Thursday, December 17, 2009

POLITICS: Why This Health Care Bill Must Be Killed (And How Obama's Lack of Leadership Is To Blame)

Frankenstein had the good sense to kill himself. This monstrosity of a giveaway to insurance companies possesses no such conscience.

As much as the Obama administration might want to make history and get a health care reform bill passed into law, as much as progressives in this country want to see substantive changes made to our anomalous for-profit health care system, as much as every American needs reliable and affordable health that actually helps keep us healthy and takes care of us when we need it, this malformed health care reform bill currently being debated in the Senate needs to be taken out back and shot point blank in the head.

For this simple reason: at its core, this current Senate health care bill forces Americans to buy health insurance—ensuring HUGE additional profits to insurance companies—yet provides no tangible cost savings or premium-reducing measures to offset what we all will be required to pay. Once again, corporate money and lobbying power has helped create the EXACT OPPOSITE legislation American taxpayers need. We are forced to buy health insurance—or pay a fine for not buying insurance—and the insurance companies are not required to change much of anything that they do right now. But they’ll get billions more in premiums.

So who’s getting reformed by this health care “reform”?

The American taxpayer. We’ll be legally bound to continue paying increasingly high premiums. Isn’t that awesome? Didn’t our representatives do a great job of representing us? Fighting tooth and nail for American citizens long abused by a rigged health insurance industry? Wow. This really is historic legislation—historically repugnant.

The reason the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries have been so successful for the past 80 years or so in maintaining this completely rigged system is because of one elemental fact: they fight harder than the reformers. And that means us. Any substantive health care reform would mean billions of dollars would stop flowing into the insurance and pharmaceutical company coffers. Wouldn’t you fight like a cornered badger if someone wanted to take away your billions? As we’ve witnessed during this recent health care reform battle, the health insurance industry’s “investments” in Senators and Representatives since the last attempt at health care reform in 1993 is paying exceptional dividends. Not only do the health insurance and pharmaceutical TV ads and spokespeople blatantly lie and fear-monger on the subject, but they’ve also purchased via campaign contributions a whole battalion of craven Senators and Representatives who will gladly parrot the same lies and fear-mongering strategies just so long as “I can count on your help come election time, Mr. United Health Care lobbyist.”

But frankly, that’s old news. It doesn’t change. Never has, never will.

What does change is the President. And as much as it pains me to say this, as I supported him from early on in the last election, but one of the primary reasons for this monstrosity of a health care bill that we need to kill is the failure of leadership shown by President Barack Obama. Forget Droopy Dawg Joe Lieberman or insurance lackeys like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, and Mary Landrieu. The reason we may end up with a health care reform bill that will leave us in worse shape than we would be if we did nothing is because President Obama does not possess the “intestinal fortitude” to take on his opponents in the debate—the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Remember candidate Obama? He campaigned against mandates to buy insurance—people can’t afford insurance, he argued, so why force them to buy something they can’t afford? And I’m sure you will recall the centerpiece of his health care program when he campaigned? The public option. He went on at length about it—how a public option would create competition for the greedy insurance companies who were screwing the American public. He argued with Hilary Clinton about it during the primaries; he argued with John McCain about it during the election. And Obama’s ideas won.

So why hasn’t President Obama shown the same fire and desire as candidate Obama in pushing hard for the public option (or some form of it)? He came to office with a groundswell of support across the country—he had nothing but political capital to spend on health care reform, one of the primary reasons Americans voted him President. Why didn’t he use it? He certainly had no hesitation in wielding the power of the Presidency this summer when he and his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel strong-armed wavering Democratic Senators and Representatives who weren’t going to support his supplemental war funding request (see here). So why didn’t he play that kind of hardball with his party to get a robust public option made part of the health reform bill?

I think it’s becoming clear that the reason Obama failed to deliver on a public option requirement, failed to deliver on one of his top two or three campaign promises, is because he never really was committed to the idea because of how difficult it would be to accomplish. Major political and economic policy changes like reforming the health care system take vision, fierce determination, and a personal constitution that is willing to lay everything on the line for what you believe in and never stop fighting until you accomplish it. FDR had it—he got Social Security passed and nearly got universal health care included in it. LBJ had it—he got both the Civil Rights Act and Medicare passed. Even Ronald Reagan had it—he managed to buffalo a majority of the country into believing that if rich people and wealthy corporations pay very little tax, we will all become wealthy.

President Obama DOESN’T have it. Sad as it is to say as a staunch supporter during the election, but Obama appears to possess only Senator mettle. Maybe competent President mettle. But it doesn’t look like he’s got what it takes to be a great one, let alone an actual reformer.

Ask yourself this: if you ignited a majority of the country behind you in ways unlike any presidential candidate had in decades and decades, elicited support—financial and boots on the ground—from more new voters than any candidate in recent history, and swept easily into the White House with a commanding victory, wouldn’t you throw yourself whole hog into accomplishing the one or two major agenda items you ran on? Or would you take a completely passive approach to one of your major campaign promises, keeping an arms-length from it and never (as far as we’ve been able to learn) using your substantial political capital and the fierce urgency of now (remember that?) to strong-arm hesitant party members to make damn sure that you got the kind of reform you promised 70 million Americans?

If you need a more tangible, less theoretical reason for why I think Obama was never really up for the fight to make substantive changes to our health care system, let’s revisit the billion dollar deal he made in private with the pharmaceutical industry after taking office. Remember that? The White House denied any deal was struck—until an internal memo was leaked and they had to fess up (see here and here). Why, if you want to change the way health care works in this country, would you make this kind of deal with one of the industries that is part of the whole problem BEFORE any serious negotiations or legislation even started?

[UPDATE: On December 15th, the Senate defeated an amendment to the health reform bill to allow re-importation of drugs into the U.S., which would allow Americans to buy the same drugs we manufacture but sell in other countries for 1/3 or more of the price we currently pay. The sick thing is how many Democrats—allies of the President—voted to defeat this bill. Big pharma wins again!]

Other indications of Obama’s actual intentions in this health care debate have been making the news for the past eight months or so: no actual, detailed, specific health care plan ever offered by President Obama (“principles” are good for counselors and self-help proponents—they’re NOT serious policy from a serious President); Chief of Staff Emanuel telling progressive groups to stop running ads badgering Blue Democrats to support the public option; the White House deflecting criticism in public (and in private) of flies in the ointment like Joe Lieberman; Obama’s broken record recitation in closed door sessions with members of Congress about the historic nature of the health care bill—yet never making a serious, hard-nosed, “Change We Can Believe In” appeal to the waffling reps about getting this public option passed and substantively changing the whole health care system. There’s certainly more, and Glenn Greenwald from Salon catalogues them well here.

So because of either the failure of leadership of President Obama or because the current state of the health care Senate bill is actually what Obama wanted, it appears that once again we will get reform in the style of the previous Bush administration: Americans pay more money to established corporate interests for little to nothing in return. That’s what happened with Medicare part D, and it looks like we’re going the same route with Obama’s healthy care reform: we’re all going to be forced to buy insurance from the companies who have been screwing us for the past 20 years, and those very same companies won’t have to change the way they do business in any substantive way.

Not the change you believe in—or voted for last year? Do something about it. Call your Senators and Representatives and urge them NOT to vote for any health reform bill that mandates we buy insurance yet does not offer an affordable, government-run insurance plan as an option.

Here’s where you can find your Senators’ contact info:

Here’s where you can find your Representatives’ contact info:

And here’s President Obama’s contact info—let him know you don’t want him to sign a bill into law that perverts what candidate Obama would want: (202) 456-1111.

Finally: I came across this speech by FDR a while back and was struck by the language and passion and fearlessness of a President who enacted sweeping reforms. It’s from his 1936 nomination speech. Check out these few lines:

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

Can you imagine Obama saying something as truthful and as brazenly aggressive as that?

If you want to hear this great speech, check it out here:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

POLITICS: Funding Health Care Reform: A Modest Proposal

How to pay for health care reform—it’s perhaps the biggest issue in the whole ongoing debate. There are some people who simply don’t feel comfortable with the idea of the government handling such a personal part of their lives. Others fear the government wouldn’t do a good job of administrating such a large undertaking. These are reasonable concerns in the debate, but they are not the concerns of the majority of people in this country. I’m ignoring for the moment the fringe alarmists—the teabaggers and their FOX News-fueled parrots who decry socialism and fascism and communism and any number of bat-shit crazy ideas their beloved pundits dribble out. They’re the extreme minority in this debate.

But among the vast majority of reasonable citizens in this country, whether they come from the political left, right, or center, the question of how we would actually pay for the kind of public health care reform that’s been debated for the past eight months is a COMPLETELY rational, necessary, and crucial question.

I truly believe that 90% of all Americans would love to have a single-payer system that provides every citizen with complete health care coverage. We feel we should educate every American child, don’t we? We feel our military should defend every American citizen, right? And we all agree that our local fire and police departments should serve and protect every individual in our locality equally, don’t we? So why would providing health care—a quality of life issue—be any different? Like I said, for 90% of Americans, I don’t think it is different.

So what about the 10% that doesn’t believe a single-payer system providing health care for every American citizen is a good idea? Who are they? Take a guess. Yep—the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, corporate hospitals, and Wall Street investment firms that are deep into these industries. (No, don’t confuse yourself with a Wall Street investment firm in deep. Your piddly mutual fund holdings and stocks in Cigna or United Health don’t make you a shareholder with a valued voice. You’ve got the power of a gnat among T-Rexes.) And let’s not forget the teabaggers and the other morons who have been convinced that a for-profit health insurance employer is better able to make decisions about your health than a non-profit federal agency would be. Of course, these are also the same people who are still waiting for tax cuts for the rich to trickle down to their meager wages.

We’ve heard President Obama use the phrase “everyone has to have skin in the game” when talking about how to pay for health care. I have a number of issues with the role Obama has played in this health care debate—primarily that he has let Congress set the agenda rather than offering a detailed program for reform from which the Congress can work—but I agree whole heartedly with this notion that everyone has to be involved in resetting our failed health care system. But Obama hasn’t done what he really needs to do: specify a way to pay for this that makes sure everyone has skin in the game. In fact, it’s one part of the debate he’s been a bit of a pussy about—to his and the health care cause’s detriment. The current Democratic leadership in the Senate is spineless in many ways, but they’ve had to grapple with the sticky details of how to pay for health care reform. And Speaker Pelosi and the House have recently put their ideas for payment on the line and actually voted on it.

Because Obama has been such a weak voice in this very central issue of how to pay for health care reform, I want to take his idea that everyone has to have some skin in the game and make an actual proposal. It’s modest and simple and very straightforward:

Every American adult who files a tax return pays $1,000 a year to contribute to a National Health Insurance program.

That’s it. And here’s why it would work: in 2007, there were 141 million tax returns filed. Multiply that by $1,000 and you get $141 billion dollars. Congressional Budget Office scoring for the current health care reform ideas are coming in at $100 billion or less a year. With every American adult tax filer paying $1,000 a year, that’s about $41 more than we need. And how would that translate to our paychecks? That’s $83.34 a month. About $42 every paycheck if you’re paid twice a month. Wouldn’t $83 a month be a lot better than the $300-$800 that many employees now pay for health care every month? Which would you rather pay?

Here’s how this idea would work: our obligation to National Health Insurance would be $1,000 a year. It would be paid either as a deduction from your check if you’re paying for it yourself or your employer would pay for it as part of your benefit package. Employers could choose to stay with the private insurance plans they offer their employees, and employees could choose to keep paying the hundreds of dollars a month they currently pay in those arrangements for private insurance. But the National Health Insurance premium would have to be paid regardless.

Of course, employers could decide to drop private insurance completely and just pay for their employees’ National Health Insurance obligation of $1,000 a year. Fair enough—the employees will still get guaranteed coverage via the National Insurance system, or they can take the hundreds of dollars a month they used to pay for private insurance and now get in salary from their employers to buy their own supplementary private insurance. And imagine what employers—especially small businesses, the engine of the U.S. economy—could do with an additional $10,000 every month they no longer pay for their employees private insurance?

So what happens if thousands and thousands of small businesses across the country drop their private insurance and opt to pay their employees’ annual $1,000 National Health Insurance obligation? It’s paid for whether they stick with private insurance or not. If upon review every year it appears that more money is needed because more and more people are relying on National Health Insurance, then the annual rate is raised—except unlike private insurers, who favor 15% and 20% premium increases annually, we’d be looking at more like 1% or 3% increases with a National Insurance plan. So which would you rather pay: $300 to $800 a month for private insurance or $83 to $90 a month for National Health Insurance? And if this National system really took off and the majority of people in the U.S. began using it, then the rate would be adjusted to pay for it—so even a whopping 50% increase in the annual obligation ($1,500) would run you $125 a month. What’s a 50% increase on $800 a month?

And let’s not forget the population numbers game here: for the next 25 years or so, we’ll have the baby boomers—the largest population sector of our society by a long shot—moving into Medicare and in need of extensive health care. The more money we have in a National Health Insurance system, the easier it will be for us non-baby boomers to survive the huge resource drain the aging boomers will inflict on our economy. If such a National Insurance plan costs us all $125 or even $200 a month for a decade or so, it’s still easier to handle than the hundreds or thousands it will cost through the private insurance system we now have. And as morose as it may sound, come 2025 or so, that huge baby boomer population will be dwindling, requiring less care and far less in premiums from the rest of us.

Obviously, those living in poverty who do not file tax returns would pay nothing—just like the health care system is now. But whether you make 30K a year or 300 million, EVERYONE would pay the same and have skin in the game. And I think that’s part of what’s missing in this whole debate from the health care reform proponents: everyone needs to pay so that everyone gets the benefits. This kind of elemental fairness appeals to Americans. Sure, some AIG executive will be able to afford a gold-plated private insurance plan that a line worker or a freelance writer like myself would never be able to afford, but at least we’d ALL be contributing similarly to a National Health Insurance plan.

Of course, as it looks now, we’re not going to get anything as simple and equitable as a National Health Insurance plan from the Congress and the insurance, pharmaceutical, and corporate hospital lobbyists that own our representatives. We’ll probably end up with some watered down giveaway to private insurance—kind of like the Medicare Part D deal former President Bush and his crew struck with the drug companies a few years ago.

Ultimately, what a modest proposal like this National Health Insurance paid for by most Americans would do is marginalize the private insurance industry. Private insurance is the only part of our current health care system that doesn’t actually contribute anything to the health or well-being of Americans. It only makes money from healthy Americans. And creates a lot of stress for those who have to deal with claims. But the thing private insurance does best is make contributions to politicians—on both sides of the aisle. The largest private insurance companies are currently spending over a million dollars of our monthly premiums every day for advertising and lobbying efforts against any kind of health care reform. So if this health reform bill currently being debated seems like a big, sloppy, confusing, watered-down mess, you can be assured of one thing: the insurance companies were working hard to do what they do best.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

MUSIC: Richard Thompson, Songsmith

This review originally ran in the October 2009 issue of Illinois Entertainer

Walking On A Wire (1968-2009)
(Shout! Factory)

Somewhere early on in his career Richard Thompson got tagged as one of the great guitarists, but I've never thought that was the real story. He is an exceptional guitarist no doubt, but he is absolutely a great songwriter. And it's great songs that last. There are 71 tracks—approximately a 6th of the songs Thompson has written over four decades—that make up the Walking On A Wire box set. Not many artists have this strong of a catalog to warrant such a large collection without a disc or more worth of "demos" and "outtakes" and the usual box set helper. Listen to these four discs from beginning to end and they tell a remarkable story of a young songwriter who grows into a master craftsman of the art form. And yes, quite handy with the ol' axe too.

Long time Thompson fans will certainly quibble with some of what's included—or not included—here, but they won't be able to argue with the representative selections made by Thompson, who apparently chose all the tracks. Every album he has released is represented here, beginning with the first Fairport Convention album through 2007's solo Sweet Warrior. The story this box set tells manifests itself in a variety of ways. For instance, on the Fairport tune "Sloth" (1970), you hear snippets of what would eventually become Thompson's trademark textured, spare blues guitar sound. "Roll Over Vaughan Williams" from his first solo album Starring As Henry the Human Fly (1972) introduces Thompson's matchless melding of more muscular rock 'n' roll with ancient Scottish balladry, a nifty trick unique to Thompson. You hear the influences of the disco era on he and then-wife Linda Thompson's 1978 "Don't Let A Thief Steal Into Your Heart" (remarkably, it works), and two decades later, he and old bassist friend Danny Thompson's 1997 high concept Industry album, which evokes the death of agrarian society in England and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, manages to sound contemporary, experimental, funny, and reverential all at the same time.

Two of Linda and Richard Thompson's albums—1974's I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and 1982's Shoot Out The Lights (you can guess which was made while their marriage was dissolving)—take up a lot of space here, 6 and 5 tracks respectively. As they should: both albums often appear on All Time Top Album lists and would probably be the better entry to Thompson's work than a four disc collection that spans his career. His 1994 Capitol disc Mirror Blue gets a lot of space as well, including "Beeswing," perhaps the most heart achingly romantic song Thompson has ever recorded. There are a few live gems included here: his cover of The Who's "A Legal Matter" and a fantastic 12-minute version of "Hard On Me" from 1999's Mock Tudor. The six-minute blistering guitar solo is evidence that this craftsman can also kick the shit out of a six-string.

Friday, September 25, 2009

CULTURE: You Want Fries With That?

"Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don't upset us."

Apparently very little upsets the King . . .

And apparently juvenile stuff like this still makes me laugh my ass off. So to speak.

Monday, September 21, 2009

POLITICS: I Want MY Country Back, Too

It has become a rallying cry of the tea baggers, the health care opponents, the 9-12 Glen Beck followers, and now I'm joining them in shouting loud and clear:

I want my country back.

I want my country back from what is euphemistically called the "low information voter." What are "low information voters"? Simple: stupid people. People with very little education. People severely lacking in logical analysis abilities. People who do not have the reasoning skills to conduct basic research and synthesize factual information. People who really can't distinguish between statements of fact and opinion.

Lots of Americans lack logical analysis abilities, but you really can't hold advanced thinking development against a seven year old. It's just not fair. The low information voters I'm talking about are over the age of 18 and have the right to vote. Drive through the southeast, stop at a roadside diner, and you're bound to have your hands full of this peculiarly American voter.

But that's not completely fair either: low information voters can be found in every hamlet and urban center in America. It's certainly not limited to any region of the country, though if you look at education level rankings across the country, the trend is clear: the American south, specifically the southeast, is our least educated population. Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Louisiana, Mississippi – people in these states reach a lower level of education than most others. Lower numbers of high school graduates, lower numbers of college degrees. And as we've learned over the decades, there's a direct relationship between level of education and how much money one makes.

So, as to be expected from simple logical analysis, many of these states (Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, etc) are the poorest states in America, the median incomes considerably lower than the median income for the vast American middle class. Ironically enough, these are some of the same states that receive the MOST aid from the federal government. Meaning, for every dollar in taxes someone from Mississippi pays to the horrible federal government, the state of Mississippi gets $1.84 in return in federal aid. Talk about redistribution of wealth! I live in Illinois. For every federal tax dollar I contribute, Illinois receives only .77 in return. Why should I pay .23 cents of every tax dollar to people in Mississippi? What have they ever done for me? Isn't this socialism? Or communism? Or fascism — it's gotta be some "-ism" because it makes me mad, right?

Why all this statistical juggling when I started out talking about wanting my country back?

It's about the rational over the irrational. It's about intelligent, thinking Americans (the vast majority of us) standing up to the minority of "low information" Americans who, as a direct result of their ignorance and their fear, are so easily manipulated by the mouthpieces and special interests of the corporatist far right (a really small minority). The vast majority of the birthers, tea baggers, and 9-12-ers we've listened to spewing their ignorance since Barack Obama was elected — especially in the past few months of the health care debate — are regrettably pawns in a corporate far right wing game. Guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity know this, as do alleged leaders like Senators Jim DeMint (of South Carolina – what a surprise!) and John Boehner of Ohio. These guys are happy to use the ignorance of these low information voters against them and their best interests. Real sweethearts.

Check out some of the people at this town hall in Arkansas this past summer. It's a real cross section of what we've been hearing from the far right in this debate. Made up sources, regurgitated "facts" from Sean Hannity, and unfounded fears presented as "facts." One lady, who appears at about the 1:10 second mark, is so upset that she kind of loses it, overcome by emotion and tears and fear for her (not our) country.

You kind of feel sorry for the woman because she's obviously been so riled up by lies and disinformation that she's reduced to fearful tears over some fabricated reality she's had described to her. Good thing for her the Muslim-communist state Obama is supposedly trying to impose on the U.S. isn't actually even real. Phew. Hope she hasn't spent too much time and effort and stress and tears worrying about it . . . Same for the over 65-ers in the town hall audience who apparently don't see the EXTREME irony that they reap the benefits of a government-run health care system – Medicare – yet there they are saying they don't want government-run health care.

My personal favorite was a clip of a 9-12 protester who said he wanted to stop Obama's socialist fascist communism from taking over the country. Think that brainiac has any idea what any of those terms means?

These movements have caught on like wild fire in the American southeast – no surprise there. There are lots of stupid people who are more easily manipulated by fear and disinformation. If you don't have the analytical abilities to delve into the complexities of a problem or an issue, you're probably more willing to just believe what you hear on TV or the radio. And in certain areas of the country – wow, again in the southeast – the only voices of political talk you're going to be able to hear are from the very puppet masters who make their living by manipulating and enraging listeners against their best interests. Why should a guy like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck take the time to explain the details of something as complex as health care when it's a lot easier to anger and scare old people and stupid voters with words like fascism or death panels or unfounded claims that Obama is taking away all our freedoms. One conversation doesn't make for great radio or high ratings; the other gets pissed off stupid people to call into radio shows and regurgitate what they've just heard from the host. Which is excellent for ratings and ad revenues.

Thomas Frank's excellent book What's the Matter With Kansas makes the point (among many) that the conservative movement in American has become expert at getting low information voters to vote against what's best for them. Conservatives use primarily fear and disinformation to control people this way. For example, since the mid-1970s, conservative and far right politicians have run against a woman's right to choose, promising their followers that they will get into office and stop abortions. No matter that America has been a solidly pro-choice country for the past few decades – these right wing manipulators rev up their base with fear and anger over choice and get elected. Of course, in the past 30 years, little to nothing has been done by these conservative leaders to actually outlaw abortions. They know they can't do it. But they also know it doesn't matter: stupid people will believe what they're told and as long as you keep those stupid people angry and ill-informed, they'll continue to support your candidacy.

That's what's happening now with the health care debate. Conservative and far right "leaders" are scaring the shit out of stupid people and ginning up their anger with disinformation and completely made up issues (like death panels). Throw in some fuel about fascism and Muslims and you can really get dumb people's panties in a bunch. See, it doesn't matter if any of it is factual or if it even has to do with health care because the ends justify the means. Think about how warped this has become: you've got American voters protesting in the streets to ensure that the health insurance industry in this country can continue to screw those very same voters out of premiums and coverage – all at a higher cost than the high costs we pay now. I mean really – you've got to be pretty fucking stupid to fight against your own best interests. But there they are, wrapped in American flags and shaking misspelled signs.

If health care was actually reformed in this country, those very same angry idiots would benefit greatly. Their kids would benefit greatly. Our entire economy would benefit greatly. But to the far right and apparently many conservative and and some so-called "liberal" politicians in Congress, that kind of "for the people" action is to be feared. What they really fear, of course, is losing the economic stranglehold they enjoy over this country. By making sure the government of the United Corporate States of America serves its corporatist masters at all costs, our political leaders assure their elected positions – to hell with policies that could benefit the American public.

Fighting against and breaking that corporate-government stranglehold is an idea that could instantly unite everyday Americans from all across the political spectrum. Only problem is, how do we get the really stupid people to understand it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

MUSIC: Costello's American Idolatry

This review originally ran in the September 2009 issue of Illinois Entertainer.

Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane
(Hear Music)
The prolific Elvis Costello is wearing his America on his sleeve. Has been for his past few non-jazz, non-operatic albums. Immediacy seems to be the objective, a sense that this is the one and only time the song is played, for all it's worth, by musicians who refuse to auto-anything and actually give a hot damn about capturing a great performance. It suits the historically fastidious Costello well.

"The Crooked Line" may be a surprisingly earnest declaration of love from Costello ("If you were my life's companion/As it seems you may turn out to be"), but you can trace a crooked line up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis and Nashville to get a sense of the ragtime bluegrass on display here (note to lazy reviewers: mandolin doesn't equal "country"). Producer T-Bone Burnett and a prestigious handful of roots musicians (Jerry Douglas, Dennis Crouch, and Jim Lauderdale adding spare but spot-on harmonies) bring a remarkable amount of texture to this completely drum-less acoustic collection. Evocative tracks like the shuffling and sober "Down Among The Wine and Spirits" ("Where a man gets what he merits"), the pulsing canter of "Hidden Shame" ("Must it be my secret for eternity?"), and the slightly obsessive vamp "My All Time Doll" ("You're all I adore") reveal a cast of characters trafficking in secrets profane and dreams unfulfilled. "Sulphur to Sugarcane" is jaunty and mischievous, Costello assuming the guise of a troubadour touring U.S. cities and boudoirs ("The women in Poughkeepsie/Take their clothes off when they're tipsy") with the swagger of road-hard gigolo.

Secret falls flat on a few draggers ("She Handed Me a Mirror," "How Deep is the Red"), songs written for a Hans Christian Andersen-inspired chamber opera in 2005. They're overwrought, and if there's one thing this album (and 2008's Momofuku, and 2004's The Delivery Man) prove is that urgent Elvis is more persuasive Elvis.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

POLITICS: WWJD about Health Care?

Among the contentious, TV-friendly images we've seen this past month from health care town halls across the country, a few have stood out the most to me — probably because of what's revealed by the protesters in the clips and probably because some of the clips have been in cable news rotation like Top 10 summer singles.

Perhaps you'll recall this chart-climber from August 11th during an Arlen Specter town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pennsylvania (the protestor has his crazy say from about :45 seconds into the clip through the 2 minute mark):

Really? This guy's threatening Specter and all his "damn cronies" with God's judgment because they're talking about trying to provide health care for all Americans?

O.K. So what would Jesus do?

Luke 9:1-3
[1] When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, [2] and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. [3] He told them: "Take nothing for the journey -- no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic."

WHAT? No extra tunic? Jesus apparently wasn't yet aware of all the benefits and care-giving bounty of the health insurance companies. He lived in backwoods Nazareth, a podunk burg in the Roman Empire. He'd have had to travel to somewhere like Ancient Yemen, "the Insurance Capital of Arabia," to learn how the sick should be treated in a free society. Jesus was a simple man, a homebody really, who chose to stay with his people and help the least of his brothers and sisters. It was the least he could do, right?

I've heard and read a number of citizens invoke Jesus' name in their diatribes against providing health care for all Americans, which continues to baffle me. It's sometimes invoked as having something to do with freedom and the Constitution, which makes no sense at all – Jesus had quite a few rules to impart to his flock, and he gave stern warnings that if they didn't do as he said, it was the eternal hot box for them. Not much of a Constitutional kinda guy, really.

But think about it: if Jesus did come back to earth, do you really think he'd be strapping a gun to his thigh and fighting for the rights of insurance companies to jack up premiums, deny patients' coverage, and make obscene profits at the expense of the sick and diseased?

Thursday, August 13, 2009


My friend RJ sent this along. Elvis Costello tipped him to it.

Bing Crosby, Diana Ross & The Supremes, and Jose Feliciano zipping through a medley of '60s pop hits. What more could one ask for in old school stardom cheese? You really do have to see this to believe it. I'll wait . . .

How many times did you have to lift your chin off your desk?

This clip is like a massive car wreck. At the same time you're horrified by the carnage, you keep staring because it's a fascinating human event. This clip is from 1968. Revolution in the air, summer of love, Vietnam, the women's rights movement, civil rights -- America society in 1968 was going through elemental changes (for good or bad) that would have decades-long effects. Ross & The Supremes and Feliciano represented a new world of civil rights and race relations in the U.S., though they were by no means radicals. They were the culture-approved "faces" of minority pride, meaning they didn't scare white people and they seemed, "gosh, kinda just like us white people."

So what is Bing Crosby in this? Crosby's time and culture had passed -- and was moving farther and farther into the rear view. Sure, he still had drawing power on television, which in 1968 was but a mere teenager, but his era and style of music had all but disappeared. The days of the crooner were dimming. This was a time for singer-songwriters expressing truths political and personal. There were still crooners/singers putting out great music, but many of them were relegated to occasional Top 40 slots -- good money, minimum cred, yet frequent access to the old school TV avenues.

Let's be clear: even at 65, Crosby really did have great pipes. In this clip, however, I think we're watching an old guard entertainer trying to gain a little hip cache with young folks, baby boomers who were not only brought up on guys like Crosby but were now the largest chunk of the population, and at the same time the young hit makers try to get a little mainstream STARDOM cache from one of the old guard. Look at the setting: TV studio with an orchestra in the background (old guard), the singers "casually" sitting on stools singing contemporary hits by The Beatles, Motown, Bakersfield country (new guard).

It's such a weird amalgam of the state of the music industry and the state of American culture in 1968 that the quality of the performance seems almost immaterial. They all have superlative voices, but really, how cheesy can you get? And maybe that's what sticks out most about this clip: it's like a 1950s TV performance by five artists who don't believe for a minute that what they're doing is heartfelt. They know it's forced, they know that we the audience knows its forced, but it's what STARS do, right? (At least it's what they did in the past.) The performance is a recreation of a star system era long gone in the era that helped demolish it.

Nice hat on Bing, though, eh?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

MEDIA: An Alter-nate View

Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter reveals his Chicago native roots in "What's Not to Like?," an excellent column on the health care debate. Alter is a cancer survivor and he uses his own experience with the health care industry as a stepping off point for his commentary.

The reason I say Alter reveals his Chicago native roots is because "What's Not to Like?" recalls the spirit of Mike Royko, one of the city's most heralded newspaper columnists. Alter was born in 1957, and any aspiring journalist growing up here worth his or her salt would've been a regular reader of Royko's columns. One of the keys to Royko's unique style was his ability to cut through the noise surrounding an issue or event or person in the news spotlight and pinpoint clearly the nub of the situation. Of course, another key to Royko's style was his ability to use techniques like sarcasm and parody to vicious effect. He was usually a real straight shooter (and a remarkably tight writer), but when the situation required it, Royko could be a adept and subtle satirist.

I grew up reading Royko and I used to cut out his columns and put them on my walls or save them in a folder just so I could reread and study them. Royko is one of the reasons I wanted to be a newspaper writer at one point. And as a Royko fan, one of the greatest compliments I ever received when I was writing the original print "Roadkill" column through the '90s for the Chicago-based entertainment magazine Illinois Entertainer was when a record store owner I knew told me one of my columns reminded him of something Royko would do. The column was about Pat Buchanan and his race-baiting presidential run in 1992 or '96. If I recall correctly, I may have even used Royko as a character in the satire—so maybe that record store owner had a little help in making the connection. But it sure made me feel good whenever I went into that record store and saw that column (amid others—this guy was a "Roadkill" fan) taped up on the store wall.

Enjoy Alter's column. Pretty sure Royko would've . . .

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

CULTURE: Birthers Bringing Back The Retard

We've all been trained over the past couple of politically correct decades to politely refrain from using the word "retarded" to describe someone (or even some event). Over time, the word "retarded"—which was used many decades ago as a euphemism for less desirable adjectives—took on a very negative connotation. It became a way to insult a non-developmentally challenged person: "What are you—some kind of retard?" It's a pretty severe indictment of a person's mental capabilities, reserved for the dumbest, most idiotic kind of behavior or thinking.

Enter the "birthers." You know—the people who still believe that President Obama isn't a natural-born U.S. citizen. The people who think his state-issued certificate of birth is somehow a forgery and there's a 48-year worldwide conspiracy in play to protect "the truth" about his birthplace. (And from the protest signage shown, people who seem to believe a cotton cloth is a nationality.)

That's why I'm bringing back retard.

Misguided is too kind of a word to describe the birthers. Mistaken and foolish are certainly true, but the birthers really go far beyond such benevolent terms. This is an active, self-inflicted brand of stupidity.

Thus, retards.

Here's how the dictionary defines retard: a person who is stupid or obtuse; slow or limited in intellectual development.

Per the above definition, I would feel like a complete asshole calling these birthers retards if they were, in fact, a group of "differently-abled" citizens who were simply incapable of understanding what facts are or what our Constitution requires to be president. But that is not the case. The birthers are self-made retards, proudly wrapping themselves in a flag of retardation sewn by their own (apparently very idle) hands.

What the persistence of the birther movement shows us is that some people, no matter the facts or evidence, no matter the repeated reinforcement of the facts or evidence, no matter the ease with which these very same people can verify the facts or evidence themselves, some people will willfully choose ignorance and adopt aggressive stupidity as a preferred mental state. does a pretty good job of covering what they learned when actually handling the state seal stamped birth certificate:

That well-established conspiracy-fomenting rag USA Today covered the repeat verification of Obama's birth just last week by Hawaii state officials and the state's Republican Governor Linda Lingle:

Of course, during the last presidential election, both the Hillary Clinton and John McCain camps pursued this citizenship question vigorously. What better way to get rid of Obama than on a technicality? Both campaigns came to the same conclusion: dead end. Obama's a natural born citizen. But this Clinton-McCain factual conclusion is no reason for the birther retards to stop willfully . . . retarding themselves.

Hey, you know when you’re REALLY retarded? When even Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter think you're an idiot. Fox News' O'Reilly is a loud mouthed jackass who has never let the facts get in the way of whatever loud mouthed jackassy thing he rants about. But even O'Reilly cops to the fact of Obama's citizenship and thinks the birthers are nuts. And Fox News frequent guest harpy Coulter, always up for some Rube Goldberg-like labyrinth of a conspiracy theory, has called the birthers "cranks" and the Obama birth certificate a non-issue.

Just this week, the birthers finally came up with what the claim is proof that Obama wasn't born in the U.S. They've magically produced Obama's Kenyan birth certificate. But, of course, it's a fake. And a poorly executed fake at that. (Turns out it's actually a form from Australia.) Check out some of the errors the forgers made. Talk about retarded:

What's a little troubling about these birthers is that their retardation seems to be contagious, at least to some people you might not necessarily suspect. Like CNN's Lou Dobbs. Sure, he's a one-note song about immigration, but did he ever really seem retarded?

And the retardation virus appears to have hit Republican Florida Congressman Bill Posey who introduced House Bill 1503 which would require all presidential candidates to submit birth certificates and "such other documentation as may be necessary" to prove they are U.S. citizens. A handful of fellow Republicans have signed on to this bill, which the birthers all love, but it seems . . . wait a second. Republican Congressmen? Some from Florida? Retards? Never mind . . .

It has been suggested by some thoughtful commentators that the entire birther movement and its seeming inability to get beyond the fact the Barack Obama was overwhelming elected President is a form of cultural denial. It's an attempt to delegitimize Obama's clear, fair election by saying he somehow isn't one of us, that he somehow won by underhanded means, or that he and the cabal of the voting majority somehow tricked the minority voting block of "real Americans." The United States is changing culturally, ethnically, and politically—has been for the past couple of decades—and an albeit small but vocal percentage of citizens doesn't like it, feels like they are losing their grip on the country they have controlled for so long, thus they are lashing out in this weird, retarded way. I think there may be some truth in this.

Other equally thoughtful commentators have suggested that this birther movement is thinly veiled racism. Because in 2009 the expression of unadulterated racism is, for the most part, offensive to the vast majority of Americans, this birther thing is a way to channel sheer racial hatred into something more acceptable. A movement that called for getting rid of the n***er in the White House would be squashed immediately by even the mildly prejudiced of Americans. But suggesting that Obama is somehow not legitimate gets the idea across in a more palatable way. There may be some truth to this, too, but I have yet to meet and get to know any birthers personally, so I can't fairly ascribe the damaging term "racist" to the birthers as a whole.

But I do know a retard when I see one—or hundreds of them. Don't really have to get to know them or their hearts to understand that when you willfully refuse to acknowledge facts, steadfastly act stupid in the face of facts, or impede your own intellectual development for some warped political purpose, then jack, you ain't nuthin' but a retard.

The short bus will be arriving soon to take you to a Health Care town hall in Columbus, Ohio . . .

Friday, July 24, 2009

HOMEFRONT: One-Sided Towel

I've got a one-sided towel.

Can you believe it?

Usually, when one purchases a towel—hand, bathing, beach, or otherwise—one expects both sides to work. It's not even a consideration in the purchase. Size, color, style, nap—these are the things we are concerned with when purchasing the normally reliable household item.

But this is a bum bath towel. Only one side—the grey side shown in the photo—behaves in a properly towel-like manner. The offending side, the blue with grey stripe side, behaves like Fred Biletnikoff's stick-um towel. You try to dry your arm, it's like Velcro. Stuck. It seems once that side touches human skin, it slams the brakes on.

Ah, you say, just flip the towel vertically and the Velcro-effect will disappear. Not so. (And what do you think I am, an idiot?) With the towel in that direction, it's like trying to dry yourself off with wax paper. Slick as ice. Falls to your feet if your not careful. It's absorbency negative.

How the hell did this faulty product ever reach the store shelves? Aren't towels rigorously tested? And where was the inspector with the little paper number to assure that yes, indeed, both sides of this particular towel are in good working order? "Inspected by nobody," obviously.

I guess I should be happy, of course, that one side of the towel is in proper working order. Lord knows there are plenty of people out there who have towels with both sides broken, or no towel at all. I'll somehow adapt I'm sure. But when something like this happens, where one of the fundamental assumptions we make about the world—you know, gravity, taxes, death, two-sided towels—is suddenly contradicted, right in your own shower, it forces one to do a little reassessing. Not only reassessing the whole bath towel paradigm, but reassessing the very nature of trust.

Now I'm afraid to even open the new package of kitchen sponges I bought this morning . . .

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

HOMEFRONT: Michael Lewis' Unadulterated Truth

This Fathers Day I received a copy of the new Michael Lewis book Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood (Norton). Within a few pages of starting the book, I knew I was going to like it. Lewis writes: "the main reason I kept writing things down [is] this persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt." I think any father who is honest about his emotions knows exactly what Lewis is talking about.

Lewis, the author Liar's Poker and Moneyball, has been primarily a financial writer for the past 20 years. This autobiographical new book on being a father (thrice over) is based on journal entries Lewis made after the births of each of his children. Throughout the anecdotes and observations he presents, Lewis struggles—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—with this central dichotomy of emotions: how he thinks he should feel, presumably based on some cultural norm or some cultural notion of an ideal father, and how he actually feels as a father, be it angry, annoyed, frustrated, bemused, indifferent, maybe even homicidal. As Lewis suggests, we're told—by who? nobody knows—that we should feel a wide variety of levels of joy in fatherhood, yet those joyful moments, in real life, can sometimes be too far and in between.

I have two sons, 10 and 6 years old, and I can honestly say I have never loved any two people in the way and with the complete dedication that I love them. But they drive me fuckin' NUTS half the time. Maybe even 53% of the time. It appears to be their job, to drive their parents crazy, and they're really quite good at it. Like Lewis, I sometimes find my sons' antics absolutely hysterical, or simply amusing, or a bit tedious, or really, really stupid, or annoying as hell. And like Lewis, when my reaction to the kids' behavior is of the more negative brand, that's how I react—negatively. The cultural ideal of how a "good" father "should" react often rears its head in these instances: I should be more tolerant, I should celebrate their ingenuity and natural curiosity, I should revel in their joyous being!


I should react the way I react. Sometimes it's us parents against them kids, and as any student of war knows, you never expose to your opponent a soft opening or chink in the armor. It is said that Sun Tzu, the 6th century Chinese author of The Art of War, slept with one eye always trained on his children, even the infants. He knew better than to leave an opening—I mean, you don't think The Art of War was strictly intended for military strategy, do you?

While reading Lewis' book, I found myself hyper-aware of these conflicting fatherly emotions. In a drugstore the other day, my youngest son, when told for the 50th time that no, I wasn't going to buy him a toy, told me that it "really pisses me off when you say no, dad." I was surprised to hear such an adult phrase come out of his mouth. I almost cracked up—partly because it was so funny, and partly because, as someone who works with language both as work and meaningful endeavor, I find it hard to get to worked up about "bad" words and "good" words (they're all good in my mind) and this situation seemed to demand I manufacture some jive about inappropriate language. So I split the difference: I began my admonition sternly and with parental disapproval, but quickly softened it because I knew he probably didn't understand how weird it would sound to people other than his dad. I quickly moved to the next aisle before he could ask me why "piss me off" wasn't such a good thing to say for a 6 year old.

My older son presents far more complex issues, thus far more complex paternal feelings and emotions. He is by nature a gentle soul, and though he's not above an occasional big brother cheap shot if he's annoyed by his younger sibling (like an elbow to the back of his little brother's head as he walks casually by), he's a very self-contained and considerate 10 year old boy. Bit of a space cadet at times, but he's well-liked by his friends and appears to be rather popular among the 4th grade boys and girls.

As a dad, one of the things I worry about with my older son is that he too willingly acquiesces to other people's wishes—even when he really doesn't want to do something or go somewhere or whatever the case may be. Not to MY wishes, of course—if he doesn't want to do something I'm suggesting (like, say, clean up all the shit he's dumped out of his overstuffed backpack on the kitchen floor), his kid deafness kicks in or he gives me the 10 year old "O.K.," which essentially translates as "Screw you buddy—I'll pick up that stuff after request #3 and no sooner."

But I do worry about this easy acquiescence in all non-home/parent matters. For example, we recently installed a portable basketball hoop in our driveway, and as I struggled in the hot son to get the infernal thing put together, both my sons dribbling basketballs dangerously close to my head, the annoying neighbor kid who seems to appear magically as soon as my kids step outside to play came running up to us, wanting to shoot some hoops. "Sure," I said, all the blood vessels in my head thumping in time as I struggled with a recalcitrant support beam, "but let the boys shoot a bit first—it's their hoop." My six year old, apparently more naturally territorial than his older brother, echoed this stipulation: "Yeah," he said, "it's our net so let us play first."

The portable hoop in place, I tugged on it a few times to make sure it was secure, and dropped the green flag. "Shoot away, boys." My six year old whipped a ball so close to my head—and so far from the bottom of the net—that I nearly hit the deck to avoid my glasses slamming directly into my eye sockets. The annoying neighbor kid turned to my 10 year old and said, "Here, pass me the ball." And my son did. Without hesitation. The neighbor kid started tossing the basketball up at the hoop, grabbing his own rebounds and shooting from all over the driveway. My 10 year old—who played basketball on his 4th grade team—stood by watching, obviously wanting to take some shots. Even my six year old seemed baffled: "Hey," he said to the annoying neighbor kid, "give my brother the ball—it's our hoop." (I know it's 6 year old possessiveness, but I was so proud of the little guy for standing up for his older brother.) The annoying neighbor kid went on shooting. Now I was starting to get annoyed, both at the annoying neighbor kid and at my 10 year old—but more at my son to be honest. I asked him, " Did you want to try out the new hoop?" "Yeah," he said. "So why don't you ask for your ball back so you can take some shots?" A shrug. "O.K.," he said. But he made no effort to ask the annoying neighbor kid for the ball.

This happened recently, while I was reading Michael Lewis' book, and I must say it's been stuck in my craw ever since. Why was I getting progressively annoyed at my 10 year old that he wouldn't do anything to rectify the situation? That he wouldn't stand up for what he wanted? I suppose I should've ignored it and let the three kids work it out among themselves. You know, let boys be boys, that kind of thing. The kind of thing the distant "should" fathers Lewis recalls in his book might do. But it's my 10 year old son, and I worry quite a bit about this acquiescent behavior pattern. Is it simple fatherly protectiveness? Possibly. Could it be that I want my boys to stand up for themselves and learn not to be easily pushed around by other people? I'm sure that's part of it. And is that far too judgmental of a father about his own child? I'm guessing some would say yes. Yet, this is the very core of Lewis' book and, I believe, his honest assessment of fatherhood: it's complicated, it's funny, it's demanding, it's rewarding, but it's ultimately as much (or more) work than bliss, and that anyone who tells you differently is either yanking your chain or really isn't all that involved in his children's lives.

Postlude: Yesterday, I watched a three or four year old boy gripping a medium-sized tree branch and swinging for the fences at a row of flowers in one of the public parks near my house. I looked around to see if there was an adult attached to this wee deviant. Yes, there was. A dad. Sitting on a park bench, fiddling with his iPhone and glancing up every few seconds to check on his son or smile broadly and bark half-assed encouragement every time the boy said "Look daddy." I watched this duo for a minute or two, and the kid really figured out how to actually decapitate the flowers with consistency. As I thought to myself that I should probably go over and say something to the guy about letting his kid destroy someone's dedicated gardening, I saw a woman holding an infant making a beeline toward the boy and his father. Whatever she said got the dad's attention. He looked up from his iPhone at the woman, looked at his son knocking off flowers like Mickey Mantle, and smiled a big fatherly smile. I could barely hear him saying something like "he sure does love baseball" or something similarly asinine. He made no immediate move to get up from the park bench.

Man I wanted to punch that smiley asshole.

Monday, July 20, 2009

MUSIC: A Less Powerful Jesus Lizard

In the spring of 1997, I saw what I consider to be the best rock show I've seen in my life—and that's thousands of and thousands of shows. Twelve years later, that accolade still stands.

It was The Jesus Lizard at the Metro in Chicago. The band had been touring for quite awhile in support of their stellar 1996 album Shot (Capitol Records). I'd seen the band the previous year at The Vic Theatre in Chicago (an amazing show in its own right), as well as a dozen other times over the years, every performance exactly that—a performance. But something happened at that Metro show that every regular (addicted?) concertgoer hopes for: synergy.

The Jesus Lizard, as a band and as individual players, the crowd, as mass participants and individual energy sources, and the venue—sound mix and volume, lighting, atmosphere—all these elements converged at the same time for the same purpose with peak concert experience results. Singer David Yow was in great form, egging on the crowd and seemingly the band, stage diving and being carried to the back of the venue, never missing a line or a growl. He was like an exposed ball of muscle and nerve, the sheer energy pouring into the venue like an adrenalin shot directly into the heart. The band was exceptionally tight—you could clearly hear the nanoseconds of silent space between notes and chord shifts. They sounded like a hurricane—overpowering, devastating, unrelenting. That may be what I remember most about the show: the force of the music, every note, pounding against my skeleton, stirring my marrow. As a music journalist covering the show, I tried my best to maintain some semblance of analytical distance. But I failed. Miserably. It was joyous.

I saw the newly reformed Jesus Lizard at Pitchfork last Friday (7/17). Been looking forward to the show since it was announced. All the elements seemed in place: the crowd of accolytes were obviously stoked, the venue was comfortable and well designed (Pitchfork really does a great job in creating a fan-friendly event), and it was apparent from the opening song that The Jesus Lizard had come to play. Their performance was first-rate: Yow kept the audience engaged, some of that trademark energy washing over at least some of the crowd nearest the stage, and Denison, Sims, and McNeilly were remarkably tight for a band that hadn't been touring constantly for a few months. As a fan, I enjoyed the hell out of the performance. But something was missing.

I couldn't feel the music.

It simply wasn't loud enough.

About five minutes into The Jesus Lizards' set, I realized the unfortunate limitation: at an outdoor venue, where the sound is quickly dispersed, I wasn't going to be able to feel the music unless I stood within feet of one of the speakers. And I wasn't interested in running the sweaty, shirtless human grease chute to attempt speaker proximity.

The good news is that The Jesus Lizard will be back in Chicago, at Metro, for a couple of shows at the end of November. Inside, where the sound and energy that is a Jesus Lizard show will be contained and, as always, a little dangerous.

POLITICS: The Oppressed White Man

It's a damn shame what they did to the white man.

After centuries of nurturing men and women of all ethnicities, welcoming with open-arms the wide mosaic of skin colors and accents that have come to our shores, and putting the needs and desires of others before theirs, the poor, maltreated white man is, inexplicably, being oppressed once again by the vindictive, vicious minority rulers of our great country.

We watched again this week this deplorable humiliation when Supreme Court nominee Queen – nay, Czarina! – Sonia Sotomayor brow-beat and humiliated half a dozen white public servants when they attempted, graciously, honorably, and with utter deference to Sotomayor, to ask her a few modest questions about a couple of things she has said in speeches over the course of her career. These poor downtrodden Senators didn't dare venture into asking Judge/Supreme Latina Sotomayer about the actual legal cases she has decided over the past 17 years on the bench — the Senators didn't dare, for fear of the judge's obvious wrath and disdain. (And after all white men had done for her throughout her life — the sheer ingratitude!)

Even Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, known for his life-long dedication to helping minority men advance their professional careers (Sessions feels so strongly about this that he sometimes refers to such men as his own "boy") and for his dogged attempts to eradicate the vermin strain of white supremicists known as the Pot-Smoking Ku Klux Klan, could only muster the courage to ask Sotomayor two questions for fear of what horrible fate might befall him before such a legal bully. Sessions tried heroically, asking the same questions over and over again and again, but to no avail: Sotommayor would only condescend to make obviously insincere apologies, speaking slowly and deliberately as if she thought Sessions (and other Senators) might not understand the words she spoke. Oh why must white men of good heart and true cause be so publically belittled!

Senator after Senator, steering clear of the monstrous Sotomayor's actual legal decisions — god knows what she might have done had they concentrated on those! — fell victim to her superior Latina demeanor and status. Because these brave, brave white men have been able to completely sublimate their own backgrounds and experiences and act, time and time again, only in the best interest of the most oppressed of our American brothers and sisters, this judicial hearing proved once again that despite all of their efforts, despite their decades and centuries of selflessness and dedication to the common good, white men simply cannot get ahead in America. The minority ruling class in this country simply will not allow white men a place at the table — not even a fair chance at succeeding in this great country.

Maybe what we need today, after all these years, is some kind of Affirmative Action for white men. But good luck getting something like that past a Supreme Court that will now have TWO women, an African American man, and only six white men.

Monday, July 13, 2009

POLITICS: John McCain Is Batshit Crazy

Just watched John McCain today on "Meet The Press."

What he says about Sarah Palin's cut-and-run as Governor strategy and her future in the Republican party is simply . . . crazy talk.

Watching this clip may remind you of two important facts:
1) ah yes—that's why American didn't elect this man president
2) OH MY GOD! What if we had elected him as president?

I'm guessing this clip will take a bit of heat of Ms. Palin for a day or two. It's one thing for the former Miss AlasKA to act all batshit crazy on her own account, but having a would-be president like McCain follow with an exceptionally nutty performance like this . . . well, see numbers 1) and 2) above . . .

POLITICS: Sarah Palin Is Batshit Crazy

So much of the punditry surrounding Sarah Palin's recent announcement that she is cutting and running from her elected job as Alaska's Governor has been painful to watch and listen to because it seems most everyone, regardless of news outlet or political leanings, is talking around the most obvious fact: Sarah Palin is batshit crazy. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan had some choice critical words for Ms. Palin in a recent Wall Street Journal column, but even she stops short of stating it plainly: Palin is batshit crazy.

Listening to her resignation "speech" last week was both embarrassing and kind of depressing. I've heard more coherent ramblings from people well into day two of a sleepless coke jag. What the hell was she talking about? She starts out by listing all the mavericky accomplishments of her 2-plus years in office, of which she is very proud—so proud that she' going to quit. The bulk of the speech is rambling, illogical, frenetic at times, and completely non-sensical at other times. Palin said it's the quitters way to "milk it," so she's going to quit . . . which makes her a non-milk-er? Or just a plain ol' quitter? And is that what she means by no more "politics as usual"? Crazy people politics?

Because Palin the maverick is the FIRST and ONLY person to have been dragged through the media coals, she dollops out plenty of blame on the unfair treatment she has received from the press since being tapped by John McCain for his ill-fated presidential bid last year. Didn't Palin tell us last year that she found Hillary Clinton's whining about the media treatment she'd been receiving regrettable? Call me crazy, but I believe Ms. Clinton and our current President (called a terrorist sympathizer, socialist, Muslim, non-U.S. citizen) came under some pretty intense media scrutiny throughout the 2008 campaign. Only they didn't quit—or milk it.

When Palin debuted on the national stage last August, she gave the Republican ticket quite a bounce in the polls. She benefited greatly from the typical media feeding frenzy when someone first breaks onto the national scene. But the media is programmed to do what it does—both positive and negative—and it seems when Palin was treated no longer like a newcomer curio, and the media began to dig into the substance on Sarah Palin, she didn't care much for the scrutiny. And let's be honest: she didn't help her cause in the least. Once she was allowed to speak to the press directly, she sounded unqualified, incapable, and downright juvenile at times. It didn't take long for the American public to realize that, no matter her folksy charm and rough-hewn AlasKA (her pronunciation) style, Sarah Palin simply was not ready to be a 72-year old heartbeat away from the Presidency.

Since the election of 2008, Palin has continued to reveal her lack of competence and, frankly, her exceptionally thin political skin. The pundits on the Left take exceeding joy in the weird stuff she says and does, and the true believers on the Right try to justify her flaky behavior and convince themselves that there's real substance and potential behind those frosted glasses (note from Independent America: there's no potential. Really. Don't kid yourselves). And with this recent resignation, Palin has removed the one solid building block on which she could, possibly, maybe (but probably not), build a new political future for herself. Hard to run on being a 2/3rds-term governor of a state with barely 685 thousand people. Come to think of it, President Obama, who was demeaned for being a first term Senator running for the highest office in the land, served four of his six-year term. That's also 2/3rds of his term, but it's almost double the years Palin served as Governor, and let's face it: Obama was elected Senator in 2004 in the 5th largest state in America with 3.5 million votes, which is about 30 times more than the mere 114,000 people that voted for Palin in 2006.

The line in Palin's resignation ramble that I think most reveals her unbalanced mental state is this: "Some say things changed for me on August 29th last year—the day John McCain tapped me to be his running-mate. I say others changed."

Others changed? Like who? The rest of world?

I think this reveals how completely insulated Sarah Palin is within the parochial mind of Sarah Palin. In one day last August, she went from being the Governor of the third smallest state by population to the unforgiving klieg-light stage of national politics. Palin may not have changed, but neither did the national spotlight—it is an unrelenting, viciously scrutinizing microscope that is not for the weak, the squeamish, nor the quitters. If Palin's folksy incompetence didn't play on the national stage, it's not because the stage changed—it's because Palin wasn't, and thus far isn't, a credible player on that stage. For her to suggest that her problems are somehow the result of everyone else in the world "changing" suggests a person who is either A) so narcissistic that she is unable to perceive who she actually is in relation to the rest of the world; B) so paranoid that she must suffer from a severe persecution complex; or C) is batshit crazy.

I know the Palin apologists are only too happy to point the finger at the evil media and horrible partisan politics for Palin's embarrassing public unraveling, but consider the sources: Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Laura Ingram—these are the same numskulls who touted her as the future of the Republican party and "more experienced than Barack Obama" during last year's election. And Bill Kristol, Palin's own Henry Higgins, seems to think this a bold, wily political move on Palin's part. (Kristol is certifiable at this point. The same guy who pushed Palin as a VP candidate is also the same guy who claimed the Iraq war was going to be short, very inexpensive, and that the Iraqi people would greet America as liberators. Why does any respectable news outlet even give this man airtime or copy space anymore?) Crow as they all might, the American public weighed in on Sarah Palin eight months ago. And as every proud citizen of this country knows, America doesn't really care much for quitters. Especially crazy ones.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

MEDIA: My Sean Hannity Obsession

I confess: I'm obsessed with Sean Hannity.

Not a stalker kind of obsession. Nor a weird-fan-with-pictures-all-over-my-bedroom kind of obsession.

I'm rhetorically obsessed with Hannity.

"Great American" Hannity is Fox News' poster boy: he seems so earnest, like he's really concerned about the little guys' (and gals!) plight, and he knows how to expertly use the thinnest strand of fact to buffalo his viewers and listeners into thinking he's telling them "the truth." In fact, he's the perfect embodiment of the whole Fox News philosophy. Forget O'Reilly (jackass), forget Glenn Beck (infantile weirdo), forget that totally unhinged Fox morning "Friend" Steve Doocy (Douche-y?)—when it comes to pure disingenuousness and propagating the government victim mentality, Sean Hannity's your man.

What I'm obsessed with is the near perfection of Hannity's jive shucking. He's like a machine: input any given topic and he'll explain to you, in seemingly rational, seemingly fact-based rhetoric, why the problem is the fault of liberalism and its adherents and why the only solution is the one he's offering—which usually involves cutting taxes, removing all government regulation or oversight, and trusting the conservative oligarchy to do what's best for themselves—er, I mean, what's best for the common good. Oh yeah—and mention Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of conservatism. Mention Reagan a lot.

Take, for example, something like global warming. It's a sitting duck for Hannity:
  1. there's no real evidence for global warming (look how cold it has been this spring!)
  2. there are thousands of scientists who have proved global warming is a hoax
  3. cap and trade and other such governmental regulations are simply a way for liberals like Al Gore to heap thousands of dollars of new taxes on American families ("the highest tax increase in U.S. history!") and keep the American economy from thriving
  4. our air and water are cleaner than they have ever been in the past 100 years
  5. countries like China that pollute our planet 100 times more than the U.S. (made-up-on-the-spot "fact") aren't curtailing their greenhouse gasses, so why should we? To let liberals like Al Gore . . . (see #3)
  6. it's a false crisis liberals are trying to use reduce the number of jobs in America so everyone has to be dependent on government welfare programs in order to live, which is the ultimate goal of the liberal philosophy—which has now become radical socialism.
And then Hannity takes a breath and moves onto items number 7 through 14. I mean, how the hell does he do it all in one breath?

The above Hannity-style screed is typical of the "fact"-based rhetoric he espouses regularly on his radio and TV shows. Let's take a look at his "facts" one by one:
  1. this is the kind of anecdotal "evidence" you hear from the jackass sitting next to you on the train when we get a 40-degree day in June. "Where's that global warming when we need it, huh?" Usually followed by chuckling and great self-amusement by said jackass. The verifiably erratic weather we've experienced over the past few decades might provide a little more valid evidence of our climate being out of whack. And that freaky 70-degree weather we've been getting in the dead of winter? According to Hannity, it's perfectly normal weather fluctuation that we've had on our planet since it was created (as if he'd know, right?).
  2. Hannity's right—there are thousands of scientists who discount global warming. Just like there were thousands of scientists who believed the earth was flat long after the actual science proved it not so. But cut away the global warming denying scientists that are paid representatives of energy and oil companies (who somehow continue to show up as "experts" on Fox News programs), and Hannity's still right—there are thousands of scientists who disagree. What he doesn't tell you is that there are HUNDREDS of thousands scientists who have done the hard science over the past few decades to identify the issues and causes of global warming. Admitting honestly that a small percentage (2%? 3%? maybe 5%?) of scientists consider global warming a hoax simply isn't effective support for the jive Hannity's shucking.
  3. this is where Hannity and his ilk begin to get shrill. Even a little batty. As we've seen from the initial CBO reports as well as independent analysis of a cap and trade system, the cost to American households would probably range in the thousands of dollars—over a 10-year period. (Four grand over ten years comes to just under 2 cents a day—an outrageous tax on American families, no?) But Hannity prefers to just use the first part of that CBO finding, the thousands of dollars part, inferring it's thousands of dollars per year. What he also doesn't mention is that we already have cap and trade systems for other contaminants like sulfur dioxide, which has worked effectively in reducing acid rain. Of course, Hannity throws in the part about Al Gore wanting to keep the American economy from thriving because it's red meat to the brainiacs who take Hannity at his word. He offers no evidence because, really, why would he need to—makes perfect sense that a former Vice President wants the American economy to fail, right?
  4. Hannity's once again a little bit right: our air and water has been cleaned up greatly in the past 30 years—because of the efforts of those pesky tree-hugging environmentalists who thought it was a bad sign that the Lake Erie tributary Cuyahoga River caught on fire because of the pollutants dumped into the water for so many decades. Even Congress took notice, and in 1972 that left-wing radical environmentalist President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, which has helped restore Lake Erie to a healthy state, as well as protecting all of our waterways. Same with the Clean Air Acts passed over the past thirty years. Of course, Hannity doesn't mention any of this—that citizens pressuring Congress eventually resulted in laws to help clean up our air and water. Really hard to figure this Hannity rhetorical flourish because, according to Hannity, the environmentalists are supposed to be our enemy, so who are the "Great Americans" who helped clean up our air and water? I guess he'd like you to believe that it all happened by earth's own processes. Or that the benevolent industrial complex in the U.S. took it upon themselves to stop polluting.
  5. now there's a wise argument: why should we do things that are really good for our natural resources and the earth's atmosphere when those other countries aren't doing anything? Hannity's got a point, right? Shouldn't we too be allowed to crap all over our own precious resources? I thought we learned our lessons with the fiery Cuyahoga River, the nearly dead Lake Erie, Love Canal, acid rain, etc. Who are what is Hannity trying to protect here—the quality of life in the United States? Or the rights of industry to (again) despoil our air and water? Could it be he's protecting the rights of the Chinese to crap all over their natural resources so we here in the U.S can still buy cheap Made In China goods at Wal-Mart? Oh yeah: the "fact" about China creating 100 times more greenhouse gases than the U.S.? According to the U.S. Energy Administration, China surpassed the U.S. somewhere around 2006, and China's emissions may be as much as 20% higher by 2012. Not a positive development for the planet by any means, but again, Hannity doesn't trouble himself with actual facts . . .
  6. finally, in case he missed anything, or still left any doubt in one of his more savvy listeners, Hannity tosses out the pure batshit crazy stuff. There's nothing factual in it whatsoever. It's Hannity's summation, based on all of his "research" and gut-instinct knowledge, of his opposition's philosophy and goals. It's usually quite canned, as he repeats it multiple times during every broadcast: "highest tax increase in U.S. history," "the radical Obama supports the Marxist takeover of America," "this Socialist, unilaterally disarming administration." Marxist, Socialist (two completely different philosophies)—it really doesn't matter to Hannity. May as well toss Fascist in there as well. When the speaker doesn't know what these ideas actually mean, you can sure bet the brain trust that follows him doesn't either.

So why am I obsessed with Sean Hannity? Why am I obsessed with such a disingenuous, fact-manipulating, victim-facilitating hack for any and all conservative ideas and politicians?

Because Sean Hannity is a rhetorical Terminator.

He's like a perfectly maintained machine that is designed to perform one function with extreme speed and unwavering bias. Ever meet someone who is a master of the Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon game? Give them a name and within seconds they can begin to make the links to the actor. Give Hannity any topic and he can explain to you, with faulty facts and quarter-truths and absolute certainty, why liberals are to blame. Teenage pregnancy? Because the radical left insists on teaching kids sex education in the schools instead of abstinence and because liberals have been on a crusade over the past 40 years to destroy the American family. Makes perfect sense, right? (This is not a direct quote—but it sure could be.) The failed war in Iraq? Because the radical, treasonous left undermined our great leader President Bush at every turn and allowed evil actors like Iran and Syria to fund the terrorists and kill American soldiers. Isn't that the way you remember the past eight years? Hell, you could even call Hannity's show and gripe about the poor quality of sneakers these days and he would explain to you why the radical left in this country has forced shoe companies to move their production facilities to third world countries to avoid the extreme regulations and prohibitive corporate tax rates (35% for more than $15 million in profits—what do you pay on your 5-digit income?)

You can actually hear Hannity's Terminator-like brain in action, especially when he takes a call on his radio show, trying to keep every topic or idea within the simplistic worldview he espouses. And for me, that's the fascination: listening to him try to put together the rhetorical building blocks to convince his listeners of the warped, paranoid, victimized world view he (and presumably the vast majority of them) cling to like guns and religion. Granted, most of the callers simply want to be on the radio with Hannity, so most of the calls in a three hour radio show sound a bit Chris Farley-ish: "Sean, you're a great American. Remind me of why I should be arming myself against the Socialist-Communist-Fascist-Democratic party that is trying to take away my freedoms and all my possessions and put me in a welfare gulag?"

But when a caller isn't quite buying the Hannity agenda, or is calling to specifically argue against the Hannity agenda, that's when the real rhetorical Terminator kicks into overdrive. You hear how completely limited Hannity is by his ideology as he attempts—sometimes successfully, usually not—to bend verifiable facts that refute his agenda to actually support his distorted worldview through the most amazing tortured logic you're bound to hear. Up is down. The world IS flat. George W. Bush will be remembered as one of America's greatest presidents. It doesn't have to make any sense—it just has to somehow fit and support the point Hannity is making. As long as Hannity believes what he says is the truth, passionately, he's sure he's right. Of course, if the caller has half a brain and can pick apart Hannity's flurry of half-truths posing as "facts," then Hannity quickly reverts to the ad hominem attack (ie. "Why do you hate America so much?") That's when you know Hannity realizes he can't buffalo the caller and wants to dismiss him or her as quickly as possible. You at least have to admire Hannity's quick acknowledgement of potential defeat.

I know this Hannity obsession reveals a certain sickness on my part, but I urge you to listen to his radio show a few times and marvel at the machine-like way his mind works. Hard as it may seem, try to ignore whether or not you agree with the crazy shit he's saying and analyze it structurally: how is he trying to make his point? what two completely unrelated things is he desperately trying to link together? why is everything progressives/liberals do or say so evil and dangerous and icky while nearly everything conservatives do or say is so good and patriotic and blessed by god? You may just find yourself growing more fascinated with the albeit contaminated Terminator-like mind of Sean Hannity.

One last thing: understand that millions of people in this country listen to him religiously and actually believe the nonsense he espouses. Scary, isn’t it?