Monday, September 28, 2009

Strange fruit 2009

Investigators haven’t volunteered much information about the case of Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old U.S. Census field worker and substitute teacher, found hanged Sept. 12 in the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky. According to witnesses and authorities, Sparkman’s body was discovered naked and gagged, his hands and feet bound by duct tape with the word “Fed” scrawled across his chest with a felt-tip pen.

In the weeks since, officials have gone about their grim work, exploring the real connections between Sparkman’s death and his work with the Census Bureau.

But what can’t be avoided, and certainly not ignored, is that something bubbling just under, a disquieting parallel between the apparent method of Sparkman’s death, the long history of lynchings in the American South, and the current president of the United States — the head of the federal government that Sparkman’s killers apparently condemn.

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Consider the geographic source of much of the recent political animosity against President Obama, coming amid an almost pathological retrenchment of the GOP to its white, rural core of supporters. The birther movement has its headquarters in the states of the Confederacy. Seven of every 10 Americans who don’t believe the president was born in the United States live in the South, according to a Daily Kos poll in July.

South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie” outburst on the floor of the House of Representatives followed comments in June from South Carolina GOP activist Rusty DePass, who implied that First Lady Michelle Obama was related to a gorilla that escaped from a South Carolina zoo.

That same month, Diann Jones, vice chairman of the Collin County Republican Party in Texas, sent an e-mail to area Republicans calling a proposal for a $50 gun tax "another terrific idea from the black house and its minions."

And back in May, Sherri Goforth, aide to Republican state Sen. Diane Black of Tennessee, sent an e-mail to staffers showing the first 43 U.S. presidents in noble poses, but depicting Obama, the 44th president, as a pair of white cartoon eyes against a black background.

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Sparkman’s apparent murder would have raised eyebrows enough if he’d been shot or beaten to death. If Sparkman’s body had been discovered without the scrawl “Fed” across his front, if he’d found fully clothed on the ground, this whole incident might have nothing more than a tragic oddity on the police blotter — just another ugly crime in rural America.

But this murder, in the broader historical context of a nation and a federal government led for the first time by an African American, points to deeper underlying motives.

Given the outrage aroused in the South against Obama, it’s disingenuous to assume that the manner of Sparkman’s death was happenstance. Sparkman didn’t die by gunshot wounds, or with blunt force trauma resulting from a struggle or a brawl in the street. The elaborate set design of his murder makes it clear: The killers meant to send a message.

And for Americans in general and African Americans in particular, few things can equal the emotional gut-punch of seeing a man hanging by the neck in the woods of the rural American South.

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Sparkman’s murder has the earmarks of punishment-by-association, a cynically clever attempt by the killers to invoke racial implications without actually doing it. It’s no wild leap of logic to conclude that in the minds of the perpetrators, Sparkman was, among other things, a stand-in for the black man in charge of the “Fed.”

The slaying of Bill Sparkman may well have been a lynching by proxy.

This latest evidence of Southern pathology manages to be both subtle and not-so-subtle at the same time. There’s much to suggest Sparkman’s slaying is just a variation on the extremists’ theme — relentlessly trying to characterize Obama as “the other” president, one not worthy of the respect accorded to his predecessors.

"I certainly detect a racial element in some of the hostility directed at President Obama," said Richard Alba, the distinguished professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, to McClatchy Newspapers on Sept. 18. "I'm certain there are white Americans for whom having a dark-skinned president in the White House is an enormous shock. This is really a complete overturning of what they thought was the natural order of things."

By murdering a white man, these killers sidestepped the firestorm of controversy that would follow had they lynched a black man. But their deeply cynical act sends the same message of unalloyed hate communicated by others, from the Tea Bag protesters to the members of Stormfront, the white supremacist online forum whose Internet servers crashed on the day of Obama’s inauguration due to thousands of new registrants flooding the site at once.

"I don't think anybody has used the symbols of race and racism to criticize this president more than the individuals on the right," said D'Linell Finley, a political science professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, to McClatchy.

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Enlightened minds can disagree; the lynching-by-proxy idea is offered as a cold conjecture; we’ll never know until the perps are caught. But past is sadly prologue in matters of regional rage, and race.

In the moonshine 1920’s, Kentucky was the site of numerous skirmishes between locals and so-called revenuers, the federal and state agents sworn to uphold Prohibition; several agents were killed or wounded in running gun battles with the moonshiners through parts of the state on or near its border with Tennessee.

In the boom years of lynching, between 1882 and 1930, Kentucky would be the third deadliest state for blacks to die by lynching. Between 1865 and 1940, at least 353 people in the state were killed by lynch mobs; one scholar says 75 percent of them were black.

They were separate kinds of crime back then. But unlike back then, today is the first time in American history when the fortunes of black America and the White House have been so indelibly wedded. Unlike back then, today a black man is the head of the “Fed.”

Race may not have been the assailants’ only motive for killing Bill Sparkman. But the way he was slain — through a technique with undeniable historical overtones, and a painful resonance in our national history — sent a message that was no accident.
Image credit: Bill Sparkman: Source unknown. Wilson: Chip Somodoville/Getty Images. George Meadows, lynching victim: Public domain.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

NBC's med alert

You know you’re missed on the job when your former co-workers tell you, a month after you leave the employee parking lot for the last time, that it took two people to replace you.

That’s the sort-of-dilemma facing NBC, whose fall lineup boasts not one but two high-profile medical dramas. One or both of them are meant, in some way, to fill the huge vacuum that occurred when “ER,” the elder statesman of ‘em all, was cancelled this year after a 15-year run.

Created by the late, great, insanely prolific Michael Crichton, and debuting on NBC in September 1994, “ER” became the template by which all meaningful prime-time medical dramas would be judged. Its ability to give viewers the full range of our awful random mortality — to whipsaw viewers from joy to heartbreak, laughter to the deepest dread in literally seconds — remains unmatched.

It didn’t hurt that the show greatly benefited from fine writing and a deep bench of actors that, combined, pretty much created the formula for the multiethnic medical ensemble drama. It was a formidable combination; at its peak “ER” attracted 25 million viewers a week watching what would become the longest-running American prime-time medical drama in history.

“When “ER” said farewell on April 2, 2009 — not long after the death of Crichton — it left NBC deprived of something bigger than just a tentpole in its programming. For a rock-solid core of millions of loyal viewers, “ER” (has there ever been a better name for a TV show, ever?) was the definition of “destination viewing.” What could follow it?

Perhaps hedging its bets on a one-for-one replacement, the Peacock has answered the call with two shows, one already up, the other debuting next week. “Mercy” and “Trauma” bring the medical drama up to date in newly topical ways.

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In “Mercy," which airs on Wednesdays, we're party to the dramas of nurse Veronica Callahan, an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse issues (“I’m on delicious Paxil”), living with her alcoholic parents in Jersey City, N J. Taylor Schilling is pitch-perfect as Veronica, who manages (barely) the tricky balancing act of nurse, daughter and wife in a marriage on life support.

Like TNT’s recent arrival “Hawthorne RN,” “Mercy” takes a refreshing nurse’s-eye view of events in a modern hospital. Veronica’s partners in medicine are Sonia, a fellow Jersey girl with much attitude (Jaime Lee Kirchner) and Chloe, the obligatory fresh-faced neophyte (played by Michelle Trachtenberg) Yes, we get here and elsewhere some elements of shows we’ve seen before: the by-the-book hospital administrators; the nurse as prickly, passionate advocate of the patient.

But in just the debut episode, “Mercy” gives us that rare thing: people we care about, with lives of dimension and back story — exactly the thing that made “ER” work so well for 15 seasons. It’s early to make any firm diagnosis, of course, but for its brisk pacing, a smartly developed sense of mood and characters we both believe and believe in, “Mercy” is off to a good start.

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“Trauma,” which debuts on Monday, sets a much higher bar, dramatically speaking. It’s a multiethnic ensemble study, too, but where “Mercy” explores what happens at the hospital, “Trauma” documents the lives of the medical shock troops who get people to the hospital. Set in San Francisco, “Trauma” follows the exploits of a crack team of paramedics in rescue mode around the city, and above it.

The interplay of the characters will take place against a backdrop of urban catastrophe; the four-minute clip of the pilot that's now available suggests this could be a medical show according to Michael Bay, who never met a flashpot he didn’t like.

With just the first four minutes to see right now, it’s hard to get a full sense of the show’s dramatic arc. Some commenters at the NBC fall preview site have already been less than charitable. One wrote: "Hilarious! Being an EMT in the Bay Area for 7 years, I can tell you it is nothing like this show. What a joke. Yea the procedures might be somewhat valid, but the action-packed daily drama is all fake. Most calls are helping grandma who fell down ... again."

But the cast suggests a quality undertaking: Jamey Sheridan (late of NBC’s “Law & Order” franchise), Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher,” “Friday Night Lights”) and Cliff Curtis (a transplant from New Zealand who’s worked with directors from Scorsese to Aronofsky) are some of the “adrenaline cowboys” in this project.

If “Trauma” balances its pyrotechnic tendencies with some real character development, NBC may have not just one but two medical dramas set to compete with CBS’ “Three Rivers” and two sturdy regulars, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Fox’s “House.” Clearly this fall season, the doctors and nurses are very much in the house.
Image credits: Derek Luke in "Trauma," ER intertitle, Cast of "Mercy," cast of "Trauma": NBC.

Barbie, the Movie

Negotiations are underway in Hollywood for a major motion picture of the Yellow Pages, with principal photography set to begin sometime next year. Until then, moviegoers will have to be content with the latest transmogrification of an object to the screen:

Universal Pictures and Mattel have announced their forthcoming joint venture, a live-action movie based on Barbie, the billion-selling Mattel toy doll introduced in March 1959. Laurence Mark, producer of “Jerry Maguire,” is taking the lead on production.

The possibilities are endless, and already proven. Hasbro, the toy manufacturer, teamed up with Paramount Pictures for this summer’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” a $170 million film that, uh, transforms the 11-inch action figure first sold in 1964 into a high-tech, sci-fi, one-man arsenal suitable for movie audiences in the 21st century. The film’s grossed over $294 million so far.

The life of Barbara Millicent Roberts would seem to be just as perfect for the movies, a tabula rasa rife for development. Since the doll first hit the market 50 years ago, Barbie has been an avatar of modern women and their personal and professional aspirations since the beginning; the doll’s been dressed as everything from an astronaut to a stewardess, from a Starfleet captain to President of the United States.

So the casting directors should be able to cast a wide net. Universal and Mattel could go conventional: Reese Witherspoon could pull it off, given her predilections for investing mannequin roles with an over-the-top exuberance (see “Legally Blonde”). Drew Barrymore (lately doing service as a Cover Girl spokeswoman) would be a credible Barbie, gamely conveying her glam aspect. Want a little more edge? Juliette Lewis would bring in the tattoo-and-nose-rings demographic in droves.

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The diversity of American women and their experiences in the modern world would seem to demand the filmmakers explore a wide range of possibles. Barbie represents a universal aspiration; how better to illustrate that than by stepping outside the usual casting boxes? Halle Berry or Taraji P. Henson would be fine candidates for the Everydoll come to life; Jennifer Lopez or Queen Latifah would be great concessions to the idea of a more adult-figured Barbie, trading the doll’s stick-figure figure for a more realistic depiction of the female form.

Since the filmmakers are dealing with a cultural property that’s half a century old, they might also consider a Barbie that speaks to that moneyed demographic. After her terrific performance as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia,” it’s clearer than ever that there’s no role Meryl Streep can’t perform to great effect.

And what about Ken? Casting for Barbie’s companion and paramour presents the opportunity to put guys’ asses in theater seats to watch what will be, invariably, a chick flick of the first order. Gerard Butler comes to mind. Or maybe Jude Law or Ryan Reynolds. And if Barbie the Movie’s meant to reflect an up-to-the-moment sense of the diversity of our culture, why not step outside that usual-suspects box? Has Will Smith been approached?

Whatever the casting decisions, this will be one to watch for. Barbie the doll has long been representative of our society’s best, most inclusive sense of itself. Barbie the Motion Picture faces a challenge in doing the same thing. Show us the movie.
Image credits: Barbie top: From Barbie full length: From the Barbie Collector Web site.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Obama’s brave new world

“We have sought, in word and deed, a new engagement with the world,” President Obama said, in a single sentence making a bid to reset the American relationship with the nations of this planet. In two momentous days at the United Nations, Obama convincingly assumed that podium on the world stage for the first time as president and sent a message: after eight disastrous, incurious, belligerent years under the previous administration, the United States was going back into the leadership business.

The 44th president of the United States knows how to work the clock, and the crowd. In about 12 hours on Tuesday, the multitasker-in-chief made an address on the need to accelerate efforts against climate change; he huddled with Chinese President Hu Jintao amid the increasingly combative relationship with Beijing over tariffs and other trade issues; he played host to African leaders at a working lunch meant to foster discussion on job creation and improved agriculture in Africa; and that evening at the Sheraton Hotel, he delivered the keynote address opening the fifth session of the Clinton Global Initiative.

On Wednesday, Obama spoke before the General Assembly on Wednesday and made clear this nation’s intent to swing for the fences on matters of public policy with global impact.

When he articulated the importance of “four pillars” — “nonproliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people” — it signaled the arrival of a sea change in American geopolitics: a confidence in working with the international community rather than standing apart from it (the behavioral hallmark of the Bushies); an ability to think big-picture, after eight years of small-ball vision.

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“[I]t is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 — more than at any point in human history — the interests of nations and peoples are shared,” he said. “The religious convictions that we hold in our hearts can forge new bonds among people, or they can tear us apart. The technology we harness can light the path to peace, or forever darken it. The energy we use can sustain our planet, or destroy it. What happens to the hope of a single child anywhere can enrich our world, or impoverish it.

“In this hall, we come from many places, but we share a common future. No longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together. I have carried this message from London to Ankara; from Port of Spain to Moscow; from Accra to Cairo; and it is what I will speak about today -- because the time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.”

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For all the power of the president’s appearance in the world’s central forum this week, it’s hardly his first global rodeo. Before he was elected in November, Obama made triumphal campaign stops in Germany, France and Israel, shoring up his international bona fides with face time with world leaders.

And the outreach that Obama proclaimed this week actually began months ago: in January, a week into his presidency, with a one-on-one interview with Arab media; and in June, with another overture to foreign media, and with high-profile recognition of holidays important to the Muslim world.

But he’s no longer the phenom touring the continent, like he was last year. Now with nine months of experience as president, Obama came before the world body with that valuable commodity: a little gray hair on top of his head to match the gray matter inside it. You want gravitas? On Thursday, Obama chaired a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, a first for an American president in the 64-year history of the council.

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There was substance under the symbolism. Obama offered the broad strokes on dealing with various global hot-button issues, with his singular blend of loft and pragmatism.

On stewardship of the environment: ““There will be no peace unless we take responsibility for the preservation of our planet,” he said. “Our efforts to end conflicts will be eclipsed by wars over refugees and resources. Development will be devastated by drought and famine.”

On the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “We have set a clear and focused goal: to work with all members of this body to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies -- a network that has killed thousands of people of many faiths and nations, and that plotted to blow up this very building. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, we and many nations here are helping these governments develop the capacity to take the lead in this effort, while working to advance opportunity and security for their people.

“In Iraq, we are responsibly ending a war. We have removed American combat brigades from Iraqi cities, and set a deadline of next August to remove all our combat brigades from Iraqi territory. And I have made clear that we will help Iraqis transition to full responsibility for their future, and keep our commitment to remove all American troops by the end of 2011.”

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On nuclear disarmament (a clear shot across the bows of Tehran and Pyongyang): “… [T]he Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty … says that all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear energy; that nations with nuclear weapons have a responsibility to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to forsake them. The next 12 months could be pivotal in determining whether this compact will be strengthened or will slowly dissolve.

“America intends to keep our end of the bargain. We will pursue a new agreement with Russia to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers. We will move forward with ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, and work with others to bring the treaty into force so that nuclear testing is permanently prohibited.”

And in a throwdown that could make history, Obama all but dared Israelis and Palestinians to more actively pursue the elusive two-state solution:

“The time has come — the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.”

There are those within the contiguous territory of the United States who doubt the intention of Barack Obama to be a transformational president (many of them have done everything they can to keep that from happening). But President Obama’s appearance at the U.N. shows how another constituency — a vast array of world leaders, fellow residents of his planet if not his country — has every faith that the transformation of a nation and a relationship is well under way.
Image credits: Obama top: Pool. Obama with Anwar Iqbal of Dawn, June 2009: Still from Dawn. Obama at the U.N.: Samantha Appleton, The White House. Obama bottom: Pete Souza, The White House.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

McChrystal's ball

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new top dog of American forces in Afghanistan, authored an assessment of the U.S. military posture in that country, one that proposes a change in American military strategy is necessary for prevailing in the Afghan war.

But McChrystal’s viewpoint is essentially wedded to the same militarily reflexive call for more troops, and the same shopworn notions of winning and losing, as held sway in Iraq — indeed, the same idea of victory and defeat that’s informed military thinking since World War II.

McChrystal recently completed a classified report requesting significant numbers of new American troops. Parts of it were previously leaked to The Washington Post and published on Monday. Military officials familiar with the report told The Wall Street Journal that it “lays out several options, including one that seeks roughly 40,000 reinforcements.” This, according to The Journal’s count, would increase the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to the mind-boggling prospect of more than 100,000 American forces in that country for the first time.

But something complicates the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, and should give military planners and the White House serious pause about committing more Americans to Afghanistan: namely, a government that has neither the confidence of the American military, nor the confidence of the Afghan people themselves.

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In the assessment’s "Commander's Summary," McChrystal wrote that if the Taliban's momentum could not be stemmed or reversed in the next 12 months, defeating that insurgency may no longer be possible. “Time matters; we must act now to reverse the negative trends and demonstrate progress,” he wrote.

McChrystal's assessment also calls for twice the projected number of needed Afghan security forces from 200,000 police, army and other forces to about 400,000.

Proponents of McChrystal’s thinking believe that more troops would elicit the same results in Afghanistan as the “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007. They say such a surge is necessary because Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq in both land area and population, its web of ethnicities and tribal alliances more complicated.

But that’s exactly why an attempt to superimpose the surge strategy a la Iraq onto Afghanistan may not work. The concentration of new U.S. forces, the surge itself, would be immediately diffused in a wider geographic theater of potential conflict. The surge that worked in the cities and small towns of Iraq would seem to be less effective in small villages with miles of open country and inhospitable terrain between them.

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That’s also why the absence of a trusted, reliable central government is problematical to the American effort. Making a similar commitment in Afghanistan as in Iraq calls for that central government to take the lead in navigating the intertribal network, in recruiting Afghan forces, in making the winning of Afghan “hearts and minds” possible, and in reassuring NATO partners in the coalition that the government will accept the task of taking the lead in saving its own country.

The recent apparent re-election of President Hamid Karzai — “an election not so much marred by allegations of fraud as defined by them,” Keith Olbermann said recently on MSNBC — has been a process that underscores how corrupt and intractable a government can be.

The election, which began Aug. 20, elicited accusations from international monitors of widespread corruption and election fraud, including stuffed ballot boxes, vote counts that didn’t jibe with local census figures; intimidation, government-ordered media blackouts and other misdeeds. They’re still counting the ballots in an election widely seen as fatally flawed from start to finish.

With such a government in control in Kabul, the question becomes not how many American forces on the ground can effect the desired outcome, but whether American military might can effect that outcome at all.

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One of the bigger unresolved problems for the United States is coming to terms with a concrete definition of “victory” in the context of an asymmetrical war whose boundaries have less to do with geography than with religion, cultural tradition and tribal influence.

McChrystal’s invocation of the absolutes of winning and losing is an eerie echo of that of Gen. David Petreaus, formerly the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Talking with NPR’s Alex Chadwick about the Iraq situation in March 2008, Petraeus offered a definition of victory, saying it would mean "an Iraq that is at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, that has a government that is representative of — and responsive to — its citizenry and is a contributing member of the global community."

It’s difficult to imagine McChrystal considering anything else, or anything less, as a definitional benchmark for “victory” in Afghanistan. With that in mind, it’s clear that a functioning “responsive” government is central to American objectives. Without one, it’s impossible to envision how a plan for “victory” could exist in the first place, regardless of the number of U.S. boots on the ground.

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If President Obama needs a clear indication of what not to do, there may be no clearer signpost than the reactions to the McChrystal assessment made by some Republicans in Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell weighed in Monday with an argument he could have resurrected verbatim from the stay-the-course days of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq.

McConnell said the general’s plan should be adopted. Full stop. “[A]nything less would confirm al-Qaeda’s view that America lacks the strength and resolve to endure a long war.”

Given the reflexive animosities of the Republicans in Congress, it’s a tempting and purely intuitive strategy: What not to do? Whatever your political enemy says you should do. Not necessarily a bad idea when you’re a president facing a loyal opposition that’s lately prided itself on being more opposition than loyal.

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For the U.S. forces and the NATO forces they lead, the task of painting the Taliban as a dangerous force that runs counter to the interests and goodwill of the Afghan people is complicated tremendously when the Afghan government is widely seen as being the same thing.

This is the cloud over McChrystal’s forecast. The general’s assessment presupposes that armed might is the best option against the insurgency. With a trusted, reliable government in place to help do the heavy lifting of outreach and recruitment, that might be true. But attempting to pacify a country by force sends a message that’s at best at odds with itself; trying to do that while building a citizen army without a government to help is the kind of vexing mission that could keep American forces in Afghanistan for decades.

It’s presumably this calculus that’s made Defense Secretary Robert Gates (no doubt with a nudge from the White House) order McChrystal to delay submitting the request for more troops until the administration can complete a review of the strategy.

Implicit in this is Obama’s intent not to be pushed or pressured into a decision. Obama may just be playing for time; with the fierce Afghan winter not far off, McChrystal’s assessment may have some legitimate urgency. But the president’s desire to give troop escalation in Afghanistan a serious rethinking may be this nation’s best hope for getting out of Afghanistan much the same way we’re getting out of Iraq: by concentrating the mind of a country’s leadership on the idea of that country without us in it.
Image credits: McChrystal: U.S. Army (public domain). Fighting in East Paktika: The Associated Press. Karzai: Harald Dettenborn, Munich Security Conference. Petraeus: Robert D. Ward, Defense Dept. (public domain). Obama: Still from MSNBC.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Apocalypse 2055: 'The Age of Stupid'

It’s the year 2055. London is underwater. Las Vegas is underground. Sydney Harbor is in flames and the Taj Mahal is a ruin. About 800 kilometers north of Norway, a global archivist with the totality of the world’s information at his disposal reviews videos and news clips from 2008 and prepares a digital message in a bottle, a message for … someone, dire and painful but to the point: “We could have saved ourselves, but we didn’t.”

This grim forecast comes at the opening of a new and startlingly effective film on the perils of climate change and the consumerist roots of a coming ecological disaster — a motion picture whose groundbreaking world premiere tonight, in New York and Seattle, and on 440 screens in 63 countries, was its own environmental impact statement.

“The Age of Stupid” is a curious hybrid: part documentary, part feature film, part grassroots collective enterprise. But the picture arrives with smart timing: It precedes by one day a planned meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to begin taking the next step in fashioning a new global environmental agreement — the successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

It precedes by less than three months the United Nations Climate Change Conference, slated for Copenhagen in December.

And it precedes by six years the redline date — 2015 — when carbon emissions and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must, according to scientists, begin to decline in order to prevent a global extinction-level event.

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Director Franny Armstrong (who helmed the 2005 documentary “McLibel”) was both smart and clever. The young director, whose passion and nervous energy were evident at the premiere pre-screening and post-screening events, wisely made this film a personable, accessible experience with a look into the lives of people around the world affected by the prospect of climate change — their roles in preventing it, creating it, surviving it or escaping it.

A former Shell engineer whose life was turned upside down by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. A wind-turbine developer in Cornwall, England, gamely trying to buck the headwinds of a local population dead-set against wind machines blocking their view. A woman in Nigeria enduring a hardscrabble existence and wishing for more, despite living in a country that is a major oil producer. A wealthy, ruthlessly ambitious Indian entrepreneur launching a new airline.

All are part of the global drama Armstrong explains with wit, clarity and insight.

Armstrong was clever as well. Wise to the ways of Hollywood whether she’s been there or not, Armstrong called on high-tech science fiction visual effects to help tell the story. And not a little Hollywood star power: the archivist is played by Pete Postlethwaite (“The Usual Suspects,” “In the Name of the Father”), the archive-outpost’s lone occupant and, for all we know, the last man alive on Earth.

But Postlethwaite’s presence is at the service of documentary content. “The Age of Stupid” recalls “An Inconvenient Truth” in the urgency of its environmental message (but without “Truth’s” whiteboard, wonkish didactics) and it has some whimsical, wiseass touches not unlike those found in the documentaries of Michael Moore (an obvious Armstrong inspiration).

But Armstrong brings her own narrative drive to this film, and an insight that bears further exploration. By expressing the desires of some of her subjects — the Nigerian woman and the Indian entrepreneur in particular — she reveals the pervasiveness of the single most corrosive factor driving climate change:

It’s not government policy, it’s not necessarily even rapacious corporations. Armstrong compellingly makes the case that the disease of global consumerism, the allure of the material may be the prime engine for looming environmental catastrophe — one that it’s still not too late to prevent.

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The world premiere in New York — the film debuted in the UK some months ago, the film opens globally on Tuesday — took pains to be as close to a carbon-neutral event as possible. Guests were greeted by a green carpet made of enviro-friendly materials; Moby performed a pre-show concert, with electricity provided by humans (people pedaling bikes connected to a generator). Gideon Yago of MTV, the premiere’s demographically correct emcee, said that even the crudités were organic.

Perhaps all of that was a bit much. But the film’s the thing, and “The Age of Stupid” sends the right signal at the right time. The film’s environmental-populist spirit extends to the way it was bankrolled.

“The Age of Stupid” was “crowd-funded” by 220 people who contributed between $813 and just under $57,000 to get the three-year project off the ground. They’ll get a corresponding share of any profits realized. A film that makes some compelling points about the environment is its own best advertisement for the future of independent cinema.

One of the most important points of the evening wasn’t made in the film; it was during the post-screening comments. Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General, called climate change “an all-encompassing threat … perhaps the biggest threat to our world today.”

“Good leaders make good followers,” Annan said tonight, in a clear shot at the various heads of state who’ll gather hours from now at the United Nations to begin to decide the fate of the environment as surely as the Allied powers gathered in 1945 to decide the shape of the postwar world.

Those leaders will ultimately be moved to act by the people they lead. And that means all of us breathing on this lonely, beautiful planet. “The Age of Stupid” isn’t so much a call to arms as it is a call to action and common sense. It’s a call we must answer.
Image credits: Stills from “The Age of Stupid” © 2009 Spanner Films and Passion Pictures.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bush #43 unplugged (or unhinged)

The American people always knew he had a sense of humor, if not a sense of how much of a sense of humor he needed to have — about himself, his administration and the panoply of gaffes, crimes and horrors they presided over. Now almost nine months after George Walker Bush left office as the 43rd President of the United States, we’re about to get a dose of the Full W, a taste of the unexpurgated, unplugged, unmasked or unhinged President Bush.

Bush’s months-long silence since leaving the White House is being broken for him. It’s ironic that, for an administration obsessed with control and image, maybe the most revealing transcripts of Bush #43’s inner emotional workings and political calculations were acquired through an agent of that message of control.

On Sept. 22, Crown publishes former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer’s book “Speech-Less: Tales of a White House Survivor,” a tale of a pilgrim’s progress through the bowels of modern Washington. The book contains some priceless examples of then-President Bush venting his spleen about other political figures; parts of Latimer’s book are already getting heavy rotation on the punditburo jukebox.

Excerpts of the book are in the October issue of GQ but surprise surprise, some of the good stuff’s already been leaked. Count on Latimer to do his part on the cable news shows next week — and the ‘Vox to do his part right now.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Barack Obama: “After one of Obama’s blistering speeches against the administration, [Bush] had a very human reaction: He was ticked off. He came in one day to rehearse a speech, fuming. ‘This is a dangerous world,’ he said for no apparent reason, ‘and this cat isn’t remotely qualified to handle it. This guy has no clue, I promise you.’ He wound himself up even more. ‘You think I wasn’t qualified?” he said to no one in particular. “I was qualified.’

On John McCain: “Eventually, someone informed the president that the reason the event was closed was that McCain was having trouble getting a crowd. Bush was incredulous — and to the point. ‘He can’t get 500 people to show up for an event in his hometown?’ he asked. No one said anything, and we went on to another topic. But the president couldn’t let the matter drop. ‘He couldn’t get 500 people? I could get that many people to turn out in Crawford.’ He shook his head. ‘This is a five-spiral crash, boys.’ ”

On Joe Biden: “He paused for a minute. I could see him thinking maybe he shouldn’t say it, but he couldn’t resist. ‘If bullshit was currency,’ he said straight-faced, ‘Joe Biden would be a billionaire.’ Everyone in the room burst out laughing.”

On Sarah Palin: “’I’m trying to remember if I’ve met her before. I’m sure I must have.’ His eyes twinkled, then he asked, ‘What is she, the governor of Guam?’

“Everyone in the room seemed to look at him in horror, their mouths agape. When [an aide] told him that conservatives were greeting the choice enthusiastically, he replied, ‘Look, I’m a team player, I’m on board.’ He thought about it for a minute. ‘She’s interesting,’ he said again. ‘You know, just wait a few days until the bloom is off the rose.’ Then he made a very smart assessment.

“’This woman is being put into a position she is not even remotely prepared for,” he said. ‘She hasn’t spent one day on the national level. Neither has her family. Let’s wait and see how she looks five days out.’ ”

◊ ◊ ◊

Latimer’s recollection of Bush’s words suggest the president was given to occasional bouts of prescience — he couldn’t have been more right about Palin and McCain. And the man who gave us strategeries was apparently astute enough about political language to have graced us with “five-spiral crash,” a vivid phrase that enters the lexicon of American politics as a full partner.

But the former president also reveals a tone-deafness about his own presidency and its predilection for invention and self-invented catastrophe. Bush’s riposte about Biden leaves him open to the same: There’s eight years of proof that, if bullshit was currency, the Bush administration would have been the Federal Reserve. This is a dangerous world, and Bush’s own qualifications to handle the job of president were suspect from the beginning. The American people said as much when a majority of them voted for Al Gore in 2000.

“‘You think I wasn’t qualified?’ he said to no one in particular.”

That’s right, sir, we did. But you won anyway, and in the following eight years of your presidency the nation was subjected to its own five-spiral crash: of its values, its armed forces, its treasury, its global standing and too much of its self-confidence.

◊ ◊ ◊

Latimer’s snapshots, funny as they are, reveal finally a sadness about the Bush administration, its obdurate blindness concealed in cowboy swagger, its cluelessness held high like a trophy.

Latimer may have felt it too; without having read the book yet, we suspect that he was early disabused of his young enthusiasms about Washington — that, as the book’s Amazon description says, the young speechwriter found politics was less like the walk-and-talk world of “The West Wing” and more like the insular institutional paranoia and indecision-making common to the workers of “The Office.”

The rest of Latimer’s book should offer other surprises, and we’ll hear a lot of them next week. We’ll see what these presidential asides ultimately mean to the Bush biography, one we’d thought couldn’t be any more tarnished by its own proud coarseness. “Speech-Less” will probably show just how wrong we were.
Image credits: Bush: Public domain. "Speech-Less" cover: Crown Publishers. Obama: Still from White House video. Palin: BBC News.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mr. Wilson, Mr. Carter and America

We’ve known as much, or suspected as much, since the end of last year. That’s when some of the ugly rumblings began, right after the election. A racially-related assault, a hate crime there — it started then, so slowly as to avoid being seen as a wave of anything at all, much less anything dangerous.

Now, in vastly different ways, two men from the South have let the American people know that the hair that’s been standing up on our necks since November on matters related to race has been there for a reason. That foreboding, that disquiet in the collective unconscious isn’t just a suspicion.

It took a congressman from South Carolina to make that clear when he shouted down the president of the United States in a joint session of Congress last week.

And it took a peanut farmer from Georgia, the 39th President of the United States, to put that congressman’s heckling into a frightening perspective.

President Jimmy Carter, in an interview by NBC News anchor Brian Williams that was released on Tuesday, spoke about the growing tide of apparently racial animosity in America, and did it in the genteel, measured terms of a man with some familiarity speaking this awful truth to power.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African American,” Carter said.

Carter, tapping into his knowledge of the South and the nation beyond it, said bluntly that “that racism inclination still exists, and I think it has bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people — not just in the South but around the country — that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

He said it elsewhere Tuesday, at a town hall held at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “There is an inherent feeling among many people in this country that an African American ought not to be president, and ought not to be given the same respect as if he were white.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Years from now, maybe after some ugly flash of the nation’s racial realities, or some hopefully nonviolent evidence of nativism engenders its own terrorist presence on this soil, historians may look back at Carter’s statements as the brightest, most clarion warning of the potential for racial apocalypse in the United States. It’s sure as hell certainly not the first.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has warned the nation for years of a rising riptide of intolerance, proven by an almost viral spread of hate and extremist groups across the 50 states. The most recent warnings came this spring:
From white power skinheads decrying "President Obongo" at a racist gathering in rural Missouri, to neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen hurling epithets at Latino immigrants from courthouse steps in Oklahoma, to anti-Semitic black separatists calling for death to Jews on bustling street corners in several East Coast cities, hate group activity in the U.S. was disturbing and widespread throughout 2008, as the number of hate groups operating in America continued to rise. Last year, 926 hate groups were active in the U.S., up more than 4% from 888 in 2007. That's more than a 50% increase since 2000, when there were 602 groups.

And the brute, blind brands of stupid deployed by conservative extremists in last year’s presidential campaign were themselves clear proof to anyone of how deep this strain of willful ignorance exists, and how easily it could be exploited.

Ancient history? It happened on Sept. 9, the day of Wilson’s meltdown, outside a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Jimmy Carter’s state of Georgia.

Morrow police arrested Troy Dale West after reviewing a video surveillance tape that appeared to show West beating and kicking Tasha Hill, a black Army reservist, yelling racial slurs at her as he attacked her in full view of the Army officer’s 7-year-old daughter. Police have referred the case to the FBI, saying it may be a violation of the Federal Hate Crime Law, Capt. James Callaway of the Morrow Police Department told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

◊ ◊ ◊

What Carter has taken a righteous, principled stand against is a strain of evil with a long history of three ingredients: fear, economic discontent and an easy, vulnerable target. Its precedents through history should worry you.

In Weimar Germany, Adolf Hitler focused populist rage over an imploding domestic economy, an economy so bad that the exchange rate for deutschmarks made billionaires of paupers who still couldn’t buy a pound of butter. Hitler’s convenient scapegoating and victimization of German Jews, and later European Jews in general, set the brush fires for the Holocaust, and World War II.

In Cambodia after the Vietnam War, in his bid to create an agrarian communist utopia, Pol Pot manipulated populist anger into class warfare, pitting his Khmer Rouge against politicians, intellectuals and their friends and associates, an us-vs.-them strategy that led to “the killing fields,” and the deaths of perhaps 2 million Cambodians by starvation and execution.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein exploited an 800-year-old internal hatred, and nurtured a culture of tribal rule for 23 years, keeping his Sunni sect in power with a campaign of domestic repression. In 1988, he terrorized Kurdish separatists in his own country, ordering a lethal gas attack that killed at least 5,000 people. Those were apparently only some of Saddam’s citizen victims: There are apparently no reliable figures for the number of Iraqi dissidents and Shia Muslims killed during Saddam's presidency; some estimates have placed the figure at between 60,000 and 150,000 people.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s of course a huge stretch to fully connect the rise of Hitler’s panoramic criminality, the discontent of the Tea Baggers and an historically-challenged heckler in the pews of the House of Representatives. But what unites them is troubling. What unites them is an embrace of distortion, a willingness to objectify, to tweak the truth, to exploit the weakness, to make things worse, often for people already on the receiving end of the worst there is.

And that’s where the birthers and the deathers come in, and the nativists and Joes the plumber, the Stormfronts and Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Malkins and Limbaughs.

It’s their eagerness to distort and manipulate that leads Americans to think that the laws and social contracts that bind us as a society are no longer in effect, that it’s open season on people who don’t look like them, that it’s condoned behavior to repeatedly assault an Army reservist while using racial epithets; that it’s all right to hope the president of the United States fails, that it’s OK to call that president a racist or another Hitler — that it’s socially acceptable, on the floor of the House of Representatives, to call that first black American president a liar to his face.

The trickle-down is already happening. We’ve seen where it’s leading: to Tea Party protests that pervert the image of the president into a witch doctor; to a California mayor’s cheap attempt at Internet humor, a photo-illustration of the White House lawn festooned with watermelons; to the virulent attacks on Kanye West, whose admittedly foolish grandstanding at the MTV Video Music Awards led to a firestorm of racist, N-word laden tweets on Twitter … racial hatred 140 characters at a time.

Jimmy Carter has called the question: Which way are we going? Years from now, historians will recognize that. Years from now, America will reckon with the consequences of how we answer that question today.
Image credits: Carter: Still from NBC News broadcast. Troy West: Morrow Police Department. Scott swastika, Obama Care poster at Tea Bag protest in Michigan: Stills from MSNBC cable.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Mr. Wilson didn’t say

When South Carolina Republican Rep. Joseph Wilson shouted “You lie!” at President Obama last Wednesday, during a joint session of Congress watched by 32 million Americans and millions more around the globe, it was an unwelcome display of partisan cheek. People and politicians on either side of the aisle seemed to agree on that much immediately; indeed, Arizona Sen. John McCain was one of the first Republicans out of the gate, ready to run the chastising machine, demanding that Wilson, his colleague, apologize to Obama shortly after the president’s address.

Democratic leaders, most vocally House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, plan a House vote this week to admonish Wilson if he doesn’t formally apologize on the House floor.

That it was a case of toweringly bad manners is obvious. But there’s a deeper subtext to Wilson’s heckling. A study of Wilson’s voting patterns on discrimination-related legislation, and a look at how racism itself has evolved in America, strongly suggest race was at the heart of his outburst, just as race has been at the root of efforts by conservative extremists and their enablers to paint the new president as an outsider, an accidental leader — “the other.”

What Joe Wilson said was bad enough; it’s what he didn’t say that raises other, deeper national questions.

◊ ◊ ◊

Listening to Wilson’s day-after explanation reveals that his apology really wasn’t his apology. Pigeonholed by reporters on Thursday, Wilson said he had been contacted “by the leadership” and instructed to apologize to the president. Implicit in that statement: this wasn’t his idea; he was apologizing under orders from the Republican leadership, apparently making a gesture of contrition he wouldn’t have made on his own.

Wilson’s tirade has caught the attention of scholars, two of whom detect the wider social pattern beyond Wilson’s flash of temper.

“[T]he consistent branding of President Obama as ‘other’ by his opponents has created a context within which it is perceived that Obama need not be treated as other presidents have been treated,” wrote Stephen Maynard Caliendo, a professor of political science at North Central College, and Charlton McIlwain, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. “The creation of that ‘otherness,’ while possibly motivated by racial animosity, is certainly rendered more effective as a result of deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans. …”

“So we need not know Congressman Wilson's heart to know that his behavior is reflective of a broader racist criticism of President Obama.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Not that Wilson hasn’t provided ammunition for making that assumption. There’s the matter of his personal associations. He didn’t mention it recently, but Wilson is now or has been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an increasingly confrontational Southern heritage organization that favors secession, condemns interracial unions, and defends slavery as a biblical sanction. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted a shift in the group’s philosophy toward racial extremism back in 2006.

And then there’s Wilson’s voting record to be reckoned with. According to On the, the Web site that monitors congressional votes, Wilson voted against prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Wilson co-sponsored a bill that would declare English to be the United States’ official language, voted in the affirmative to build a fence along the Mexican border; and the congressman (in an action that puts last week’s outburst into context) supported legislation that would have reported illegal aliens who receive hospital treatment.

It would be some perverse comfort if Wilson’s slander of the president of the United States was an isolated thing. But his outburst has its disturbing parallels elsewhere in the country.

Recently, a video posted on YouTube, one that received thousands of reactions, showed Pastor Steven L. Andersen of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., conducting a rant disguised as a sermon. “I hate Barack Obama,” the pastor says on the video, “and I’m gonna prove this from the Bible tonight why I should hate Barack Obama, why God wants me to hate Barack Obama, why God hates Barack Obama.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Ironically, that sense of “other” cultivated by conservatives has been assisted by the mainstream media. Earlier this year, CNBC’s Jim Cramer, host of the “Mad Money” program, referred to Obama as a “Bolshevik” who is “taking cues from Lenin.”

And Last November, about ten days after Obama was inaugurated, the Associated Press, the world’s leading newsgathering organization, announced a change in its style of first-reference address of the American president.

Previously, The AP ruled that the last name appended to the word “President” was enough to identify the leader of the United States. The first name was deemed unnecessary, maybe as a way of reflecting a kinship or a national familiarity with the leader of this country. For Americans, The AP long reasoned, the last name was enough.

The AP’s new style rule is that the U.S. president be fully identified — President Barack Obama — on first reference, along with the names and titles of other world leaders.

The AP’s decree arrived with, at the least, a curious timing. Coming days after the most dramatic and possibly transformative evidence of American exceptionalism, the world’s biggest global news operation adopted a style policy that homogenizes the perception of our nation’s leader, flattens the distinction between the chief executive of the United States and other leaders.

The AP’s new first-reference rule may have been intended to foster a sense of global unity in how it addresses world dignitaries. But because of it, there’s nothing to distinguish the leader of this country as first among equals. That distancing effect — that breaking with the past familiar titular relationship with our top national leader — reinforces the ambience of “otherness” that led, directly or indirectly, to Wilson’s outburst on Wednesday night.

With two words, Joe Wilson spoke volumes last Wednesday. But that’s the topsoil. What was left unsaid, what remains largely unexplored, is the depth of a disquieting animosity, an extremist rage that’s percolating deeper underground.

Monday, September 14, 2009

It’s the 2009 Bad Manners F___-Off!

The thrill of competition, the emotion of sport — can there be a more profoundly American experience? As the fall season prepares to begin, and the NFL mounts this year’s edition of the Roman spectacle of pro football, there’s a new competitive sport vying for your attention. For years we’ve heard of the bake-off and the face-off, the standoff and the playoff. Now, ladies and gentlemen … welcome to the 2009 Bad Manners F___-Off!

Still your points leader in the competition, on the basis of sheer nerve, brevity and audience offended in millions, is Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Wilson’s stunning “two-word” performance on the floor of the House of Representatives last week, during a joint session of Congress, will be a hard one to top. Right now it’s his to lose.

But over the weekend, we’ve seen two game challengers emerge, each of them ready to take the lead in the match.

On Saturday, of course, Wimbledon champion Serena Williams made her play to take the lead when she melted down after a bad foot-fault call at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadow, Queens, N.Y. It led to her losing her semi-final match to unseeded, unranked Kim Clijsters.

Williams, in the amateur bad-manners division, showed she was ready to step up to the next level, with comments made to the line judge that could peel paint off a wall. Here's part of the transcript: “I swear to God I'm f___ing taking this ball and shoving it down your f___ing throat."

Williams ran her heat shortly before Kanye West stepped out on the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, as country singer Taylor Swift was accepting her award for Best Female Video.

West wrested the microphone from Swift mid-acceptance speech ands went into a diatribe claiming that Beyoncé had been cheated out of the award. "Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,” West said.

Clearly, the judges will have their hands full deciding which of these three worthies goes home with the Golden Turd.

The competition between them is fierce, but because of the F___-Off’s status as a pro-am event welcoming any and all challengers over the course of the year, anything can happen. Another contender in either the private or public sectors could emerge from nowhere between now and December. So get ready for another three months of spirited, unpredictable action in the public square. We're live at the F___-Off. We’ll have a winner soon. Back to you in the studio.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

60 million minutes: Gertrude Baines (1894-2009)

When Gertrude Baines was born on April 6, 1894, Grover Cleveland was president, neither penicillin nor aspirin were available to consumers, the Wright Brothers were almost a decade from powered flight, black Americans were just 31 years past the Emancipation Proclamation, and a rocker was a chair and nothing but.

In the 115 years, 5 months and 5 days that followed, this daughter of the South would live through two world wars, the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, repeated landings on the moon, the birth and development of the Internet, and the first African American president of her lifetime.

Gertrude Baines died on Friday, probably of a heart attack, at at the Western Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles at 7:25 a.m.. While so many of us live lives on the express route, roaring through fast in the HOV lane, Gertrude Baines took the scenic route through life. The very scenic route.

Baines, whose grandparents were slaves, was born in Shellman, Ga., and lived in Connecticut and in Ohio, working as a maid in Ohio State University dormitories until she retired and ultimately moved to California.

The 42,162 days of her life are a testament to the human spirit and to human tenacity in general, but it’s especially sweett that Baines survived to this age as an African American. As the national cohort with among the lowest life expectancies, the highest infant mortalities and the most dismal prospects for improvement, black Americans can still take real solace in knowing that sometimes, genetic predisposition trumps everything.

Not that she didn’t have her indulgences; she was said to be a fan of ice cream, crispy bacon, friend chicken and Jerry Springer. Her diet may be a cautionary tale, but in other ways she was a doctor’s dream. "She told me that she owes her longevity to the Lord, that she never did drink, never did smoke, and she never did fool around," her doctor, Dr. Charles Witt, said in April, according to CNN.

◊ ◊ ◊

You’re tempted to think that if she can live to the very ripe old age of 115 fueled by nitrites and nitrosamines, saturated fat, cholesterol and bad tabloid television, there’s hope for all of us. But if you’re African American, there’s something more. There has to be.

There’s something of her strength, her innate resilience in every black person in America. Granted, we won’t all get to take the loooong way home, like she did. But if longevity is possible, persistence is necessary. Gertrude Baines’ life was an example of persistence against all odds that’s brought us this far as a people. It’s bred in the bone. It’s bred in the marrow of the bone.

It’s often said by people lamenting the dear departed when said dear departed lived to see emeritus years: “She had a good run.”

When she was born 60.7-odd million minutes ago, lynchings of black men had become not just common but rampant in Georgia.

Ten months before she died, she cast her vote for the first black president of the United States.

Gertrude Baines had a great run. Her staying power is our own.
Image credit: Baines top © 2009 John Rabe, republished under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 3.0. Baines bottom: CNN.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Melvin Van Peebles’ itchy-footed life

The story, we already know: A young man heads off to discover the world and make his way in it. That’s the template for stories of adventurers from Don Quixote to Candide, from Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield.

In the hands of Melvin Van Peebles, it’s another matter entirely.

The protagonist of Van Peebles’ latest film and his newest literary effort is a vagabond who following in many other’s itinerant footsteps. But this time, our hero is a black man in America. And he can relate to that like no one else can.

The 78-year-old director, screenwriter, actor, playwright, cultural flamethrower and all-American trickster returns fully to the scene (a scene he’s really never left) with “Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus, Itchy-Footed Mutha,” a bawdy comic bildüngsroman of a black pilgrim’s progress through the modern world.

“It’s all there in the title,” Van Peebles said in a recent phone interview. “You could have called it ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ “This is the portrait of somebody who goes out to take on the world It’s about the things that befall him. It’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ it’s ‘Canterbury Tales.’ But I just sent someone out after a life in the ‘hood, and this is what happens to him. It’s more complicated like that.”

But Van Peebles' own life is a portrait of the septagenarian in constant motion. Van Peebles lives his own thoroughly itchy-footed life:

A book signing at a bookstore in New York City in August. A book signing at Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles. Then an appearance at the Bumbershoot music and arts festival in Seattle is set for over Labor Day weekend. Then back to L.A. for another event before heading back to Seattle for a master class in filmmaking.

Early next year he heads to Paris, where the opera of “Sweet Sweetback” opens on Feb. 15. In the meantime, another trip to L.A. is planned as he prepares to stage a West Coast production of “Unmitigated Truth,” Van Peebles self-described "three-man musical” that just closed off-Broadway.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Confessions” finds its life in the culture on two fronts, the graphic novel (developed by Van Peebles and Caktuz..?13, an award-wining illustrator, and published by Akashic Books) and the film arriving almost simultaneously in pop-culcha time. The film opened on Aug. 21; the novel debuted Sept. 1.

In fact, the graphic novel leapfrogs the usual chronological conventions. It contains stills from the film — a break from other such ventures; more often than not, the film of a graphic novel finds the novel as the antecedent (Frank Miller’s “Sin City” and “The Spirit” made their way to the screen after publication as graphic novels).

“I thought I’d take the idea of a graphic novel one step further. I took some of the images from the film and mixed them at the same time with the illustrations – a part of the images of the film visuals themselves.”

“It’s just what going on. I thought, ‘what a wonderful opportunity.’ Of course I could have done a linear novel but when I went in and thought about putting this into a graphic novel, I was monkey see, monkey do.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s not the first time Van Peebles has turned the established order on its collective head. In 1971, with a budget most feature films would use for catering, Van Peebles directed “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” a coming-of-age tale of a black man in flight from corrupt authorities in 1970 Panther-era America.

“Sweetback,” a kind of “Les Miserables” in the ‘hood, was a brash, abrasive departure from Hollywood expectations. The highest-grossing indie film of 1971, it put the industry on notice that black men in the movies would no longer be such ready fodder for stereotypes, portrayed as either docile, shuffling apologists or stoic, one-dimensional mannequins.

“Sweetback,” which eventually grossed more than $4 million (despite a theatrical run in all of two theaters) paved the way for the blaxploitation genre. Films from “Dolemite” to “SuperFly,” “Black Caesar” to “Cleopatra Jones” can all trace their fearless, streetwise, willfully confrontational lineage to the film Van Peebles made on a shoestring. To hear Van Peebles tell it, even “Shaft,” made around the same time as “Sweetback,” was influenced by it.

“You know, they started making Shaft as a white movie?” Van Peebles told The Guardian (UK) in June 2005. “After ‘Sweetback,’ they stopped pre-production and turned it into a black one.'"

◊ ◊ ◊

You’d think that in the wake of “Sweetback’s” success, and the fact of numerous black-directed motion pictures and a proven track record of saleability since then, Van Peebles would have had a clearer path to the creation of the movie version of “Confessions.” That wasn’t the case.

“Nope," he said. "Not for me. I got no partners, so I’m distributing it myself. Everyone around is ready to laud me and tell me what a genius I am,” he said with perhaps a touch of bitterness. But just a touch. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. “If you want to be visionary you’ve got to pay visionary dues.”

For someone so opinionated, Van Peebles has consistently held his fire in comments on fellow artists and others in the public eye. Interviewers are often advised to draw their own conclusions on a given topic. Brer Soul must be one hell of a poker player. “I don’t really talk unless I can do something — and then I’m all over you. I do not feel that my position as a filmmaker allows me to pontificate about things.

“Because I’ve been very successful in my artistic genre, I don’t really think that gives me the right to pontificate ad nauseum about shit I don’t know,” he said. “I won’t run down or dumb down people who work very hard at their thoughts. Quite often, minorities are sometimes ambushed; ‘so and so said such and such.’ I must go back to my original position: nothing catches a fish but his mouth.”

Sometimes you just know there's a viewpoint, on target and thoroughly original, that he refuses to enlarge on. About President Obama, for example, one of the more opinionated artists in the nation volunteers what feels like boilerplate praise: “I would hope that the things he’s done and is doing are things that work. I like him, I like what he’s trying to do, I like him 100 percent. He’s got my vote.”

It’s this headstrong, playfully inventive sense of independence that’s vexing even to his champions. At a recent master class in Seattle, speaking to (and disagreeing with) a reporter about aspects of his technique, Van Peebles offered a clear sense of his creative approach: I did it my way. I'm doing it my way. Deal with it.

“I don't do films the black way,” he said, “I just do it my way. Hollywood is great, like your mama is great. But I do not make films that way because I'm self-taught. I make films that way --how I teach myself. You learn a language, it's the same thing. You got to learn on your own. You do it automatically. You do it because you want to speak that language.”
Image credits: Van Peebles top: Jean-Luc Guerin. Confessionsofa cover: Akashic Books. Van Peebles at microphone: Still from Aug. 28 interview with WNYC Radio. © 2009 WNYC. MER with Melvin Van Peebles, Seattle, Sept. 2009.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What’s up, South Carolina?

The citizens of the great state of South Carolina might be advised to consider calling for an investigation into the ingredients of their drinking water. With two serious momentary and prolonged lapses of reason from two prominent elected officials, they could be wondering if stupid is bacterially contagious.

By now, of course, you’ve heard about the unprecedented outburst from Republican Rep. Joe Wilson last night, during President Obama’s address before a joint session of Congress.

At one point, as the president sought to dispel rumors of his health-care reform plan being extended to undocumented aliens, Wilson can be heard shouting “You lie!” at the president of the United States, before the ears of the nation and the world.

It’s bad enough that such a lapse of decorum and respect for the presidency, if not the president, should happen in prime-time, in front of tens of millions of people here and around the world. What’s worse for Republicans seeking to derail the health-care plan is the emotional ammunition Wilson’s outburst provides the Democrats. By symbolizing the town-hall shoutdown strategies used by conservatives for months, Wilson will embarrass centrist Republicans, and galvanize progressives and supporters of health-care reform, in a way that talk radio and Fox News windbags never could.

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The day after for Wilson has been about what you’d expect. Reporters have bird-dogged the congressman all day, even after his apology last night, within an hour or two of the end of Obama’s address.

“This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill,” Wilson said in a statement.

'”While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable,” he said. “I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”

A visit to his Web site earlier today reveals that the site is down for “exceptionally high traffic” (surprise, surprise). A photograph taken today by Susan Walsh of The Associated Press tells the story well: an empty chair and a name plate where the congressman should be, doing the people’s business.

And some in South Carolina are already making their feelings known. From Imaconservative, commenting on the Web site of The State, South Carolina’s leading newspaper: “Individuals such as Joe Wilson are prime examples of why it is becoming increasingly difficult for thinking people to support the Republican Party. I have supported Joe in the past, both financially and at the ballot box, but never again. …”

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Wilson’s meltdown follows the one still happening for the state’s governor, Mark Sanford, whose admission in June of an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman, and a subsequent period in which the governor was mysteriously AWOL, off the grid for a week, has left many calling for his resignation — something he’s so far steadfastly refused to do.

Hours before the Obama address, The Politico reported that Sanford had received a “stinging rebuke” from his own party after Republicans in the state House called for his resignation “for the good of our state.”

“Sixty-one of the 72 Republicans in the state House, including Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, signed onto a letter arguing Sanford was unable to effectively govern because of the fallout from his extramarital affair,” The Politico reported.

“Our unemployment is high and the people of our state are concerned about the future – it is a shame that our state government continues to be mired in distraction,” Bingham wrote. “The time has come for the governor to step aside and let South Carolinians begin the process of healing our state.”

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Such events are a one-two punch in the gut for a state that doesn’t deserve it. U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who hails from South Carolina, told McClatchy Newspapers that “Joe Wilson demonstrated his lack of manners by insulting the president on the floor of Congress. It is the Joe Wilsons of the world that have drummed up this kind of poisonous climate that promotes disrespect rather than dialogue on difficult issues.”

And if there was any doubt a linkage between Sanford and Wilson would ultimately be established, Clyburn put that to rest. Fast. “I thought the governor had embarrassed us enough, but Mr. Wilson has gone even lower,” Clyburn said.

It’s anyone’s guess how these recent events will have an impact on the state’s other doings, including its tourism business. Trumpeting the virtues of 360 golf courses, Edisto Beach and the Irmo Okra Strut may not cut it with the public now. We’ll see. But for now, the good people of the Palmetto State deserve better of the officials leading them. A lot better.
Image credits: Wilson top: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press. Empty chair: Susan Walsh/The Associated Press. Sanford: © 2009 State of South Carolina.
'Vox Update: From Rachel Weiner at The Huffington Post: "Rep. Joe Wilson's (R-S.C.) untoward outburst Wednesday night has had a positive effect for at least one person. Rob Miller, a Democrat planning to run against Wilson in 2010, has taken in more than $350,000 from over 5,000 people through the website since his opponent heckled the president." (Image via HuffPost)
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