You can find that report here:

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?

Political Comment (follow-up)

Alright! my first comment (see the previous post)! I now know I have at least one reader, making this effort all worthwhile. And, it comes with a question to boot, which I am happy to address, namely: "How is "spread the wealth" a better economic policy then "trickle down" economic policy? or does it just sound better to those less fortunate?"

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

Political Comment

This morning on Meet the Press Colin Powell endorsed Barrack Obama for president, offering some fairly comprehensive reasons for doing so related both to Obama's strengths and questions Powell had about the shortcomings of the McCain-Palin ticket. However, when Howard Kurtz introduced the topic a little later on CNN, among his first points was the prospect that this was just a case of one black guy endorsing another black guy. If there was ever any doubt, this squarely puts Kurtz in the hack category, and signals his willingness to perpetuate a stupid and frankly offensive theme that opens the door for the kind of political hay the McCain campaign is currently trying to make of the ACORN situation.

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

Levi Stubbs, RIP

One of the greats from Motown has passed away. I recall at some point in the 1980s reading that the Four Tops then had been intact as a group longer than any other musical act in history. I imagine their record went on a few more years beyond that point, and with good reason-- they were fantastic (their main rivals at Motown, the Temptations, seemed to change personnel fairly regularly, though that hardly diminished their quality of course). Here's a fine obituary of Mr. Stubbs from Rock & Rap Confidential (reprinted with permission) by Dave Marsh:

"SOMETHING ABOUT YOU…When I was 15, I met the Four Tops on a downtown Detroit street, where they were doing a photo shoot with the Supremes. The group—especially Duke Fakir—were extraordinarily kind to a trio of white kids totally out of their element. I love the Four Tops for that, but I would have loved them anyway. They are the voice of adolescent angst and adult heartbreak, the pure, the absolute joy that humans can take in one another. Call them love songs –I’d say it was more like lifelines—but call them silly and you’ve branded yourself as a fool.

"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 Detroit several years ago, he sang from a wheelchair. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” his friend and attorney, Judy Tint, told me this afternoon.

"Ain’t any in this house today, either.--Dave Marsh"

Permission to reprint this article (with full credit) given to all.

Political Comment

I suppose it was just a matter of time that the Republican candidate for president would call the Democrat a socialist. According to news reports this morning, that's what McCain is doing in battleground states like North Carolina and Virginia (you can see the article at The irony is that he makes the claim based on Obama's plan to offer 95% of Americans a tax cut, and not based on any sort of government takeover of the economy (oh wait-- that's now a Republican thing after the Bush administration's response to the AIG near-collapse). I guess it's a common strategy to re-define terms in the middle of a campaign, especially one that appears to be tanking. But the history of red-baiting in this country is mostly a shameful one, and its current use says more about McCain's desperation than anything substantial about Obama's plan.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Here's one for my family: a picture of Nikolaus at his kindergarten graduation last June. Hope you like it.
If you read my little profile, you know that I am interested in the relationship between popular culture and politics. I often use popular films in my classes as representations of certain social-political attitudes of a particular time period (for example, the way screwball comedies of the 1930s served to minimize class divisions during the Great Depression). The trickiest part of this is often getting the students to engage in even a mild degree of visual interpretation-- that is, looking for messages that are embedded in set design, costume, camera placement and movement, etc., in addition to the more explicit ideas expressed through dialog. They really struggle with that. But here's what I find interesting-- the day after the presidential debates, they are all talking about things like the candidates facial expressions, eye contact, and other elements of body language like old pros. No doubt some of this is just parroting what they heard the pundits commenting on post-debate, but some of it seems to be at least somewhat original. I remember years ago a student telling me that he noticed every time Tom Brokaw said George W. Bush's name, his eyebrow went up. The student took this as a clear signal of Brokaw's disdain for Bush. Maybe this too was something he read or heard about somewhere else, but it was certainly news to me. I guess what I'm getting at is this: we often think that young people are keenly attuned to the visual world that dominates so much of our public discourse, and are receptive to the non-verbal signals that comprise much of our public communications. But for some reason, they don't adapt that skill effectively to academic topics. I wish I knew why that was.

Political Comment

I'm a little late commenting on the last presidential debate, but something occurred to me that I thought I would pass along. John McCain made the charge that Obama is spending is spending an unprecedented amount of money on negative campaign ads. I'm in no position to know if that's true (and haven't seen any of the fact-checking sites that maybe have weighed in on that point). But based on what I have seen of the two campaign's ads, it occurs to me that there are two different types of "negative" ads, and that there is a considerable imbalance in terms of the respective messages of the two candidates (or their surrogates). First, there are negative ads attacking the opponent's positions/stands on issues like health care, education, taxes, etc. Second there are negative ads about the opponent's character (might be referred to personal as opposed to professional attacks). My perception is that the McCain campaign is doing much more of the latter, while Obama's fall mostly in the former category. It seems to me that it is the personal attacks that carry the higher risk, and that in fact McCain is suffering for the decision to go after Obama's character as harshly as he has. It has put McCain on the defensive in the debates, just because Obama comes across as more measured, more thoughtful, and more considerate-- in other words, totally at odds with the image McCain has tried to paint of Obama in his ads (and occasionally on the stump). Now it's possible I'm not seeing the bulk of the ads out there, since Montana is not exactly seen as a swing state (though, to his credit, Obama has spent more time here than any other national candidate, of either party, since I moved here), so maybe there's more even blame for the "negativity" of the campiagn to go around than I see. But somehow, I doubt it.

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?


Hello Everybody,

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!

Dr. John