Thursday, July 23, 2015

The hunting of the presidency (Part 2)



THE CLOWN WINNEBAGO required to contain the current field of Republican presidential candidates is mighty crowded, and the field just got bigger (Ohio Gov. John Kasich launched his presidential campaign on Tuesday). At this point, the campaigns of the 16 White House hopefuls amount to a full employment act for standup comics and late-night talk-show hosts.

One of those candidates — for years a reliable source of pop-culture comic relief — has managed to detonate his campaign, and threaten to implode the Republican brand, before the thing’s even started.

Donald Trump, trainwreck

There may be no more effectively immediate way to turn a public figure into a nonentity than by doing what was just done to Donald John Trump, one of the men who would be and will never be president. Hours ago, someone or someones performed a full-on takedown of Trump’s Wikipedia page, The Verge reported. Twice.

It didn’t last long, of course, but it couldn’t be more symbolic of the self-inflicted PR wounds of our reigning carnival barker on steroids, a man whose presidential campaign is nothing more or less than an advertisement for himself.

Trump reignited his never-ending campaign for relevance on June 16, when he formally declared. But the stage and the rhetorical tone were set in earlier speeches, in Phoenix and Las Vegas. We should have known what was coming.

Even before his announcement, the style and bombastic tendencies of The Donald had grievously wounded not just his own presidential bid, but also damaged the GOP’s still-tender hunt for a fresh message and identity. The probable end of the Trump campaign arrived before the certain beginning.

At his formal announcement, at Trump Tower in Manhattan. his longtime embrace of passive-aggressive rhetorical intolerance continued. In several breathtakingly tone-deaf statements, Trump managed to condemn the Mexican people en masse for a host of social ills common to modern times on the long border between the United States and Mexico.

“When do we beat Mexico at the border?” Trump said. “They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us.

“They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some I assume are good people, but I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we are getting," he said. Doubling down on dumb, and stealing a page from the Herman Cain 2012 campaign playbook, Trump said he’d build a “great wall” between the United States and Mexico.

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THE REACTION was swift and visceral. Days later, NBC, responding to reaction from Hispanic groups, said the network would not air the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants co-owned by Trump. Univision, which broadcasts Spanish-language content to millions of U.S. Hispanics, had already pulled the plug on covering the pageants. Other companies bailed on him too.

“With one short speech about us,” Los Angeles advertising executive Roberto Orci said to NPR, “he tarred the entire Latino culture as being rapists and murderers and terrorists.”

Probably emboldened by a poll that showed him at the top of the early GOP leaderboard, Trump then went on to, well, trump himself. On Saturday, at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Trump suggested that Arizona Sen. John McCain, imprisoned for five years at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, was something less than a veteran worthy of the respect accorded to everyone serving this nation in uniform.

“He's not a war hero,” Trump said. “He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.”

The backing & filling began almost immediately, with Trump, forward gear temporarily stalled, trying to move in a kind of lateral gear, sticking to his guns while trying to play down the intensity of the reaction to his words as so much overreaction.

“I believe perhaps he is a war hero,” he said later, “but right now — he said some very bad things about a lot of people.”

But the damage was done. The Donald’s comments took a serious beatdown in the mainstream media and also among ops in the Republican National Committee.

“Senator McCain is an American hero because he served his country and sacrificed more than most can imagine. Period. There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.“ said RNC communications director Sean Spicer in a statement.

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And if Trump’s slagging of Mexico and certain American veterans was meant to capitalize on a recent poll that suggested the GOP primary electorate is tired of professional politicians and ergo ready for a fresh breeze, like Trump — he was disabused of that notion by another, more important poll on Tuesday.

That’s when The Des Moines Register, flagship paper of the state of Iowa (that primary primary state next year), published an editorial that could be the first nail in the coffin, or the last, of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign.

It reads in part: “It's time for Donald Trump to drop out of the race for president of the United States.

“If he were merely a self-absorbed, B-list celebrity, his unchecked ego could be tolerated as a source of mild amusement. But he now wants to become president, which means that he aspires to be the leader of the free world and the keeper of our nuclear launch codes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Striking the colors


YEARS AGO at a new job as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, I met a colleague, a man proud of his Southern heritage, an otherwise centered, rational man of panoramic thinking.

Unless you crossed him on the reasons for the Civil War.

In one of my first days there, he volunteered his opinion, unprovoked and unsolicited, about the cause of the Civil War, pressing his point — with a certain congenial menace, if memory serves — that the conflict was solely a matter of a spirited regional resistance to tariffs and other economic meddling by the federal government, an attempt to prevent usurpation of states’ rights in matters of commerce, the region’s prevailing agriculture and its chosen means of ... acquiring menial labor.

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He apparently didn’t know who Alexander Stephens was, and at that moment he wouldn’t have cared. If he’d bothered to look into the history of the conflict, he’d have found the seeds of that conflict in the words of Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, in the Cornerstone Address of March 21, 1861, spoken in Savannah, Ga., a few weeks before Fort Sumter:

“Our new Government is founded ... its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

That disconnect — between the Confederate cause of my colleague’s extravagant imagination and the Confederacy in fact — has been much in evidence lately. Its predominant visual symbol is closer now to being rightly relegated to history than at any other time in the last 150 years.

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YOU CAN ALMOST envision what’s happening now if it was written as one of those excited vertical headlines in newspapers common to that era:


In a cascade of events, we’ve come to and passed a tipping point about what to do with the Confederate flag:

The National Park Service is withdrawing merchandise bearing the Confederate flag, including materials in the gift shop at Fort Sumter, where it all began in April 1861. “We strive to tell the complete story of America,” National Park Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement, as reported in The Daily Beast “All sales items in parks are evaluated based on educational value and their connection to the park. Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores.”

On Wednesday morning, June 24, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered a Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds. Immediately. “Two workers came out of the Capitol building about 8:20 a.m. and with no fanfare quickly and quietly took the flag down,” The Birmingham News reports. “Moments later, Gov. Bentley emerged from the Capitol on his way to an appearance in Hackleburg. Asked if he had ordered the flag taken down, the governor said, ‘Yes I did.’”

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On Sunday, June 21, Apple CEO Tim Cook weighed in on the issue, saying that people could effectively honor the nine black people murdered on June 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by “eradicating racism & removing the symbols and words that feed it” — a direct shot at the Confederate flag.

Good as Cook’s word, Apple yanked Civil War-themed video games, including Ultimate General: Gettysburg and HexWar Games, from its popular App Store because of that flag’s appearance in their products.

The Clarion-Ledger reported that Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that the Confederate part of his state’s flag “needs to be removed.” “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said June 22. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag." A petition to remove the Confederate part of the Mississippi flag has racked up more than 4,500 signatures.

And CNN has reported that Wal-Mart, retailing’s holy of holies, will end sales of Confederate-themed merchandise — including T-shirts, belt buckles and the flag itself — throughout its 11,495 stores. “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our website.”

Better late than never.

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THE POWER of Southern identity is not an incidental thing. It runs through the art, food, literature, music and motion pictures of this nation like the Mississippi River runs through America itself. Indelible, undying, the American South is a wellspring of inspiration and has been for generations.

But insofar as any part of modern Southern identity has been forged in the fire of resentment a century and a half old, what’s just happened in Charleston, and the national reaction to it, will be some of that identity’s undoing. The South has long grappled with deciding whether to be a part of America or apart from America.

Without the unifying coordinating foundation of resentment, the states that formed the Confederacy have to find a new foundation — for want of a better phrase, a new business model for the future. An existential business model informed by naked contempt for the federal government and thinly-veiled historical rage at its black citizenry just isn’t working anymore. Fact is, it never worked.

Dylann Storm Roof, the young white supremacist who confessed to killing the nine Charleston worshippers, may have done more to undermine the fading defiance of the Confederate mindset than anything done by the civil rights movement or the federal government. His actions in the hopes of creating a race war have probably gone a long way to help preventing one.

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The phrase “business model” isn’t out of place. Historically, over at least the last 50 years, the Southern states comprising the Confederacy have consistently lagged behind the national average in a number of important categories, including education, college graduation rates, health care, broadband Internet access and other factors.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Holt, Noah and the liberation of TV news


HISTORICALLY, June 19th has been a day for recognition of the delayed liberation experienced at the end of the Civil War. That’s the day in 1865 when a Union Army officer read the Emancipation Proclamation to the black people of Galveston, Texas -- people who found out that day that slavery had been ended ... more than two years earlier.

Among other, uncharitable reactions they may have had, you can be sure that some of their number, students of cognitive dissonance, came to an anodyne conclusion: “Better late than never.”

Students of modern electronic media probably thought the same thing on Thursday, June 18 — another “teenth” in June — when NBC News formally announced that Lester Don Holt Jr. would be the new anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, the first sole permanent African American anchor in the history of broadcast television news. It was just the latest example of television news of the present, and presumably the future, unshackling itself from the past.

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Holt, an NBC News reporter for 15 years and for 4 ½ months the interim anchor, took over for Brian Williams, who’s moved on to a new role — undetermined and under fire — at MSNBC, where he was for years while being groomed for his stint in the anchor chair. That ended in February, under unfortunate circumstances.

Holt, 56, called the promotion “an enormous honor.” "I’m very proud and grateful to be part of such an unflappable and dedicated team of professionals as we move forward together,” he said in a statement.

For years now, Holt has been the Swiss Army knife of NBC news programming. As co-anchor of the weekend “Today Show” for 12 years, Nightly News weekend anchor for eight years, and anchor of “Dateline NBC” for four years, Holt may well have passed themselves in the hallway at 30 Rock from time to time. His ubiquity at the Peacock Network and a straight-ahead, professional demeanor helped him gain a very favorable stature at the network, and it’s played a part in keeping NBC competitive against a resurgent ABC “World News Tonight” hosted by David Muir.

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DESPITE BROADCAST television’s slow erosion of viewers in the face of cable and streaming options, and time-shifting technology like TiVo, the news anchor chair has always held a singular fascination in the teleculture. The last-name-only status of these anchors — Cronkite, Reasoner, Chancellor, Rather, Brokaw — still conveys the idea of their being a mandarin presence in our daily TV lives.

Given the demographically monotonous history of those anchors, Holt’s elevation at NBC becomes even more of a standout event. His rise at the Peacock and the earlier epochal anchor-chair news — Trevor Noah, a relative comedy unknown, was tapped in March to replace Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show” on Sept. 28 — continues a process that’s been under way, bubbling just below the surface for a long time.

The years-long browning of the MSNBC lineup complexion; the growing diversity of field reporters at network and affiliate levels; and the steady emergence of Telemundo and Univision as formidable media brands targeting the Latino population, point to the inescapable: The white male stranglehold on television news is over, as out of date and behind the times as your grandmother’s DuMont.

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Ironically, the reach for the sustained credibility that NBC makes with Holt’s elevation is contradicted by what’s happening, or not happening, with Williams, the now-former Nightly News anchor. Williams, whose gift for telling tall tales related to his journalistic experience forced him off the air in February, now moves to MSNBC in August, there presumably to assume a breaking-news role not unlike the one he had there from 1996 to 2004.

That’s smart from a financial perspective, and maybe from a ratings viewpoint. Last December, Williams signed a five-year, $50 million contract with NBC; an outright dismissal would have meant NBC writing Williams a monster check (and no doubt watching him decamp immediately for another network).

From a ratings standpoint, moving Williams to his old stomping ground at MSNBC may provide viewers a sense of stability, returning to older, stronger lineup from earlier days. This matters because Andrew Lack has returned to NBC as chairman of NBC News and MSNBC. Lack’s returned to do something about MSNBC’s plummeting ratings. “MSNBC has been on a ratings slide for months; in February, it was down 48 percent in primetime in the 25-to-54 demo and 43 percent in total day compared with the same month last year,” The Hollywood Reporter noted in March.

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BUT THE viewers are weighing in. A commenter at The Huffington Post remarked: “Within MSNBC, there’s concern that management’s move may create a misperception that journalistic standards are lower at the cable news network. If Williams isn't credible enough to anchor the broadcast news, as the decision may be interpreted, is he credible enough to anchor breaking news on cable?”

Steve Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal, told HuffPost that Williams' return to MSNBC gives him “the chance to earn back everyone’s trust ... his excellent work over twenty-two years at NBC News has earned him that opportunity.”

People who work at MSNBC aren’t mollified. One MSNBC insider told TheWrap that many at that network are ““dumbfounded how Williams’ lack of credibility squares ... with a network striving to be to be looked at more seriously for news coverage.”

Which doesn’t matter to Clay Cullum, who implicitly compared the ratings of MSNBC and NBC in a comment on the Williams situation in TheWrap: “He's in the federal witness protection program. No one will ever find him over on MSNBC.”

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Williams’ NBC loyalists will have to content themselves with Holt, who hit the ground running not long after his promotion. Holt took “Nightly News” in a new direction last week, anchoring a special one-hour edition of “Nightly” last week, in the face of events in Charleston, S.C., and the Supreme Court’s momentous decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage.

He didn’t shoehorn everything into a half-hour and then hand off to the affiliates; that one-hour special broadcast was a break with the past, and certainly suggests a willingness on Holt’s part to break with tradition — or with habit — and follow major stories outside the 30-minute box (As Events Warrant, of course).

With NBC and MSNBC under Lack’s experienced hand, we can be fairly confident that the break with the past that Lester Holt represents won’t be the last one.

Image credits: Holt: NBC News via Variety. Noah: Byron Leulemans/Comedy Central. Williams: NBC News.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Agony and grace in Charleston


THEY RANGED in age from 26 to 87. They were three men and six women gathered in the one American place you’re supposed to be safe: the bosom sanctuary of the black American church.

But on June 17, Dylann Storm Roof pulled his 2000 Hyundai Elantra into the parking lot of the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., walked inside, pulled out a .45 Glock pistol an hour later, and took their nine lives.

For the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, that sanctuary on Calhoun Street vanished. For the rest of us, what vanished were any remaining well-nurtured illusions that pure, unalloyed, unapologetic racism doesn’t exist in the United States.

Bahari Sellers asked on MSNBC: “If you can’t be black in a church, where can you be black in this country?”

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With one act, Roof became a lightning rod in the periodically intersecting debates of race relations and gun violence. There’s of course the never-ending battle over gun rights; Roof’s access to a handgun and the way he used it are problematic for Big Gun, the National Rifle Association, and its pro-gun lobby on Capitol Hill.

But the other, deeper, more uniquely American tragedy is there as well. Roof had his reasons for doing what he did, but reason itself had nothing to do with any of them. We knew that once it was learned he hoped to start a race war. We knew that after two private citizens and part-time bloggers discovered Roof’s manifesto on another undisclosed web site. On that site, under the heading of “An explanation,” Roof offered his own cracked manifesto, explaining the actions to come:

“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

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THE MURDERS in Charleston were swiftly followed by champions of the non-diagnosis, those who refused to see any causal connection between Roof’s meticulous, procedural plan of execution and the virulent bigotry that motivated him to follow through on that plan.

On June 19, Bill Maher cut to the chase on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher “The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, said, ‘We’ll never understand.’ Jeb Bush: ‘We can’t know.’ Jindal, Lindsay Graham, all of them said some version of, ‘It’s incomprehensible. There’s no way to know what motivated a racist to kill black people,’” Maher said. “Fellas, you know what? When a guy like this talks about, ‘The South will rise again,’ he’s not talking about IQ levels. This guy openly said he was trying to ‘start a race war,’ which is delusional ...



“There are words you can’t say on the right. One of them is taxes—as in we’re going to raise them—and one of them is racism. They hate being called ‘racists,’ conservatives, but isn’t denying racism in and of itself a form of racism?”

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Nothing’s created in a vacuum. In a piece published June 21 in The Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi and John Avlon turned over the rock of the Council of Conservative Citizens and discovered a sordid history squirming underneath. In their masterful report, Nuzzi and Avlon explain how the Council of Conservative Citizens bears “a dark lineage, descending from the White Citizens Councils that sprang up throughout the deep South as part of the “massive resistance” to desegregation, spurred by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.”

The reporters explore the history of the council from the heyday of the Jim Crow era up to the year 2007 — when a statement of principles made it clear that the Council opposed “all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”

This in 2007. In such an environment, with such a relentless and poisonous history to motivate him, what Dylann Roof did on June 17 wasn’t just possible, it was almost inevitable.

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THE ZERO-sum-game mentality reflected in the thinking of the Council of Conservative Citizens is all of a piece with an older generation of white Southerners chronologically long removed from the Civil War but fully versed in the Jim Crow era and the years after.

It’s a matter of identity, in their case an identity that’s a product of both regional pride and racial hatred. The old wounds and slights from losing the Civil War, the outrage and resentments over social advances in the Jim Crow era — all have been handed down from one generation to the next; Dylann Roof is just one of the latest to brandish inheritance of this malignant heirloom.

The others are the various nightcrawlers who set fire to at least three mostly black churches in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee ... in the past week. Two other fires — one in South Carolina, one in Ohio — are being investigated as possible arson, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

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 ...”


◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

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.”

◊ ◊ ◊

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).”

◊ ◊ ◊

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.

◊ ◊ ◊

“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.

◊ ◊ ◊


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.
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