Sunday, January 31, 2010

Alan Dershowitz is a whack job when it comes to the State of Israel

His attack, published in Haaretz, on Justice Goldstone is so over the top that he should be ashamed of himself.

See this post of mine briefly discussing the Goldstone report as part of a larger point about the silliness of people who call themselves "hawks." When one reads the linked to article by Bradley Burston, one sees that Dershowitz's attack on Goldstone proves, once again, how extremist he is regarding Israeli policies. When it comes to the State of Israel, Dershowitz embarrasses himself. He sounds like a reactionary Southern Senator, full of bile and ignorant nationalism.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Royal Bed Bouncer finally on Youtube!

From the Department of Frivolity:

"Royal Bed Bouncer" by Kayak (1975) is finally on Youtube.

See and hear it while it lasts...

And whoa! I am hearing from my son's room a brilliantly scary song from the legendary and almost completely obscure, Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come, entitled "Time Captives" from the album, "Journey" (1974). Somehow the girls I went to high school with never found this as compelling as I did...But seriously, how the heck does my son do homework to that?

POST GRAMMY AWARDS, February 1, 2010: A previous post on what I think of the Grammy awards is here. Beyonce is an embarrassment, isn't she? I happened to walk into the room where my semi-worldly 11 year old daughter was watching the Grammy awards and saw Beyonce jumping and gyrating on the awards show, and said, "Well, I guess if she's selling sex, should I buy it?" My daughter laughed, but sardonically said in effect I was just a dirty old man--to which I responded that it was Beyonce who needs to be scolded for bad taste. My daughter rolled her eyes, appropriately so in the face of parental castigation at young people's "music." I guess I didn't need to say, "You call that 'music'?" While one should give the Grammys some credit for awarding Green Day's "21st Century Breakdown" for Best Rock Album, still, watching the Grammys, even for an instant, is to be placed into the dystopic nightmare future of "synthetic music" that sounds like advertisements, as Aldous Huxley had prophetically warned us about...in 1932. One wants to grab some soma, but it is far better to just turn off the television in that moment...:-)

Best post-mortem on Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"

Gish Jen hits the mark in his appraisal of Salinger and "The Catcher in the Rye." I personally thought the book was overrated, and only radical in the context of having appeared during the particular and limited dark time of the Cold War Red Scare. What is frustrating is that critics who are quick to denigrate Sinclair Lewis for writing sociological tracts that supposedly are lacking as novels are often the same ones quick to praise "The Catcher in the Rye."

I always thought Salinger's self-imposed isolation more of a publicity stunt that covered up the fact that his later works received abominable reviews (see: page 3 of Salinger's obit in the LA Times online, written by the best obit writer in America today, Elaine Woo), and that Salinger fostered the cult of the recluse in a way that was a pale imitation of Thoreau. But, I don't have enough passion to make that argument now that he has passed away.

Still, the choices America's literary establishment makes for readings for high school students is rather atrocious. It is scandalous that most high school literature curricula miss Sinclair Lewis' "Arrowsmith" (1925); Fred Pohl/Cyril Kornbluth's "The Space Merchants" (1952) just for starters, or the most literary minded history I've ever read, "Only Yesterday" (1931), which is Frederick Lewis Allen's amazingly spirited and modern sounding history of the 1920s (I just re-read it recently and was astonished at its beautiful prose and profound insight). Heck, I'd rather have high school students read Paul Gallico's "Thomasina" (1957), a brilliant meditation on the mystery of the spirit in confrontation with scientific reason, than Salinger's work. And another thing...well, not tonight, anyway.

One smart banker can beat a whole a bunch of dumb ones

One may generally say that the current Republicans in Congress are an especially stupid bunch. There are exceptions, like Darrell Issa (R-San Diego, CA), but most really are dumb.

But it took true "genius" among the Republican Congress leadership to think it was a good idea to let Obama engage in what was essentially a one man debate against eight or more Republican congress people. Of course Obama did well against them, so well that FoxNews, which is run by executives a lot smarter than the Republicans in Congress they have to support, cut away from the scene.

You can catch some highlights of the discussion here.

Obama is a smart person who recognizes there is something called public policy and that one must weigh and consider particular policies in order to operate a national government. That he sides more with elite financiers and members of the military-financier complex than with regular folks, and only wants to help regular folks to stop chaos and anarchy is what makes Obama a smart banker. Obama's weekly radio address this week is a perfect pitch of the nice banker. In it, Obama states he wants to balance government policies to promote job growth with taking action to reduce the government deficits and debt that the dumb bankers accrued over the past eight years. See here for the summary of the radio address.

Our corporate media have helped create a political culture where smart bankers like Obama are forced to argue with people who are not interested in public policy, but who see politics as an extended phony wrestling match. The Republican Party's plan has been clear from the day the dust began to settle after the 2008 election. The Republican Party leaders believe their way back to power in Congress and the White House--and it is working, isn't it, with low information voters?--is to attack and delegitimize Obama. The Republican leadership, in attacking Obama, doesn't even care if their attacks are inconsistent with policies they previously supported. For their "philosophy" is itself a coordinated attack on the very idea of public policy. It also explains why the leadership does not take a firm stand to denounce their Tea Baggers' obsession over Obama's birth certificate or the Tea Baggers' apprehension that Obama is a secret Commie-Muslim.

This week's Republican radio address response to Obama is a perfect example. While Obama is talking about jobs and deficits in his radio address, the Republican leadership's response is to send up the dingbat Susan Collins (R-ME) to keep up the drumbeat that Obama can't keep us "safe."

To take this point to a local level, have you argued in recent years with someone who is a real, honest to goodness Republican? If you have, what you find is that what the politically engaged Republican knows is mostly political gossip, along with endless parsing of words ("Ooh, he said it this way, and that means..."). What such a person also "knows" is a bunch of theory mouthed as fact: Government is incompetent. Big government is bad (except when they talk about the military, and even then the criticism of the military is that it is not killing enough "other" people). Government is oppressive (but it should be allowed to torture people the person fears or just doesn't like the looks of...). The private sector knows best because it looks for efficiency to make more profit.

And that's not even the wacky ones with their conspiracy theories about Obama wanting to create conditions to take dictatorial control in a coup d'etat.

The truly interesting part is when you try to engage such persons with data and facts, such as the per capita spending on health care, the percentage of overhead in private insurers vs. Medicare, they get lost. What you find is that, when you provide such factual information, which begins to undercut their theories, and move beyond the political gossip, they almost invariably respond, "Well, they're all bad. A pox on both their houses."

No, the pox is already in one house, the house where there is a real mental flight from the responsibility of governance. That one house is where the fever is so bad that there is a hatred of anyone trying to even discuss a cure. Too intellectual! Too smart! Get out of here, you...you...liberal!

And that's what happened when Obama confronted the Republican Congress people yesterday--except they could not say a pox on both houses because they were the other house! Obama exposed the fact that the Republicans in Congress have no public policy ideas that are anchored in reality. Obama exposed the Republicans' game plan, which is to continually delegitimize him regardless of their own previous endorsements of ideas they now claim to oppose--and regardless of the very fact that Obama kept Bush II's Secretary of War ("Defense"), expanded the war in Afghanistan and pushed to reappoint the guy his Republican predecessor chose to run the Federal Reserve Board.

Good for the smart banker to take on the dumb bankers. It was, indeed, a "pass the popcorn and enjoy" moment.

But meanwhile, our nation continues its long term decline as we fail to respond to the loss of our industrial base. We argue around the edges of public policy because we know international corporations and their executives control our discourse through lobbying and their funded radio and television commentators. And what we talk about as politically "realistic" in trying to understand the cause of Obama's failure is really the sad certainty that we as regular people don't count. Too many years are drifting by without a true set of public policies designed to restore our nation's ability to make what we buy and buy what we make. As a people, we are forgetting how to make things altogether. A nation of lawyers, financiers, hairdressers, restaurant waiters, nurses and movie stars can last another twenty years or so without really going into the fatal decline like Spain or Greece did in their times past, but we as a nation will not last for the longer run without real public policy changes that Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, TR and FDR recognized as necessary.

As I say, enjoy the moment Obama had with the Congressional Republicans yesterday.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How to report the news...

Via Truthdig, this was outstanding (watch the f-bomb, though, early on...).

Zinn: An American for the ages

Howard Zinn died yesterday. He was 87 years old. He was one of the most transformative historians in American culture. You are not the same person after you read even part of "The People's History of the United States." Once you read the book--I wish more would read it all and not just part--you begin to understand how many threads of unsung people were truly the ones who gave our nation the gifts we cherish, and how the struggle for greatness in our nation is one where we have moments to act, and little more.

3 Quarks Daily has rounded up commentaries about Zinn and interviews with Zinn that give us a sense of the man. See here, here, here, here, here and here.

Yes, I realize some smart banker, as opposed to a dumb banker, gave a speech last night. I understand some said it was a pretty speech. One guy on t.v. temporarily forgot he was a racist while the smart banker spoke. Still, I see the speech as not much different than the emails I get about transferring $2 million into my bank account. Obama is (a) Herbert Hoover; (b) Jimmy Carter; (c) Bill Clinton; or (d) JFK (let's remember JFK was a largely ineffectual president who made pretty speeches and was glamorous and cool in that television medium sorta way...). Take your pick.

Buying and reading Zinn's "People's History" is a better use of one's time than listening to a pretty speech from a banker's handmaiden.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's a start, but you are still clueless, Obama

Yes, it's a start, Mr. President. A very late, and probably futile start.

But you are still clueless if you don't rebuild our infrastructure and restore a strong level of industrial capacity for our nation. Our mantra should be that we should make what we buy and buy what we make. The Mid-West region of our nation needs to be repopulated, and it can be done with a program of infrastructure refurbishing and redevelopment, including super trains and other mass transit, and rebuilding our industry (some pollution is not so bad a thing if people are working and can reside far enough away from the factories; and frankly, the class of factories we can build are not nearly as polluting as in decades past). People will move there from the coastal regions, which will allow middle class families to again afford their homes on the coasts. And to protect those people who have incomes and assets (sans housing) of less than $1 million who are saddled with large home loans on the coasts, you help them the way that morononic four horsemen of the economic apocalypse (Geithner, Summers, Bernanke and Paulson) gave money to bankers. At least folks like us spend our monies in our communities and stay in our communities.

And in the next Congress, first day, the Democrats, if they still have even a 51-49 majority in the Senate, must change the rule on filibusters so that majority rule is majority rule. If we want to keep the filibuster for anything, keep it for judicial appointments since there is an argument to be made about compromise in giving a person a lifetime judicial appointment.

I can almost guarantee Harry Reid won't be there because the tone deaf putz will lose the way Tom Foley lost in 1994. Reid's blown it, and should say he is no longer running, the way Chris Dodd did. But again he's too tone deaf to know that. Obama, you have one chance, and this is it. It's a decent, not even a good start--but you better get running on this. Now.

The lesson you must learn is the safest course is the boldest course. I've said that in several previous posts, and I'm saying it again. The safest course is the boldest course.

ADDENDUM: D'oh! Of course. The tax credits for middle class folks etc. was just a smoke screen for the real plan to delegitimize Medicare and Social Security, otherwise known as the commission to study the deficit. That Obama. Wall Street is so very happy right now. They are in a can't lose position, and working folks are in a can't win position. Property Party candidates all around us...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Change we can believe in: Reappointing Bernanke??

I am so angry that there is a better than even chance that the Senate, which still has sixty Democrats, is going to reconfirm Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The president, who tells us that he will "fight" for working classes, ominously warns against "playing politics" in voting against Bernanke. The Republicans in Congress must be really cracking up over this one, as they get to vote against Bernanke and say, "The Democrat (sic) Party is the party of Big Business and Wall Street. Darn those elite liberals!"

This is just one more example of Obama and his tone deaf Democratic Party allies attacking their electoral base. "Audacity of hope" is the hoax I thought it was when I first perused Obama's book a few years ago.

Why can't we just run Bernanke out of town on a rail the way Ted Kennedy led that charge against the odious Robert Bork? And when Democrats start acting like New Dealers again, you watch how fast phony populist Republicans like John McCain start running to Bernanke's defense...

Bernanke is the one who gave aid and comfort to the elite financiers during the housing bubble. He then threw out his right wing "free market" rhetoric in order to bail out his friends in the banking and financial industries. Since then, he has been traveling back towards his bromides for Milton Friedman types of policies and has opposed allowing the Federal Government to audit the Federal Reserve's lending activities.

Look, Mr. President. They call you a Commie-Muslim-Kenyan already. Why not just pull Bernanke's nomination and nominate someone who actually cares about working people--and still knows finance? Such people are out there. Heck, show some audacity of hope for once. Robert Pollin would do a much better job than a schmuck like Bernanke. Plus, Robert is the son of the late Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards. Isn't that worth something to you as a hoops fan?

Fat chance. Nada. Crickets churp on the prairie fence.

At least some Democrats in the Senate remember something about the duty to help working folks and their families. Bravo to Senators Boxer, Merkley, Feingold and Dorgan. And double thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) for initially leading this charge against the re-nomination.

Law Profs nail it on corporate influence at the US Supreme Court

See this post by law professor Jack Balkin, who explains how the Supreme Court is a product of the corporate money corruption in our Republic.

I have often said we have been in a new Gilded Age, Clinton is the modern equivalent to Grover Cleveland (and now Obama fits that model), and our Supreme Court is a Gilded Age Court. The difference between the Gilded Age railroad lawyer justices of the late 19th Century, the ones who enshrined capitalist ideology over mercantile ideology and made corporations into "persons" under the 14th Amendment (see: Thom Hartmann's polemic, "Unequal Protection" for a non-lawyer's perspective on this), and this Court is that this Court has right-wing movement activists such as Roberts, Alito and Thomas as justices. And those three will be there for another 20 to 30 years plying their trade on behalf of big business. And their "zygotes are people too" mantra may yet carry the day in that large marble building in DC.

Also, Yale law professor, Heather Gerken, who specializes in elections law, caught something I noticed too, but did not blog about, which is the Court majority's summary dismissal of any connection between how Congresspeople vote and from whom those Congresspeople receive money. As Gerken notes, the Court majority is so carried away with their rhetoric that they are undermining the public's right to prosecute bribery. One wonders when the first case is going to come along where a person arrested for bribing a public official says, "I am only exercising my First Amendment rights to access my Congressman..."

House and Senate Democratic leaders, and Obama, as usual, are calling for playing around the edges with this decision instead of seeking institutional reforms that are outside the conundrum the Supreme Court majority has set regarding "money equals speech." I like reforms such as requiring shareholders to approve political campaign donations, but as with laws requiring labor unions to give their members a voice in approving political expenditures, it just adds another layer of bureaucracy to the institution and is almost always approved by the members of the organization.

As I say, the best way to combat this decision from the US Supreme Court is to increase the number of seats in the House of Representatives so congressional candidates can actually meet a majority of the voters in the resulting smaller districts, and support public financing. In tandem, those two reforms will be most effective at challenging the power of corporate money in politics than any other reform I've seen over the decades.

(Edited)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Obama must have stopped breathing...

According to corporate media reports yesterday, President Obama said in a speech to working folks in Ohio:

"So long as I have some breath in me...I will not stop fighting for you."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Supreme Court ruling on corporations directly giving to candidates and issues

The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United has been issued. I have a day job and don't have time to read it yet. My gut is that, despite it being a 5-4 decision (O'Connor's retirement has again made the difference as Alito is far more right wing), the logic of the decision is probably correct under most modern jurisprudence. The disclosure rules were upheld, thank goodness, and which again is consistent with modern jurisprudence that places a high value on transparency in electoral campaigns.

The public policy solution I have supported for a good decade or more is the so-called "clean elections" policy, which consists of public financing where candidates voluntarily limit their outside expenditures for public expenditures. That's a better fight to have in the US Supreme Court than McCain-Feingold and the other reforms. Even more importantly, we should support increasing the membership in the House of Representatives so that we are able to have much smaller districts of people so candidates can go door to door as in older days. Door to door contact undermines the power of corporate media advertising, which as we know is largely emotionally misleading by intent. Scott Brown stood in front of IHOPs during his campaign in Massachusetts. The late Paul Wellstone did the same thing in Minnesota. That is what works.

Back to day job! Now!!

ADDENDUM (Thursday night of January 21, with Saturday morning, January 23 edits): Some thoughts on the majority and minority opinions:

1. It is amusing to read Scalia's concurring opinion because, as usual, his bombast betrays his own inconsistencies. For a guy who rails against anyone who dares question his eccentric combination of text reading and originalism, he now supports an organic read of the First Amendment when it is favoring his beloved corporate behemoths. Scalia says in part in footnote 5 of his concurring opinion:

As additional “[p]ostratification practice,” the dissent notes that the Court “did not recognize any First Amendment protections for corporations until the middle part of the 20th century.” Post, at 40, n. 56. But it did that in Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U. S. 233 (1936), a case involving freedom of the press—which the dissent acknowledges did cover corporations from the outset. The relative recency of that first case is unsurprising. All of our First Amendment jurisprudence was slow to develop. We did not consider application of the First Amendment to speech restrictions other than prior restraints until 1919, see Schenck v. United States, 249 U. S. 47 (1919); we did not invalidate a state law on First Amendment grounds until 1931, see Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359 (1931), and a federal law until 1965, see Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U. S. 301 (1965).

Scalia thinks nobody will notice that his justification for his position rests upon "slow to develop" constitutional jurisprudence--you know, organic and dynamic development of the law. Elsewhere in his concurring opinion, Scalia does a little dance by comparing the Sons of Liberty to...Exxon in saying modern corporations are like political associations of two hundred years ago. I could say he is on firmer ground in stating the corporations known as the New York Times, NBC or FoxNews are akin to political associations. But not Exxon. Chief Justice Roberts, too, has a problem understanding the distinction between Exxon and NBC, which is frankly unbecoming of him. Courts are called upon to make far more subtle distinctions than differentiating CNN from Wal-Mart in terms of First Amendment rights.

2. It is also amusing to read Chief Justice Roberts opining in lofty tones about the limits of stare decisis. He could have saved us much reading time if he just said, "I am only in favoring of upholding tradition, including stare decisis, when it favors corporate power over the individual. If it hurts corporations, stare decisis be damned." I loved this quote from Roberts:

Stare decisis is a doctrine of preservation, not transformation. It counsels deference to past mistakes, but provides no justification for making new ones. There is therefore no basis for the Court to give precedential sway to reasoning that it has never accepted, simply because that reasoning happens to support a conclusion reached on different grounds that have since been abandoned or discredited.

Since the majority Justices believe the corporate form can be set aside for First Amendment purposes--note how often the five majority Justices spoke of people speaking as the corporations they work for--and since we already know that corporate forms can be set aside "in the interest of justice", for "inadequate capitalization," "not keeping adequate minutes of meetings," "fraud" and in closely held corporations where majority shareholders act badly against minority shareholders (see: Minife v. Rowley (1921) 87 Cal. 481; Jones v. H.F. Ahmanson & Co. (1969) 1 Cal.3d 93), why not stop "making new mistakes" in continuing to immunize from liability the personal responsibility of corporate executives and shareholders? Have fun trying to use Roberts' quotes when you want to convince Justice Roberts to overturn a precedent he actually likes...Justice Stevens is devastating in his put down of Roberts' philo-sophistry at page 18, footnote 18 of Stevens' opinion. Stevens notes that Roberts thinks that continued negative references to the Austin decision (decided in 1990) in various dissenting opinions rendered the Austin decision suspect. Says Stevens: "Under this view (of Roberts), it appears that the more times the Court stands by a precedent in the face of requests to overrule it, the weaker that precedent becomes." Move over, Antonin. The biting one liner is no longer yours alone...

3. I am astounded that neither the majority nor concurring opinions of the so-called "conservative" majority found room to mention the Tillman Act of 1907, which act banned corporate contributions altogether (A more comprehensive article which discusses this act is by Adam Winkler "The Corporation in Election Law"). Is that one hundred plus year old Act of Congress now unconstitutional? I think it is under today's decision. But where was the integrity on the part of these justices (Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Scalia and Thomas) to simply say so? Why hide behind their attack on the relatively recent Austin opinion to reach their conclusion?

4. Justice Stevens' dissent presents a compelling read about our Founders' mercantile sensibilities and how appalled most of them, even Hamilton, would be at the power of corporations in our modern society (see: pages 35-39 of Stevens' dissenting opinion). Stevens also wonders how the majority of so-called "conservative" justices could suddenly have amnesia about the Tillman Act of 1907, when in other cases, they are so very concerned with deference to the legislature and stare decisis (see: pages 2-3 of Stevens' dissent).

WHY THE ACTUAL DECISION IS STILL PROBABLY RIGHT--AT LEAST IN PART: Because I tend to agree with James Madison, in Federalist Paper no. 37, when he said that only experience can really help us understand the vagaries of the Constitution's broad terms, phrases and sentences, I think the development of the instant modern media and the Internet in particular may well compel this decision today. For example, I personally found the rule in McCain-Feingold prohibiting ads within 30 days of an election to be too draconian for First Amendment purposes in a world that is now instant and on the Internet. I believe the rise of the Internet will continue to undercut the major networks on television and radio--especially as the computer and television morph into each other, and into our phones.

I even have some sympathy for Justice Thomas' concerns in his lone dissenting opinion with regard to disclosure rules (requiring the disclosure of people's full names, addresses and money contributed) in political initiatives like Proposition 8 in CA (and elections of candidates) being abused by the most rabid partisans to trample on the privacy and issue threats against those with whom they disagree. There is something to anonymity at least perhaps in general writings on the Internet (see: Krinsky v. Doe 6 (2008) 159 Cal. App. 4th 1154). However, I think the fear of loss of privacy or boycotts or worse may simply be part of the rough and tumble of politics in general. DAs and government agencies will prosecute assault and battery if people engage in those actions against others. For me, I put my name out there because I won't hide behind phony monikers. I am what I am, as a famous sailor often said.

But, my judicial philosophy counsels caution for courts when deciding upon the constitutionality of legislation, such as either McCain-Feingold or the Tillman Act of 1907. It therefore leads me to believe the Supreme Court today painted with far too broad a brush. The line between direct and indirect corporate advocacy was one the Court should not have completely obliterated. Now, we may have to be supporting more boycotts against companies that dare to engage directly in political hot button issues with which we disagree. I wonder just how many corporations will direct part of their budgets to give to individual candidates--and individual political initiatives that are on ballots in various states. They might. But that will put them in a spotlight that their marketing departments may find less than flattering. The Supreme Court majority of Justices, mired in an ideology of partisan rhetoric, chose to ignore precedent, both legislative and judicial, and chose to foist upon our nation an even braver new world where corporations can directly buy politicians the way they buy rock bands and celebrities--and product placement in film, television shows, etc. It could end up being the equivalent of "The Space Merchants" (1952) by Kornbluth and Pohl, where there are no more senators from States, but instead "The Senator from DuPont"...

We'll see how this experiment goes, won't we?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Beautiful article on Feynman and science writing

In the last ten years especially, I have become more intrigued by the art of science writing. This article provided some explanation for my sensibility on the subject. I loved the anecdote about Feynman and the author's mother.

(Hat tip: 3 Quarks Daily)

ADDENDA: Two additional comments. One, it is interesting that this British science writer never mentions Stephen Jay Gould, the great American science writer of the 20th Century. Gould's brilliance as a writer and scientific mind cannot be overrated in my not so humble view. Two, check this out by a scientist, Arthur Shapiro, whose brother belongs to the synagogue our family attends. He is a very smart and creative fellow whose studies on optical illusions is very enlightening...and fun.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Vidal unclothed by an unhitched Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens has written a sad, but still acid-laced attack on Gore Vidal in Vanity Fair. I happen to agree with a good deal of what Hitchens has written in the article, even though I continue to be a major fan of Vidal. Vidal is 83 and not in good health. I think we should forgive Vidal's ridiculous speculation about the Bush II administration and the events of 9/11/2001, and whether FDR knew the Japanese were going to attack the US fleet at Pearl Harbor (I have heard Vidal more often say FDR expected the Japanese to attack in the Philippines, not Pearl Harbor--which I agree with Vidal when he says that).

Hitchens has himself been unhitched since the events of 9/11/2001, and one can pen an equally sad article about some of his ridiculous statements over the past nine years, whether it was his naive statements regarding the discredited allegation of a leading 9/11 bomber's (Mohamed Atta) connection to Saddam via the Czech Republic, how the US attack on Iraq in 2003 was going to be great for democracy across the Middle East, his supportive statements with respect to GW Bush (yet, his completely unhinged attitude regarding Bill Clinton, who he called as recently as the last year and a half a "raging psycho") and his naive hope that bin Laden was dead in 2002 and 2003 so that he could justify in his fevered mind the Iraq adventure upon which the US and England were embarking. Can one believe that Vidal would need, as Hitchens did, to actually undergo waterboarding to know it constitutes torture? Hitchens did not, at the time, have age and physical pain with no end except death to provide a ready excuse, though Vidal is too proud to say that for himself.

My sense is that Vidal had a bad day when he sat down with Johann Hari of the London Independent, and even the statement about 9/11 is far less than a full quote. Only the word "probably" is quoted, and then there is a discourse about Bush in general:

"Yes, it's clearly the case that 9/11 was in part a blow-back response to US crimes in the Middle East, but he (Vidal) goes much further, and says the Bush administration was 'probably' in on it. Where is the evidence for this huge claim? 'It would certainly fit them to a T, so you can't blame the rest of us for starting to think on slightly conspiratorial grounds. They did steal the great election of the year 2000 and they somehow fixed the Supreme Court of the United States, that sacred place, and got them to go along with it, with the selection, not the election, the selection of George W Bush as president. He wasn't voted for, people didn't want him. And were somewhat mystified that he ended up with it.'"

(Parenthesis added)

But note what he says just before he is prodded by the interviewer, Hari:

"The US is only menaced, he says, because it menaces others. 'In geopolitics as in physics, there is no action without reaction.' He stirs his Scotch and says: 'There was no 9/11. I mean – our policies were such that we were going to have a lot of crazy people out there in the Arab world who were going to try to blow us up, because of crimes they feel we committed against them. Any fool could see it coming. And I'm sufficiently a fool to have seen it.'


Vidal seems far more cryptic in his hyperbole than Hari has concluded--which conclusion Hitchens has seized upon in order to attack Vidal. Still, I would say Vidal was in a hyperbolic mood and was not having his best day in terms of elegance and eloquence. Vidal remains a national treasure, is perhaps our greatest historian of the last fifty years, and is our nation's Montagine in terms of political and social oriented essays.

Separate from the above, Hitchens is also a little sly about Vidal and Jews, where Hitchens gives the hint that he knows more than he says--and doesn't say it. Having read Vidal extensively, and knowing about his relationship with Howard Austen for forty years, it is nonsense to even imply Vidal is anti-Semitic. What is striking is that, since Austen's death a few years ago, Vidal becomes very, very sad and hopeless about nearly everything when Austen's name is mentioned, either by Vidal himself or the interviewer. This is again why I think Hitchens really just wants to twist a knife here as Hitchens really was supposed to be the master essayist to succeed Vidal. However, Hitchens has already tripped on his own vanity, and, after the events of 9/11/2001, his fear of terrorists under the bed--which fear he covers with revolutionary bravado.

(Edited)

Drive by commenting

A. Matt Yglesias is weakly attacking the new meme that Obama and the Dems messed up by trying to reform our nation's health insurance system. He asks how we can ever have a comprehensive theory, as if we don't do that all the time, and often correctly so. Contrary to the meme, and to Matt, the comprehensive problem with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party leadership in Congress consists of two things:

1. They bailed out bankers and banks, but did not bail out working families and their homes. That would have included an immediate and a strong public works program, and labor union reform so that profits for executives were spread out more for workers as the money flowed to the construction and other companies doing the public works.

2. They gave up all their best arguments to improve outcome and cost control with respect to health insurance reform by refusing to start out demanding Medicare for All.

B. So Democratic Party Senate nominee in Massachusetts, Martha Coakley, is a train wreck, or more specifically, Michael Dukakis with protruding breasts? Sorry, but no surprise here. Why? She refused to campaign by shaking hands with regular folks, started her advertising campaign too late and now desperately tries to run as a populist. Ted Kennedy loved to deal with people and always ran as a populist. In Coakley's defense, notice how at least two local police unions endorsed her Republican opponent, Scott Brown, while the largest police union endorsed Coakley. Sexism is not a big factor at all, but it may make a close election even closer...

Right now, emotions are high and Coakley's overall demeanor and personality strikes the wrong chord with low-information voters, also known as "independent" voters. Coakley may still win on Tuesday, because Scott Brown is an elite bank-loving phony who mouths right wing rhetoric about small government and cutting taxes. Read the Wikipedia entry on him and one sees a chameleon. I pity the right wingers who are supporting this former Cosmopolitan male centerfold.

C. The Leno wars at NBC are amusing because the suits at NBC have never really liked Leno. The suits have long had an elitist disdain for Leno's middle class sensibility and appeal. They first hired Leno to succeed Johnny Carson in 1991, but then fiddled around for a year, reluctantly going with Leno because they finally listened to the local affiliate execs who knew what regular folks wanted to see at 11:30 p.m. every night. Nice and funny beats sardonic and hip every time (though I have never found O'Brien to be anything other than terminally dull). See "The Late Shift" (1996) by Bill Carter for the Leno-Letterman wars of the early 1990s. Also, this Newsweek story from January 25, 1993 strikes me as correct as well.

Zucker made the wrong move in not just letting Conan O'Brien go a few years ago. It's ugly to do it now, but the Leno-Letterman wars were ugly, too--and at least this time, Zucker was smart enough to have held Leno long enough to be able to make this move, or else he'd have been fired if Leno was at ABC and mopping up Letterman and O'Brien (who would split the self-consciously hip audience they crave) in the ratings.

Oh, and Jimmy Kimmel is a schmuck who should be counting his lucky stars that Leno didn't bolt to ABC when NBC originally made its announcement for O'Brien a few years ago. Again, Leno would be beating both Letterman and O'Brien--and Kimmel would be begging for work on the corner of Ventura and Sepulveda Boulevards.

I could have saved Zucker a lot of money in the first place, but he isn't calling me for advice is he? :-)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

LA Times music writer gets it largely right about prog rock

LA Times music writer Mike Boehm gets it largely right about progressive rock bands--which is a miracle for corporate media. He even mentions my personal fave, Gentle Giant, and gets absolutely correct the top three Yes albums ("The Yes Album", "Fragile" and "Close to the Edge").

I think Jethro Tull qualifies as prog-rock if the Strawbs do--and the Strawbs do. Really now. Tull's "Thick as a Brick" and "A Passion Play" are two of the greatest prog rock albums of all time.

Nice that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has seen fit to induct Genesis. Maybe Gabriel will come and join them onstage and they'll do "Watcher of the Skies" and take the breath away from the audience. Tone colors and the 8/4 over 6/4 time never sounded so powerful as in that song. Youtube (thank God for Youtube!) has the original studio recording here. The song's lyrics are an interpretative take on John Keats' poem, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer."

And maybe the H of F could find room for Renasissance, just to have Annie Haslam be recognized for having one of the loveliest voices of the past century (This is one of my favorites by them).

Prog rock has staged a bit of a comeback among the younger folks of my son's age. That is one of the few hopeful trends I've seen in our culture, and it is due to the ability of the Internet to allow people with different interests to find an electronically based community. I am knocked out by the covers by people in various nations of the great prog rock bands' songs, like Japanese women violinists doing a King Crimson song, an Italian guy covering on his piano Keith Emerson's rare musical masterwork, Inferno, and a Russian violinist and pianist doing a medley of two King Crimson songs (just listen to the drumming of Bill Bruford on "One More Red Nightmare" and be knocked out!).

Newer prog bands include the Swedish band, Black Bonzo (here they are on Youtube), Spock's Beard (and Youtube has 'em, too), Tangent, and others my son can tell you about, but I can't keep up...

(Edited)

MF Blog called it as to Palin

In a post dated October 19, 2008, I had said Palin's real goal was a job with FoxNews as a television talk show host. She is now closer to her dream...

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Obis from the Age of the Baby Boomers

It's time for our Obi awards (I just made this up for today), which simply means the offering of obituaries for those who were at the top of their games during the lives of us Baby Boomers (those born during the period of 1946 to 1964) and have passed away:

David Levine
, political caricaturist par excellence, with the NY Review of Books. Another blogger's (Ted Burke) appreciation is here, complete with the famous LBJ caricature that will stand the test of time.

Tim Hart, one of the two true leaders of the English folk band, Steeleye Span, a wonderful band (The other true leader? Maddy Prior). Listen here and here for two examples from their best album, "Below the Salt" (1972).

Saturday, January 02, 2010

My cousin Jenna's book reviews are online--and inspire my own reviews of books I'm reading

My cousin Jenna, the radical librarian, has a website about which I had not previously known. I am adding it to the links to the right of the posts. Her book choices are very different than mine, and reflect her more culturally liberal/radical views. Less charitably, I found many of her book choices* to run toward what I admit to calling "navel gazing" because the books strike me as written by people who did too much writing about themselves and who are far too personally narrow in their focus (and her strong interest in vampire books was an amusing surprise). Others, of course, may find her book choices for reviews more compelling.

* Two exceptions are the magisterial Jackie Robinson bio by Rampersad and Meredith Tax's novel of early 20th Century Jewish immigration and the socialist-labor movement...And Jenn, please give Jackie Robinson some slack on the Nixon-Kennedy election as Nixon supported civil rights more than JFK during the late 1950s, particularly the admittedly weak 1957 Civil Rights Act. JFK was simply not interested in civil rights when running for president, and his call to Martin Luther King's jail was simply a crass political move that worked more because the press guys loved JFK from the beginning. I have often believed that if Nixon was elected in 1960, it would have been a far more liberal Nixon who would have worked with LBJ to pass the type of Civil Rights legislation that was passed in 1964 and 1965.

If I was to list what I've been reading, it would be an alternating set of fiction, history and other non-fiction, with books by late 19th Century and early 20th Century mostly white writers. I am, for example, on a Booth Tarkington run right now, and find him to be surprisingly sharp as a social critic--and his prose even more surprisingly modern, yet beautiful. The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) is an extraordinary attack on the rising automobile culture, and the decline of the late 19th Century upper class families who did not have money invested in the latest industries of the time. The book is marred, however, by the use of the word "darky" to describe the black servants in the Indiana household of the Amberson family, which made me wonder whether Tarkington was a racist in that Woodrow Wilson sense. However, I am less sure of that opinion after reading The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), with the title character a young newspaper man of liberal, reformist ideas who runs afoul of what is a thinly disguised Ku Klux Klan (the book refers to them as the "white caps"), and The Two Vanravels (1902), where the hero is an 1840s era abolitionist and the bad guy is the father of the woman he loves, and which father is a pro-slavery fellow who wants us to go to war with Mexico so there would be more slave holding states. For those who think most Americans admired abolitionists in the 19th Century, even after the Civil War, think again...And as Tarkington sets his novels in his home State of Indiana, a State with a deep racist history, Tarkington is acutely aware of the racism of where he lived. He was therefore conscious of his choices for his heroes.

What has been most surprising to me is how fluid a writer Tarkington is, and how well he helps us understand what it meant to ride in a horse-driven carriage and live and work without electric lights and the other modern appliances which render us closer to the Jetsons than those who lived 150 years ago.

Before this run, I was reading a spate of Thomas Hardy works, including two sets of his sharp, funny, poignant and witty short stories, Wessex Tales (1888) and Life's Little Ironies (1894), which anticipate most strongly Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, and his later works, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, in colorfully bringing to life the working class folks in all their glory, hubris and ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Earlier in the last year, I enjoyed Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), both of which showed early on Hardy's recognition that the life of a female in a modernizing England and Europe was fraught with contradictory and oppressive admonishments and requirements, and that men behaved either boorishly, ridiculously or cruelly in various ways toward women--even the "nicer" guys. Hardy's prose reflects his love of poetry. His prose literally jumps into one's mouth as well as mind.

Ironically, I believe Hardy made his point about these matters better in these earlier novels than even his last novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure, because his early editors refused his desire to be more open in his feelings about the oppressive ways in which marriages were arranged and maintained at the time. Of the two earlier books, A Pair of Blue Eyes knocked me out and was a most astonishing read.

For my non-fiction reading, I've been reading Gandhi's Autobiography, which is outstanding in its still fresh, yet formal prose, and its brutally honest sensibility. Before that, I read a delightful and profound book of essays of Henry Adams first published in the 1870s. Adams' insights are remarkable considering he was only thirty when he was writing them, and the subjects range from the coming of the American Civil War, the fight over the Legal Tender Act of 1862, "The New York Gold Conspiracy" (eerily prescient for our present woes wrought from the corruptions of financiers) and the need for Civil Service Reform. The book of essays also includes Adams' controversial essay on Pocahantas and Captain John Smith that I found riveting in its historiography and lawyerly persuasion (yet, I found a recent debunking of Adams' analysis somewhat persuasive, too, though I strongly disagree with the professor's ascribing a base motive to Adams as that is far too speculative and inconsistent with other things I have known about Adams...). The essays are compelling to us almost a century and a half later, and I found myself wondering what old Henry would have thought of the ridiculous haggling going on with regard to health insurance reform.

I'm currently enjoying the new biography of Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn, and am learning far more about antiquity than I had thought I would learn, as McLynn does an outstanding job in weaving the context of the various decades and even centuries before and after Marcus' reign. I had so enjoyed Gore Vidal's Julian (1964) when I finally read it in early 2009, and feel that I will be better prepared to enjoy Vidal's Creation after I finish McLynn's lively, polemical biography of a relatively sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful and tolerant Roman emperor. And, not to keep myself too mired in antiquity, I just started Melvin Urolsky's Brandeis: A Life, which was just released several months ago. It is a fun and insightful read thus far...

I indulge myself in writing about my choices of some of the books read over the past year, as it strongly contrasts with my cousin Jenna's choices. I revere my cousin Jenna, however, and more power to her!

(Edited)

John Oliver, very funny

Here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Where Mackey and I agree: Big is not necessarily bad

See my previous post here.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is not wrong on a lot of things. He is correct that we all need a diet based more on vegetables than red meat. He is correct that most American should re-balance their diets, which is another way of saying eat more vegetables and less red meat. He is rightly concerned and has taken stands against factory farming methods that are unusually cruel to animals (He has become a vegetarian and even a vegan). He revolutionized the health food movement because he successfully grew his business into areas where people had no choice for vegetarian and healthy meat fare, albeit with money and connections from his very wealthy Dad--but at least he was not hanging around a country club drinking alcohol and beating a barmaid with a cane. And he is obviously treating hs workers decently in a relative manner since his company's turnover rate is very low.

Mackey is also correct that big is not necessarily bad. And that's really important for public policy purposes. As bad as Wal-Mart is, it's not its bigness that angers me, it's Wal-Mart's labor policies. When Wal-Mart entered the organic food business, it was a tremendous boon to the organic food business because of Wal-Mart's wide distributive reach. As Mackey says in the New Yorker article, there are myths about small business. Politicians often say small businesses create more jobs overall than large businesses. But that is gross jobs, not net jobs. That statistic does not take into account that most small businesses fail in a few years (literally 1 to 4 years, more closer to 2 years). If you are employed with a large business (not Wal-Mart, which has excessively high turnover rates), you tend to stay longer and have more stability in the job you have. See, for starters, this Michael Kinsley article from Slate attacking Bush the Younger's "absurd obsession with small business."

Does anyone think the middle class created first through Henry Ford's $5 a day in 1905, and then the success of the 1935 Wagner Act, and the United Auto Workers (UAW), would have occurred if Ford, GM and Chrysler had not first become behemoths and were able to throw off so much profit that there was an ability to spread that profit around? That proposition should be undeniable. Unions don't rise in small businesses, because usually the proprietor is working his or her tail off right next to the workers, and is usually making a very small profit. I have great respect for most entrepreneurs, but I don't want them making public policy for the community because they tend to see the world only from their perspective, and not from any community growth and maintenance perspective, say as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison did or, as Lincoln and FDR understood.

There is a view, prevalent among many Americans, even the New Left intellects in the 1970s and since, that unions were themselves another inhibitor to innovation, particularly in the American auto industry. But Walter Reuther, who was a leader of the UAW from the late 1930s through his untimely and mysterious death in 1970, had called on the auto companies to embrace making smaller cars, embrace environmental policies as well as national health insurance (instead of employer-based insurance) to make American cars more competitive with the foreign car industry. Reuther first raised the issue of building small cars at a time of American automotive dominance in the 1950s.

What we see when we study the interactions between labor and capital in the auto industry is that unions were always subordinate to capital, but that the political environment created during the New Deal had made business leaders wary of upsetting workers--up until the late 1970s gave business leaders their opening in the changing political climate. And since then, we have lived through a Gilded Age of profiteering amongst business leaders, and they have ravaged the industrial heart of America with their foreign investments and financial schemes. They have also been able to use their excess money to buy the political process (with not much beyond blogging as a way for people to express themselves) and have helped push through trade deals that only codify the very trends that were undermining our industrial capacity, our workers and even our ability to promote environmental legislation.

These are the opening points of a conversation much larger than may be covered in a mere web-log. But it is important that we not fall into the "small is beautiful" thinking that causes us to lose sight of the fact that big is not really bad in and of itself. The question for public policy is the regulation of the big businesses*, and democratizing their workplaces through union power. Unions do end up limiting some of an executive's monetary compensation (though if Mackey is taking $1 a year, and living on the stock wealth, he should be personally less concerned with unions). Mackey, however, just doesn't want his workers organized to question his strategies, meaning he fears democratic values more than sharing monetary wealth. Yes, Mackey allows "votes" from time to time, but these are ultimately charades because each worker knows he or she is an at-will employee, and Mackey and his supervisors over these workers clearly and strongly make their views known. One can overstate this, however, and let's give Mackey credit for giving workers at least some voice, something that in this political environment, is quite extraordinary.

On a personal note, I have been a general counsel to two publicly traded companies where there were no unions, including one that was largely consisting of factory workers. I have advised the companies how they may avoid unions, though we never had any "threat" of union organizing while I was working at the two companies. My job, which I did well, was to stop problems before they happened. The companies failed for reasons of signing long leases for iffy business prospects, or the effects of the dot.com implosion after 2000. The workers were treated at these companies better than they are at Wal-Mart, and probably even better than at Whole Foods (we had very low turnover rates).

I also agree with Mackey, again, that if you treat workers with dignity and respect for the most part, they will not form unions. And that means paying them decently compared to other companies, something Mackey appears to do. And that means providing them with benefits, which Mackey does. He does offer, for example, a PPO medical plan to employees, but since the average wage is still too low (again, he is better than average, but in a weak union environment for grocery workers, it's not that hard to be competitive), most of his work force finds it difficult to afford such coverage.

Again, these are the issues we should begin to discuss.

* To quote James Madison, in Federalist Paper no. 10:

But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.