Monday, June 15, 2015

Black like she:
Rachel Dolezal and what all this says about us

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
                — Joan Didion, The White Album

RACIAL MATHEMATICS according to America has never been a matter of 2+2. The highly tangled nature of our politics, our history and our personal experiences makes navigating race a constant challenge. Just when you think you know what’s what ... you find out you don’t.

Witness the matter of Rachel Dolezal, recently outed as a white woman passing for African American. In our heads-is-tails world, her case has called into question some of the old pieties we’ve grown comfortable with vis-à-vis race. In a perversely inspired series of events, we’re back at another crossroads of our national identity powered in part by our old racial stereotypes, and our expectations that what we see dovetails with reality. It ain’t necessarily so, and when it’s not, when the facts run counter to our assumptions ... things get interesting.

Dolezal, a 37-year-old professor of Africana studies at the Africana Education Department at Eastern Washington University in Washington state, has been the focus of attention on mainstream and social media for claiming to be a black woman, when in reality she’s not one. In the past ten years or so, Dolezal has orchestrated a masquerade of outsize proportions, perming and curling her born-blond hair and marrying a black man, then allegedly asserting that one of her adopted black brothers is really her son, and going so far as to attain the role of the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash.

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Her white biological parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence, had enough of this and outed her recently; their disclosure led to the furor over Dolezal’s deception, and played a hand in her resignation from the NAACP post earlier today.

Dolezal, who has been chairwoman of Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, covered all the ethnic bases when she apparently identified herself as white, black and American Indian on an application for the volunteer position. In a statement Thursday, Spokane Mayor David Condon and city council president Ben Stuckart said the city is investigating whether she violated city policies by not being truthful about her ethnicity on that application.

We shouldn’t be surprised how this can happen in Washington, a state with about 240,000 black residents – 3.74 percent of the state’s total population, according to 2010 Census figures. It may have been harder to pull off this charade in a state with a bigger African American population.

As it is, what makes the Dolezal case so unsettling, for African Americans and for American society alike, is what it says about how the palettes of our various cultures are more interchangeable than we thought, and maybe more than we’re comfortable with.

For black Americans, could their existence, the cherished particulars of their culture, be taken any more for granted? For white Americans, can there be any greater sign of seismic social change than what happens when one in the majority tries to (literally) assume the face of the minority?

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FOR GENERATIONS, aspects of black identity in music, fashion and the common vernacular have been borrowed, tweaked and homogenized for use by a wider, more dilutive mass popular culture. That’s been happening for as long as you’ve been around.

But this latest fetishization of black identity forces us to ask some tough questions about what race is in the first place. We’ve been told for years that race, per se, is an artificial social construct, more a matter of attitude than of anthropology.

So if that’s true, if race as we think we know it doesn’t even exist, how tough can we be on Dolezal for appropriating the tropes and referentials of African Americans?

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Race, of course, does exist, as a practical and working everyday truth, if not one that conforms with science. For Dolezal, though, this is more than lifelong cosplay. To her, this has been existential, her absorbing the nuances and subtleties of a culture and a people she says she respects.

Yeah, she got a job at NAACP, probably taking the position away from a real black person who needed it just as bad, or worse. But however superficial you think Dolezal’s vision quest might be, you can’t get away from the core fact in the matter: In her pursuit of a better life with more opportunities, a white woman in 21st century America took on the identity of a black woman.

This was no Halloween prank, no silly Julianne Hough one-off. For a decade, Rachel Dolezal tried to assume the culture and essence of an African American woman, and did so with at least an outward commitment that suggested it was not a holiday masquerade but a change at the core of who she is — a change announcing that, for her at least, white womanhood ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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ANGELA SCHWENDIMAN, an Africana studies professor and a colleague of Dolezal at Eastern Washington, told NBC News that Dolezal has “embraced the philosophy, the ideology, the culture. She knows it better than a lot of black people, believe me. And that is her. I think she was only trying to match how she felt on the inside with her outside.”

This example of someone passing for black has meaningful and maybe even profound implications for our racially-torn society. In no small part because of social media’s reaction to the Dolezal disclosures, this will resonate in the culture of the workplace, in the halls of Congress, and anywhere else identities cross paths in modern America.

It’s already got journalists examining similar cases. In a Saturday piece in The Daily Beast, reporter Pat Blanchfield writes on a similar situation:

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“Exactly twenty years ago, readers across Europe were absorbed by a remarkable, increasingly rare literary event: the revelation of a previously unknown Holocaust memoir. Published in German in 1995 as Bruchstücke: Aus einer Kindheit 1939—1948, a slim, hard-hitting first-person account offered a new, horrifying perspective on the Holocaust — that of an extremely young child, a Latvian named Binjamin Wilkomirski. Wilkomirski’s story, told in surreal, dreamlike patches punctuated by moments of stupefying violence, was riveting. Wilkomirski’s first memory, he claimed, was of witnessing his father being beaten to death.

“Traveling between the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek, he claimed to have seen babies gnawing off their own frozen fingers, SS guards mutilating the penises of young boys, and more.

“The account was met with considerable acclaim. ... The only problem with Wilkomirski’s testimony is that it was full of lies. ...”

After an investigation, Blanchfield reports, it was found that “Wilkomirski was not Latvian, nor was he Jewish, nor had he ever been interned in a concentration camp. His name wasn’t even Binjamin Wilkomirski, it was Bruno Grosjeans. He had been born illegitimately to a Swiss Protestant woman in 1941, lived for years in a Swiss orphanage, and was adopted by a wealthy family in Zurich ... ‘Binjamin Wilkomirski’ was an entirely fabricated identity, his story, pure fiction …”

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SO HOW far as a modern society are we prepared to go to reputationally eviscerate someone who, for whatever personal, emotional, social or clinical reasons, decides to adopt the identity of someone completely different?

Because for all the thunderclap impact the Dolezal matter is having now, and as the Wilkomirski matter indicates, this is nothing new. Back in the 1940’s, Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz clarinetist who played with such early titans of jazz as Benny Carter and Sidney Bechet, married a black woman and declared himself to be a “voluntary Negro.”

The songwriter and bandleader praised by many as the father of modern R&B was a Greek American born John Alexander Veliotes. In time, Veliotes would absorb the particularities of black life and culture; he’d start his own band reflecting his passion for African American music. He’d discover such greats as Etta James and Jackie Wilson, and he would declare himself “black by persuasion.”

Monday, June 8, 2015

'Satisfaction': 3 minutes, 43 seconds, 50 years

IT BLASTED out of radios in the United States 21 years after D-Day, June 6, 1944, the high point of World War II. By design or by accident, it was a pop-cultural pushback, an audible resistance to the still-rising militarist mindset of the era of the Vietnam War.

It’s three minutes and 43 seconds long. It seems to emerge from some basement of our subconscious, lean and sinewy, a vaguely metallic template of thematic economy, an angular expression of everyday unease.

Its everyman protagonist is a victim of “useless information,” somebody trying against all odds for comfort, for peace of mind; resisting the brutal obligations of everyday life; pushing back against television and radio, the media, the great dissemblers and the masters of war; lamenting a failure to connect with the opposite sex.

The song was a righteous nose-thumbing to the two-minutes-and-change diktat of song duration in the AM-radio-driven era of the early and mid 60’s it was born into.

And the full title of the song — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — is itself a contradiction, what etymologists call a negative concord ... or, put more colloquially, a double negative. This titular no-but-yes embodies, probably by accident, the contradictions inherent in our own lives, the tension between what we want and what we say we can’t get, between what we get and what we say we don’t want.

The song ushered in the era of rock music as the truly democratic experience it was always purported to be. Anybody can play The Posterity Riff in nothing flat. No capos are necessary, no exotic fingering’s needed, no translation by a guitar teacher is required. Tablature doesn’t really even do it justice.

The Riff’s basic structure is something you don’t even have to learn to play; what drives it couldn’t be any simpler. A three-note ostinato. Standard guitar tuning. Second fret, fifth string. Fourth fret, fifth string. Open fourth string.

Then it’s back to fourth fret, fifth string, and then back to second fret, fifth string. Rinse. Repeat. That’s it. Three notes on two strings, in three positions on the fretboard. That’s the basis for the guitar riff of our time, the heart of what Rolling Stone judged the second-greatest rock song of all time, the foundation for what the BMI music licensing organization called the 91st-most performed song of the 20th century.

In three minutes and 43 seconds long, it embodies the disquiet and unease of modern life, an unease that persists to this day. Acid, muscular, pugnacious, it’s a clarion expression of the collective unconscious, the drift of life in the nuclear age, that sense that everything could come crashing down at any given moment, that feeling at the heart of the frowns we wear, the scowls we can’t seem to shake.

But the song’s no funeral dirge, no mopey, woe-is-me, minor-chord lamentation. Its rhythm, its dogged persistence, its relentless beat is at the heart of the uplift in the human experience, Dylan Thomas’ force driving the green fuse through that flower, the human drive perfectly described by Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

It’s all there: the tension, the warring impulses of surrender and determination, capitulation and resolve, despair and hope — the same polar forces that power our lives today.

“Satisfaction” changed everything because it revealed everything we couldn't quite reveal to ourselves. And it’s no less pertinent today than it was on June 6, 1965 — 50 years ago Saturday.

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The Year That Exploded

IF “SATISFACTION” had never been written, the year 1965 was already destined to become a memorable one for music, culture and society. Bob Dylan, an early philosophical soulmate of the Stones, had already tapped into the collective unconscious with “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” a few years before. He’d release the similarly prescient “Like a Rolling Stone” in July, about six weeks after “Satisfaction” took the world by storm. And of course, that same month, folk-music purists lost their frickin minds when Dylan went electric at Newport. Nothing was the way it was.

Almost by design, 1965 as a year of general upheaval became so right outta the gate, from almost the exact start of the year. On Jan. 4, President Lyndon Johnson made his second State of the Union address, and announced the initiatives creating a “Great Society.” But war was destined to be the order of the year. In April, the first march sponsored by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) took place in Washington, and attracted between 20,000 and 25,000 protesters against the Vietnam War.

Protesters returned to Washington in June for an anti-war “teach-in,” a five-hour event in which thousands of leaflets were distributed in and around the Pentagon. The battle between anti-war activists and the U.S. government was joined in July, when President Johnson ordered an increase in the number of U.S. forces in Vietnam, from 75,000 men to 125,000. Making matters worse, he ordered the number of American men drafted every month to be doubled, to more than 35,000. That set the stage for a massive increase in U.S. troops, which Johnson ordered in November. The number of Americans in Vietnam climbed to about 400,000.

The Book of a Genesis:
The Origin Story

SHORT OF a gathering convened specifically for the purpose of writing a song, it’s a fool’s errand trying to pinpoint the precise moment of inspiration, synaptic firing and availability of an instrument that leads to a song entering this world. A song is realization of a process as much as an event, its birth subject to a number of midwives.

“Satisfaction” has its legitimate genesis in more than one place. At least two locations are or may be central to the song’s birth:

There’s Richards’ flat on Carlton Hill, in the St. John’s Wood section of London. That’s where Richards lived for a time, at least briefly without being in a relationship (he’d been living there with Linda Keith). Numerous reports (including Richards’ own account) have it that Richards woke up in that London flat early one morning, hounded into consciousness by the riff that would come to move the world.

Bloomberg News reported in October 2010: “The Rolling Stones guitarist was temporarily without a girlfriend and home alone in St. John’s Wood, London, in 1965. Moaning about his lack of a companion, he picked out the riff on an acoustic guitar and dozed off, leaving his cassette recorder running.”

That distillation’s consistent with the verbatim of Richards’ own writing. From Richards’ 2010 autobiography, “Life”: “I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep. I had no idea I’d written it, it’s only thank God for the little Philips cassette player. The miracle being that I looked at the cassette player that morning and I knew I’d put a brand-new tape in the previous night, and I saw it was at the end. Then I pushed rewind and there was ‘Satisfaction.’”

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But in the book “Keith Richards: Satisfaction” by Christopher Sandford, it all began in the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida: “Keith went up alone to room 3 (there were only seventeen in the place), watched The Tonight Show and nodded off. Towards dawn he woke up with a riff ... ringing in his head. Keith, who was in the habit of keeping a tape recorder by his bed to capture such moments, grabbed his new Gibson Firebird, taped the lick, then fell asleep again.”

You’d think the specifics of Sandford’s reporting — the number of the hotel room, what Keith was watching on TV, the particular guitar he used — would give him the edge, but with a contrary assessment straight from the horse’s mouth, you’ve gotta go with Keith's recollection of events. Unless Keith was misremembering things, of course.

Other dates and facts related to the song’s creation are just as tantalizingly imprecise. Some reports have Stones frontman Mick Jagger writing most of the lyrics in his Clearwater hotel room. Others say he was poolside at the hotel. Some reports say that happened on May 6, 1965, others claim it was May 7.

Richards has been thought to have come up with the title. “That was just a working title,” he said in an oft-quoted passage. “It could just as well have been ‘Auntie Millie’s Caught Her Left Tit in the Mangle.’”

Well, maybe. The title has a legitimate provenance with Chuck Berry, whose song “30 Days,” recorded in 1955, contains this lyric:

“If I don't get no satisfaction from the judge
I'm gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge ...”

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But the second and third points of genesis for this song were two recording studios 2,000 miles apart. “Satisfaction” was first recorded in an acoustic version on May 10, at the legendary Chess Studios, after a Stones concert the day before. Bill Wyman, the former Stones bass player and informal band historian, has said the iconic version was recorded two days after the Chess session, on May 12, at RCA Studios in Hollywood. That was when Richards connected his guitar to a Vox AC30 amplifier and a Gibson Maestro fuzz-tone effects box and recorded ... The Posterity Riff.

He didn’t think the song was ready for prime-time. “I thought of it as an album filler,” Richards said, as quoted in the book “Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger” by Christopher Andersen. “I never thought it was anything like commercial enough to be a single.”

The rest of the song – the lyrics that have endured as long as the music — were perhaps largely Jagger’s ironically world-weary invention, and it’s here that “Satisfaction” succeeds beyond the purely visceral music.

From the viewpoint of the song’s unnamed protagonist, we’re witness to the pressures and challenges of modern life. Doin’ this and signin’ that ... at the same time hoping for connection with women, a connection thwarted by the same biological imperative — that monthly “losing streak” of the object of his affection — as the one that got him interested in her in the first place. “Satisfaction” was born as a song you could dance to; the lyrics made it a smart song you could dance to. Twenty-five days after “Satisfaction” was recorded, the world did just that.

But He Can’t Understand
Cause He Doesn’t Wear
The Same Color Skin As Me:
‘Satisfaction’ in the Civil Rights Era

WHETHER AFRICAN Americans listened to it or not, “Satisfaction” spoke to their experience in the era of the civil rights movement, if only in general terms. It wasn’t adopted by black America. James Brown would speak to black people on a more positive tip in the turbulent years to come, most notably on songs like “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968).

But however unwittingly, “Satisfaction” got to the psychic core of the dissatisfaction of black Americans pushing back against the punishments of the Jim Crow era like nothing else on the radio in the years before Brown and other African American artists took point on the defining social issue of the American 20th century.

Nineteen sixty-five was a bitter crucible year for African Americans; it was as if the corrosive qualities of the Jim Crow South and those of a more generally segregated, race-fearful America had finally, tragically dovetailed. If anyone could relate to feeling that they “can’t get no satisfaction,” it was the 20 million black Americans enduring life in a country that didn’t seem to want them around.

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The year of “Satisfaction” started badly for black Americans. Malcolm X, the charismatic human rights activist and intellectual firebrand, was assassinated on Feb. 21 in New York City, during a speech before supporters at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

Barely two weeks later, on March 7, about 530 civil rights demonstrators intending to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., were trampled and beaten by 200 Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. It was the first such confrontation at the site; two days later, on March 9, demonstrators returned to the bridge for a prayer service before returning to Selma, after troopers offered to let them pass. A third march, on March 21, went off without incident (and with federal protection). The civil rights activists reached Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, not long after President Johnson’s moving “We Shall Overcome” speech.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 1)

SO WHEN the hell are you launching your presidential campaign? Got your PAC started yet? OK, maybe you won’t but you certainly could, or so it seems. Running for the American presidency is cooler than a mobile wallet. A dizzying number of aspirants to the Big Chair in the Oval Office have recently announced presidential aspirations no less far-fetched and impossibly quixotic than your own. The latest one happened on Thursday. There was one who announced a day before that. There’s another one coming a day or two from now. They can’t all win, of course, but they all think they can win. Democracy is a wonderful thing.

Since Hillary Clinton revealed the thoroughly open secret of her presidential campaign on April 12, no fewer than seven other political notables have announced the launch of their own campaigns. And since six candidates are on the Republican side (some declared before Clinton did) and other pols like Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie have formed exploratory committees, we’re moving beyond the previously ridiculous rhetorical vehicular yardstick.

The GOP clown-car metaphor isn’t big enough. We need a clown bus right now. Let’s look at three of the riders.

Pataki: Another governor heard from

The latest pol to formally announce a candidacy is making use of an impressive historical precedent. Like Thomas Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller before him, another former New York governor, George Pataki now seeks the presidency. The Republican announced on Thursday that he’s in the 2016 presidential race, and he did it with a surprisingly moving four-minute video.

In the video, we’ve caught Pataki on one of his mornings in America: dressing for some business engagement with the help of his wife, in the dawn’s early light. Pataki borrows from the intrinsically emotionally images of Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial — incidental touchstones of a tenure in office that coincided with the worst terrorist incursion in American history. And he calls on the untied states to be, once more, the United States. “If we are to flourish as a people,” he says, “we have to fall in love with America again.”

Pataki’s campaign gets the patina of the new for a little while longer. He’s reportedly about to be eclipsed on the newness meter by former Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, whom several news sources say is about to jump into the White House game with an announcement from Baltimore on Saturday.

Santorum: Junior elder statesman maybe

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a son of coal country, announced his second bid for the White House on Wednesday, May 27. The Republican whose rise in 2012 was meteoric (he won primaries in 11 states) is back with a purportedly more populist economic message.

“As middle America is hollowing out, we can't sit idly by as big government politicians make it harder for our workers and then turn around and blame them for losing jobs overseas. American families don't need another president tied to big government or big money,” he said from Cabot, Pa. “And today is the day we are going to begin to fight back.”

For all the talk going on offense, Santorum in 2012 didn’t do that well. “Santorum has done a great job of making first downs on fourth and seventeen plays,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, to The Washington Post. Sooner or later, that kind of football gets you in trouble.

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I wrote this not long before Santorum quit the race for the White House in 2012: “By bowing graciously from the field of battle, by making the dignified climbdown, Santorum will have strong cards to play in 2016. That’s when he could come roaring back, not exactly as an elder statesman but certainly not as a newcomer to the pursuit of the nomination. Having that on-the-road experience, that taste for campaign blood gets you points in the Republican Party.”

It’s time for Santorum to play those cards. If he’s ever again to be taken seriously as a candidate, 2016 may be his best year. Like Mitt Romney, he lays claim to having run a presidential campaign at a high level. The fact that he lost is almost inconsequential right now. In a field this crowded, previous campaign experience is its own gravitas. This year, way more than 2012, there are options the Republican electorate has, right now, and that conveys an emeritus status to someone who’s done this rodeo before. Among those with the highest and most viable profiles in the GOP, that means Romney and Santorum.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Best practices, worst appearances:
Jeb Bush’s boardroom troubles

JOHN ELLIS BUSH is a busy man. Not just slightly busy, not just can’t-take-your-call-right-now busy. We’re talking mad busy, busy enough to pass himself walking down the street in the opposite direction. That’s the takeaway from a Thursday story from The Associated Press, a story that suggests the possible 2016 presidential hopeful may have towering conflict-of-interest issues should he decide to run.

From The AP: “During his transition from Florida governor to likely presidential candidate, Jeb Bush served on the boards or as an adviser to at least 15 companies and nonprofits ...”

More recently, Bush (who left the governor’s office in 2007) appears to have cut back on his boardroom work. At least a little. “Bush served on the boards or as an adviser to 11 companies or nonprofits at a time each year from 2010 to 2013. ... Those ties were in addition to his own businesses, such as Jeb Bush & Associates, and the educational foundations he created.”

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Now it’s true enough that some people multitask better than others, handling a galaxy of responsibilities with aplomb. But corporate experts who spoke to The AP said being on the boards of that many companies defies good sense, to say nothing to opening him up to unsavory appearances when things go south.

The AP reports that the former Florida governor “joined the board of at least one company, InnoVida, despite signs that the CEO’s prior venture dissolved amid fraud allegations. The CEO, Claudio Osorio, is now serving 12.5 years in prison. At least five of the companies have faced class-action lawsuits.”

There’s nothing in any of that that washes up at Bush’s feet, of course. One of the advantages of being a board member is that, among other things, your role is a largely advisory one; you’re not part of the day-to-day operations that sometimes get people indicted.

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BUT STILL. When you’re considering a run for the White House, appearances are everything. And having a place in the boardrooms of that many companies raises the questions of where his real interests lie — and how effective he could be as a board member for any of them.

“Board of directors and advisory boards are in charge of high-level oversight,” law professor Elizabeth Nowicki told The AP. “You cannot possibly do that simultaneously for 10 or 15 entities. If somebody starts serving on more than three or four boards that's a problem,” said Nowicki, a former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer.

As you’d expect, Team Bush is pushing back against any hint of doing the wrong thing. “Gov. Bush has always conducted his business with the highest integrity and performance, just as he did when he served as Florida’s chief executive for eight successful years,” a Bush spokeswoman said in a statement.

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But there’s another way to look at this. Another advantage to being a board member of a company is that you’re compensated, a little or a lot, for basically sticking your head in the office and periodically casting a vote for this or that.

Bloomberg Business reported in May 2013 that the pay for board directors at Standard & Poor’s 500 Index companies “rose to a record average of $251,000 last year, the sixth straight year of increased compensation since federal rules began requiring disclosure.”

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Laughs the size of canned hams:
David Letterman signs off

WHEN DAVID MICHAEL LETTERMAN first went on the late-night air, in February 1982, Ronald Reagan was president, telephone behemoth AT&T agreed to slice and dice itself into nearly two dozen subdivisions, and the Commodore 64 debuted in Las Vegas, becoming for a short time the best-selling personal computer.

When Letterman signed off late-night on Wednesday (after 6,082 programs on two networks), Barack Obama was president, AT&T was known more for cell-phone service than anything else, the only commodore that matters is one in the navy ... and the medium Letterman worked in for more than 33 years both transformed him and was transformed by him. Just like us.

The host of CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman” and former host of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” retired from the medium he ruled absolutely. Our culture celebrates continuity, the act of suiting up and taking the field, day in and day out. So, like it was with Cal Ripken’s record for consecutive games played or Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak, we take note of Letterman’s incredible run — tree-ring time in the fleeting teleculture.

We’ve watched his hair go from the goofy brown nimbus he wore in the 80’s to its current emeritus gray; we’ve seen him ditch the khakis and tennis shoes, changing over to impeccable tailored suits. But mostly we’ve watched him just being Dave. And for 33 years, that’s been more than enough.

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Tom Shales wrote Wednesday in The Daily Beast: “Have you noticed more of a fuss is being made over Dave’s departure than was made two decades earlier over the seemingly more epochal retirement of Johnny Carson, master of TV talk shows and Dave’s idol in the business? Traumatizing as it seemed, Johnny’s leaving was not as significant as Dave’s leaving. The stakes seem higher.”

Maybe. At best, that’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, one that overlooks the evolution of the medium of television itself. Shales says Dave’s retirement created “more of a fuss” than was made when Carson hung ‘em up in May 1992, but there’s really no way to know this. We’re talking about retirement from TV in two completely different eras, with two completely different audiences, in two wildly different broadcast environments.

When Carson retired after more than 4,500 appearances, television had scarcely begun the trajectory toward the digital, streaming, high-definition, super-stratified experience it is today. There are 65 million more Americans now than there were in 1992, and considerably more viewing options now than before. The “fuss” that the nation made over Carson was a big deal commensurate with the audience and the medium of that time.

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SHALES GIVES Letterman credit for creating (or at least being a midwife to) “anti-television — an antidote to all the phoniness, much of it carried over from radio, that had prevailed” on TV before Letterman. But that’s not quite right, either.

You don’t last for 33 years on television by being “anti-television.” What Letterman did was to push back against the prevailing rhythms and sleepy tropes of the medium, to resist the tired habits of TV with something that was (or certainly tried to be) original, dazzlingly silly and daringly fresh.

In other ways, Shales is spot-on. His grasp of the power of everyday people and their impact on Letterman, for example: “Under Dave’s stewardship, they democratized television, helped demythologize it, paved the way for a future (or a present) in which the whole idea of ‘being on television’ is no longer the province of an elite. Dave may have talked a lot about being ‘in show business’ and even may have snobbishly referred to the rest of us as ‘civilians,’ but the civilians are taking over. The professional lunatics are surrendering the asylum to the everyday lunatics. A 6-year-old kid can produce a ‘show’ on a laptop, as everybody knows.”

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In this respect, Letterman’s style of late-night TV may have been complicit in its own demise. When you have a hand in democratizing the medium you work in, when you help surrender the asylum to the junior lunatics, you can hardly complain about what they do with it when they take over.

In recent years, you got the sense that Dave knew his time was almost done. Toward the end of Letterman’s phenomenal run, you could see more than the slightest bit of change in the man himself. He was turning into Mr. Cranky. On a January 2014 taping, for example, he sat with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and frequent “Late Show” guest.

The two discussed the goings-on at their mutual networks, but Letterman never missed the chance to stick the knife in with comments about “Little Jimmy Fallon” — infantilizing asides about the soon-to-be host of “The Tonight Show” (the show that Letterman was passed over for). It wasn’t the first time Dave was so ... small, and it wouldn’t be the last.

I observed it then in a blogpost: “Letterman’s interview style, at times sour and cynical, can veer from the sporadically prosecutorial to the passive-aggressive conspiratorial (as though the guest is the object of a joke that only he and the audience are in on).”

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BUT DAVE never missed a chance to be what every good late-night talk-show host has to be, sooner or later: a reporter, someone unafraid to ask the questions nobody else will. In September 2008, he eviscerated Arizona Sen. John McCain for being a no-show on the program, after the Maverick® from the Grand Canyon State lied to Letterman’s staff about why he wouldn’t be there. When McCain finally showed up, about two weeks later, Dave pressed McCain on his cancellation, and asked pointed questions about McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her fitness to be on the McCain ticket.

His interrogative mein may or may not have dovetailed with journalistic practice, but Dave thoroughly absorbed the fundamental job of any good journalist: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted ... and tell the truth.

And Dave never missed the chance to be like us: Vulnerable. Who can forget his heartfelt reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001? Or the announcement of his heart problems? And then there was that colossaly Stupid Human Trick: “I have had sex with women who work on this show,” Letterman said on the air in October 2009, announcing infidelity and a breach of workplace decorum in breathtaking fashion.

But the two words that matter in all of that are “vulnerable” and “human.” That’s what we loved about Letterman. Dave ‘R’ Us. One way or another, that’s what was celebrated in recent weeks by everyone who visited the Ed Sullivan Theater to wish Dave farewell. Bill Murray (Dave’s first late-night guest years ago) came by. Tina Fey shed clothes for him.

Peyton Manning stopped by; so did Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks, Julie Roberts, Howard Stern, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld and more. Foo Fighters, maybe Dave’s favorite band, showed up to perform “Everlong,” said to be Dave’s favorite song. Everyone who was anyone was there on Wednesday. And with good reason.

OVER THE years Dave dropped wedding cakes and six-packs of beer from a five-story tower, terminally overinflated various items with an air compressor, wiped out a car with bowling balls, flattened objects with a steamroller, crushed jelly donuts with a hydraulic press.

But these were just symbols and stunts. Everyone who was anyone really came to the Ed Sullivan Theater on Wednesday to offer best wishes to the reigning pyrotechnician of the late-night domain, a man who for 33 years regularly exploded our expectations of what a late-night TV show could be.

And we’re left to remember ... and to wonder if everything could ever feel this real forever ... if anything on late-night TV could ever be this good again.

Image credits: Letterman top: CBS/Worldwide Pants. Letterman in the 80’s: CBS. Letterman bottom: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS. Tweets by their respective creators.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bottom rail on top:
Tyler Shields revises the racial equation

IN THE 1988 book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” author James McPherson recounts how, at war’s end in 1865, an escaped slave guarding Confederate prisoners recognizes his former master among the rebel captives and says, “Howdy Massa. Bottom rail on top this time.”

That marvelous expression of underdogs becoming overlords, or something close to it, is at the heart of a series of provocative photographs by Tyler Shields, whose new work explores the ultimate what-if of American society and the racial dynamic. What if the current racial calculus was something completely different?

Shields, whose “Historical Fiction” exhibition opened Saturday at the Andrew Weiss Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., posits a reversal of the violence and bias that’s been historically visited on African Americans throughout our history. At the same time, he sees the extant paralells between the then and the now.

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“Right now we are going through a real racial issue in our country,” Shields told Justin Jones of The Daily Beast. “And, to me, these things that happened in the 20s and 30s, they’re just as poignant today as they were back then.”

“I’ve always loved the idea of seeing the opposite,” Shields told The Daily Beast. “Cops who are beating people up or white people who are hanging black people—what would they think if it was the other way around? What would the KKK say if this happened to them? It would potentially be the most famous photo of that entire generation.”

One of the more truly galvanizing images brings that issue home in 2015 terms like few things could. A white police officer is held down, face down on the ground, with the hands of two black men keeping him pinned there. In an era of numerous black male casualties of the police — Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and the list goes on and sadly on — an image like this speaks its own emotional truth to power.

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THIS DIFFERENT way of looking at African Americans in the broad overview of history isn’t new. In March 1999, “Re/Righting History: Counternarratives by Contemporary African-American Artists” upended expectations of the black artist when it opened at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y.

Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Camille Billops, Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott and Betye Saar (among others) had a hand in artistically revisiting the impact of African Americans in the nation’s life.

Discussing the Katonah exhibition, Dr. Barbara Bloemink, the curator, told the museum that “we need to recognize that history is often quite subjective. It is not just a matter of what is reported, but what is left out.”

TRUE ENOUGH. But history is also a collection of interpretations, an array of viewpoints that couldn’t be more subjective, regardless of how they do or don’t dovetail with the acknowledged reality. History is about what’s contemporaneously perceived or emotionally experienced as well as what’s factually reported.

Two hundred-plus years of institutional imbalance and injustice, and the emotional and psychological damage that injustice created, is what provoked the “counternarrative” of the Katonah exhibition. It also helped make Shields’ work both possible and utterly necessary.

In 1999, Bloemink observed: “As the African proverb states, ‘Until the lions have their histories, tales of history will always glorify the hunter.’” We can consider Tyler Shields button-pushing images a lion’s shot across the bow of our historical complacency.

Image credits: All images © 2014, 2015 Tyler Shields.

You done lost your good thing now:
B.B. King (1925-2015)

DAYLONG PERIODS of rain visited Southern California on May 14, culminating in a brief but torrential downpour in Los Angeles that Thursday night. For a good twenty minutes or so after 9 o’clock, the sky was crying its eyes out. Later that night, we’d find out that the sky was just getting ahead of the rest of us. With good reason. B.B. King passed away at his home in Las Vegas, shortly before 10 p.m., after a decades-long battle with Type 2 diabetes. He was 89 years old and forever young.

Intellectually, of course, it doesn’t make any sense thinking that Riley B. King — B.B. to you, me and everyone else on the planet — would live forever. But you don’t approach the blues as an intellectual exercise. It’s all about feeling, about emotion, and as a long-time master of the emotional palette that makes the blues what it is, B.B. King created a sound that seems like it’s always been there, constantly in the ether, so long a component of the air we breathe, it’s hard to see where it really began.

For most of us, we’ve never known a world without him. He was always there, present, available. Even when we didn’t actively listen and pay attention — and if we’re honest, we know perfectly well that was most of the time — it was damn fine just knowing he was around, like oxygen and a woman’s smile and the blue blue blue of the sky above.

In his 2008 autobiography, Eric Clapton (who’s forgotten more about the blues than we will ever know) wrote this about B.B.: “He is without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced, and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet. In terms of scale or stature, I believe that if Robert Johnson was reincarnated, he is probably B.B. King.”

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A career that would last 65 years got its beginning not that long after he did, in September 1925, in the plantation town of Itta Bena, Miss. Raised by his maternal grandmother, he sang in the church choir in Kilmichael, Miss., and either bought his first guitar for $15 or was given a guitar by his cousin, blues great Bukka White. Whichever way it happened, it was an iconic  beginning, a powerful marriage that would change the course of American music.

Between 18 and 21, B.B. started the adventure of life on the road, circulating around Mississippi and traveling to Memphis, where he was mentored by Bukka White. He went back to Mississippi and later went to Arkansas, performing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show on KWEM in West Memphis, Ark. (Albert King hailed from there).

His big break came in 1952, when B.B. recorded “3 O’Clock Blues,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. A string of other hits followed — “You Know I Love You,” “Woke Up This Morning,” “Please Love Me,” “When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer” and “Whole Lotta Love,” as well as songs that would become more recognized staples of his playlist for decades (like “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Please Accept My Love”).

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BY THE 1960’s, the ascendancy of the blues as a musical influence was well underway. Thanks to any number of young UK musicians eager to stake their claim on the British invasion, the blues was as big a full-on cultural influence as it would ever be. This worked to B.B.’s advantage. He toured constantly throughout the decade, opened for the Rolling Stones and had a crossover hit with “The Thrill Is Gone,” which took the R&B and pop charts by storm.

And by the late 60’s, and certainly the 70’s, the regimen of non-stop touring he started years before had taken hold for good. All due props to the one-time Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown, but B.B. could rightly lay claim to that title too: A 1998 Rolling Stone story by Gerri Hirshey estimated that King had played more than 15,000 concerts. And that was 17 years ago.

Rolling Stone elsewhere reported that King “spent more than 65 years on the road, playing more than 300 shows a year until cutting back to around 100 during the last decade.”

It was proof of his recognition of blues as a universal sound, and his belief that the blues would always have an audience. B.B. recognized early the democratizing power of blues, its ability to blend with all kinds of music.

He turns up on a 1970 album working with Duke Ellington. He opened for the Rolling Stones at the 1969 Madison Square Garden show that led to the live Stones album “Get Your Ya-Yas Out.”

He worked with U2, recording “When Love Comes to Town,” a duet with Bono, on the band’s “Rattle and Hum” album.

◊ ◊ ◊

How strange it’s been, over the years, to see what’s become of that audience. I wrote this for back in 2003: “It’s one of the enduring ironies of popular culture that the blues — the music that figures so centrally in the very existence of rock — is so consistently ignored by the buying public. Sales of blues records have declined in recent years to under 4 percent of total recorded-music sales, according to 2001 data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.”

A B.B. King discography

Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2011 that “the blues exists on the margins of American cultural life, a quaint reminder of what once was, a sound with a colossal history, a diminished reality and a tenuous future.”

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The challenges for Clinton

ON SUNDAY, putting an end to the biggest open secret in American politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton — are we back to using the middle name again? — announced the start of her 2016 campaign for the White House, her second bid for the presidency. “I’m running for president,” she said in a brief announcement video. “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I’m hitting the road to earn your vote — because it’s your time. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey.”

With the announcement, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state instantly moved to the top of the leaderboard of Democratic prospects for the White House, a lofty perch so far before the election.

Clinton hit the ground running, following her announcement with an almost immediate departure for the state of Iowa, part of a tour (New Hampshire will be next) meant to reconnect her with long-term loyal Democrats and introduce her to younger voters who know more about her than the guy she’s married to. You know, that president dude.

The thrust of her campaign — enhancing the economic fortunes of millions of middle-class Americans struggling not to fall out of the middle class — will give her a chance to break down the lingering sense of Clinton as elitist, imperious and a bought-and-sold politician whose officialist past makes her, for many Americans, as much problem as solution.

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There are challenges for Clinton right outta the gate:

In a political culture enamored of the new, and almost 19 months before the 2016 election, Clinton has to keep her persona and her message fresh and inviting. Her public persona, of course, precedes her by years; the message she brings to the campaign and how well it resonates with voters remains to be seen.

It’ll be important for her to stake out philosophical territory that’s hers alone, to come up with policy prescriptions that aren’t cookie-cuttered or patchworked from other candidates.

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And Clinton has to stay fully engaged in a race that, in real terms, hasn’t even begun, at least on the Democratic side. The expected parade of potential Democratic rivals for the nomination hasn’t even started, since her possible fellow contenders have been waiting for Clinton to make her move.

Now that she’s officially in, she’ll soon be at the mercy of a ravenous news cycle obsessed with the Very Latest Thing. Sooner or later, that will include challengers on her side of the aisle. Some will be more ready for prime-time than others, some won’t be ready at all. Regardless, it’s her job to stay hungry and on message, and to keep the country the same way for her. Which leads to another challenge.

Clinton has to resist the huge temptation to portray herself and her campaign in a light of anything close to inevitability, a mindset that can infect the larger, more well-capitalized venture. This issue crippled her in 2008. By accident or by design, her '08 bid for the Oval Office was hampered by a persistent sense that she thought she was the bell cow, the only Democratic candidate in the race with viability (or the only one worth paying attention to).

A little-known senator named Barack Obama disabused her of that nation, and fast. It was a mistake she’d be well-advised not to repeat.

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THE COMING campaign will be the last best chance for Clinton to fully establish herself as a leader, defining her brand of statecraft permanently in the American experience.

The milestone of gender that her campaign, and possibly her presidency, represents both works for and against her. There’s no question that our national politics would be better informed — more intuitive, less historically reflexive, presumably more enlightened by nuance and negotiation — with a feminine perspective in the Oval Office. In this, a Hillary Clinton presidency would in and of itself be a welcome departure from the past.

But there are already many in the Hillary camp who view her possible ascension to the White House in the context of an absolute timetable. You’ve heard their rallying cry: “It’s time for a woman to be president!”

Yes and no. It was time for a woman to be president in 2008. After many hard lessons on the trail, Clinton’s campaign from that year had to confront political realities — the same realities she has to face down again: 2008 was, and 2016 will be, prime time — the perfect time — for the right woman to be president.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

American crime: The killing of Walter Scott

WHEN YOU SEE the video of what happened after a routine traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C. on April 4, there’s a sense of disbelief of what you’re seeing as an event in the real national life. You look and watch and think this must be something from the bizzarro world, it must be a malign invention of the movies or a video of a training exercise on what police officers are not supposed to do. This can’t be freakin’ real.

And then it hits you. Its harsh documentary finality. What happened in the full light of day and documented in a YouTube video seen around the world was as real as real gets for black Americans in 2015.

There will certainly be other revelations that emerge, officially and otherwise. In our wired world, someone else will come forward with another video, and a third and a fourth, like the forensic evidence of an assassination. Other literal views are certain to emerge in the postmortem of this latest American tragedy.

But whatever else is revealed by way of the reflexively forensic technology of our time, it’s got to contend with the inescapable chronology of the moments before and the moments after:

Walter Scott, an African American man, was running away from Michael Slager, a white police officer, and Slager shot Scott several times in the back, a consequence of firing eight shots. Whatever the antecedent provocation might have been, whatever set it all off besides the stop of Scott for a bad tail light, has to be weighed against an outcome that indicated deliberation, a thought process, before the gun went off.

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This was no rash, momentary action. Look at the physical posture of Officer Michael Slager. Note the calm, procedural adoption of the classic Weaver stance as he fires, rear foot positioned to absorb the recoil. He might as well be on the firing range at work.

But that deliberation was hardly the worst wound, bad as it was. The worst one is the one inflicted on a nation of African American men grappling with not just with what it all means — we know that already — but also with what this incident announces to the world. How it tells the world what we know already, and what the world has either questioned or refused to believe.

Absent other transformative evidence, the killing of Walter Scott is precisely the deeply corrosive confirmation of what black America has known and internalized for generations: that, more than most of America’s citizens, black African American men are at nothing less than existential risk that is creeping toward the panoramic, a risk too often powered by the police forces sworn to protect them — and the rest of America’s citizens.

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THIS IS NOT a corrupt fantasy. It’s not all in our heads. It’s not the figment of a tortured imagination. Like so many cases before this one, the case of the execution of Walter Scott reveals the depth of law enforcement’s institutional cement, its cold calculus of the value of African American life.

And that’s where this malign statement gets greater, wider. Because whether he’s convicted in a court of law not, this is an American crime right now. It may or may not rise to that threshold at trial, but it’s already an American crime in the larger, wider sense: considering what this did to this nation’s already fragile racial fabric, how it feeds an increasing tolerance for injustice; what it does to the psyche of black Americans in general and black men in particular.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Starbucks’ nice try

THE NATION’S fractious racial climate has always invited the good intentions of those who’d try to improve that climate, by just about any means necessary. Each of us in our own lives has had that fumbling but earnest opportunity to step outside his or her own (dis)comfort zone and take a stand for justice, equality ... or just having a conversation.

Which makes the virulent reaction of Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign both hard and easy to understand. On March 15 (the Ides of March, FWIW), the Seattle coffee titan launched the campaign, an effort to enlist the company’s baristas in provoking genial repartee about race and ethnicity among the customers at the thousands of Starbucks coffee shops across the country. The baristas (as if they don’t have enough to do already) were also asked to write “Race Together” on Starbucks cups.

“Baristas in cities where the forums were held said they wanted to do something tangible to encourage greater understanding, empathy and compassion toward one another,” said a post on the Starbucks website. “Given their willingness to discuss race relations, many partners wanted to begin conversations with their customers too.”

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Despite its appearing to come from a real place, the Starbucks overture failed in the days that followed. Customers weren’t having it; social media went batshit crazy with snarky reactions to the campaign — reactions that said more about the people writing them than the people they were writing about.

At Talking Points Memo, Sniffit commented: “This should go over swimmingly. Would you like that black or should I leave a little room at the top for privilege?”

 Also at TPM, just_observing observed: “I really don't want to have a sound bite discussion of an important issue in a retail checkout line. In fact, let me go one further: please quit asking me what I'm doing this weekend or five questions about how my day is. I came for coffee, give me the coffee. You want to improve things, give you…

Larry Wilmore, host of “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central, had his own take: “You're lookin’ to make progress, Starbucks? How about you stop selling CDs in 2015?”

Starbucks media machinery tried its best to spin it the right way. ““Leading change isn’t an easy thing to accomplish," spokeswoman Laurel Harper told The New York Times. But no: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz formally pulled the plug on the project on Sunday, March 22.

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ADMITTEDLY, IT’S a serious stretch to expect people to weigh in in a meaningful way about race relations before they’ve had their first caffeine jolt of the day. Most of us don’t know our own names before that first blissful cup. But Starbucks tried its best to move the needle on this matter, the nation’s eternal blind spot, in a way that maybe its customers could get behind, if only for a moment.

God knows Starbucks (2014 market cap $71.2 billion) doesn’t need any more publicity, so the idea of doing this as a stunt or a gimmick — as if Starbucks was a startup company— doesn’t really make sense. The campaign may have been ham-fisted, but it was apparently sincere.

In this hyperpartisan time, though, reactions like the ones SBUX attracted shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. It’s an indicator of just how broken and angry we’ve become about even talking about race in this country. Even the valiant of misguided effort is subject to attack; good intentions are the work of bad actors.

The next time Starbucks tries to push the envelope on cultivating a conversation on what’s still the country’s most combustible topic, or any other big concern, maybe Schultz will come up with a better forum than a checkout line for people waiting on their morning defibrillator cappuccinos.

The topic of race relations in our raging nation deserves that forum. But a seemingly principled effort to inspire such a conversation deserves better than vilification.

Unless, of course, we’re willing to talk about race relations on our own ...

Image credits: RaceTogether cup: via Starbucks logo: © 2015 Starbucks Corporation. Wilmore: © 2015 Comedy Central. Tweets are the property of their respective creators.
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