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.