Monday, June 29, 2009

BILLY MAYS: The Voice of Capital Letters

For fifteen years he was the guy we loved to hate to love; he was noisy and incessant, but he typified the ubiquity of the infomercial era.

BILLY MAYS, outrageously versatile infomercial pitchman, the Voice of Capital Letters, died on Sunday. He was found at his condo in Tampa, Fla., by his wife at 7:45 a.m. that morning, according to the Tampa Police Department. Preliminary autopsy reports determined he died of a pulmonary embolism, partly due to a thickening of the wall of his heart’s left ventricle. He was only 50 years old.

Mays had returned to Tampa the day before on a US Airways flight that made a hard landing when one of the tires blew out on arrival. When he was interviewed after the plane landed, Mays said some of the luggage in the overhead bins hit him in the head; so far, however, authorities haven’t found a connection between the head strike and his untimely exit from the marketplace.

◊ ◊ ◊

Mays first came to our attention in 1993 on the St. Petersburg-based Home Shopping Network, where he was the pitchman for Orange Glo, an environmentally-friendly citrus-based household cleaner that, in Mays’ hands, was promoted as the greatest thing since sliced bread. He broke big into prominence shortly after that as the on-air salesman for Oxi-Clean, a brand of oxygen-activated detergent that Mays peddled with a rugged, carnival-barker enthusiasm.

In time, Mays became the embodiment of the curiosity-shop diversity of the infomercial age, turning up everywhere, selling everything from clothes repair glue to mops, from car-scratch removers to burger cookers, engraving tools to vacuum cleaners, wireless light switches to health insurance.

It was BILLY MAYS’ world, we just rush $19.95 to the address on our screen.

Mays and friend and fellow TV salesman Anthony Sullivan were the stars of the show “Pitchmen” on the Discovery Channel, a program that tracked the two in their various marketing assignments.

On Monday, HSN released a statement hailing Mays as a "legend in the electronic retail history whose personality, entrepreneurial spirit and thoughtfulness for others have always been larger than life."

“He has one speed, 100 miles an hour — take it or leave it.” Sullivan told The Washington Post last year.

◊ ◊ ◊

There were pretenders to the throne. Vince Offer, the Shamwow! pitchman, was gaining ground before police found him shortly after noshing on a hooker in Vegas.

But Mays was always THE MAN. Something in Mays' abrasive, overcharged approach suited perfectly the times in which he ruled the world of infomercials; his rise dovetailed with the dawn of the hypershout of our time, Everyvoice, the collective populist entity composed of the denizens of news Web sites posting comments with the CAPS LOCK FUNCTION OF THEIR COMPUTERS (and their brains) PERMANENTLY ENGAGED.

Mays’ bunkerbuster style coincided with the brash militaristic swagger of the Bush administration. Now the country has ratcheted down emotionally in its embrace of Obama cool. Mays was, despite his popularity, in the process of becoming a symbol of cultural excesses that aren’t as diverting, or even as interesting, as they once were.

Years too soon, Billy Mays has passed from the scene, gone on to that big infomercial in the great beyond. The Head Operator is taking his call. For the rest of us, and for an infomercial industry suddenly without a symbol, the question is: Who’s next? Who’ll step up to the plate? WHO’S READY TO SELL TO AMERICA? Somebody step up, and fast. Let’s go.

We can’t do this all day.
Image credits: Billy Mays I: Billy Mays II: Orange Glo International.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Big media's two-part wake up call

Coverage of two recent news events firmly set a bright dividing line between the old media world and the new one we’re very much in. Two media mavericks — one essentially an aggregator with attitude, the other a Web site long thought to be captive of the tabloid mentality — caught traditional media flat-footed, proving, first, that the little guys in media are gaining ground on the big guys; second, in some ways, there are no big or little guys in media anymore.

The flood-the-zone coverage of the death of Michael Jackson revealed how the hierarchy of American media has changed. More than any other recent celebrity event, Michael’s passing took breaking news out of the hands of the established leaders of electronic media.

TMZ, the celebrity Web site and cable channel owned by Time Warner, has long been regarded as a renegade enterprise with a taste for the salacious and the eccentric. TMZ gives priority online to ambush videos of certain higher-magnitude stars in Hollywood, a style of journalism given to breathless disclosures of whether a star took a doggie bag home after dining out.

But even before Michael Jackson died on Thursday, TMZ was demonstrating its ability to perform solid gumshoe reporting; to capitalize on knowing the celebrity terrain, and knowing it very well.

The Los Angeles Times, beaten to the punch in its own backyard, owned up on Friday:
Just after noon on Thursday, paramedics responded to a 911 call at Jackson's Holmby Hills mansion. Less than an hour later, TMZ -- the same outlet that broke Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade during a 2006 DUI arrest … landed the scoop that the multiplatinum pop singer had gone into cardiac arrest. At 2:44 p.m., it beat rivals by informing the world of his death, which occurred at 2:26 p.m. …

CNN was still relying on “reports” from other media and telling viewers it could not independently verify the death. Only when the coroner's office confirmed Jackson's death did CNN relay it as outright fact to viewers, at 4:25 p.m.

MSNBC was similarly enamored of itself and its traditional sources. For several, several minutes after TMZ had announced Jackson was dead, MSNBC and NBC News hemmed and hawed, waiting for their own people (or The Associated Press) to swoop in and validate or disprove everything.

It’s curious that MSNBC didn’t even run the TMZ report in a fully attributed context (“TMZ: Michael Jackson is dead”), which would have given them perfectly reasonable cover if TMZ was wrong. MSNBC waited until the Los Angeles Times confirmed Jackson's death before airing anything that put Jackson in the existential past tense.

But between the time TMZ broke the story and when The Times weighed in, MSNBC didn’t even mention the TMZ report, apparently deciding that a celebrity news outlet that covered fender-benders of the rich & famous couldn’t be trusted to get this story right. It was like TMZ didn’t even exist. It was a huge misreading of the sources TMZ has on the ground in L.A., and a mistake MSNBC probably won’t make again.

“That's typical,” TMZ managing editor Harvey Levin told The Times during a phone interview. “No matter what they say, people know we broke the story. That's how competitors handle it. There's no issue about our credibility.”

◊ ◊ ◊

A few days earlier at the White House, traditional media was put on notice that the game had changed. At a news conference on Tuesday, President Obama recognized Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post for a question. It was partly a nod to Pitney’s most recent role as a journalist — over the previous week he’d been live-blogging events out of Iran at a fanatically dedicated clip — and partly an Obama overture to the Iranian people (Pitney was to ask a question relayed to him by an Iranian citizen).

The decision to call on Pitney for a question was, thus, obviously orchestrated to some degree; Pitney knew ahead of time he was on the short list of reporters who would be asked to offer a question — a fact that got mainstream media’s knickers in a deep twist.

“My main feeling is they could have accomplished this without taking what in my experience is the unprecedented step of planting a designated hitter in the briefing room,” said Peter Maer of CBS Radio, told The New York Times on Wednesday. Maer’s experience covering presidents goes back to Jimmy Carter. His chosen medium of communication goes back to Guglielmo Marconi.

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite the similar objections from the mainstream press, the Pitney coup was a validation of an obvious known: the Internet, social media and the blogosphere have rocked the standing perception of what news is and where people go to get it. Journalism today is less about being a one-directional gatekeeper than it is about being the shepherd of a semi-permeable firewall that permits traffic in two directions.

The fact that The Huffington Post — whose editorial voice stems largely from the content of news services, bloggers and other Web sites — would be recognized by the Obama administration as an equal partner in the White House press corps gave D.C. journalists the shock of the new. Obama recognizes that paradigm shift underway in the news business; he gave new media its just propers on Tuesday.

“The president had no idea what the question would be,” said Arianna Huffington, HuffPost editor-in chief, to The New York Times. “So much for an orchestrated conspiracy. This was an exciting moment for new media and citizen engagement. It’s a pity so many in the traditional media didn’t get it.”

Mainstream media has lately been on the receiving end of many lessons about how the future works. Witness two more.
Image credits: TMZ logo: © 2009 TMZ Productions Inc. Nico Pitney: CNN.

Planet Michael

Over forty years, Michael Jackson proved he knew how to take center stage. On Thursday he showed he knew how to exit the stage, too. Jackson’s joyous, macabre hold on the popular imagination was so total that when he passed on Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles, hundreds danced under the marquee of the Apollo Theater in Harlem; hundreds of people, black or white, laughing and in tears, singing the songs that made him the most influential figure in pop-music history.

He jacked up cell-phone traffic and damn near crashed the Internet; AT&T reported that it was sending text messages at a rate of 65,000 per second in the hours after the news broke. Google went into “self-protective mode” after being flooded with searches related to nothing more complex than the singer’s name.

Now comes the postmortem. Less than 24 hours after the word went out that he was dead, the speculation’s begun on what brought on the demise of a man at the heartbreaking age of 50. Jackson’s long known to have abused prescription drugs; some are darkly invoking the idea of a departure like Elvis, with narcotics prescribed by, if not administered by, an unknown doctor feelgood.

MJ’s passing leaves a number of questions about his three children, the oldest an impressionable 12 years old. The wrangling over their custody, and ugly insinuations about their biological provenance, has already started.

And Michael’s death effectively creates a California Estate Lawyers’ Full Employment Act; resolving his financial condition — a farrago of suits, countersuits, unpaid bills and obligations — could tie up attorneys for months or years to come.

◊ ◊ ◊

So now he belongs to the fans and, absolutely, the lawyers. But Michael’s early departure also cements him to the ages. Like Louis, Miles, Bing, Sinatra, Trane and Elvis, Michael is now in the hall of the immortals and, on the basis of commercial impact, may be the first among equals. History knows Michael Jackson on a first-name basis from now on.

The lucrative value of his image, its merchandising potential, will make him more of a marketable presence now than he was before. It’s been said: death can be a brilliant career move; witness the still-thriving catalogs of some of those in the rock pantheon of untimely departures: Buddy, Jimi, Janis, Elvis, Bob and Kurt. reported Thursday having exhausted its presumably large cache of Michael Jackson albums and DVDs; eBay saw a big spike in its traffic, caused largely by items of Jackson memorabilia, their worth ghoulishly escalated in an instant. That $500 million debtload Michael was facing may be more easily retired now than when Michael was alive.

And eventually, Hollywood loves an icon: Sure as night follows day, right now, a scriptwriter there is sketching out the first outlines of what will become a Major Motion Picture.

◊ ◊ ◊

But ultimately, it’s bigger than iconography and marketing and royalties and the images we associate with them. Like Louis and Ray and Miles and James, Michael changed the sound of our sound.

As you’d expect, the immediate vacuum of his absence was filled by the media, a clamor for clicks, viewers and readers that goes on today.

But with his suddenly inescapable ubiquity in the mediascape — All Michael All the Time — Michael Jackson became visibly again what he’s always been (more surreptitiously) for years: not just a component of popular culture but one of its central, indispensable molecules whose absence would change the sound we hear, dull the beats we move to, dilute the spectacles we’ve become accustomed to.

Sir Mix-a-Lot said it Friday from Seattle, put the Michael Jackson phenomenon in a context that has less to do with adoration of a public figure and more to do with participation in that figure’s vision: “He was that planet we all wanted to land on.”

◊ ◊ ◊

And ultimately we did land on that planet, or we discovered, on Thursday afternoon, that Michael’s planet is the one we’re already on. The one that Michael’s sound unified. The one that Michael’s music proves we share. The one whose spiritual oxygen is permanently juiced by a voice and musical talent the likes of which we will never see again — but which will be with us every day, everywhere, forever.

That’ll do for a snapshot definition of timelessness. Need another one? There may be no better proof of Michael Jackson’s impact in the world of music and culture, the irrepressible joy of his sound amid the horrors of our modern life, than what’s happening in world capitals from London to Berlin to Beijing in his honor, and what happened in flashmobs in London and Liverpool ...

And what happened spontaneously and boisterously in New York City, where it all began.

Three hours after he was dead, Michael Jackson was live at the Apollo.

You want timeless? Top that.
Image credits: New York Times: © 2009 The New York Times Company. RIP glove: Via MSNBC. Israeli-language front page: Yedioth Ahronoth.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sanford’s travels down Argentina way

Just when you were certain there were no more wounds for the Republican Party to self-inflict; when it seemed the GOP had done all the damage to itself that could be done between elections … a fresh scandal arrives, one with seamy, steamy sordid aspects — the kind of thing we’d been conditioned to believe the Republicans were morally immune to.

Unless of course you count David Vitter. Or Mark Foley. Or Larry Craig. Or John Ensign.

To their, uh, swelling number we can now add the name of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, whose frank talk with the state’s media — and by extension, the rest of the country — on Wednesday revealed an extramarital affair that will doom his political prospects, and further doom his party’s political prospects, for 2012.

“I’ll lay it out,” Sanford said Wednesday in a media scrum outside his office in in Columbia, S.C., the state capital. “It’s going to hurt, and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. I’ve let down a lot of people. That’s the bottom line.”

A snapshot of this tale of the wayward heart begins on June 18, Thursday last, when Sanford apparently left the governor’s mansion alone and driving a black state vehicle to Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

The official statement from his office was that the governor had been taking some time away from the rigors of his elected office to go and hike the Appalachian Trail over Father's Day weekend. He wasn’t seen or heard from for the next six days. The lieutenant governor wasn’t notified of his absence until Sunday.

Sanford turned up again on early Wednesday morning, this time at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said to be the nation’s busiest. And this time he had a surprise visitor: a reporter from The State newspaper of South Carolina.

According to The State, Sanford
said he decided at the last minute to go to the South American country to recharge after a difficult legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers over how to spend federal stimulus money.

Sanford said he had considered hiking on the Appalachian Trail, an activity he said he has enjoyed since he was a high school student.

“But I said ‘no,’ I wanted to do something exotic,” Sanford said. “…It’s a great city.”

In bits and pieces, we’ve discovered just how great it was. The State reported that, later on Wednesday, Sanford owned up to his recent whereabouts, revealing that his secret trip was nowhere near the Appalachian Trail, but really to the Barrio Palermo district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, for an assignation with “Maria,” a mother of two teenage children, the object of affection who was not his wife.

◊ ◊ ◊

All of this was known already, as it turns out. Since at least December, The State had apparently been in receipt of various e-mails between the governor and the woman in Argentina, Internet bon mots that read like Harlequin romance off the rails. Sanford was surely confronted with this not long after after he got off Delta Flight 110 on Wednesday.

The news conference later that day was strange, even in the annals of official confession. Sanford engaged in a protracted exposition, part biography, part political defense, part moralistic disquisition. He took forever to get to the point; there was a lot of preamble to the preamble before he dropped the mea culpa shoe.

“And so the bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a — what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth, in advice on one's life there and advice here.

“But here recently over this last year, it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. … I hurt a lot of different folks. And all I can say is that I apologize.”

Later, Sanford resigned from his post as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Here’s the transcript. Bring your lunch.

◊ ◊ ◊

Sanford’s political radioactivity has begun, right along with his status as the object of pointed humor you'd expect after something like this. He’s the butt of jokes already.

“We’ve learned that the Appalachian Trail extends from the Berkshires in Georgia to Buenos Aires — a geographic revelation to us all,” said Jim Warren on Wednesday, on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

And invariably, the Chyron artists of the language boiled it all down cleverly, in a catchphrase that’ll stick like Super Glue: “Sanford & Sin.”

Needless to say, any talk about Sanford pursuing the presidency is off the table. The obituaries started early. “It’s over — totally, completely, forever,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to Wayne Washington of The State. “This is dereliction of duty,” he said. “That’s how the public will look at this. Forget about hurricanes. With them, you get a warning. What about an outbreak of tornadoes? A governor is supposed to be close at hand.”

Some have suggested the key to his rehabilitation lies with his wife, the state’s first lady, Jennifer Sullivan Sanford, an heir to the Skil Corp. powertool fortune.

After it all exploded on Wednesday, Jenny Sanford said in a statement that she asked the governor to leave their home — on Sullivan’s Island — two weeks earlier.

“This trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage,” she said.

“The key to this is Jenny,” David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University, told The State. “If she’s a jilted wife, I think it would be awfully hard for him to hang on.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But no. The governor of the state of South Carolina is a hollow man today. Mark Sanford was often thought of, even by fellow Republicans, as a libertarian quixotic, an odd duck in GOP circles. This won’t do a thing to favorably move that perception.

And more importantly to the citizens of South Carolina, the governor of the state was AWOL, off the grid, nowhere to be found for days at a stretch. Vanished, not doing the people’s business, leaving a state of 4.5 million people rudderless and leaderless in the face of emergency.

On the one hand, you want to give the man credit for being able to disappear completely in a media-relentless, 24/7 world.

But like John McCain’s campaign stunt of pretending to be on his way to Washington when he was really in a New York TV studio, Sanford’s international affair speaks volumes about his character, and his priorities. The citizens of South Carolina won’t forget it. The citizens of the rest of the United States will never have a chance to worry about it.

As his party does damage control the rest of this week, adjusting to yet another family-values body blow — the second in two weeks — Sanford is doing his best to stand firm as governor, disregarding (for now) any talk of resignation. He’s getting more advice than he can use right about now.

The best of it might be to just hunker down, disappear and break out the Skil saw to work on rebuilding his marriage. And nothing else. To the degree that his hopes for the presidency ever had a foundation to start with, that hope’s now a condemned property.
Image credit: Sanford: Still from ETV news conference pool feed. Sanford cartoon: Dwane Powell, Raleigh News & Observer (McClatchy Newspapers). Sanford II: South Carolina Governor's Office.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The art of not waging war

As we could predict as reliably as the sunrise, President Obama’s muted and nuanced response to the Iranian crackdown on advocates of democracy has aroused from the Republicans a blustery rhetorical call to arms in defense of the Iranian people.

The president has been derided as “tepid,” "timid" and “weak” by the full-metal-jackanapes chorus of the GOP. What’s been left unsaid by the conservatives in Congress and their media puppeteers is the idea that, in the case of a foreign government in turmoil (and especially that government), saying less has a way of yielding dividends that saying too much would destroy.

“The Art of War,” Sun Tzu’s aphoristic 2,000-year-old study of the interplay of organizations in conflict, has been the bane of military and political leaders and fire-walking business executives for decades. Among its central principles is the idea that (from the introduction to the Thomas Cleary translation) “to overcome others’ armies without fighting is the best of skills.”

Cleary observes: “The strategy of operating outside the sphere of emotional influence is part of the general strategy of unfathomability that The Art of War emphasizes in characteristic Taoist style.”

Whether the new president of the United States has read a word of Sun Tzu’s text or not, he has thoroughly absorbed its essence and applied it, deftly, to the American response to the current situation in Iran. “What everyone knows,” says The Art of War, “is what has already happened or become obvious. What the aware individual knows is what has not yet taken shape, what has not yet occurred.”

◊ ◊ ◊

That’s not to paint the new commander-in-chief as some kind of Zen shaman wandering the White House wearing a monk’s robe after hours. But others in a position to know — Iranian scholars, political analysts and ordinary Iranian citizens weighing in online — have given Obama high marks as much for what he hasn’t said as for what he’s volunteered on behalf of Iranian democracy.

Last night, Jon Gazvinian, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, offered an assessment of the Iranian democracy movement that properly historicizes current events. He also provided a thoughtful interpretation of Obama’s responses and how they’re received by Iranian cirtizens, and the Iranian government and theocracy.

“The key point about the Iranian democracy movement is, it didn’t start with Twitter,” Ghazvinian told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. “It’s been going on for a hundred years — 120 years, arguably. And throughout that entire time, it’s been unique in the sense that the movement for democracy has gone hand in hand with a passionate, passionate desire to see no foreign interference in Iran … thankfully, we have a president of the United States who has at least some awareness of that history.”

“ … These protests have taken the regime off guard. They seem to have spent the last ten days somewhat confused, directionless, not quite sure how to respond. There’s nothing they want more right now than some galvanizing piece of heavy-handed American rhetoric they could hold on to. That would be the greatest gift we could give them.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Maybe the reaction from GOP lawmakers and thought leaders is understandable. Americans in general have had so little of what could be called nuanced American foreign policy over the last eight years. We’ve gotten accustomed to having a demolition team in the White House; we haven’t fully adjusted ourselves to the microsurgeons running the place now.

The constitutionally impatient American media, often more enamored of conflict than of results, have played the role of attack dog, jumping on the conservative bandwagon with none-too-subtle digs at President Obama for not indulging his rhetorical inner John Wayne in statements about Iran.

Obama has sharpened his tone in recent days, it’s true; but it’s been a sharpening of a pro-democracy sentiment that the president made clear from the beginning of the crisis. As events continue to unfold in Tehran and elsewhere in the Iranian Republic, we can expect to see more rhetorical adjustments from this president — tweaks of language, statecraft and delivery that properly react to the situation to the ground, rather than trying to anticipate it.

President Obama has embraced the unspoken kernel of The Art of War: the real art of going to war, rhetorical or otherwise, is in not going to war. It's recognizing that, in a boardroom, a military theater or the court of public opinion, the best war is one you don’t have to fight in the first place.
Image credits: Obama: White House photo by Pete Souza. Art of War: Kallemax (released to public domain).

Monday, June 22, 2009

The face of a movement

In the instant-on, all-access age of YouTube, it is difficult to observe a woman in the act of becoming a martyr. See the video below (if it hasn't been subject to a takedown). Do not turn away.

Despite all the ideals and visions necessary to help a social revolution take root and flourish among a people, one thing is unmistakable and necessary: A revolution needs a name, a face to rally around — one iconic image that distills (invariably through the fate of martyrdom) those ideals and visions, transmutes them from the dross and various substances of statements and platforms into the spun gold of a Cause.

For the Iranian people, that fate, that face, that name is Nehda Agha Soltan.

This is what happened to Nehda Soltan on Saturday as the music student stood on Karekar Avenue in Tehran, watching from a distance some of the vehement protests rocking Iran in the wake of a deeply disputed presidential election on June 12.

Nehda Soltan was shot to death by a plainclothes member of the pro-government Basij militia, loyal to the leaders of the Iranian theocracy — and left to die on the street. Amid screams and the energy of panic, her music teacher and others rushes up to administer first aid … but it’s her expression — that final placid gaze of seeing everything and nothing at all — that tells you all that matters.

Caspian Makan, the 37-year-old photojournalist who was Soltan’s boyfriend, told The Associasted Press that he asked her not to go out for fear she would be arrested or shot.

“But she said that our attendance would be worthwhile even if a bullet hits my heart," he said. "Unfortunately, that is how she died, a bullet hit her heart and her lung, and maybe 5 or 6 minutes later, she died.”

A doctor at the scene almost immediately was more diaristically precise in a posting to CNN’s IReport:
A young woman who was standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim's chest, and she died in less than 2 minutes.
The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street …

◊ ◊ ◊

The mullahs and clerics that rule a nation of 71 million people (half of whom are younger than the 1979 revolution that brought those mullahs and clerics to power) cannot have anticipated this. Their brute exercise of power has thoroughly overlooked not only the emotions of the Iranian people but also the resonance of the moment, this moment, captured forever in the Iranian psyche.

Like Joseph Welch’s confrontation of Sen. Joseph McCarthy; like the film of civil rights workers beaten crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge; like the Zapruder film of the assassination of John F. Kennedy; like the still images of the aftermath of the slayings at Kent State, the video of Nehda Soltan may be the Enough Moment for the Iranian people: the clarifying instant at which the tide began to shift and swell and move on the populist behalf.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist challenger to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for a general strike on Tuesday. The Supreme Council has threatened a further crackdown on protesters. At least 30 have already died. And mosques have been ordered to hold no memorials for Nehda Soltan, and, no doubt, the others slain in the recent violence.

Btu the game’s already changed. The random brutality of the Iranian regime, its ruthless bid for control, is no longer a theoretical thing, not an abstract concept, not a vaguely threatening boogeyman erected by the Republicans. It is real, as real as the lifeless body of an innocent woman on a Tehran street. And the evidence of that brutality isn’t a secret; it’s the agonizing substance of a visual document that has already circled the globe.

No lie can live forever. We may be certain the memory of Nehda Soltan will.
Image credit: Nehda Soltan: Twitpic.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Junior McCain attends Begala School

Meghan McCain, contributor to The Daily Beast and daughter of Sen. John McCain, was p’wned Friday by CNN political analyst and former Clinton White House intimate Paul Begala on "Real Time with Bill Maher." It was a short but somewhat embarrassing display of what ails the Republican Party even as it tries to retool itself more frantically than General Motors.

McCain, who's been increasingly visible as a kind of archetype of an MTV Republican, was rhetorically fencing with host Maher, Begala and BBC Washington anchor Katty Kay, discussing politics in the Obama era, how Obama’s done so far and other points that invited comparison of Obama and now former President George Bush.

McCain, while frankly admitting the Bush administration was a badly-flawed body of bureaucrats, came to Bush's defense. McCain offered the flat champagne of an argument that’s been mounted by the GOP leadership in recent months: “The Obama administration really has to stop completely blaming everything on its predecessor, completely."

When Maher asked McCain if this is what she truly believed President Obama is doing, McCain said "I do, to a degree."

Pissed, Begala said, "not to enough of a degree, I'm sorry … not nearly enough. President Reagan blamed President Carter for eight years —"

"You know," McCain said, "I wasn't born yet, so I don’t know."

Begala’s comeback was pitch-perfect. "I wasn't born during the French Revolution but I know about it."

McCain: “You clearly know everything, and I’m just the blonde sitting here."

Begala, his patience tried: “Bush did leave a heck of a mess for the president — “

McCain, in an obvious play for sympathy: “I’m the one Republican sitting at this table trying to defend it —“ Then, in a cheap play to the younger plain-spoken, potty-mouthed demographic: “I am getting shit like you cannot believe for going on this show. You cannot believe.”

Maher jumps in. “But tomorrow, you’ll have a whole new group of friends.”

McCain comes back with a weak let-us-break-bread-together line: “We have to start bridging the divide in this country, we do.”

It pretty much clearly went downhill from there (indeed, that’s when the Huffington Post video ends). You can watch it here.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain clearly thought her best line — “I wasn't born yet, so I don’t know" — would trump Begala on the basis of a younger, bolder demographic being cooler than thou; instead she just came off looking shallow and insubstantial, the embodiment of Cicero’s famous observation: “He who knows only his own generation remains always a child.”

OMG1, posting a comment at The Huffington Post, was not impressed, and responded with a frankness that was refreshing, and a comparison of McCain to another public figure that’s a little bit frightening:

“Wow, I had never heard her speak before.... she should stop. I was shocked. If she is the GOP youth representative, the GOP is truly in trouble. She came across as simple minded and inarticulate. She was way out of her intellectual league on that panel. MTV maybe but she is not ready for serious debate and discussion. She reminded me a little of Sarah Palin.”
Image credits: McCain, Begala: Snapshots from "Real Time With Bill Maher" feed via The Huffington Post.

The Sun: Make no plans for July 4th

For those of you making summer vacation plans, The Sun, that, uh, celebrated British tabloid with a tenuous hold on reality, suggests you might think otherwise.

The Sun’s cover reported June 20 that, according to a reliable end-time prophecy, the world is expected to end on July 4th. The means by which the third stone from the sun will be destroyed is unknown at this time. Also unclear is how the July 4th forecast for the demise of our planet will complicate the arrival of the extinction-level event others have planned for Dec. 21, 2012.

We can be at least briefly calmed by The Sun’s poor track record for accuracy. In the same issue, for example, readers discover that aliens had abducted former vice president Dick Cheney, apparently to learn his secrets for extracting information by torture.

And if all else fails — if you’ve reconciled yourself to dissipating the money in your IRA in the next two weeks and wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 4,000 from head to foot — consider the source of this nugget of news: The Sun is owned by media Sith Lord and fabulist Rupert Murdoch.

There now … don’t you feel better already?
Image credit: Sun front page snapped fro Current TV.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Truth to power, at last

"A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice."

Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin thus spoke truth to power on Thursday when he stood in the chambers of the United States Senate and called for and got, from his colleagues, a formal renunciation of the great American evil.

In a nonbinding resolution co-sponsored by Harkin and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and adopted unanimously, the so-called world’s greatest deliberative body formally apologized for slavery and its malignant stepchild, the segregationist Jim Crow laws that poisoned this nation for generations.

"So, it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws." Harkin continued.

The action, which came by voice vote, occurred 44 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, 45 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and more than 144 years after the end of the Civil War.

"A wrong of segregation was done by the federal government of the United States of America, and we acknowledge that," Brownback said. "We say it was wrong, and we ask forgiveness for that."

◊ ◊ ◊

But it didn’t come without some rhetorical strings attached. Because some Republicans and conservative Democrats apparently had concerns about the potential for such a resolution being manipulated by supporters of reparations for African Americans, the resolution included this language, a disclaimer:

“Nothing in this resolution (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”

The resolution on slavery passed by the House last summer contains no such fine print. And for some in and out of Congress, that’s a big problem.

“Putting in a disclaimer takes away from the meaning of an apology,” Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson told McClatchy Newspapers. “A number of us are prepared to vote against it.'”

Randall Robinson, a founder of the TransAfrica Forum and the author of "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," told The Washington Post that he viewed the Senate's apology as a “confession” that should lead to a next step of reparations. “Much is owed, and it is very quantifiable,” he said. “It is owed as one would owe for any labor that one has not paid for, and until steps are taken in that direction we haven't accomplished anything.”

Democratic Rep. Stephen Cohen of Tennessee, who helped shepherd the resolution through the Senate, tried to be circumspect and comprehensive about the measure. On MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Thursday Cohen said the apology “starts a process, a process I hope is a dialogue that makes people understand the effects and ramifications of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Those effects, he said, “are great. I see them in my district, I see them in the United States of America, and I think a dialogue can and should begin. … We have not apologized for the greatest sin this country has committed.”

The House is expected to revisit the issue next week to debate conforming its resolution from last summer to the Senate version.

◊ ◊ ◊

We’ve been here before, of course. In 1988, Congress apologized to Japanese Americans forced to live in internment camps in the Western United States during World War II. In 2005, the Senate adopted a resolution apologizing for its history over two centuries of filibustering legislation intended to prevent the lynching of African Americans.

And just last year, the Senate tiptoed closer to the line it appeared to cross on Thursday when it adopted an amendment apologizing for the nation’s brutality against Native Americans. All of which deeply beg the question of why it took the so-called world's greatest deliberative body so long to deliberate the obvious.

For some in the blogosphere, it’s revisiting an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue. Fatima Lahlaoui (ProudMuslim), commenting on the matter at NPR’s Web site:
To those who oppose such programs and even the idea of reparations:

Imagine if a significant chunk of YOUR own people were captured by hundreds of thousands, millions, by a superior power, taken to a distant foreign land, enslaved as economic, sexual, and more slaves by the rulers and citizens of that land, then following those centuries of enslavement, were subjected to another century of hard segregation and apartheid regime...

Question to you: in what shape and in what circumstances do you think your people would be after that kind of a historical treatment?
Truth is you can never do enough to even start repairing that kind of a genocidal crime.

But if “justice” actually means something to the US, they can try.

Harkin of Iowa and Brownback of Kansas deserve at least nominal credit for moving to act against a foundational stain on the national character — however late in the national history that action’s taking place. But the needless disclaimer attached to the Senate resolution makes it in another way a typically American document: one with an asterisk tied to fine print that dilutes and compromises the impact of the document it’s attached to.
Image credits: Harkin: U.S. Senate photo; Examiner front page, 1942; Peter, a whipped slave, Baton Rouge, La., April 1863. All: Public domain.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Conservatives: Stuck on stupid

Is there some idiotic ingredient in the water that conservatives drink, some special dumb molecule in the air that’s only inhaled by members of the GOP? It’s otherwise hard to understand the recent parade of monstrously foolish stunts by the Republican right against the Obama administration. Three in particular form this week’s conservative Stupidity Trifecta. You can decide the order of win, place or show.

These pearls of anything but wisdom either happened or have been disclosed in such rapid-fire fashion, it suggests this is some strategy on the part of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele to return the Republicans to power through the use of comedy and shock. Considering the source, what three of them did recently wasn’t especially shocking. It wasn’t even funny.

On May 28, Sherri Goforth, an administrative assistant to state Sen. Diane Black of Tennessee, posted to the Internet a collage containing images of the portraits of the previous 43 U.S. presidents, and, in place of the image of President Obama, a pair of cartoonish white eyes against a jet-black background.

Goforth, who admitted she sent the e-mail titled “Historical Keepsake Photo,” said she sent it “to the wrong list of people” by accident. Which necessarily begs the question of what the right list of people would be.

Black, leader of the state’s Senate Republican Caucus, insisted that Goforth would not be fired, issuing a ”strongly worded reprimand” that would make a slap on the wrist seem Draconian by comparison.

State Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester weighed in, in a statement posted on the party's Web site: “Unfortunately, Sherri Goforth's e-mail joins the list of shameful episodes by Tennessee Republicans, from the infamous ‘Birds of a Feather’ direct-mail piece that featured black crows with the heads of Barack Obama and [African-American] Rep. Nathan Vaughn, to the “Barack the Magic Negro” song that former Tennessee GOP Party Chairman Chip Saltsman sent to RNC members during his failed campaign for RNC chair.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Not to be outdone by his colleague in Tennessee, former South Carolina Election Commission chairman and Republican activist Rusty DePass got uglier still.

On Sunday, June 14, DePass suggested in a posting on Facebook that a gorilla that escaped from the Columbia, S.C., zoo earlier that weekend was an ancestor of first lady Michelle Obama.

Shortly after the western lowland gorilla’s escape from the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden was reported, DePass responded to a post about zoo incident written by an aide to the state attorney general. DePass posted: “I'm sure it's just one of Michelle's ancestors — probably harmless.”

DePass later told WIS-TV, a Columbia station, that the posting, on a South Carolina politics blog, was a joke. “I am as sorry as I can be if I offended anyone. The comment was clearly in jest.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But of course it wouldn’t be a day, or a week, without something from Rush Limbaugh, the tireless conservative gasbag and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast. On Wednesday, Limbaugh revisited a favorite target of opportunity: Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the president’s choice for a soon-to-be-vacant seat on the Supreme Court — again took her to task, this time for her membership in the Belizean Grove, an exclusive women’s social club based in New York City.

Referencing her membership, Limbaugh said on the air: “I think I’m going to send Sotomayor and her club a bunch of vacuum cleaners, to help them clean up after their meetings.”

It’s tempting, of course, to look at these in isolation, to see them as the whacked-out musing of malcontents whose actions don’t reflect on the party they work for or support. But of course they do and they should. They’re the lagging indicators of a party gone off the rails, apparently indifferent to having any role in the new American order beyond that of complainers, obstructionists and — to go from these examples — bigots.

And in the current vacuum of leadership within the Republican Party, it shouldn’t be surprising. With no one of any credibility around to speak as the GOP’s guiding voice, any yahoo with a bad sense of humor and an Internet connection gets to step up to the mike. In the absence of a principled leader, any blowhard with a radio audience can offer a sermon on the mount, and make it stick.

The GOP has made big noises recently about minority outreach, loudly launching various initiatives meant to restore the party’s prospects with minority voters. But the comments of these three chowderheads aren’t anything new; they just reflect what blacks and minorities, and millions of other Americans, have long believed to be true about Republicans, symbolized in the acts of three people obviously stuck on stupid.

With no one to lead it, the GOP is a rudderless ship. With apparently no one in it to take seriously, the Republican Party is clearly in jest.
Image credits: Goforth e-mail: Via CNN, but widely available online. Michelle Obama: From WIS-TV feed. Sonia Sotomayor: Stacey Ilys Photography.

Days of Twitter, days of rage

Against the backdrop of volcanic social revolution in Iran, once thought improbable but now all but certain, a powerful irony is at work: the nation vilified by the last administration as a backwards, isolationist danger has overnight distilled the practice of technological combat in the early 21st century.

A chess match is underway between the Iranian government and dissenters, a battle boiled down to its essence — despite the blood being shed on the streets of Tehran — by dueling masteries of information technology.

With foreign press credentials revoked and satellite connections severed by the Iranian regime, the images we’ve seen for days have come from the most personal of personal technology; police attacks monitored by cell-phone cameras; videos of young slain Iranians uploaded to YouTube; Twitter tweets and blog posts providing nothing less than the EKG of the pulse of unrest itself.

What’s unfolding on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere may well be the leading edge of war 2.0. It is certainly, to this point, the news story of the year.

There had to be blood. It started on Saturday with tension and confrontation in the wake of the disputed election results; President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was re-elected by a wide margin over challenger, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi — impossibly wide since millions of votes were still being counted when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner.

Day by day the unrest has spread. In the five days since, at least a dozen Iranians have reportedly been killed. And according to some with knowledge of the situation on the ground, today and Friday are expected to be pivotal days in the outcome of a revolt — the Twitter Resistance? — that has roiled a nation in which more than half of its 70 million people are under the age of 25.

Reza Aslan, writer, TV commentator and columnist on Middle Eastern affairs for The Daily Beast, put events in a tidy historical frame on Wednesday, talking to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “What's really fascinating about what's happening right now in 2009 is that it looks a lot like what was happening in 1979.

“ ... [W]hat you’re going to see tomorrow is something that was pulled exactly out of the playbook of 1979, which is that you have these massive mourning rallies, where you mourn the deaths of those who were martyred in the cause of freedom. And these things tend to get a little bit out of control, they often result in even more violence by the security forces and even more deaths, which then requires another mourning rally which is even larger, which then requires more violence from the government, and this just becomes an ongoing snowball that can't be stopped.

“I think we're going to see crowds that we haven't even begun to see yet, and then follow that, on Friday, which is sort of the Muslim sabbath, the day of prayer, which is a traditionally a day of gathering anyway. This is just beginning, Rachel, this is just the beginning.”

How apparently true. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the regime’s Interior Ministry has ordered an inquiry “into an attack late Sunday night on Tehran University students in a dormitory reported to have left several students dead and many more injured or arrested. Students say it was carried out by Islamic militia and police.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s on. The whole world really is watching this one. YouTube has lowered its threshold on video restrictions, allowing some of the more gruesome but historically necessary videos to be seen full on. A group at the University of Chicago has set up a Web site that will receive faxes from Iran, to be posted online.

Add to that the previous attempts on the part of Mousavi supporters to conduct broad, unprecedented denial-of-service attacks on government Web sites, and the ongoing populist approach to spreading the word (see the video below), and you have the foundation for the most sweeping change in Iran in 30 years.

The Guardian UK reports, via the blog of the National Iranian American Council reports that Basiji militiamen who have been seen beating and harassing pro-Mousavi protesters now hide their faces for fear of retaliation.

Ian Black, The Guardian's Middle East editor reports that Ahmadinejad hasn’t been seen in public since Monday, when he traveled to Russia for a conference: “Analysts and diplomats say that the fact that Ahmadinejad has not been seen for three days as street protests and political turmoil rage suggests his position may have been weakened,” Black reports.

"If he was feeling confident, he would be more visible," said Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s the most exciting and perilous development in the Middle East in years, and it seems that it’s just taking shape. Guardian correspondent Saeed Kamali Dehghan reprted that perhaps a million people showed up at a major mourning rally today. Mousavi has called for a candlelight vigil tonight.

And Press TV reports that a leading reformist group of influential clerics has requested authorization for a pro-Mousavi rally on Saturday in Tehran.

With events unfolding so rapidly, it may be impossible to say what the proverbial tipping point in Tehran will be. There may be more than one. But the passions so far unleashed are a genie of discontent that won’t soon be stuffed back into the bottle.

Journalists have long likened their craft to writing “the first draft of history.” That’s what’s developing in Iran right now, but different. That first draft is written not by journalists, but by everyday people in the streets, one blog post, one video, one tweet at a time.
Image credits: Citizens of the next Iran: Citizens of the next Iran.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Live, from Tehran: Online War I

It’s long been a matter for debate among technology aficionados and the general public: How would the immediacy and impact of communications in the Internet age be directed or manipulated to sway the outcome of a presidential election?

The current government of President Barack Obama, to date the most transformational beneficiary of the Internet era, proves that millions of people working and talking online can build a following and influence a presidential outcome in the United States.

Today, though, on the streets and in the private homes of residents of Tehran, we’re witnessing what may be the opening salvos of the first online war, a conflict in which the combatants are fighting not just with content and ideology, but also with dueling technological actions mean to altogether eliminate the other’s online capabilities.

The clashing forces of loyalists to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and those supporting reformist presidential aspirant Mir Hossein Mousavi have, in effect, made Web sites, social media and video cameras parallel warriors — as much the soldiers in this conflict as the Iranian citizens themselves.

This revolution will be televised — as well as e-mailed, YouTubed and Twittered. And it's just getting started.

◊ ◊ ◊

For proof, you only have to look at the excellent near-real-time running chronology of today’s events in Iran, a riveting blend of text, video and still images helmed by Nico Pitney of The Huffington Post.

Saturday’s election in Iran, thought to be a bellwether for the Iranian Republic and indicative of a rising disdain for the government's reflexively anti-American rhetoric, pitted Ahmadinejad against Mousavi for the presidency, a post that combines various administrative authorities in a position subordinate to the Supreme Council of ayatollahs who really direct the country’s government. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, but questions remain about the veracity of the outcome.

But to go from Pitney’s chronology, the Iranian government grasped the importance of controlling media inside Iran — or trying to — within hours after the results were announced.

Citing CNN, Pitney reports that at 8:47 a.m. ET, Iran shut down the Tehran bureau of Al-Arabiya, the highly-regarded Arab news channel.

At 2:24 p.m., Pitney relays a reader’s e-mail reporting that the correspondent for German news channel ZDF was forbidden to broadcast, and that German broadcaster ARD was similarly affected, with more ominous results:

… six men from the militia entered the ARD's Tehran office carrying batons and knifes. When they left they took the ARD's technician with them. [ARD correspondent Peter] Metzger said they have not heard from him since.

At 2:58 p.m., Pitney filed an e-mail report, later independently confirmed, that BBC Persia was affected by "heavy electronic jamming." Later, Agence France Presse reported that:
The British Broadcasting Corporation said the satellites it uses for its Persian television and radio services had been affected since Friday by "heavy electronic jamming" which had become "progressively worse." 
Satellite technicians had traced the interference to Iran, the BBC said.

BBC Arabic television and other language services had also experienced transmission problems, the corporation said.

At 3:02 p.m., Pitney reports, via reader e-mail: “Via emailer Nick: The anti-Ahmadinejad Twitter user @StopAhmadi, who has been posting virtually nonstop over the last few days, mounted an apparently successful effort to swarm Ahmadinejad's website and shut it down.

“He's now targeting Khamenei's site,” Nick said, referring to the Web site for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.

At 3:22 p.m. Pitney relays correspondent reports of an intensifying crackdown on the foreign media. ABC's Jim Sciutto tweets that "police confiscated our camera and videotapes. We are shooting protests and police violence on our cell phones."

Alex Hoder, otherwise unidentified but presumably with NBC, said on Twitter: “NBC offices in Tehran raided, cameras and Equipment confiscated. BBC told to get out Iran immediately. Cell/internet shut down”

At Twitter, @persiankiwi checks in: "tehran is like war zone. it is unbelievable. i have not seen this for 30 years”

◊ ◊ ◊

Earlier, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asked that network’s verteran Middle East correspondent Christiane Amanpour, to distill everything she’d seen last night and today into a few meaningful images. What was the takeaway for her?
“The numbers of people in the streets. The level of discourse. The debates on television. The freedom with which people on the streets were able to debate and say what they wanted to say. The huge turnout. [They] all pointed towards progress and a much more robust participation than we've ever seen in the past, and the people here say they've [haven't] seen since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago.”

Where this goes from here is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to say this is only the beginning. From the Web site for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC): “Ghalamnews (Mousavi's newspaper) reports Mousavi is calling for a peaceful march along Valiasr street in Tehran and in 19 other cities on Monday and a national strike on Tuesday.”

Meantime, a You Tube video from Saturday night (found on the NIAC blog) may be the most compelling and symbolically instructive of all. In the video, which surveys the skyline of Tehran, people can be heard shouting from the rooftops across the city: “Allahu akbar!” — “God is great.”

Pitney relates a related message from a reader:

“My next door neighbor is an Iranian immigrant who came here in 1977. He just received a SAT phone call from his brother in Tehran who reports that the rooftops of nighttime Tehran are filled with people shouting … The last time he remembers this happening is in 1979 during the Revolution.”

Watching this video, seeing the firestorm of passion and spontaneous outrage, you can’t help but think of that moment in the film “Network” when, prompted by the viral cri de coeur of Howard Beale, the citizens of New York City storm their porches and balconies to announce their discontent to the world.

This time, though, it’s different. This time it’s not a movie, it’s real life. This time it’s not New York City in the 70’s, it’s Tehran 2009. There’s every reason to think that millions of ordinary people in Tehran, and Iran beyond, are truly mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.
Image credits: Peace-sign activist: Cycle on fire: Some gutsy videographer in Iran, via YouTube.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Steele's Republican hat dance

The endlessly refreshing comedy of errors that is the Republican Party opened a new act over the weekend, with one of the established ringmasters back in the limelight.

Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee and one-time GOP ambassador to hiphop America, assumed new responsibility as fashion consultant to young Republicans when he spoke Saturday at the College Republicans’ National Convention in Washington.

ThinkProgress attended the event, at which Steele, in a rattling disquisition of prospective party unity, coughed up a wild and wholly imaginary metaphor for an equally imaginary diversity of expression within the GOP.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Each of these individuals is wearing a hat. And on that hat it says very boldly and very proudly ‘GOP.’ So Chuck has a hat on and being from LSU, Chuck wears his hat with the brim straight ahead. Strong. No messin’ around. Now, our friend here from Penn State wears his hat cocked a little bit to the left, the brim locked to the left. … Our friend from Florida, she wears her hat with the brim sort of cocked to the right, because that’s just they are in Florida. … Our friend from UCF wears her hat backwards because that’s how they roll, all right? …

“Let me ask you a question: What do they have in common? They’re all wearing the same hat. So what does it matter how they wear it? Every morning they get up and they put it on. And they wear it just as proudly as any of their friends from around the country … And what we have to help the party to understand is the strength of the party is in this: not how you’re wearing the hat, but the fact that you’re willing to put the damn thing on. And the problem we’ve had as a party is that too many of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family members are taking that hat off. Because we have decided we don’t like the way they wear it.

“We don’t care how you wear it. The fact that you have it on is a reflection of the diversity and the opportunities that we have always from the founding of this party stood for. …

“The difference is, Barack Obama has asked your generation to wear his hat, his hat — the hat of one man. I’m asking you to go out and ask your friends to wear our hat -– the hat of an idea. The hat of an ideology, the hat of a philosophy.”

◊ ◊ ◊

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Steele rolled this creaking metaphor out of the hangar before, at the end of April, in an interview with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

There are aspects of Steele’s thinking that begin to make common sense for a political party deep in the wilderness: Steele at least paid lip service to the idea of diversity under a common banner of Republicanism — a point that Meghan McCain (daughter of Sen. John McCain) has recently made, more pointedly, herself.

For some in Steele’s audience, that was the takeaway. “We need to break down stereotypes about Republicans,” said Hope Staneski, a Bates College sophomore, to a reporter for the Campus Progress Web site. “We need to let people know we’re a party of everybody. It might not be clear that we’re inclusive, but we are. There are LGBT Republicans.”

◊ ◊ ◊

But the trouble is embodied in the hat metaphor itself. The idea of unifying under the same hat falls apart in the face of the Republican Party’s more pressing problem: deciding on what the hat itself should look like. With movement conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich in one office of the GOP Hat Design Company; moderate conservatives like Lindsey Graham, Tom Ridge and Olympia Snowe in another; congressional flamethrowers like Michelle Bachman running through the halls spouting nonsense; and former vice president Dick Cheney self-barricaded in the room with the company’s public-address system, the job #1 of designing that unifying chapeau hasn’t even happened yet. That's more than a nuance, it's a bedrock issue.

Part of that design process means finding a spokesman for the party itself. A new USA Today/Gallup Poll shows the scope of the Republican challenge. Asked who the spokesman for the Republican Party was, 13 percent of Americans polled in the survey said it was Limbaugh; 10 percent said it was Cheney; 6 percent called Gingrich the new GOP voice box, same number for John McCain. The big winner in the poll? “No one.” That’s who 52 percent of the poll respondents said was the uncontested leader of the GOP.

It’s that huge slice of the electorate that could be the new GOP army, the foundation for a resurgence at the polls. They could be the ones to put on Michael Steele’s hypothetical headwear. If only they knew what it was.

In his address, Steele again made the mistake of assuming that Obama’s Democratic victory in November was the triumph of the cult of personality rather than the triumph of an idea, an ideology, a philosophy taking root among millions of Americans on Election Day.

Steele’s grand idea of one party under a hat is a politically sound one; we know that already, Barack Obama exploited it to great advantage last November. But the new president understood something the GOP — party of many voices and paradoxically a party of none — consistently overlooks: You can’t get people under a hat if there’s no hat to get under.
Image credit: Steele: Still from Fox News.

A letter to the New York Pest

Better late than never, we suppose: On Wednesday the New York Post, conservative mouthpiece of media buccaneer Rupert Murdoch announced plans for something unprecedented in The Post’s history, and (given its history for journalism and editorializing that’s biased and ethnically insensitive) totally unexpected.

The Post, part of the global vertically integrated media octopus known as News Corporation, has agreed to form a diversity council in response to the public outcry about a Post cartoon that critics said likened President Obama to a dead chimpanzee shot to death by police.

Predictably enough, the Post took a roundabout way of making the announcement: by not making it directly. The plans for the diversity council aren’t included on the News Corporation Web site’s current press release listings. It fell to Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president and CEO of the NAACP, to state what was going on. Jealous said Wednesday that News Corp. had agreed to form the “diversity community council” that will meet twice a year with company executives.
News Corp is also expected to include a statement of commitment to diversity in its annual report.

News Corp. spokesman Jack Horner separately told the Associated Press that the council would include members from a range of organizations including the NAACP, 100 Black Men of America, Hispanic Federation, Alianza Dominicana, the National Urban League and the National Action Network, run by Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime stone-in-the-shoe of the New York Post.

Leaders of many of those groups met with News Corp. brass on May 19.

◊ ◊ ◊

The lifting of the scales from the eyes of the Post brain trust isn’t so sudden, of course. This sea change comes in the wake of the controversy that started on Feb. 18 when the Post printed a cartoon by Post staff cartoonist Sean Delonas. The cartoon, which isn’t even remotely funny in the first place, was published as Obama's stimulus bill was moving through Congress and after a violent pet chimp was shot to death by police in Connecticut.

The cartoon showed the corpse of a bullet-riddled chimp with two police officers standing nearby. One of the officers says: “They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

The Post later apologized, of course, but the newspaper has a long reputation of trashing minorities and others outside its narrow ideological orbit. Chuck D of Public Enemy once called the Post “America’s oldest continually published daily piece of bullshit.” Back in early 1980, the Columbia Journalism Review went so far as to say that "the New York Post is no longer merely a journalistic problem. It is a social problem — a force for evil." Its columns and especially its front page (with its lurid compression of events into screaming 100-point type) are rife with crass sensationalism, a hallmark of its style for years.

◊ ◊ ◊

Now, though, the Post is making the right noises. “The key is we're always responding and learning from our communities.” Horner told The AP. And if that’s true, we have a lot to look forward to in terms of other actions that News Corp. takes in response to community concerns about sensitivity.

If Murdoch and News Corp. are serious about “responding [to] and learning” from the communities that comprise their audience, we can expect to hear about a formal apology from Bill O’Reilly, the tirelessly sanctimonious conservative apologist pit-bull host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” on the Fox News Channel, a News Corp. tentacle.

It was O’Reilly who since 2005 constantly characterized Dr. George Tiller (a late-term abortion provider operating legally in Wichita, Kansas) on the air as a man “operating a death mill” with “blood on his hands,” as someone on a par with al-Qaida, and as “Tiller the Baby Killer.”

Tiller was shot to death — some have used the word “assassinated” — in the lobby of his church by a pro-life extremist on May 31.

◊ ◊ ◊

Let’s go further: If Murdoch/News Corp. are for real about “responding” to Americans’ better sensibilities, we can expect to hear that O’Reilly’s received his walking papers from Fox News — fired for his contribution to the coarsening of the public discourse, and for stoking an atmosphere of violence and intolerance that the chimp cartoon only hinted at.

The New York Post diversity council is a good beginning; the principles such a council would presumably stand for are just as necessary applied to Fox News — in fact, they’re more necessary at Fox News, which boasts an audience larger than the New York Post by orders of magnitude.

Words and images aren’t meaningless, empty things. They can damage and kill; they can cultivate a climate of permission that makes anything possible, from the character assassination of a president to the actual assassination of a doctor performing his constitutionally-protected job. The diversity council is a first baby step the Post has needed to take for a long time; we’ll see if the editors there have the courage to take any more.
Image credit: Page one, chimp cartoon: The New York Post. O'Reilly: Chris McCann, U.S. Army (public domain).

Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama in Cairo:The mountain climber comes to Mohammed

Even when he got it wrong, it seems, he got it right.

When President Barack Obama stepped out onto the stage Thursday at Cairo University in Egypt, epicenter of the nation that's in many ways the epicenter of the developing Muslim world, it was the fulfillment of a campaign pledge to deliver a major address in a major Muslim capital.

When the moment finally came, Obama rose to the occasion with more of the elegant, powerful oratory we’ve become accustomed to over the last four years, offering a largely anodyne message that was an earnest attempt to start fixing the calamitous course of Muslim-American relations over the last eight years.

None of which stopped a brother from Chicago from making some first-time flubs with a new language. The McClatchy news service noted that some in the audience benignly noticed Obama mangling the word “hejab,” the Muslim word for the ritual headscarf worn by women, saying “hajib” instead.

“The hajib comment, never mind,” said Mahmoud Salem, who blogs as Sand Monkey. “It's a message to the Islamic world — and it was a success.”

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Obama’s address (here’s the text) was laced with other evidence of respect for Islamic tradition, and touched on a number of hot-button regional issues, including the need to implement a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem; the spiritual vacancy of extremism; the vexing matter of expanding Israeli settlements; and concerns over women’s rights (a third-rail issue within Muslim culture).

But the 44th U.S. president, who already faces numerous challenges at home, faces the extra work of making good not on campaign pledges, but on the deeper pledges this nation has made historically to be an honest broker in the region, with deeds and not just words — something this country has failed to do for the last eight years.

Obama, the long-distance campaign runner, now has to be the long-distance mountain climber, someone who realizes that matters related to the fractious Middle East make for a dauntingly steep slog uphill.

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The early reaction to his Cairo address reflected the diversity of opinion in the Muslim world.

“Going to an Arab capital and speaking directly to Muslim people shows how serious he is about improving relations with the Islamic world,” said Abbas Ali, 26, a Baghdad restaurant worker speaking with USA Today.

Others, though, were not quite so charitable. Shirin Sadeghi, a former journalist for BBC and Al-Jazeera, was heartened and disappointed at the same time:

“[H]is words today were more useful to the governments with whom the United States must engage during his administration — governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, The Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, all of whom have a severely problematic regard for the rights of their people — than for the Muslim people whose living reality is too often stained by insufficient power to improve their lives,” she wrote Thursday at The Huffington Post.

“The White House promoted this speech as a discussion with the Muslim world, but most of what Obama said seemed geared either to the governments of the Muslim world or the Muslims who live in the West.”

“Even when he touched on women's rights, Obama framed it in a Western perspective: he disagrees with Western nations — perhaps an allusion to Germany and France's recent problems — who struggle with Muslim women wearing hejab.

“But he didn't come at the issue from the perspective that was promised — by addressing Muslims in Muslim countries. If that were indeed the case, we should have heard his analysis of women who are compelled or forced to wear hejab in these countries and women whose lives and livelihoods are severely impaired by the segregation of sexes that pervades much of the Muslim world.”

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And for Palestinians, the Obama administration represents both a new opportunity to find a solution, and a new call for that administration to equalize the value of Palestinian lives and objectives with those of Israelis. “The credibility of this administration depends on how much actual pressure they will exercise on Israel immediately,” said Mustafa Barghouti, of the Palestinian Legislative Council, to USA Today.

President Obama has shown a refreshing (and refreshingly consistent) ability to drill down into the weightier, more contentious issues of the day, stripping out their extraneous aspects and distilling what makes them tick, and doing it in a way people can get their minds and hearts around.

“He dives right into the heart of the most nettlesome controversies, the most emotional ones, the most historic ones, and tries, in part using his own life experience, to confront the realities of the debates we should be having, but aren’t always having.” Howard Fineman of Newsweek said on MSNBC on Thursday.

Obama will need that gift for clarity and insight as he pursues a solution to a problem that seems to require not Occam’s razor but Occam’s machete, not a glancing diplomatic blow but a sharp, bold break with the past. The president’s sending a very hopeful signal by taking on the Middle East early in his presidency. A good thing. As other well-intentioned administrations have previously discovered, when it comes to the Middle East, the devil’s not in the details. The devil is the details.
Image credits: Obama top: Still from MSNBC. Obama on stage: Pete Souza, The White House.
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