Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ambassadors of joy

We get so jaded these days. At every turn we’re disappointed and hardened by opportunists and mountebanks, rat bastards and fools of every shape and kind. It’s gotten easy, too easy, to adopt cynicism as a kind of baseline reaction to everything; people are “suspected murderers” instead of “murder suspects,” guilty until proven innocent. It’s a sour world, and the gray clouds never seem to lift.

But they do lift, more often than maybe we think. They lifted on July 3, when the Ambassadors of Harmony, a 160-member men's barbershop chorus based in St. Charles, Mo., sang at the 71st annual Barbershop Harmony Society's convention in Anaheim, Calif., and blew the roof off the joint in a rousing vocal and musical performance that flirted with nothing less than Perfection. The Ambassadors won the gold in the chorus division.

The award-winning group belongs to SPEBSQSA, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing in America. But don’t be confused by the quaint, spats-and-corsets label of “barbershop singing.” This isn’t your grandfather’s barbershop sing, with men in straw boaters and striped vests crooning “Sweet Adeline.” This is barbershop on steroids.

The group won the competition almost two months ago, and somehow it escaped our attention all this time (credit Robert J. Eilsberg, a columnist and screenwriter, for writing movingly about the performance on Friday in The Huffington Post). The group’s performance was contrary to the times we live in, all big and gooey and sentimental and Harking Back to an Earlier Time. And guess what? It works, maybe more now than at any other time.

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First, there’s the performance itself, a physical act that deserves exploration.

Put simply, singing can be hard work. The righteous positional marriage of the diaphragm, the lungs, the palate, the teeth and the mouth is a tricky one, and any partner in that marriage can file for divorce at any moment. And singing is difficult enough when you’re standing still, with a sturdy center of gravity.

Watch the video. You’re witnessing a special kind of singing taking place. Everyone on that stage is in constant motion, from virtually the first moment to the last, and there’s not a note, not a phrase out of place.

Another thing: This isn’t a rock & roll extravaganza. This isn’t a hip-hop battle, with everyone on stage brandishing a live mike, throwing his voice to the cheap seats.

The Ambassadors of Harmony, all of them, share one strategically placed stage microphone, but that’s it. That’s all. That sound you hear ringing against the rafters is amplified mostly by the machinery of the human voice impressively displayed by humans singing, paradoxically, in one voice.

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Then there's the song that clinched the win. “76 Trombones,” the timeless showstopper from Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” is not an easy tune to sing. Its phrasing, its measured but relentless lyric multisyllabic style are nothing for the lazy, complacent vocalist to try. But the wondrous simplicity of its message — witnessing an American parade by the light of a dazzling morning sun — is its own reward with the right people to sing it.

And the Ambassadors of Harmony were the right people to sing it last month. They brought their A game. You can see it. You can hear it. Even through the distancing of a YouTube video … you can feel it.

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We get so jaded these days, so inured to the world around us. We think we know everything.

But sometimes, we encounter those moments that trump our smug attitudes, breach the walls of our cynicism, demolish snark and irony, and send us into the streets, shivering and in tears of joy unconfined, shouting “you gotta see this!” … marveling at just how good human beings can truly be.

This is one of those moments.

Image credit: Ambassadors of Harmony: From their Web site.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Vaneglorious sunsabittches

A wheel’s worth nothing if there’s no turning, and the wheel of popular momentum lately enjoyed by conservative extremists over health care, domestic public policy and all things Obama is beginning to shift (which is to say continuing the shift that started in November).

The yahoos have had their hours in the sun. More's to come, for sure, but more recently there’s a growing sense that these lower-case Nazis, these thugs and brown shirts of the Internet age, are getting their comeuppance, hoist on the petards of intolerance that’s more obvious every day.

Thank goodness, it’s not the kind of reckoning administered by American soldiers to upper-case Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top WWII splatter epic, “Inglourious Basterds.” But some in the extremist cadres and their supporters are getting the rhetorical Louisville Sluggers upside the head that they and their lies deserve:

Rep. Michele Bachmann, the harebrained mouthbreathing Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, was heckled Thursday night at a town hall in Lake Elmo, Minn., reported Roll Call and Glenn Thrush of The Huffington Post.

"There's a rumor that President Obama was going to have Tiger Woods play a round of golf with him on Martha's Vineyard this week while he was on vacation — "

At this point, HuffPost reported, she was interrupted by shouts of "Health care! Health care!"

She continued: "And I don't know that there's any truth to that rumor -- but there was also a rumor that the president was going to hit him up for a $300 trillion loan, which we might need for our economy."

Crickets. Followed by feedback (electronic and human).

"I would first like to thank you for turning a Reagan voter into a DFL activist," one person said of said one attendee. having joined the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, essentially the apparatus of the state Democratic Party.

Roll Call reported that after Bachmann told a story about women giving birth in hospital hallways (by way of comparing American hospitals to those in the UK), a man in the audience piped up, "That happens here." Bachmann retorted, "I've given birth here probably more times than you, sir."

But it was weak. Bachmann was clearly off her game and out of her element, even if she was in her district. After a bit she retreated into her usual blustery jabbering, especially when she attempted to give her constituents some idea of the scope of the $9 trillion deficit projection, made by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

“Sometimes we can sometimes get confused when we hear the terms -- millions , billions, trillions,” she said. “What does that mean? Let's just take an example: A million seconds is eleven and a half days. A second is 32 years. A trillion seconds is 32,000 years-- there's a big difference between billions and trillions.”

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On Aug. 18, at a town hall in Dartmouth, Mass., Rep. Barney Frank masterfully called bullshit on one of the Tea Party crowd, a woman in the audience who compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler on matters tied to the health-care debate.

""Why do you continue to support a Nazi policy, as Obama has expressly supported this policy, why are you supporting it?" she asked.

Frank's response was one for the books. "When you ask me that question, I am gonna revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question: On what planet do you spend most of your time?

"As you stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler, and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is ... it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated ...

"Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it," Frank said to rounds of applause.

Game, set, match.

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Fox News commentator and loose cannon Glenn Beck, well into his own twilight of the morons, is finding that even more advertisers are abandoning his Fox “Program,” a desertion that stems from his on-air comments that President Obama is a racist.

From the Color of Change Web site: “Adding to an increasing list of companies distancing themselves from Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck, ten new companies whose ads were recently seen during Beck's program -- Applebee's, Bank of America, Bell & Howell, DirecTv, General Mills, Kraft, Regions Financial Corporation, SAM (Store and Move), Travelers Insurance and Vonage -- have pledged to take steps to ensure that their ads don't run on Beck's show. Forty-six companies have now committed not to support Beck's show since launched its campaign three weeks ago …”

“Over 170,000 people have now signed our petition to Glenn Beck's advertisers, and it's working.”

Still, stupid dies hard. On Wednesday, in a malign tweak on Tim Russert’s classic 2000 election whiteboard moment, Beck used a blackboard to build a laughably tenuous connection between oligarchy and various first letters in several words tied to the governmental excesses Beck has convinced himself Obama is guilty of. He’s pulled a variation of this stunt before, earlier this month.

It’s hard not to see these mad rants for what they are. But shit still floats: The Los Angeles Times reported on Aug. 24 that despite the controversy, Beck’s viewership has hardly collapsed. His “Program” has averaged 2.25 million viewers, almost 100 percent more than tuned in during the same period last year. The comparison may not be a fair one; last year the network aired campaign-related coverage (“America’s Election HQ”) in that time period; such an apples-to-oranges comparison is inherently unequal. Still, The Times reported, the Beckster’s ratings are up from July, when the “Program” averaged a hair over 2 million viewers.

But clearly, for those who really matter, the bloom is off the Glenn Beck rose. It’s one thing for advertisers to vacate en masse a program on a network when the parent company of that network is flush with cash; it’s another matter entirely when that parent company (in this case News Corporation) is deep in debt (about $20 billion as of last October), and necessarily in need of every advertiser in every daypart it can get.

A Fox News spokeswoman said that while some advertisers have "removed their spots from Beck," they’ve moved to "other programs on the network, so there has been no revenue lost." But that’s putting the best face on a deteriorating situation; if an ad’s lost on one show, only an ad to replace it maintains the status quo. Advertisers — risk-averse in good times, much less these times — aren’t likely to pull an ad in a less controversial timeslot just to make an unprincipled flamethrower like Glenn Beck look good.

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It’s even happening to other more principled members of the Republicans and conservative establishments.

In his own presumably friendly backyard — the city of Phoenix — Arizona Sen. John McCain encountered a pissed-off crowd at a Wednesday town-hall meeting about health care reform. The Associated Press reported that it got so bad, McCain had to tell one a maverick in the audience — a woman who wouldn't stop yelling — that she would had to leave the event.

The AP said McCain hadn’t even officially opened the proceedings before the woman started firing questions and comments, apparently leaving her copy of Roberts’ Rules of Order on the dresser at home.

"You're going to have to stop or you're going to have to leave," McCain told her. When security guards appeared to escort her out, the senator told her "Goodbye, see ya," to hearty applause, The AP reported.

But that malcontent was the least of Big John’s problems.

Straight from AP:
After McCain opened it up to questioning, one man angrily pointed at him and asked the senator why he deserves a better health care plan than him.

"I'm trying to get it for you," McCain told him. "We'll do it for you. We'll make it affordable and available to you."

Other audience members in the crowd of 2,000 told McCain about their medical problems, such as HIV and multiple sclerosis.

McCain said he’d fight for health care reform but repeated his opposition to Obama's plan for a government health-care option that would compete with private insurers in the marketplace. AP reported that one audience member yelled at him that he gets hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurance companies every year.

In a voice of feigned surprise, McCain said "Really? I didn't know that."

“There's more interest and involvement in this issue than I've ever seen in many years on a domestic issue," McCain said afterward. "There's obviously strong feeling and emotions on this issue ...”

Ya think? Really? We didn’t know that.

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All in all, and as events this week made clear, this isn’t the best time to be an open-minded, principled conservative in America. And in some ways, it’s an even worse time to be a wacko conservative in America. People are beginning to understand that however incomplete or imperfect Obama’s health-care plan might be, it’s still a plan — and as such, it’s the one thing the Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the echo chamber of conservative media haven’t earnestly, meaningfully offered in the health-care debate: a better way forward.

So the blowback the GOP is laying the groundwork for against Obama next year may not be what’s expected. It’s been said that while presidential elections are about change, midterm elections are about anger.

But there’s as much for Americans in general to be outraged about as Republicans in particular. And much of that anger in November will fall at the doorstep of the vainglorious extremists in Congress, the people who’re standing in the way of the same progress they blame President Obama for not making.
Image credit: Inglourious Basterds poster: © 2009 The Weinstein Company.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The lion at rest: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

We’ve known this was coming for forever, it seems, but when the news arrived late last night it was still a shock and surprise. He’d come through so many battles in the past, personal and congressional; maybe we hoped for one more comeback from adversity, one more win, one more hurrah.

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Moore Kennedy, father, uncle, brother, sailor, unabashed keeper of the liberal flame in American politics and for forty-seven years the unapologetically liberal voice and conscience of the United States Senate, died Tuesday night of a glioblastoma multiforma of the left parietal lobe of the brain, an aggressive tumor diagnosed in May 2008. He was 77 years old.

The passing of the lion of liberal causes more than closes a chapter in a family’s history. It ends with irrevocable finality an era of American politics in which bipartisanship was not only possible but more commonplace than today, a time when reaching across the aisle wasn’t just a good idea, it was a concession to the notion that, again unlike today, “the loyal opposition” could be defined as much by the modifier in that phrase as by its seemingly defining noun.

Since 1962, Kennedy’s central pursuit has been affordable quality health care for all Americans; the battle for that national health care has again taken center stage, as the Democrats show the possibility of moving that ball down the field for the first time in generations. It’s anyone’s guess how much further along the health-care bill would be toward becoming law had Teddy been in a condition to weigh in on from the Senate chamber floor.

But it’s inescapable that the senator from Massachusetts was a meaningful exception to the usual rule of Washington politicians, and his exceptionalism — as a human being, a leader and a champion of health care reform — could be the unspoken dimension of the health-care debate now raging in Washington.

Cruel irony: Going forward, it’s possible that Sen. Ted Kennedy may have more immediate impact on the advancement of health-care reform now, after his passing, than he could summon from his fellow senators when he strode the halls of power on Capitol Hill.

After then-eldest brother John was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963; after older brother Robert was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, the dynastic title of presidential heir apparent fell to Ted Kennedy. He was already a sitting senator, had been since 1962. For many if not most political observers, it would be only natural, according to the ascensionist tendencies of American politicians, for Teddy to seek the White House. Teddy did not disappoint.

In 1980, he made his one run for the big chair, challenging incumbent Jimmy Carter and losing to Carter in a bitter primary campaign, despite Kennedy’s attempt to get Carter-committed delegates released from their pledges. After that defeat, Kennedy hunkered down in the Senate, making his long-term intentions plain in 1985, when he announced he wouldn’t seek the presidency in 1988:

“I know this decision means I may never be president. But the pursuit of the presidency is not my life. Public service is.”

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted last year: “[T]he trouble with so many senators nowadays [is] they’ve got that dream in their minds of the presidency, so they don’t settle down to that institution.”

And Ted Kennedy settled down in that institution; he walked it like he talked it in 1985, and in so doing transforming the United States Senate — and the United States of America — in ways he might never have achieved had he just become president.

Of 2,500 bills he introduced, more than 300 were made into law. Kennedy was a catalyst, if not the catalyst, behind legislation that ultimately led to COBRA (health insurance benefits for the unemployed), Meals of Wheels, AmeriCorps, Title IX (athletic programs for women students), HIPAA (which set new benchmarks for portability of consumers’ insurance and the confidentiality of patient records), SCHIP (childrens’ health insurance) and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

And Kennedy was poised, until illness got in the way, to follow through on that abiding passion in a new Obama administration — an administration he helped come to pass at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 25, 2008, a year to the day before he died.

“For me this is a season of hope, new hope for justice and a fair prosperity for the many and not just for the few,” Kennedy said at Invesco Field in Denver.

And then, reprising a speech he first made in December 1979: “And that is the cause of my life — new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old, will have decent quaoity health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”

The irony is apparent and cruel: Kennedy’s words were as apt in 2008 as they were in 1979; the idea that the ball hasn’t been advanced on making national health-care reform a reality in almost thirty years is one of the nation’s more profound tragedies.

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The question is, what happens now? The Obama health-care reform bill is set for a vote sometime in September. Some have voiced the possibility, however remote in today’s climate, that Kennedy’s passing (from a form of one of the diseases that’s long been the insurance industry’s pre-existing tripwire for denial of service) might elicit an emotionally galvanizing reaction, maybe even latent support from obstructionist Blue Dog Democrats and No-addicted Republicans. One of those on the hard-headed right, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, said outright that there’s no reason to think Kennedy’s death will change any minds on Capitol Hill.

His death may not change many minds; the open question is whether it changes any hearts. Because at root, that’s what this is all about: something that’s not so much an intellectual or actuarial matter as it is a moral issue, a matter of empathy not for one’s fellow citizens, but for one’s fellow human beings.

Despite Kennedy’s efforts, and to our eternal national shame, the quest for national health care continues. The dream of achieving it may never be closer to realization than it is right now. When it arrives, we can thank that all-too-human champion of everyday people, that irrepressible sailor in the Figawi regatta, that captain who steered hard by the North Star of his principles, for making it happen.
Image credits: Kennedy top: Senate photograph (public domain). Kennedy 1962: Public domain. Kennedy 1980: Still from CBS News. Kennedy 2008: Pool.

Monday, August 24, 2009

MJ: A kind of postmortem

Inspired by the impact and music of Michael Jackson, and by the symmetries between MJ’s life and his own, Spike Lee announced a few weeks back his sponsorship of a Brooklyn-style street party in Michael’s honor, a throwdown set to happen on Saturday, Aug. 29, what would have been Michael’s 51st birthday.

Never mind that Lee, a resident of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, hasn’t lived in Brooklyn since about 1999: Spike’s heart is in the right place. This is a far better use of Michael Jackson’s birthday than that which had been planned by the family; the Jackson clan had intended to bury MJ that same day.

Also, New York City Councilwoman Letitia James wants a plaque honoring MJ placed at Brooklyn's Hoyt-Schermerhorn station – where the star made the music video for "Bad" in 1987 — or to have "Jackson" added to the name of the subway station on the IND line. She’s planning a petition drive to make that happen.

On the eve of that now-sad, remembering day comes what Michael Jackson fans have quietly dreaded: the report from the Los Angeles coroner. When it was released, it just confirmed our suspicions that in his last hours, Michael Jackson was at the mercy of his own history, and the powers of control and leverage that both helped give his career its loft, and aided in its awful decline.

Recently, Dr. Conrad Murray, the Houston cardiologist who had become Jackson's personal doctor, emerged from the cone of silence he went under after Michael’s death, posting a video on YouTube — a sensible pre-emptive strategy when you’re looking down the barrel of a high-profile criminal investigation. “I told the truth and I have faith that the truth will prevail,” Murray said in part.

According to the report from exhaustive conversations between Murray and the Los Angeles Police Department, these, apparently, are the facts:

On June 25 about 1:30 a.m., Murray administered a10 mg Valium to Jackson, to help the singer deal with the insomnia that had plagued him for weeks, in the wake of rehearsals for a series of major performances.

At around 2 a.m., Murray administered another sedative, lorazepam (trade name Ativan) — this one intravenously.

About an hour later, at 3 a.m., Murray administered the sedative midazolam (trade name Versed), also intravenously.

At 5 a.m., Murray went back to using intravenous Ativan for Jackson, who apparently was still not sleeping.

At 7:30 a.m., apparently still looking for the right combination to help his patient get some rest, Murray injected Jackson with Versed again.

Finally, at about 10:40 that morning, Murray administered 25 mg of propofol, a clinical anesthetic marketed as Diprivan and not generally known about by, much less used by, the general public. Jackson wasn’t breathing when Murray returned to the singer’s room a few minutes later, Between fifteen and twenty minutes after that, amid failed efforts to revive him, the King of Pop was going quickly, or already gone.

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According to a search warrant affidavit unsealed Aug. 24 in Houston and dated July 23, the L.A. medical examiner-coroner’s office, headed by Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, “had reviewed the preliminary toxicology results and his preliminary assessment of Jackson’s cause of death was due to lethal levels of [propofol (Diprivan)].”

But you don’t have to be a lawyer to sense something that’s just … wrong about the coroner’s assessment. Out of the pharmacy’s worth of sedatives Jackson ingested over a period of nine hours, why would only 25 mg of a hospital-grade anesthetic be the tipping point? Given the known dangers and risks of drug interaction, what seems more likely (to this untrained observer) is that the relentless cascade of drugs coursing through his system for hours set the stage for one fatal event.

With an already depressed central nervous system, it’s possible that taking even the slightest amount of one more drug — any depressant, and taking it intravenously, bypassing any dilution in the stomach — would be the That Did It moment, the moment of no return.

How can “lethal levels” of Propofol be so certainly implicated as the cause of death when Jackson was reportedly using it for weeks before his death? If his body built up a tolerance to the drug, as often happens, he’d have needed more and more of it to achieve the desired effect — not less and less of it, as Murray claimed he was administering in an attempt to “wean him off” the drug.

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The coroner’s office has yet to release the final results of its findings; even if forensically justified, it’s somewhat surprising that eight weeks after the death of a transcendent figure in pop culture, the coroner’s report into that death still bears a “preliminary” status.

As lawyers begin circling the wagons, there are more surprises coming in the Michael Jackson story. One thing that’s developing now that’s no surprise is the sense that, little by little, a legal case is being made against Murray certainly for manslaughter, and maybe something more.

Darren T. Kavinoky, a California criminal defense attorney, explained it Monday for MSNBC: “When we’re talking about manslaughter, we’re talking about a departure from acceptable medical standards that’s more than what we call ordinary negligence. It’s criminal negligence.”

The other, no-brainer non-surprise? Claims and counterclaims will obscure the real tragedy, suits and countersuits will lead us to forget what we’ve lost; in part because of doctor feelgoods, enablers, employees and hangers-on would deny him nothing, perhaps the greatest entertainer of our time died as a pharmaceutical pincushion.
Image credit: Jackson top: White House (public domain). Valium: Department of Justice (public domain). Ativan tablets: Nsaum75, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license. Propofol: Public domain. Jackson bottom:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Health care reform: A magic bullet of ethics?

The health-care reform debate has been diced, sliced and Limbaughed to the point of becoming something we don’t even recognize any more. With town halls hijacked by strident hysterics jabbering any number of talking points, and gun-totin’ lunkheads in Arizona and New Hampshire just outside the venues of these town halls, there’s been enormous heat surrounding this potentially most important issue, and damn little light.

The issue has been viewed through the medical, actuarial, economic and political prisms of Washington, the blogosphere and the national media. But a conference call made by President Obama on Wednesday to Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders points to a new Team Obama strategy to achieving his health-care reform objective: addressing health care as a moral issue.

Just as all other approaches to achieving this monumental legislation have apparently failed, and there’s every reason to think that they will, Obama may be about to deploy his truly secret weapon: a politically diverse, faith-based community of influentials that will accept nothing less than universal coverage, on the basis of the exercise of Scriptural values — values these faith leaders are apparently prepared to vote on, perhaps as soon as November 2010.

Never let it be said that Barack Obama doesn’t know how to use the bully-pulpit powers of his office.

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The first part of this was apparently rolled out on Wednesday, when President Obama conducted the conference call attended by those faith leaders, and maybe as many as 10,000 other callers, random citizens with skin in the health-care game (as we all do, sooner or later).

Among those on the call was the Rev. Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners, a prominent faith-based organization. Wallis appeared on "The Ed Show" on MSNBC on Wednesday, and gave host Ed Schultz his conservative perspective on the roiling health-care debate — and what at least some in the faith-based community are prepared to do about it.

“With the shouting, the anger and the hate we’re seeing in town meetings, we’re losing … the moral core of this debate, which is, a lot of people are hurting in this broken health-care system,” Wallis said.

“This is right at the heart of our vocation. Right now, fear is controlling this debate, and we have to start talking about truth-telling …

“People — our friends, our loved ones, our neighbors— are hurting. This broken system has to be fixed, and the faith community is not going to settle for anything less than full, accessible health-care coverage for all of God’s children.”

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When a faith leader like Wallis throws down the gauntlet like that, it’s understood that he and others like him do it with the only real power they've got at their disposal (and, rendering unto Caesar, the only one that really matters): the power to vote.

And since those in the nation’s faith communities tend to be older, more politically conservative and more financially secure than other, younger Americans, Wallis’ challenge to Congress to get the health-care job done carries more throw weight than it otherwise might. Conservatives in Congress tend to pay attention to the faith-based constituents in their districts. For good reason.

The president recognizes this, and the power of boiling the health-care reform debate down to its humanistic essence. He recognized this Wednesday when he said, on the conference call, that passage of a meaningful health-care bill is “what I consider to be a core ethical and moral obligation, and that is that we look out for one another.”

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Obama may be again on the verge of rising to the occasion, as he’s done in the past with other pivotal national issues. His race speech in Philadelphia — perhaps the most masterful exegesis of our third-rail racial fears as any American leader has ever attempted — sticks in the mind as proof that Barack Obama can step up his game like nobody’s business, when the need be.

Today, in another master stroke, Obama brought back the spirit of FDR’s fireside chats, speaking with conservative Philadelphia radio talk show host Michael Smerconish one-on-one at a makeshift studio in the White House, discussing the health-care issue with everyday Americans, and bypassing the GOP spin machine to make his case directly to that audience.

Discussing health care, Obama hinted at what may be a new strategy when he spoke of “ a basic standard of decency” as it relates to health care for the least of us.

Then, right after the Smerconish huddle, Obama joined an online health-care town hall, the Organizing for America National Health Care Forum, at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

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The upshot of all this is simple: the president is going back on the PR offensive on health care, trying to regain both the momentum and the machinery of public opinion on health care. Thursday’s attempt to reframe the debate on the airwaves shows he’s willing to go straight for the same audience right-wing radio lives by.

And there may be more coming. In a powerful but principled on-air debate with MSNBC's Schultz on Wednesday, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter predicted flat-out that President Obama would convene a joint session of Congress on the matter.

That would, of course, be a display of the usual big stick of presidential politics. The departure from the script has already happened. From now until the vote, we can expect President Obama to make use of the Golden Rule — to set a more clearly moral tone to the debate — as he pursues health care reform.

That appeal to adherents of the Bible, the Torah or the Koran may not make any difference in the outcome of the bill. It could make a huge difference next year, when conservatives make their own appeal to those faith-based Americans, and millions of others, in the voting booth.
Image credits: Obama: Chuck Kennedy, The White House.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The public option: On life support. Or not

Like a doctor looking for the right words with which to communicate a dire diagnosis, President Obama has been trying to tell the American people what others within his party and outside it have been more effectively saying for weeks now: the public option of the proposed Obama health-care reform plan is probably as dead as something can be without a toe tag on a body in the morgue.

Or maybe not, depending.

We should have seen this coming. The president cued us to a shift in position when he spoke Saturday at the town hall in Grand Junction, Colo.:

“The public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it … is not the entirety of health-care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.”

Listen to what Kathleen Sebelius, his secretary of health and human services, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”: The public option “is not the essential element.

The italics are entirely mine, and there for a reason. It’s in these feints of the language, these rhetorical dances that the Obama administration seems to be letting people know that the most effective measure ensuring competition for Americans’ health-care services is off the table.

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Or maybe not. Even Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats can read polls. They can surely appreciate, if not agree with, the overwhelming majority of Americans who want a public option in the health reform bill.

The 12th annual Health Confidence Survey, sponsored by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) and released in June, reveals just how out of step conservatives are on the public-option issue:

From the EBRI Web site: “Between 68 percent and 88 percent of Americans either strongly or somewhat support health reform ideas such as national health plans, a public plan option, guaranteed issue, expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, and employer and individual mandates, the survey finds.”

And a NBC News poll, released today, found that when the details of the Obama health-care plan were thoroughly explained to them, 53 percent of Americans agree it was a good idea (once they got past the conservative noise machine that’s tried to characterize the Obama plan as the work of the spawn of Satan).

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That should be good news for the President: The American people back him, in general, on the public option. What should be more concerning (in light of the weathervane shifts on the public option that recent Team Obama statements suggest) is today’s Rasmussen poll, whose results lock the administration into the public option it said it wanted all along.

From Rasmussen:

“Just 34% of voters nationwide support the health care reform plan proposed by President Obama and congressional Democrats if the so-called “public option” is removed. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% oppose the plan if it doesn't include a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private insurers. …”

“Without the public option, just 50% of Democrats support the legislation. That’s down from 69% support measured a week ago.”

That in a snapshot nutshell is the dilemma facing the Obama administration: The American people are saying, “in for a penny, in for a pound.” The Obama administration needs to get its arms around that, too.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s more at stake than a health-care system that’s been in guarded condition for decades. There’s more at stake than the elections in 2010, a vote that could dismantle the plans for achieving the administration’s agenda across the board.

What’s also at stake is the credibility of the president himself, and the public perception of his willingness to stand on the scaffold of principles he erected during the campaign. Back then, and certainly during the heady early months of the administration, the public option was more than a sliver of Obama’s health-care proposal; it was the centerpiece of that proposal.

Even taking into account the prevailing political wisdom — a candidate tacks to the left on the campaign trail, moving rightward as the likelihood of being elected increases — there comes a time to get behind the bedrock of a platform that got you elected, and stay there. There comes a time to dance with who brung you.

The public option is the partner Obama brought to the dance of national health-care reform; together, they’re the couple that much of this country supports. There’s no changing partners now.
Image credit: Obama: Samantha Appleton, The White House. Obama bottom: Still from AP video, possible pool origin.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Legal v. moral: SCOTUS supports Troy Davis

For the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, the end of June, when their vacations begin, is almost as red-letter a day as the first Monday on October, when their caseload begins. Which is to say, when it usually begins.

But this lazy summer, the Supremes made an exception, with a rare summertime ruling that resets the countdown clock for a man convicted of a murder he may not have committed — and also begins, at the highest level, the judicial refutation of the idea that new evidence in a death-penalty case is an inconvenient thing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Almost 20 years to the day after the murder of which he was convicted, Troy Anthony Davis has earned a new opportunity to save his own life, again.

After years of nonstop exposure in the media, and, more recently, a relentless barrage of grassroots protests spearheaded by Amnesty International, the Supremes voted on Monday 6-2 (Justice Sonia Sotomayor hasn’t been seated yet), to order a Georgia federal district court to consider and rule on whether new evidence "that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis'] innocence."

“The petition for a writ of habeas corpus is transferred to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia for hearing and determination,” read the ruling.

The court agreed to remand the case despite the utterly predictable dissenting votes of two justices, Antonin Scalia (who wrote the dissenting opinion) and Clarence Thomas.

Years after Davis’ conviction, a Congress more enamored of efficiency than the truth passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). The AEDPA, which limited death-row prisoners to one bite of the appellate apple — one set of appeals in federal court — was, at the end of the day, meant to be the light-rail train that moved death-row inmates like Davis to their final destinations on the execution gurneys, and to do as quickly as possible.

◊ ◊ ◊

In their dissent, Scalia and Thomas stood hard by the principles of AEDPA, and seemed to suggest that, boiling it all down, hey, sometimes an innocent person has to be killed in the furtherance of orderly application of justice overall.

Scalia wrote, "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."

Scalia noted that the Supremes were ordering a district court judge to hold a hearing that, according to Congress, the judge is not allowed to convene.

But in a wonderfully articulated, mercifully brief majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens went upside Justice Scalia’s head, in the process smartly distilling the inescapable problem with capital punishment in the United States; its potential for error; and the likelihood for tragedy built into the judicial system’s insistence on finality over fairness:

“Justice Scalia’s dissent is wrong ... First, he assumes as a matter of fact that petitioner Davis is guilty of the murder of [off-duty Savannah police] Officer [Mark] MacPhail. He does this even though seven of the State’s key witnesses have recanted their trial testimony; several individuals have implicated the State’s principal witness [Sylvester “Red” Coles] as the shooter …

“Justice Scalia would pretermit all of these unresolved legal questions on the theory that we must treat even the most robust showing of actual innocence identically on habeas review to an accusation of minor procedural error. …

“But imagine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man. The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The Court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In plain language, or plainer than Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court’s opinion effectively discounts the idea that a court’s punishment after a finding of guilt must be exercised no matter what; that the potential of new facts exonerating a defendant in a death-penalty case does, and should, automatically be ignored or invalidated by the drive for judicial closure.

As you might expect, the Supremes out-of-season decision has raised questions, many of them hinging on how far the courts should go to ensure that innocent people aren’t executed. There’s something intrinsically cynical about even asking that question. If the courts are, ultimately, the guardians of justice in our society, it makes sense that the proven potential for injustice by those same courts can’t be overlooked when it’s discovered.

Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, told Time Magazine that “the way the court 'decided' the Troy Davis case … raises a lot more questions than it answers. It also probably ensures still more litigation in the future.”

And that’s no doubt true. As approved by Congress, the AEDPA specifically prohibits district judges from ruling further in the Davis case. What happens to future such cases in the face of AEDPA guidelines? It’s a thorny and potentially intractable issue.

◊ ◊ ◊

But we’re not frightened by the prospect of more litigation in such a case. The matter of Troy Davis may be legally known as Davis vs. the State of Georgia; what it’s becoming is a case of Spirit of Law vs. Letter of Law, and that’s a contest always worth debating. In the spirit of the law is the absolute pursuit of justice; we’re seeing how that pursuit may well be antagonistic to the letter of the law, the law as written.

So be it. The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday upholds a sound principle: that a good story, or a seemingly solid conviction, should never get in the way of the facts that may — or may not — support the validity of that story, or that conviction.

That responsibility to get it right in death-penalty cases shouldn't be superseded by a law passed by Congress, a law whose main intent is to speed people toward execution on an ASAP basis. It might satisfy the letter of the law, but it fails to uphold the spirit of the law. It might be legal, but it's not moral.

The case of Troy Anthony Davis returns to Georgia. As it makes its way through the system at the district-court level, we shouldn’t expect any less attention paid both to the case itself and what its outcome means for every American.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

One nation, all mobbed up

President Obama’s town hall on Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo. — like the one on Friday in Belgrade, Mont., and the one on Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H. — was his attempt to rescue, in the name of civility, a health-care debate whose tone owes more right now to the roll-the-tumbrels style of the French Revolution than to Roberts’ Rules of Order.

The right wing’s appeal to the mob is especially cynical this time, as well as ominous.

According to findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Department of Homeland Security, nativist right-wing extremists (and their enablers in various high places) are exploiting the health-care dilemma, and the bruised economy in general, to gain new and passionate adherents in numbers large enough to form the infrastructure of a national threat.

◊ ◊ ◊

The president explained the use of the Recovery Act money to help Americans who can’t afford health insurance:

“One third of the money in the Recovery Act … is for emergency relief for folks who've borne the brunt of this recession. We've extended unemployment benefits for more than 150,000 Coloradans. We've made health insurance 65 percent cheaper for families who rely on COBRA while they're looking for work.”

And he again explained the crucial elements of health-care reform for everyday working Americans (and those Americans who wish they were working every day):

“Insurance companies will also be stopped from cancelling coverage because you get sick or denying coverage because of your medical history. … And we will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies.

“At the same time, if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep seeing your doctor. I don't want government bureaucrats meddling in your health care. But the point is, I don't want insurance company bureaucrats meddling in your health care, either. So if you're one of the nearly 46 million people who don't have health insurance, you will finally have quality, affordable options. And if you do have health insurance, we will help make that insurance more affordable and more secure.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Using the bully pulpit of the presidency, Obama clearly understands what’s at stake in the health-care reform debate — he’s made the point more than once that an estimated 14,000 Americans lose their health insurance every day, a statistical time bomb waiting to go off.

But all of last week, the debate was hijacked by hordes of shit disturbers bussed into various locations by the coalition of Congressional conservatives and lobbyists for the insurance industry. Their objective has been plain and simple: sew discontent, shout down honest dissent, cultivate a climate of fear and rage.

This cheap bid for American ochlocracy would be disturbing enough if it originated solely as a result of Obama’s health-care policy; fact is, there are Democrats honestly opposed to it as well.

But there’s a lot that points to this being a purely personal bid for character assassination. Simply put, for many in this national discussion, this isn’t a debate about Obama’s health-care plans, it’s a debate about the president himself — and it’s one they’re framing in disturbing ways.

A healthy debate on the future of the nation’s health-care system, for example, shouldn’t have made it necessary for one Portsmouth protester, William Kostric, to show up outside the town-hall location openly carrying a loaded gun (albeit hours before Obama spoke there).

A robust debate wouldn’t have made it necessary for another extremist protester, in Hagerstown, Md., to brandish a sign saying “Death to Obama, Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.”

Not much of a message there about concern over health insurance premiums.

◊ ◊ ◊

At times, though, it’s hard to separate the ad hominem attacks from a generalized rage against the machine.

Katherine Zaleski went to the Grand Junction event and reported for The Huffington Post:

“A number of people told us that this isn't just about President Obama. Some have been angry since the Bush administration, others don't trust government at all. A few people spewed out remarks against the president that were reminiscent of those seen at campaign rallies for [now former Alaska] Gov. Sarah Palin last year. We even met two Birthers -- obviously misinformation was strongly represented. When we asked people for evidence or to clarify their positions with the facts, they just continued with their talking points.”

But it’s more than talking points: Richard Terry Young was arrested by Portsmouth police on Aug. 11 for carrying a pocket knife into the school where Obama was to speak. A search of Young’s car on the school grounds found a loaded gun for which Young had no license.

And when some anonymous nutjob someone feels free to exercise his First Amendment right at a malign level — painting a swastika on the office sign of Rep. David Scott, a Georgia congressman — there’s something deeper and more dangerous at work.

Just like during the French Revolution, when mob passions were tragically exploited in the furtherance of political objective, there’s a grim menace in the making here in the United States — something less about talking points and, ominously, more about hollow points.

It’s the quietly building sense that for many impoverished, resentful Americans, intolerance has acquired a cachet, a certain element of cool that’s proving to be irresistible. That’s a prescription for nothing less than a national disaster.
Image credits: Obama: Image from pool. William Kostric: Still from MSNBC's "Hardball." Scott sign swastika: The Associated Press.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock: It was 40 years ago today

“Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” Michael Herr told us in “Dispatches.” His point, found at the end of his luminous, correspondent’s-eye view of one tour of duty in the Vietnam War, is one that students of war and of media have come back to time and time again: Ferried into peoples’ homes night after night via the evening news; the subject of studies and subcommittees; the flashpoint of protests and policies, the Vietnam War was such a total national experience as to be ubiquitous and utterly inescapable. You were “in country” whether you were physically “in country” or not.

Not for nothing was Vietnam called America’s rock and roll war: the war gained its foothold in the national experience about the same time that rock music was gaining prominence and legitimacy in the lives of everyday people; the war’s climax in the years 1968 and 1969 roughly dovetailed with the creative high point of rock’s visionaries. After 1969, rock underwent serious renovation.

But not before Woodstock went down.

It was 40 years ago today when thousands converged on a field at a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., for an event modestly billed as “3 days of peace & music.” What took place from Aug. 15-18, 1969, was a watershed for the culture, the best sort of watershed: the accidental kind, with no deep-pocketed corporate tie-ins, no booths for cellular phone companies, no noisy warnings about coolers and alcohol not being permitted.

Woodstock was an impromptu experiment in social engineering that succeeded beyond expectation. They anticipated maybe 100,000 people would show up; they ultimately got at least 400,000. Joni Mitchell’s poignant tribute to the event said the number of concertgoers those three days came to “half a million strong.”

And Woodstock disproved the prevailing notion that those unwashed masses breathing free couldn't act responsibly, even charitably, as an instant society. Woodstock proved that things didn’t have to fall apart, that the violence that visited so much of the nation in those turbulent days and years didn’t have to happen everywhere. That rage, that violence could be postponed, at least three and a half months. At least until the deal went down at Altamont.

◊ ◊ ◊

Today on Sirius XM’s Woodstock Channel, created by Sirius to mark the 40th anniversary of that gathering of the tribes, a voice on one of the on-air promos said “you didn’t have to be at Woodstock to be at Woodstock.” And it’s true.

Like any enriching experience, there’s something to be imparted beyond the actual, literal experience itself. If it’s anything important, with residual social value, it’s possible to learn from the experience and from the things outside the experience that reflect on it.

You don’t have to watch the rock falling into the water to recognize its after-effects; the ripples from that stone’s splash will last longer than the splash itself, and be observed by more people than the ones who watched the rock originally.

Woodstock was the splash that’s still sending ripples across the water of our culture. Forty years after the event, a flurry of new albums are out with remastered updates of the original music. Ang Lee’s new film “Taking Woodstock” looks at the genesis of the festival from different perspectives.

And bet your mortgage: the good burghers of Bethel will be besieged all weekend long by visitors from around the country and the world hoping to brush up against the magic of that summer, sniffing the air in that open field for just a hint of the patchouli and pot smoke that wafted into the American air, and stayed there for forty years.

◊ ◊ ◊

Woodstock was the bomb and everybody knew it. Even a skinny, nappy-headed 14-year-old black boy in Denver, a kid desperate to gain some sense of himself and his world, knew it when he read about it in The Denver Post the day after it started. Woodstock was the place to be.

The old man, of course, wouldn’t hear of it. Not for a minute. Out of the Army less than two years, the major was still very much in military mode, right down to the way his three children were raised. Woodstock? Too many un-American hippies there to be anything good. Out of the question.

And ultimately, it didn’t matter. The skinny kid in Denver didn’t make it to the mud flats at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm 3,000 miles away. But Woodstock the Experience came to him: less than a year later, when he heard the movie soundtrack for the first time; four years later, when he moved to Boulder, Colorado’s counterculture ground zero, to start college and pursue a parallel career in psychoactive discovery; forty years later, when he attended the final Oracle Gathering, three days of peace & music, environmental awareness and multicultural embrace, in a field in Randle, Wash.

And Woodstock the Experience came to him whenever he heard the music from that moment in American time, and he knew the lyrics and the melodies and even the guitar riffs like he knew his own name.

For him and for millions of others, it was true then and now and forever:

Woodstock, Woodstock, Woodstock, we’ve all been there.
Image credit: Woodstock poster: © 1969 Arnold Skolnick. "Taking Woodstock" poster: © 2009 Focus Features.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dr. Obama on the offensive

President Obama landed in Montana today for a town hall meeting on health-care reform. But relax: this town hall wasn’t an occasion to call out the state militia or screen everybody for weapons at the door.

The president came to the friendly territory of Big Sky Country to discuss the loaded topic, and began the process of taking back the debate over health insurance from the screamers and yahoos loose at other town halls, where various Democrats from Congress were all but assaulted over the issue.

Montana (whose Sen. Max Baucus is one of the president’s water carriers on health-care reform, on the Senate Finance Committee) went for Obama in the 2009 election. The 1,300 or so supporters who turned up today at an aircraft hangar in Belgrade, Mont., weren’t screened or vetted. They’re everyday people.

One of their number, cancer survivor Katie Gibson, symbolized the catch-22 of people repeatedly denied health coverage because of her pre-existing condition.

These Big Sky souls were able surrogates for average Americans facing a health-care crisis of unprecedented scope. The numbers help put things into perspective: there were about 1,300 people at today’s event. About ten times that number — an estimated 14,000 Americans — lose their health insurance coverage every day. Obama made the point tellingly: for them, the dreaded C word isn’t necessarily “cancer.” It might well be the word “cancellation.”

◊ ◊ ◊

After Gibson’s introduction, President Obama tapped his rhetorical resources, the way he did during the campaign, and broke the issue down for average citizens.

“Katie’s story is the kind of story that I’ve read in letters all throughout the campaign and every day when I’m president. I hear about them in town halls all across America, the stories of hard-working people who are doing the right thing. They’re acting responsibility, only to find out that they’re penalized because others aren’t doing the right thing, because others aren’t acting responsibly. …”

“We’re no different from Katie and other ordinary Americans, no different from anybody else,” the president said. Obama made plain his objection to the current system. “It’s wrong … and we are going to fix it when we pass health insurance reform this year.”

Obama took a well-needed shot at some of the news coverage that’s followed the brawling at other town hall events. Referencing his own town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., on Tuesday, the president said the Portsmouth town hall (and by inference the one in Belgrade) was symbolic of what was needed: “people who are coming together and having a civil, honest, often difficult conversation about how we can improve the system. That’s how democracy’s supposed to work.

“I was glad that people were not there to shout; they were there to listen," he said. "That reflects America a lot more than what we've seen covered on television the last few days."

◊ ◊ ◊

Obama’s homeboy homespun rhetorical flourishes were on display today, but his greatest effectiveness may have happened when he got up close and personal in the discussion.

It’s the sense of personal experience with the system he’s seeking to overhaul that gives Barack Obama more than the usual presidential leverage, makes the podium he speaks behind more than a conventional bully pulpit.

His own personal history is his secret weapon. In the health-care debate, Barack Obama has skin in the game.

The story of the death of his mother, Anne Dunham, from ovarian and uterine cancer in 1995 after battles with insurers — and the more recent passing, weeks after the November election, of Madelyn Dunham, his grandmother and the woman who raised him in his mother’s stead — give Obama’s call for health reform a personal urgency that’s easily transferrable to Americans of all economic stripes.

“I’ll never forget my own mother as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether the insurance company would refuse to pay for her treatment. The insurance company was arguing that she should have known that she had cancer when she took her new job, even though it hadn’t been diagnosed yet. If it could happen to her, it could happen to any one of us.

“It’s wrong. And when we pass health insurance reform, we’re going to put a stop to it once and for all. …”

◊ ◊ ◊

Today at an aircraft hangar in Montana, President Obama returned fire against the climate of intolerance that’s lately taken the high ground in the health-care debate. As only he can, Obama made the theoretical, procedural aspects of health care reform a dilemma with a human face. He spoke in recognition of how, for all of us, in all of us, no matter how healthy we are today, there is the genetic chronicle of a death or disability foretold.

Att some time in our lives, our cells will betray us; our delicate physical balance will go awry; we will be subject to a cascade of physiological events we can neither predict nor prevent.

“We are closer to achieving health insurance reform than we’ve ever been in history,” President Obama said, calling for a change in the debate over health care, one that seeks change from insurers and doctors, one that finally recognizes the power and inescapability of that pre-existing condition called life.
Image credits: Obama: Image from Aug. 14 pool feed. Anne Dunham: Mercer Island (WA) High School yearbook photo.

American made, world played: Les Paul (1915-2009)

The new musical documentary “It Might Get Loud” examines the history and evolution of the electric guitar from the viewpoints of three of rock music’s best guitarists.

But while Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge will have a lot to say about the origins of the instrument that defines the modern rock sound, what they bring to any discussion of that history pales next to that of Les Paul, the man, the guitar legend who mastered the lost chord on Thursday, at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y., from complications of pneumonia, at the age of 94.

You’re entitled to suspect it’s hyperbole or bad marketing when someone’s referred to as “the father of” just about anything. But in the case of Lester William Polsfuss, it’s accurate to call him indisputably one of the fathers of rock and roll.

Having pioneered or assisted in such critical developments as overdubbing, multitrack recording and tape delay techniques, Les Paul made most of the sonic innovations we take for granted in rock music possible. He helped develop the design of the guitar that bears his name, one of rock music's three defining instruments (the Fender Stratocaster and the Rickenbacker being the others).

And Paul, being more than a gifted proto-geek behind the scenes, actually brought the passion as a guitar player, perfecting trills and various chord shadings that still give rock the letters of its language.

◊ ◊ ◊

If you want a taste of rock and roll’s future, do yourself a favor: Listen to the version of “How High the Moon,” the one that Paul and his first wife, Mary Ford, recorded in January 1951. Paul's guitar scats in and out and around Mary Ford’s equally athletic vocals … for a while.

Then Paul breaks away to fly solo – finger-picking already like nobody’s business, … laying down the dissonant chords that helped form the semiotic backdrop of our cold-warring, tail-finned, mid 20th-century American lives.

In that song’s two minutes and change, you can hear it: Years before Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry or Bill Haley, the musician and tinkerer from Waukesha, Wisc., had effectively created the electric guitar’s harmonic template, its sonic swagger and dissonance, the brisk but improvisational infrastructure of rock musical style.

On these foundations, every memorable rock and roll record in history would ultimately be built.

But Les Paul also appreciated the ways in which the absence of music forms its own musical statement. "I learned a long time ago that one note can go a long way if it's the right one," he told CNN in 2002, "and it will probably whip the guy with 20 notes." Lesson to wannabe shredmeisters and six-string heroes everywhere: Some of the greatest notes ever played are never played.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s a tribute to how widely his contributions were appreciated that, within a day of his passing, guitarists from Trey Anastasio to B.B. King, Ace Frehley to Keith Richards had all weighed in with something to say. More will follow in the days to come, and later, when they have the absolutely inevitable tribute concert somewhere in America … with every one on that stage playing a Gibson Les Paul, no doubt.

But more importantly, it’s the best tribute to Les Paul himself, his sense of invention and an irrepressible passion for the future, that he kept working virtually all his life. If you want proof of this, look at the picture of him, an image taken last year by Thomas Faivre-Duboz at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, where Paul played until fairly recently with a small combo every Monday night.

Marvel at a man past the age of 90 but still swingin’, still active, still present in the world he helped to create.

Go play some rock and roll. Any rock and roll. Doesn’t matter what. He’s in there, in every trick and technique of the guitars you hear, in every tweak and effect of the studio that recorded the guitars you hear. He’s in there.

Les Paul didn’t create the sound of rock and roll. But it’s a certainty that without him, rock and roll wouldn’t have much of a sound at all.
Image credits: Gibson Les Paul: Zeppelin4life. Les Paul, 2008: Thomas Faivre-Duboz, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Glenn Beck and the wages of hate

The two-minute hate George Orwell novelistically documented in “1984” has expanded in 2009 (courtesy of the fractious health-care debate) to the length of a town hall meeting. The once-civilized gathering, where neighbors could meet and discuss their differences (the better to dissolve them), has lately resembled a political rugby scrum. The conservatives have mightily attempted to disown these hapless yahoos — the same malcontents who animated the weak Tea Party movement, complaining about their taxes being too high weeks after their own taxes went down. But these are their people.

And after many days of noisy badgering and threats at the town hall brawls that have accompanied the health-care debate, progressives and the reasonable people of any political persuasion are starting to push back.

Glenn Beck is discovering that hard lesson where it counts. And where it hurts.

Some weeks ago,, an Internet-based advocacy organization addressing issues important to black and minority Americans, put out notice of its intent to call Bullshit on Glenn Beck, the oleaginous Fox News prime-time windbag who moved to Fox from CNN early this year. This is the mouthbreather who recently called President Obama "a racist” on the air during the “Fox and Friends” program.

“This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or white culture, I don’t know what it is... this guy is, I believe, a racist,” Beck said on July 28, discussing the president's role in the Henry Louis Gates incident. It was part of a long diatribe that evening that Beck continued with other half-truths, untruths, innuendo and character assassination. It was part of the ongoing wingnut jihad that Beck and his Fox confrere Bill O’Reilly (among others) have been waging for far too long now, against Democrats, people of color, progressives and other living things.

And the folks at ColorOfChange had had enough.

◊ ◊ ◊

On July 30 the brain trust at ColorOfChange threw down the gauntlet, at Glenn Beck’s bread and butter: the advertisers that keep his show alive.

The CoC strategy was simple enough, and announced online:

“Together we can stop Glenn Beck. Starting today we're calling Beck's advertisers, asking them if they want to be associated with this kind of racist hate and fear-mongering. When they see tens of thousands of people signing on behind that question, we believe they'll move their advertising dollars elsewhere, damaging the viability of his show and possibly putting him out of business. …

“All major media is funded by advertising. And advertisers, more than anything, care what consumers think. If we want to change what's happening and put an end to folks like Glenn Beck having a platform, we can do it.”

Thus began an online petition drive that has netted thousands of responses; Olbermann on MSNBC said tonight that Color of Change had so far garnered about 75,000 signatures supporting holding advertisers feet to the fire.

And something's happening. Gawker reported back on Aug. 6 that “some of [Beck’s] advertisers decided that bottomless white rage is off-brand:, Procter & Gamble and Progressive Insurance ads no longer appear during his show.”

Olbermann added to that list tonight. Apparently the folks at the Men’s Wearhouse clothing store chain could no longer guarantee they like the way Glenn Beck sounds. The folks behind image-conscious GEICO Insurance decided they didn’t want their genial Brit spokesgekko anywhere near Beck’s “Program.” Sargento Cheese, S.C. Johnson (“A Family Company”) and State Farm Insurance felt the same way.

◊ ◊ ◊

Looking to salvage some cheap triumph out of all this, a Fox News spokeswoman told TVNewser that the companies simply moved their spots to other Fox News shows, “so there has been no revenue lost” as a result of Beck's whacked-out meltdown. Which tidily misses the point.

Fox can’t juggle advertisers like that indefinitely, and they know it. Color of Change did what screaming and yelling and indignant op-eds apparently couldn’t do: with nothing more or less than principles, this plucky grassroots org drove a wedge between a network and its advertisers, a wedge based on nothing more than a call to morality and the importance of community standards of acceptable behavior.

Only this time the community was probably a national one; this time the community was too potentially deep and wide for those risk-allergic advertisers to ignore.

And let’s look at some of those advertisers. As the battle over health insurance (and insurance generally) heats up in the heartland, it can’t have escaped the attention of the Fox beancounters that three insurance companies have vacated some prime ad real estate on Fox News. Think others won’t get that message?

Glenn Beck’s gotten some strange but real traction out of doing his Howard Beale-on-meds act — for two networks, no less.

ColorOfChange’s calling Glenn Beck out — and taking its place in a slowly building pushback against an ugly, jingoistic intolerance we can’t get rid of fast enough. Bill, Lou, Rush … you been warned.
Image credits: Beck: Color of Change logo: Logos of Procter & Gamble, S.C. Johnson are properties of the respective companies.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rethinking the necessary war

“Afghanistan: Barack Obama’s Iraq.” It’s a dire, downbeat geopolitical linkage that’s been offered for months as speculation by the media and Pentagon analysts. It’s a turn of phrase couldn’t be more ominously apt, more frighteningly possible than it is right now.

The recent and self-explanatory evidence of growing U.S. fatalities; the views of military experts here and abroad; and a frank assessment made recently by the senior American military man on the ground in Afghanistan suggest that if Iraq was George Bush’s Vietnam, Afghanistan has the potential to be President Obama’s Iraq: an exhausting, unpopular, ruinously expensive barbed-wire albatross draped — and tightened — around the neck of a young and confident president with myriad other things to do.

The Wall Street Journal, for all its potential to brandish that customary Murdochian edge, that tinge of snark that runs through News Corporation properties like some renegade DNA, may have done a masterful job of headline distillation today. The Journal shouted “Taliban Now Winning” on a story about the difficult U.S. effort in prosecuting what’s been sold to this generation as World War II was portrayed more accurately for an earlier one: “the good war,” the necessary conflict, the one that we had to fight and to win.

“The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency's spiritual home,” the Journal’s Yochi J. Dreazen and Peter Spiegel reported Monday.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal would no doubt beg to differ with the Journal’s downbeat characterizations. It’s a reflex of American military leaders: accentuate the positive. But McChrystal, apparently unsolicited, gave The Journal his own time line for progress.

“Gen. McChrystal said his new strategy had to show clear results within roughly 12 months to prevent public support for the war from evaporating in both the U.S. and Afghanistan,” WSJ reported.

“This is a period where people are really looking to see which way this is going to go,” he said. “It's the critical and decisive moment."

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Don’t kid yourself. That deadline is more for domestic consumption than anything else. The American public isn’t likely to have the appetite for continuing a war that’s already gone on twice as long as our involvement in World War II. That national impatience reflects a fear that the conflict is more about American interests than the world’s interests.

“There are fears that this could become a U.S. war rather than a NATO one,” Christopher Langton, senior fellow for conflict at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, told The Independent on Jan. 25. “With other NATO members already planning to scale back, the U.S. could find itself isolated. Rather than being an international operation, it would become another 'coalition of the willing,' as in Iraq – though with the crucial difference that the Afghan mission has had a United Nations mandate throughout."

To go from the casualty count, Americans’ fears are well placed. According to the reliable iCasualties Web site, 14 Americans were killed in Afghanistan in July 2007. Twenty Americans died in Afghanistan in July 2008, a 40 percent increase. In July 2009, 45 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, a 120 percent increase over the year before.

And 12 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan so far in August already.

Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic party op, had a clear-eyed perspective when he spoke to The Week in December:

“Afghanistan has the potential to become what Iraq was for so long for Bush — a quagmire without exit.

“No President could give up the fight to capture Osama bin Laden and close down the terrorist redoubts. But a pragmatic President may be forced to conclude that we can’t remake Afghanistan in our own image—that it’s time to negotiate a ‘very limited’ deal that advances our security while freeing us from a rocky quagmire half a world away.
Before too long, that may be the only option we have left.”

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The reflexive American military reaction — put more boots on the grounds and Predators in the sky overhead — isn’t necessarily a solution. Increasingly, it’s not even an option. One senior military official, referencing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, said it plainly for The Journal: “How many people do you bring in before the Afghans say, ‘You're acting like the Russians’? That’s the big debate going on in the headquarters right now.”

What Gen. McChrystal called “the critical and decisive moment” could be characterized another way. Malcolm Gladwell called it “the tipping point”: in popular culture, a point of no return, the moment at which an oddity becomes an obsession. In the context of the war in Afghanistan, the critical and decisive moment there will yield another one, in Washington.

President Obama’s strategies for the Afghan war are under fire, and not just from the Afghan-based insurgents. What’s happening is as much a critical and decisive moment for a young administration as it is a decisive moment for American military might under siege in a part of the world that we truly do not understand.

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Colin Powell, in a moment of distilling frankness that the Bush administration he served didn’t have the good sense to see, characterized the American invasion of Iraq and the ensuing unpredictables as like what he thought would befall the hapless fumble-fingered customer at a Pottery Barn store:

According to a 2004 book by Bob Woodward, Powell told President Bush before the March 2003 invasion that, if he sent U.S. troops to Iraq, “You know you're going to be owning this place.”

In a phrase: “You break it, you bought it.”

The good folks at Pottery Barn, owned by Williams-Sonoma, Inc., dutifully objected to Powell’s metaphor, stating that on those infrequent occasions when a customer breaks something, it’s written off as a loss.

The current conflict in Afghanistan might be, to borrow the obvious if inaccurate phrase “Pottery Barn II.” It differs a little from the Powell calculus, but, ironically, the outcome could well be the same. We didn’t break Afghanistan; our role there is more surgical, less massive than it was in Iraq. Our entrance in Afghanistan didn’t damage the country outright; indeed, a national election is set for next week, despite the power of warlords and tribalism in Afghan society.

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But the U.S. mission of ridding the Afghans of the Taliban and its monstrous repressions of women and intellectuals, and of minimizing inter-tribal conflicts could keep the United States there for years.

Michael Moore, the filmmaker and Obama supporter, knows what’s at stake for the new president. Interviewed in the Aug. 20 Rolling Stone, Moore revealed a sense of nuance and distinction we can only hope Team Obama shares, a recognition of just how far an outsider, any outsider can go to create change in Afghanistan, and who’s ultimately responsible for change in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban are not an invading force — they are citizens of Afghanistan and it is up to the Afghan people to decide whether they want to be oppressed by a group of religious fanatics. It’s not the business of our country to be in Afghanistan right now. I feel so bad that Obama had to inherit this, and he clearly hasn’t been given the right advice. Because it will, a year from now, become his war, just as Vietnam became Nixon’s war.”
Image credits: Obama: Still from White House video. U.S. Afghanistan casualties chart: WSJ Market Data Group. Powell: Still from NBC News' "Meet the Press," October 2008. Choppers inbound: Spc. Mary L. Gonzalez, CJTF-101 Public Affairs.
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