Friday, December 31, 2010

Thank you, sincerely yours

Any year we lose Dennis Hopper, Solomon Burke, Billy Taylor, Teena Marie and Lena Horne could easily have been a better one, but if you’re reading this, you’ll make it to the end of 2010. For that, congratulations.

And if you’re one of the people reading this ... well, you’re one of the people reading this, instead of or in addition to something else. For that, a heartfelt thanks to my tens of hundreds of readers around the third rock from the sun.

Thanks Dublin and Dallas, Bremerton and Bangkok, Austin and Adelaide, Copenhagen and Chicago, New Zealand and New York City.

Here's hoping your visits to the Shock were worthwhile.

It's been one hell of a year, and one hell of a decade. Thanks for sharing it. You know who you are:

The year of knowing how to get things done

By now you’ve seen the latest TV ad for Viagra, the little blue erection incentivizer from Pfizer: With Howlin’ Wolf playing in the background, a man age 40-plus rockets down a hot two-lane blacktop somewhere in America at dusk, driving a Chevy SS, a muscle car stripped and lean, like he is.

Vapor comes from under the hood; his radiator’s overheating. Without breaking a sweat, Manly Man pulls off the road into a last-chance-for-50-miles roadside store, buys some bottled water for himself and the radiator. In an eyeblink, ol’ Smokestack Lightnin’ is back on the road, heading for home, a well-appointed suburban manse obviously shared with somebody keeping a light on in the window.

In case we didn’t get the message, the voice-over and a graphic tell us, clearly, “This is the age of knowing how to get things done.”

Television ads are getting more and more sophisto all the time, sometimes too much for their own good. But this direct, down-home ad for an erectile dysfunction drug is memorable — both for what it says about the product (in a sly, oblique way) and what it says about the culture and the country and the world, and what we’ve been trying to do in 2010, all year long.

◊ ◊ ◊

We’ve had a lot of good teachers. President Obama, for one. Faced with congressional gridlock, Obama made adjustments to his aspirations, and ultimately got the Democrats in Congress to do the same. He ended the year with a string of impressive wins reflecting the triumph of compromise over conflict (or at least a temporary truce with conflict). It wasn’t always pretty — sausage-making in Congress never is — but the White House got where it needed to go, to start getting us where we need to go.

The New Orleans Saints did much the same thing. With the soul of a gambler and the nerve of a second-story man, the former doormat of pro football parlayed dogged determination, an inventive offense and the greatest onside kick in the history of the NFL into a Super Bowl win for a city that badly needed it, four years after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.

Chile and 33 of its miners did it, too. When the news broke that the men were trapped 2,300 feet  underground after a mine collapse, we mentally wrote them off as just more victims of a second-world technology and the whims of fate. We figured they were dead as fried chicken. They knew better. For more than two months, the Chilean miners found a way to survive. With the help of the Chilean government they fashioned and improvised a world beneath our world, with a society, a routine, a collective objective: Get Out. Live. Sixty-nine days after the seeming catastrophe started, it was over, in a globally televised, emotionally galvanizing series of rescues. One for each of the 33 men brought up from the earth. Alive.

◊ ◊ ◊

Clearly, there’s a lot of ways to get things done. For the fifteen million Americans out of work and desperately seeking it, the current employment dysfunction in America has called on the use of improvisational skills Americans didn’t know they had.

We sign up for computer classes to get retrained to compete in an economy that’s as dependent on people living in Hyderabad as it is on those living in Hialeah. We get good at writing letters of explanation to creditors; we’ve learned to anticipate the blizzard of paperwork the banks want for a mortgage refi. We know the customer service peoples’ names by heart.

We build a shoestring home-based business out of nothing more than a good idea borne of desperately bad times, and an Internet connection.

We keep the tank no more than half-full, and hope whatever the engine light is telling us is wrong will hang in there another week, or two, before it malfunctions completely.

We drink more coffee because it suppresses the appetite, which saves money on groceries, and we quit buying coffee by the cup at the Starbucks down the street, ‘cause it’s not cost-effective. We buy it by the pound, or the half-pound. And we grab a fistful of the free Splenda packets on the way out so we don’t have to pay for it at the Safeway.

We go home, glance at the bills in the mail, boot up the Mac, troll the job sites and update the résumé for the umpteenth time. We pray and work for e-rain while the real thing falls outside.

Somehow, we get over, we make a way out of no way. Somehow, we get things done.

◊ ◊ ◊

And we do it in a way that points to the force of something foundational to us as a species, as human beings. It’s the power of four letters of the alphabet, four letters as basic, as central to who and what we are as the letters of our genetic code.

Those four letters are what get us out of bed in the morning. Those four letters are what we take to bed at night so we can get out of bed in the morning. They’re what drives us on the cusp of a new year — and now that we’re ending not just a year but the first decade of a century.

A, C, G and T got nothin’ on H, O, P and E. Not the presidential campaign meme, not the bumpersticker descriptor. The real thing. The real, human thing.

Image credits: Viagra ad snapshots: © 2010 Pfizer Inc. Obama: via MSNBC. Fireworks: via The Huffington Post

Poetic Justice Dept., 2010

Funny how things work out. This year’s shown more than once how heads becomes tails in our culture, the top dog gets bitten savagely, and the mighty are hoist on their own dumbass petards.

Three cases in point:

The political personality Sarah Palin started the year bidding seriously to be the Queen of All Media. With “Going Rogue,” a hot new book all but jumping off store shelves; a new gig at Fox News; and the rapt attention of conservatives eager to discover the next big thing in Republican politics, Palin started the year as an undeniably marketable commodity.

Now? Not so much. Palin’s second book, “America by Heart,” hasn’t been moving. Shannyn Moore, an Alaska radio host, Huffington Post contributor and longtime Palin monitor, notes that Alaskans won’t even show up at her book signings now. “Sarah Palin has really fallen in Alaska,” Moore said last night on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show.” “… Just recently Costco is sending back pallets of her books. They had a thousand wristbands to hand out for signing her books and I think they gave out three hundred. She's really not a big deal here. We're not that into her."

◊ ◊ ◊

Palin’s TLC reality show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” got some briefly stellar ratings before sliding into the cable maw. Daughter Bristol burnished Mama Grizzly’s reputation by proxy with her appearances on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” but Bristol got roundly dissed in the finals. It was a variation on the plummeting favorables that Sarah Palin consistently registers among presidential poll respondents.

The latest of those unfavorables are distilled in the new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, which found that only 49 percent of Republicans would back a Palin ruin for the presidency in 2012 — down a stunning 18 points since December 2008, a month after the McCain-Palin tandem lost to Obama-Biden.

Palin even brought up the rear against other likely GOP presidential hopefuls as former Arkansas governor and Krispy Kreme enthusiast Mike Huckabee; the former Massachusetts governor, robot mannequin Mitt Romney; and once and future conservative flamethrower Newt Gingrich.

◊ ◊ ◊

Juan Williams just went upside her head on Sunday. Williams, the newly-minted Fox News analyst, gave Palin faint hopes of competing with Obama if she enters the 2012 derby. “The only potential candidate who could match Obama in charisma is Sarah Palin and she can't stand on the intellectual stage with Obama," Williams said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Even Aaron Sorkin’s calling her out. Sorkin, the screenwriter whose latest film, “The Social Network,” is garnering Oscar buzz, went on CNN’s “Parker|Spitzer” program last night, calling her “a remarkably, stunningly, jaw-droppingly incompetent and mean woman.”

As much as anything, Palin is suffering from overexposure in the public square. To great and lucrative effect, Palin’s learned that publicity yields leverage yields money, but she hasn't embraced that equation's corollary: Too much of a good thing ceases to be a good thing. Now she ends the year skewered by the same media machine that helped create her. If that’s not poetic justice, there ain’t none.

◊ ◊ ◊

Henry Paulson, previously the head of Goldman Sachs and the former velociraptor Secretary of the Treasury, took almost singular responsibility for the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank (while Goldman Sachs was spared; imagine that) and by extension much of the collateralized ponzi wagering that’s led to our current woes vis-à-vis the housing market meltdown.

So it’s entirely poetic justice that, as Reuters reported Thursday, Paulson is taking a body blow on selling his own home.

Reuters reported that last week, Paulson sold his three-bedroom home in a Washington neighborhood (hard by the National Cathedral and the Naval Observatory, official home of the vice president) for $3.25 million, after cutting his asking price. Considerably. Paulson first put this megacrib (described in the listing as “reminiscent of a Provencal villa”) on the market in April for $4.6 million. Then later, when nobody bit on paying that much for his D.C. palazzo, Paulson dropped the asking to $4.15 million.

He paid $4.3 million for the place back in August 2006, according to government records.

Reuters, citing data from CoreLogic, a real-estate metrics firm, reported that the value of Paulson's house cratered by a quarter — 24.4 percent — while he was lord of the manor. Nationally, home prices dipped 29.3 percent over that period.

It’s tempting right now to invoke the phrase “shared sacrifice,” it’s so topical these days, and utterly apropos. But we won’t go there.

◊ ◊ ◊

And we can’t forget Christine O’Donnell. She’s you, remember? The Delaware-based Republican political fabulist, Tea Party darling and Satanic flirt, burst into public attention after winning an upset of a primary victory this year ... then going on to huge defeat in the November midterms, stomped like a vic in a Scorsese movie.

That timed-release embarrassment (compounded by video of O’Donnell from back in the day, making an ass of herself on “Politically Incorrect”) got worse earlier this week when, according to The Associated Press, the Feds launched a criminal investigation to see if she broke the law by using some of the $7.3 million in campaign donations to pay some of her personal expenses. Like the rent.

O'Donnell denied everything, of course, suggesting the charges were so much “thug politics” directed by her … her enemies. Especially that meanie Joe Biden.

The AP reported that at least two former O’Donnell campaign workers made claims that the former dabbler in the occult dipped into her campaign kitty to pay personal expenses including rent while running for the Senate three times, beginning in 2006. She admitted as much in a March newspaper interview, which begs the question of why she’d call the whole episode ”thug politics” after admitting to the bad behavior that got the Feds’ attention in the first place.

She’ll have time to explain herself on that one. To two federal prosecutors and two FBI agents. To the people of Delaware. Maybe even to a grand jury.

So be it. It’s only proper and fitting. At the end of a year, and especially a year like this, it’s natural and necessary to look for a basic rightness in things, a sense of symmetry, of karma delivered to the right address. The law of unintended consequences is sometimes in force when other laws can’t get any traction at all. Here ends the lesson.

Image credits: Palin: C-SPAN. Sarah Palin's Alaska title card: TLC. Palin's left hand: Video still, source unknown. "Blue Paulson": © 2010 Geoffrey Raymond. O'Donnell: from O'Donnell 2010 campaign ad.

Mama, they took my Kodachrome away

Sometimes, when it’s all moving too fast, you just wish and hope things would stay in place, that somehow time would stand still in the viewfinder of your life, resisting the urge to blur, to escape, to flee a fraction of a fraction of a second later, gone forever. But in the modern world, right now less than 24 hours from a new year and a new decade, things move on, despite our best intentions.

For photographers, that sense of wistfulness is more real now, today, than it’s been in generations. Kodachrome is fading to black. After 75 years of being something of a gold-standard tool of photography, Kodachrome rides into the sunset today, when the only remaining Kodak-certified processing facility on the planet, Dwayne’s Photo Service, 415 S. 32nd Street, Parsons, Kansas 67357, ends its processing processed its last roll of Kodachrome film.

For old-school photographers and photojournalists, it’s the end of more than one era. Any of them who remember Paul Simon’s 1973 hit song “Kodachrome” are probably singing it today with tears clouding the viewfinders of their cameras, and their lives.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s been a great run. Created by Eastman Kodak in 1935, Kodachrome became the world’s first commercially successful color reversal film, a huge favorite with weekend shutterbugs and professional photogs alike for its long shelf life and its signature — images with a deep, obscenely rich color saturation that, quoting from Simon, “make you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.”

"It's definitely the end of an era," professional photographer Steve McCurry told The Wichita Eagle. "It has such a wonderful color palette ... a poetic look, not particularly garish or cartoonish, but wonderful, true colors that were vibrant, but true to what you were shooting."

McCurry, who’s used Kodachrome for 35 years, should know. Among the tens of thousands of images he’s shot with Kodachrome, for National Geographic Magazine and other publications, is an iconic one. McCurry took the legendary image of Sharbat Gula — the “Afghan girl” — that graced the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, making photographic history by crafting perhaps the most alluring, mysterious individual portrait of a woman since the Mona Lisa.

McCurry, no Luddite he, recognizes the value of digital photography. “We can evaluate the light and composition and the design instantly,” he told The Eagle. “And we can shoot in extremely low light, which was impossible with film."

But McCurry seemed to suggest that something of the essence of creation — its soul, if you will — is vanishing. "I like having something to hold in my hand," McCurry said. "With digital photography, it's just a hard drive. With Kodachrome, the film is real. You can touch it, put it in a drawer, and come back to it later. It's tangible. It's an object. With digital, the pictures only exist in a hard drive, in a memory chip."

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Kodak announced plans to discontinue the film back in June 2009 “due to declining customer demand.” The company said that Kodachrome sales accounted for less than 1 percent of its still-film sales. “Simply put, not enough people are shooting KODACHROME for us to continue offering it,” the company said.

It’s going out in suitably colorful style. Earlier in the year, McCurry arranged with Kodak to shoot the last 36-frame roll of Kodachrome made by the company, for a National Geographic assignment. Nat Geo plans to publish a spread of some of the final McCurry Kodachrome images next spring, about the same time National Geographic Television airs a special documentary on the last of Kodachrome and its role in documenting Nat Geo’s enduring subject: the life of the world.

It’s a world that won’t look the same. Some photographers have bemoaned not just the end of Kodachrome but the way digital photography has altered the way we look at photographs. The pixel is the square building block of digital photography; with digital shots we’re looking at tens of thousands of pixels, squares that, once assembled, trick the eye into believing there’s curves there — all the curves our eye naturally recognizes — when there really are no curves. No accurate depiction of the world our eyes gaze upon.

Johngy observed at The Eagle: “Take a digital picture of a tree with its limbs bowing toward the ground. Then blow the picture up. The limbs are made up of little squares. Now, go and look at the limbs of the tree itself. It is not made up of little squares. Digital can not recreate curved surfaces. It only makes a reasonable facsimile. Only film can truly recreate the scene that was photographed.”

◊ ◊ ◊

We’ll get by, of course. With every successive evolution of our knowledge, the creative spirit has always found ways to adapt to the technology that purports to liberate it. Photography is no exception. And you might make the case that it’s much ado about nothing. McCurry’s own observation, — “with digital, the pictures only exist in a hard drive, in a memory chip" — fairly raises the question: What was Kodachrome itself but another kind of memory chip, an improvement on the dageurrotype and the panchromatic plates that preceded it?

The loss of Kodachrome in 2010 follows months after the plug was pulled on another once-indispensable artifact of the culture, the Sony Walkman, the portable music player rendered obsolete by the iPod and other 21st-century music players that digitized whole libraries into something you can fit in your hand.

The art historian and writer Walter Pater once observed that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” That may be true enough, but there is no art without the image — in the realm of photography, the faithfully recorded image. There’s no escaping the fact that, once the last of the Kodachrome processing mailers have been received and developed, if there are any left, we’ll have lost something … important in our culture. Whether we know it or not.

With Kodachrome’s demise, we’ll walk through the door of the realization of a hard, sad fact: Nothing — from the greens of summer to the eyes of an Afghan girl — will ever look quite the same again.

Where have you gone, old friend Kodachrome? A planet turns its digitized eyes to you. Boo hoo hoo.

Image credits: Kodachrome boxes 1941, 1956, 1980 and 2009: "Afghan Girl" © 1985 Steve McCurry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy holidays, Mr. McConnell

The holiday furlough is on in Washington, the 111th Congress officially history. Assuming the lawmakers in Congress all got home on Friday, flying into the teeth of a severe storm system that’s since enveloped about a third of the country, there’s little else to do but hunker down. For the incoming herd of lawmakers who’ll be part of the 112th Congress, the blizzard of legislation passed by its predecessor in the days before Christmas ought to be another kind of weather advisory.

More than once in recent months, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, has gone out of his way to vow Republican unity against the legislative agenda of President Obama, at one point even saying that — never mind the needs of the country — the Republicans’ job one was to ensure that Barack Obama is a one-term president.

Three historic votes that brought down the curtain on the 111th should give McConnell pause. In those votes, Republicans crossed the aisle, in some meaningful numbers, to convey unto Obama and the Democrats victories where weeks before defeats were grimly expected. With these Republicans apparently ready to step out on principle (as well as or rather than party), with the wave of legislation just made law as proof that it’s possible, there’s reason to believe that things might really get done in the new Congress, and that it might happen on something approaching a bipartisan basis. At least in the Senate.

◊ ◊ ◊

The tax-cut vote in the Senate might well have been expected. At day’s end, it was a more or less expediently organic hybrid of the Obama administration’s objectives (locking in a tax cut for the middle class) and those of the Republicans (locking in the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires).

The fact that other elements of the $858 billion bill — extended benefits for the unemployed, tax credits for families and small businesses, and a payroll tax for working everyday people — were generally Democratic ideas didn’t stop Republicans from supporting it. That’s something of a victory for bipartisanship right there.

But on the controversial DADT repeal issue, a conservative-values tripwire, no fewer than eight Republican senators broke with the body of their party and voted with the Democrats to repeal the 1993 law on gays and lesbians in the military — despite the thundering filibluster of Arizona Sen. John McCain, who finally opposed DADT repeal on the laughable grounds that the economy was “in the tank.”

Eight Republicans — Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the outgoing George Voinovich of Ohio and frosh Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois — voted to repeal.

Ensign, a man whose previous ethical lapses led to grief and calls for his resignation, recognized history when he saw it. “"[I]t is my firm belief that any American wishing to fight and potentially die for this great country ought to be able to do so regardless of sexual orientation," he said in a statement. "These fine individuals should not have to hide who they are."

It was the second triumph for the reason of political pragmatism over the reflex of party divisions in about as many days.

◊ ◊ ◊

The New START treaty was next. Despite the objection of Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl (who opposed ratification of the treaty Obama signed with Russia in April on various grounds, including because he didn’t have time to study the matter and didn’t want to work through Christmas), the Senate ratified the treaty with the expected support of the Senate Democrats … and 13 Republican senators.

What’s striking is the nucleus of GOP senators in some of these votes: Collins and Snowe have always been willing, if not eager, to buck their party with a daring and an irregularity that would seem to justify their being called “moderates.”

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has a reputation of voting independence, walking away from his party in June 2009 to vote for confirmation of Harold Koh, a supporter of gun control, as State Department Legal Adviser. He went off script again later that year, when he backed President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

◊ ◊ ◊

Brown, the man occupying Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate, inherited more than the office and the title. He also inherited a constituency that’s been traditionally liberal-to-moderate on social issues (hence Teddy’s long run as Massachusetts senator). Brown’s votes on DADT and New START indicate both his own evolving centrist convictions and a pragmatic sensitivity to the people he represents.

And we can’t forget Murkowski, whose midterm victory over a Tea Party darling anointed by political personality Sarah Palin frees her to pursue a centrist role in the Senate, one consistent with her state’s practical, independent identity.

“Murkowski is already showing a fierce independent streak, becoming the only Republican to cast votes on all four items on President Barack Obama’s wish list: a repeal of 'don’t ask, don’t tell,' a tax-cut compromise, the START deal and cloture for the DREAM Act,” Politico’s Meredith Shiner reported. “Now, she heads back to the Senate with a fresh six-year term without owing much to either her home state party establishment or her Washington leadership."

“She's a person who makes up her own mind, does what she thinks is right and always keeps the concerns of her state at the forefront,” Sen. Collins told Politico, recognizing a kindred spirit when she sees one.

◊ ◊ ◊

The votes last week may have been an anomaly, the last big Senate legislation we’ll see passed into law with such numerically promising Republican approval. But McConnell’s recent implied threats of congressional gridlock may be missing some teeth.

The McConnell agenda flies in the face of an electorate that just rejected gridlock in the November midterms. It can’t (or shouldn’t) have escaped McConnell’s attention that Obama’s job performance poll numbers moved higher during and after the wave of lame-duck legislation made law — a clear indicator of an electorate that’s hungry for results and action, not the gridlock McConnell's been threatening. The senator can’t afford to forget that.

Also, the McConnell agenda is one from the man who presides over Senate Republicans, who are in the minority. Last week’s game-changing votes in the Senate, made with the participation of several Senate Republicans, suggest that McConnell’s presumably uniform bloc of antagonists is less than uniform after all.

Everything McConnell hopes to achieve in the Senate necessarily calls for the full support of Senate Republicans (who, being in the minority, need every vote they can get). Depending on the legislation, of course, the party contraries who helped make last week’s historic votes historic could be more than enough to move a close vote in the Democrats’ direction.

◊ ◊ ◊

The House is another matter. The agenda of the Tea-fueled House Republicans coming to Capitol Hill next week is still to be fully articulated beyond the bullet points they used in the campaign and a general intent to curb spending no matter what. We’re waiting on the road map, the detailed legislative vision of the next House Speaker, Ohio’s well-tanned John Boehner, he who gets verklempt reading the Yellow Pages. It’s anyone’s guess how the two flavors of House Republicans will taste together.

“Any comprehensive solution that sets the nation on a path toward fiscal health will mean that at least some of us pay higher taxes,” Eugene Robinson writes in today’s Washington Post. “I wish Boehner luck in explaining this fact of life to his Tea Party freshmen. He'll have a hard enough time even persuading them to keep the government solvent by voting to increase the debt ceiling, which will soon be necessary.”

The recent wavelet of Senate Republican support for cherished Obama White House initiatives suggests that some in the GOP’s ranks — exhausted by defending gridlock as a strategy for the last two years, unimpressed with using gridlock as a strategy for the next two years, and not so automatically determined to make Obama a one-term president — are ready to be real lawmakers when the 112th gets underway.

If the economy improves, as is expected by many economists, those senators will likely be joined by others freed of the immediacy of election-year politics, free to vote their consciences on what works for their constituents — what gets their constituents work — and not for what’s ideologically correct. And if that takes hold back home, watch for the Tea Party crowd in the House to quickly reconcile its PowerPoint rhetoric with the reality of facing voters impatient with Congress, eager to see more tabling of party identities in order to get something accomplished.

Happy holidays, Mr. McConnell. We’ll see you next year.

Image credits: McConnell: Official Senate photograph. McConnell and President Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. Scott Brown: public domain. Lisa Murkowski: Associated Press via Politico. Senate START treaty cloture vote: C-SPAN. John Boehner and McConnell: via

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Two classics, just in time for the holidays. Again.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Black American Jews:
On the inside looking out, and in

By way of a joke, Robin Washington, Minnesota newspaper editor, African American and observant Jew, explained how mainstream Christian society marginalizes Judaism in American life, filters its holidays through the lens of Christian tradition:

One kid: What ya getting for Christmas?

Another kid: I’m Jewish.

First kid: Oh. What ya getting for
Jewish Christmas, then?

Washington’s joke cuts to the heart of the relative isolation that Hanukkah endures on the national holiday calendar, and by extension the experience of black Jews, a minority inside a minority. As American Jews in general establish their identity in the face of the nation’s predominately Christian identity, Jewish African Americans — who sometimes self-identify as “JOC’s” (for Jews of color) — face another challenge in the United States.

The idea of black Jews in America is more widely accepted than in years past, dovetailing with the nation’s overall increasingly diverse demographic mosaic. But challenges exist in the integration of the black Judaic experience into a skeptical or disbelieving public, and into some aspects of Jewish tradition itself.

Read the rest at theGrio

Image credit: Shyne (Moses Levi) at the Western Wall: Ricki Rosen/The New York Times.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

2010: JibJab checks in

It’s gotten to the point that the year’s not over til the wild bunch at JibJab says it is. They’ve recently checked in with the latest edition, with a tuneful farewell to the year 2010 (and by extension the first full decade of the 21st century). Your masters of ceremonies — Barry & Biden! Yes, President Obama and Vice President Biden escort you (now in puppet form!) through the toxic, unclassified, hyperpartisan cavalcade that was (and for another eight days still is) 2010. If you’ve seen it already, all apologies. We missed it earlier. There’s been so much going on.

P.S.: Like I said, “so much going on.” Since this yearender was released, DADT got offed. Hey JibJab … how about something to sum up the decade?

Image credit: JibJab logo: © 2010 JibJab Media Inc.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DADT > History

“This is done,” President Obama said at 9:36 this morning in Washington, with three words ushering into history a law that should never have been, ushering in the most important and potentially transformative civil rights law since the civil rights era, and the most pivotal law governing the identity of our armed forces since the Truman administration.

The president signed the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which for 17 years established an official pretext for a reinforced personal self-denial of identity for tens of thousands of gay and lesbian Americans who suffered in silence in the U.S. military.

“So this morning, I am proud to sign a law that will bring an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Obama said at the ceremony in the auditorium of Interior Department headquarters, amid a crowd that imparted the raucous brio of a football game. “This law I’m about to sign will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend.

“No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who were forced to leave the military -– regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance -– because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country that they love.

“ ... I want to speak directly to the gay men and women currently serving in our military. For a long time your service has demanded a particular kind of sacrifice. You’ve been asked to carry the added burden of secrecy and isolation. And all the while, you’ve put your lives on the line for the freedoms and privileges of citizenship that are not fully granted to you. ...

◊ ◊ ◊

“There will never be a full accounting of the heroism demonstrated by gay Americans in service to this country; their service has been obscured in history. It’s been lost to prejudices that have waned in our own lifetimes. But at every turn, every crossroads in our past, we know gay Americans fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands.

“There can be little doubt there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence, who consecrated the ground at Gettysburg, who manned the trenches along the Western Front, who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials. Their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington.

“And so, as the first generation to serve openly in our Armed Forces, you will stand for all those who came before you, and you will serve as role models to all who come after.”

The American president most directly a beneficiary of the civil rights era helped make his contribution to the legacy of that era. “Clearly, this is a day that is not unlike the momentous occasion when we mark the March on Washington in 1963, or the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” said the historian Manning Marable of Columbia University, on MSNBC. “We have broken yet another barrier that restricts the boundaries of democracy ... this step was long overdue.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The road to get here was a long one. As an American institution, the military is more resistant to change than most anything else. Obama’s repeal of DADT was the first mandated seismic shift in the actual identity of our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen since President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, racially integrating the United States armed forces in July 1948.

For months Obama got considerable grief from progressives and activists, who took note of the fact that Obama could have cut to the chase of the roiling debate over gays and lesbians in the military and, like Truman, issued an executive order that would have dictated the repeal. Obama realized, among other things, that such a commandment, suddenly made during wartime and without deliberation from the heads of the branches of service, would do more harm than good.

In February, The Wall Street Journal, citing the findings of University of Wisconsin political science professor Kenneth Mayer, reported that an executive order was never really an option for Obama. Changing DADT, said the Journal, “likely requires congressional action because the law is currently codified in a federal statute, 10 U.S.C. Sec. 654.”

“Therefore, repealing the DADT policy would not change the existing law that bans individuals from military service for saying they are homosexual and/or engaging in homosexual conduct. Congress would have to repeal the law."

Obama, logically, made the decision that since DADT was essentially institutionalized by Congress, it should most naturally be repealed by the body that made it law in the first place. That fact that it happened exactly that way today, with support from Senate Republicans, ratifies that judgment.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s more steps to take. Bureaucracy being what it is, DADT doesn’t die immediately. First, Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have to certify that they’ve reviewed the Pentagon’s recent report on the impact of DADT’s repeal, and that I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed on the various repeal regulations needed to make the change a reality. Once that certification is delivered, in writing, a 60-day waiting period must pass before DADT officially dies the death.

But that’s all right. That’ll pass quickly. We know where we’re going on this. Forward, into the future. This nation had another Rubicon moment 25 months ago, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.

“The real moments of American self-discovery can’t be withdrawn or undone or reversed on appeal,” I wrote in January 2009. “Obama’s inauguration ... was one such moment.”

This is another one.

Image credits: Obama signs DADT repeal: Chuck Kennedy/The White House. Obama: White House pool. Chicago Defender Truman deseg order front page: © 1948, 2010 Chicago Defender. Joe Biden and Obama: via MSNBC.

A lame duck with wings

One of the benefits of the likely Obama Trifecta (tax cuts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and probably the New START Treaty, after today’s almost certain ratification by the Senate) has less to do with policies and everything to do with job performance. The American people made their feelings known in the midterms; rightly or wrongly, their patience had run out on an institution that seemed to be managed and maintained by nominal members of Congress, self-serving fundraising functionaries who did just enough work to call “work.”

The vote in November made it clear: NATION TO CONGRESS: DO YOUR JOB.

For the last month or so, that’s exactly what the Congress of the United States has been doing, albeit with something of a gun to its head.

◊ ◊ ◊

The “lame duck session” of Congress is traditionally a holiday-connected period of lassitude; the customary post-election ritual is simple: current members make their reservations for flying back to their districts, defeated members clean out their desks, the incoming class gets offices assigned and, by bipartisan acclimation, nothing much gets done.

This edition of the lame duck was something else again. With the Obama administration making the broad strokes of objective, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi riding shotgun and exerting their authority (and the practical threat) to keep Congress in session until it formally ends on Jan. 3, the lame duck according to 2010 found wings it hadn’t used yet.

The result: three pieces of legislation that advance the American agenda in numerous spheres. By rolling up their Egyptian-cotton sleeves and marshaling the deliberative energies they were presumably elected to use, the 111th Congress, with bipartisan expression, set aside differences in its waning days and did the people’s business.

◊ ◊ ◊

“That’s the nature of compromise,” President Obama said at the White House last week, cribbing a little from Edmund Burke. “Sacrificing something that each of us cares about to move forward on what matters to all of us. Right now, that’s growing the economy and creating jobs.”

And the timing of those historic compromises this year points to how well a lame duck can fly when it tries. At least temporarily, the Obama administration, Pelosi and Reid have changed the notion of the lame-duck session of Congress, moved it from a period of relative indolence to a time of production, with lawmakers actually making laws until the factory whistle blows.

Slyly, the administration and the Democrats in Congress may have ratcheted up the public expectation of what Congress can achieve when it puts its mind to DOING ITS JOB, when its members forget their frequent-flyer miles and boarding passes and perform the work they’re elected to do.

Imagine that.

◊ ◊ ◊

Forced labor during lame duck sessions is nothing new, but Congress may not blithely get away with early departures again. We know too much. The American people just saw what’s possible from Congress. They might not say it at the Town Halls, but people think it just the same: Everybody in 2010 America is obligated to work to the end of their shift (assuming, of course, they’ve got a job to work at in the first place). What makes Congress so damn different?

It’s a matter of proving your ability to perform. Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, hit on this need for job performance in a geopolitically practical context on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday. Breaking with conservatives opposed to the New START Treaty, Noonan said: “Sometimes you have to accept what is. It seems to me the United States these days is in a position where it actually has to go forward in the world and show it can make a serious treaty with another great power, agree to it, fashion it, get it through the Senate and sign it. Sometimes you have to prove your baseline competence in the world ...”

And you can’t really do that if you’re leaving work for Christmas vacation days early. You can’t do that when you’re crying about staying after school and being exhausted, like Sen. Lindsey Graham did, or jabbering about "disrespecting" Christmas, like Sen. Jon Kyl did by way of explaining why he couldn’t be rushed into ratifying the New START Treaty (despite the 18 congressional hearings held on the matter since Obama signed it in April).

The 112th Congress starts in January; like any freshman class anywhere, like any new worker at a job anywhere, they’ll jump in with both feet, eager to make their mark. But years from now, when they know their way around, the lame duck Congress will fly again. It’s hard to put a genie back in the bottle. And it’s hard to expect people to think a lame duck can unlearn to fly once it knows how, once it has to function, to fulfill its oath, has to work until quitting time, like everyone in the country it represents.

Image credits: House tax-cut vote, Senate DADT vote, Senate START Treaty cloture vote: C-SPAN.

Shellac remover

In the days and weeks after the November midterm elections, naysayers across the political spectrum and everyone in the punditburo had all but dispatched the tumbrels to the driveway of the White House, ready to collect President Obama — “dead man walking!” — for a short ride to the guillotine. An apparent stalemate on the Bush tax cuts and seeming inaction on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell led some in high and televised places to cut him dead. “Blue Dog Democrat!” “Traitor to the base!” “Blasphemer!”

What a difference a shellacking makes.

At a speed almost too fast to believe, President Obama’s fortunes have shifted hugely to the positive on the strength of two huge back-to-back wins in Congress, and the prospect of at least one more in the coming days. By making a pivot to practicality on an economic issue, by cultivating an overdue urgency (all unfinished bills die at the end of a Congress and must be reintroduced) and by sticking to his philosophical guns on a social and moral issue, Team Obama’s gone a long way to minimize some of the impact of the November midterms. And with big wins under his belt at year’s end, the president and the Democrats in Congress are well positioned to weather the early Tea Party Republican storm on Capitol Hill, starting Jan. 3.

First came the tax-cut bill. Despite much gnashing of progressives’ teeth, the automatic outrage of conservatives and the implied threat by the Moody’s credit-rating concern that the AAA bond rating of the United States could be damaged if it passed, the Motion to Invoke Cloture on the Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to HR 4853, the Tax Relief Act survived two votes in the Senate, after earlier overwhelming passage in the House.

President Obama signed the measure, expected to cost $858 billion, into law on Friday. Result: A 2 percent payroll tax cut for everyday wage-earners, for a year; extension of both college tax credits and child tax credits; small-business tax write-offs; an additional 13 months of unemployment benefits for millions out of work; a 35 percent estate tax rate; and an across-the-board extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone. Even the millionaires and billionaires, for whom the personal benefits of the tax cuts won’t be much more than the money in the couch cushions at home.

◊ ◊ ◊

Then there’s the policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which for 17 years effectively tried to lock gays and lesbians out of the armed forces. After furious debate on Capitol Hill, and despite the righteous fulminations of Sen. John McCain, the most corrosive civil rights issue since the civil rights era went almost quietly. DADT died the death on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 3:30 p.m., when the Senate voted 65-31 and the Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to HR 2965, the DADT Act, was adopted.

President Obama will sign that into law on Wednesday.

The next two orders of business, unfinished right now:

• The new START treaty with the Russians, necessary to restore the United States’ ability to monitor Russian nuclear facilities on the ground, President Obama signed the treaty with Soviet President Medvedev back in April, but it requires ratification by the Senate to take effect. Today, by a vote of 67-28, the Senate agreed to a final ratification vote on the treaty on Wednesday — the same day Obama’s signing DADT into law. The vote is generally expected to pass with bipartisan support.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Larry King signs off

“It’s not very often in my life I’ve been without words,” said Larry King on Thursday night, in a towering understatement. King was speaking at the end of his show, which was also his last as a regular nightly presence on CNN. After 25 years at CNN, the Cal Ripken of the TV talk-show retired the program “Larry King Live,” one of the unavoidable facts of modern life and a bridge between cable’s earlier days as a venturesome novelty and its current status, as something like the glue that binds us, however argumentatively, as a society.

From his very first CNN interview — with New York Governor Mario Cuomo on June 3, 1985 — King brought an insatiable curiosity to the talk-show experience, and did it paying all due props to the subjects of his interviews. Unlike Charlie Rose’s insistence on frequent interruption, lest we forget how erudite he is; unlike the sometimes willfully disputatious interview styles of others elsewhere in the cable universe, King generally had the good sense to listen to the people he brought on.

That approach is a logical progression from the time when he was on the radio, as one of the early radio talk-show hosts. King’s career goes back to Miami Beach in 1957; Bobby Darin was his first celebrity guest. He’d go on to handle color commentary at Miami Dolphins games in 1970, finally moving to the national talk-show stage in 1978, and ultimately, to CNN.

In King’s 25 years at CNN, the United States itself underwent a transformation, from Reagan-era behemoth secure in its top-dog status and bestriding the world to a nervous, querulous, reflexively partisan nation beset with any number of contenders for the global throne in a new century.

Larry King’s show was a conversational road map to how we got here, from the certainty of Morning in America to the uncertainty of life in the post-9/11 world.

◊ ◊ ◊

There was always a populist vibe to Larry King’s show. Even in the company of world leaders, Larry — often solicitous, sometimes with a wry humor — found a way to ask accessible questions, the kind you might ask if you were there, and seeking the answers he thought people cared about.

You could count on Charlie Rose to be quizzing a CEO from the world of high-tech or somebody from the Council on Foreign Relations. We could rely on Larry King to be swapping sunglasses with Lady Gaga or chatting up the finalists from “American Idol.”

Marlon Brando kissed him full on the mouth. He got mobile with Snoop Dogg, rollin’ through L.A. (no doubt sippin’ on gin and juice, laidback). Larry kept up, he stayed on top of the culture, over time becoming so much a part of our pop-cultural furniture that he achieved what many stars of momentarily greater magnitude sometimes failed to achieve: a kind of ubiquity, a name in the information ether that was, and will always be, instantly recognizable.

◊ ◊ ◊

“I wanna thank everybody associated with this program,” he said Thursday night, “all the people behind the scenes … even the suits at the top. I love them too.

“I don’t know what to say except t you … my audience … thank you. And instead of ‘good-bye’ ... how about ‘so long’?”

With that, the Larry King set — that trademark cheesy world map of mini light bulbs, that stage that’s likely to make it into the Museum of Broadcasting or the Smithsonian — went dark.

Not to get all valedictory about it; he said that we’d still be seeing him on CNN (on special programs still to be determined), doing something affiliated with baseball (!), and returning to the radio, his first love. And looking at him on Thursday, there was reason to believe there’s still mileage on the meter, still gas in the tank. After eight marriages, one heart attack and two heart operations, King sent all the happy indications that there’s still another act in his life (take that, F. Scott Fitzgerald).

◊ ◊ ◊

I didn’t watch “Larry King Live” every night he was on the air, and neither did you. The show wasn’t always appointment viewing; we often took for granted he’d be there. In our sprints from one channel to another, we’d always pass his program, either live or repeated later in the evening, on our way some place else three numbers away on the remote.

In a way, that didn’t matter. We didn’t watch him every night, and maybe we didn’t need to. Larry King was that most emotionally reassuring component of our breathless modern lives: he was familiar, he was something that stayed in place.

He could be rough as a cob, and sometimes downright weird. But like with the redwoods, the Grand Canyon or the Rolling Stones, it was a bedrock, comforting thing just knowing he was around. Over a quarter century — forever in the quicksilver of the digital age — the fact of his presence was enough. The longevity we made fun of is exactly what we loved, and valued, the most.

Image credit: Larry King, Brando's kiss: CNN.

The remainder of the day

If you lived in Manhattan during the 80’s and 90’s, the street vendor was an inescapable fact of the street life that animated a then-unruly city. These al fresco entrepreneurs erected card tables at various high-traffic locations, such as outside the Hotel Pennsylvania, across the street from Madison Square Garden; or very near Penn Station or Grand Central Station — the better to catch commuters looking for a last-minute gift, an amusement, or something to read on the ride home.

Often as not, their tables were crowded with books, hardcover and paperback, mysteries, romances, how-to books — the remaindered castoffs from a publishing industry then still on top of the world, the books that didn’t sell well enough for long enough to hold down a shelf at Doubleday or Barnes & Noble.

City ordinances have certainly changed over the years; the street vendors have probably been ushered into NYC history. But if any of them are still around, copies of the latest book by the political personality Sarah Palin are likely to soon be piled high on their tables at steeply discounted prices. And just in time for the holidays.

According to Nielsen BookScan, the firm that monitors U.S. book sales, Palin’s “America by Heart,” her collection of "reflections on family, faith and flag,” has declined in sales since its Nov. 23 debut, selling just 108,580 copies in its first two weeks. The publisher, HarperCollins, ordered an initial print run of1 million copies and has reportedly not ordered a second printing.

Sales went from 51,000 copies the week of Dec. 5 to 36,000 copies a week later, according to BookScan.

Her first book, “Going Rogue: An American Life,” had moved 667,000 copies two weeks after publication. “Going Rogue” went on to sell 2.2 million copies, according to publisher HarperCollins.

Today on, the new book is a very respectable #39 in overall book sales, and #2 in books on politics.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s a tale to be told in reader reaction. At amazon, there are about as many 1-star ratings as there are 5-star ratings, with most of the other ratings trending below 4 stars. The average for all reviews is 3 stars.

Other amazon reader reactions are more specific. “Condescending; doesn't raise level of discourse or present new ideas,” says flyingest, a sixth-grade teacher in Los Gatos, Calif.

Trisha E. Lisk of Hemet, Calif., would beg to differ: “I found the book warm, intelligent, and light years more experienced in the public governing venue (than some we know), simply brimming over with common sense, courage and self discipline. Good on you Governor.”

Not so for R. Marquis of Massachusetts: “The book is nothing but a sales pitch for one of the most brain dead politicians in the history of the United States.”

And madriver in Franklin, Mass., raised issues that, stylistic and intellectual considerations aside, could be more concerning:

“I checked out a source she mentioned a few times - the book WE STILL HOLD THESE TRUTHS by Matthew Spalding - and saw a lot of commonality, including the de Tocqueville and Coolidge and Witherspoon references. Now it seems apparent (to me) that she read and relied heavily on Spalding's book, adding those folksy touches that her fan base loves. They won't question her originality, anyway (but Spalding should).”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s impossible to know why this five-spiral crash of a sophomore literary effort happened so quickly.

The Washington Post reported Thursday on some thinking making the rounds: “One theory within the publishing industry is that Palin is overexposed, at least in terms of drawing readers.

“Palin's first book, published only a year ago, sold well enough to sate Palin's supporters, enemies and the merely curious. It was such a strong seller in hardcover that it crowded out demand for the book in paperback and for the sequel of sorts [“America by Heart”], some in the industry say.”

Of course, nobody reads like they used to in years past; “America by Heart” may be, like the publishing industry itself, the casualty of a society smitten with video games, YouTube and a multitude of other visual distractions.

◊ ◊ ◊

But it’s just as likely that, after two years of relentless exposure, Sarah Palin has finally hit the wall of media saturation, reached the point at which her ubiquity crosses from asset to liability. Since her jaw-dropping ascension to the national stage in the doomed McCain presidential campaign in 2008, Palin has become a Rashomon personality, one individual viewed and interpreted through the public’s multiple prisms.

It’s all come so fast. Palin published the first book, last year; then the lecture circuit beckoned, profitably. Then she landed an analyst’s gig at Fox News. Then she secured a prime-time miniseries on the Discovery Channel. And now we get a second book. (And let’s not forget Palin’s adventures in Haiti, a trip to the earthquake-stricken country for just long enough to put in face time in a global hot zone, dutifully recorded by a crew from Fox News.)

All of it done, of course, with a mind to burnishing her reputation as political king- or queen-maker, and cultivating the punditburo’s handicapping of the 2012 presidential race — and whether she will or won’t be in it.

No matter. Palin’s new and soon-to-be-remaindered book and its plunge in sales suggest she’s on the verge of violating one of the fundamental laws of popular culture: At some indeterminate point, the benefit of media exposure becomes inversely proportional to the amount of that exposure. Put another way: Getting too big too soon and for too long has a way of being too much. You undermine your credibility and your popular appeal if we don’t get to miss you, and we can’t get to miss you if you never go away.

Image credits: Sarah Palin I and II: Harper Collins. Sarah Palin III: Via The Huffington Post. Sarah Palin IV: Gerald Herbert/Associated Press. Sarah Palin V: Fox News.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Time friends Zuckerberg, Assange not so much

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” someone once said. In an age of nonstop publicity, that’s truer now than it ever was before. Mark Zuckerberg, the wunderkind master builder of Facebook, knows this firsthand.

The force behind the social networking ecosystem he launched with co-conspirators at Harvard back in the day of 2004, Zuckerberg has seen Facebook hailed to the skies, condemned for policies related to user privacy and advertiser access, and finally embraced — by no fewer than 500 million people — as the platform for a kind of counterlife, a village commons on algorithmic steroids, a place to share just about everything.

Facebook’s place in the world caught the attention of Hollywood, and now the film “The Social Network,” documenting Zuckerberg’s role in the rise of Facebook and the legal consequences that entailed, has been praised by top critics in Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and New York as the best film of 2010.

No wonder, you think, that Time Magazine just announced its choice of Mark Elliott Zuckerberg as its 2010 Person of the Year. Someone with just the right buzz, the right velocity into the culture, the right Impact.

◊ ◊ ◊

Handicapping the Time Person of the Year has always been a favorite year-end media parlor game, and the magazine's editors have often surprised us. Who can forget the hue and cry after the announcement in 2006 when they voted You — the technologically savvy, gadget hungry everyone — the Person of the Year? Or in 1982, when the Time brain trust went outside our species altogether, making the computer the Machine of the Year?

Time's choice of Zuckerberg takes legitimate note of the impact that Facebook has had on our society and the way people interact in six short years. And there’s no escaping the fact that Time, whose most enduring readership tends to skew demographically older, made a choice that’s a shrewd bid to reach younger, more tech-savvy readers.

But drilling down a little, things may not be all they seem. If Time had chosen another master of viral outreach, of the ways in which a wildfire of information can change the world, Zuckerberg may well have gotten the consolation prize of Person of the Year first runner-up.

◊ ◊ ◊

As it turned out, that honor went to one Julian Paul Assange, the International Information Criminal and founder of Wikileaks, whose previous and current release of various declassified U.S. government cables and communications has revived a furious debate over secrecy and journalistic ethics in the Information Age. In July, Wikileaks released thousands of documents related to the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was followed early this month with the first of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables on a wide range of topics — from Mexico’s brief consideration of martial law to stop the drug cartels to a personal assessment of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that’s been common knowledge for literally years.

Assange may well have been on a short list for Person of the Year honors for some time; Time essentially hinted at the power of Wikileaks back in January 2007, when the magazine anointed Wikileaks as something that “could become as important a journalistic tool as the Freedom of Information Act.”

But then it all went south. Even before this month’s Wikileaks power dump, Assange was accused of various sexual misdeeds with two associates. We can skip the more sordid details here (reportedly something to do with condom integrity). But the still-unresolved sex matter, and Assange’s current status (lodged in Britain’s Wandsworth Prison awaiting a ruling on extradition to Sweden to face the charges) made it, uh, an issue for Time to elevate him again, as Person of the Year.

Zuckerberg was — among other valid reasons compelling his selection — a less socially problematic, more palatable choice.

◊ ◊ ◊

In some ways, that’s a shame. It’s a fact that from the standpoint of global reach and impact, Wikileaks in 2010 has changed the wary minuet performed between journalists and government, and leveled the playing field between society and government — much the way Facebook changed the process of social interaction in the years since it was started in 2004. On that basis Assange would seem to answer fully Time’s requirement that the Person of the Year be the one that, for good or ill, “has done the most to influence the events of the year.”

Less a journalistic selection than one that looks to be motivated by pop culture and marketing, Time’s choice of Zuckerberg seems to buy into the idea of Person of the Year as winner of a popularity contest — and that’s a shame too.

Historically, the impact of the one crowned top Person hasn’t always been positive. Time made Adolf Hitler its Man of the Year in 1938; Joseph Stalin got that distinction twice, Richard Nixon was so named twice, and the Ayatollah Khomeini got the top spot in 1979. In those earlier eras, the magazine’s editors implicitly understood that some of the most important people of our time could also be the most reprehensible of our time.

That’s not to in any way call Assange reprehensible; the sex charges may have been one big misunderstanding. He’s innocent until proven guilty, too. But Time’s 2010 Person choice is less courageous than it might have been. It has the feel of being too calculated to accept without challenge, too enamored of the media world Zuckerberg and Facebook are reshaping — the same world Time inhabits as it fights to stay current in a 24/7/365 era.

But timing, as they say, is everything. The timing of this choice for Person of the Year right now, with two weeks left not just in the year but in the first ten full years of the 21st century, makes you wonder:

Who’d be Time’s choice for Person of the Decade?

Image credits: Zuckerberg cover: © 2010 Time Inc. Facebook logo: © 2010 Facebook. Julian Assange: Today Show/NBC. Wikileaks logo: © 2010 Wikileaks. Stalin cover: © 1943, 2010 Time Inc.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Calling out the Maverick®
(John McCain's Mark Bingham problem)

By a vote of 57-40, Senate Democrats lost on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell on Thursday, three votes short of the 60 needed to reconsider debate on repeal. As expected, Senate Republicans, in the latest exercise of what Mike Taibbi has generally called “the unified field theory” of right-wing obstinance, rejected further debate. Only one Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, broke ranks.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to get another vote on DADT (or more specifically, on the broader Defense Authorization Bill to which the proposed DADT repeal is attached) sometime before people head for the airports back to their districts for the holidays.

This is just the latest kick in the teeth of the estimated 70,781 gay, lesbian and bisexual U.S. armed forces personnel. More than 15 years along in the rancorous debate over DADT, the policy’s supporters have generated a pisspoor ratio of light to heat. Its backers (old-school functionaries deep within the E-ringed bowels of the Pentagon, and staunchly conservative fearmongers on Capitol Hill) have ginned up one excuse after another to prevent taking up the challenge of undoing DADT’s damage by repealing it.

◊ ◊ ◊

The prevaricator in chief on DADT has been that venerable sidewinder John McCain, the Republican senator representing the Arizona Territory; the ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and a Vietnam veteran for whom the American military and its longstanding traditions (like heterosexual men in the combat ranks and nothing but) are to be revered, never challenged and sure as hell never changed.

In recent weeks McCain has created roadblock after roadblock to prevent DADT’s repeal. Awhile back, McCain said he might consider voting for repeal if the military brain trust advised him to, which is exactly what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and other military leaders did.

So McCain moved the ball. He asked for a comprehensive assessment of the issue that involved reaction of U.S. armed forces themselves. He was obliged months later with an expansive report and a survey of 400,000 troops indicating that 70 percent of respondents in the military services backed repeal of DADT — not inconsistent with how the country as a whole feels.

◊ ◊ ◊

McCain’s most recent performance was a panoramic insult to the collective armed forces he purports to champion: Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. George Casey Jr., chief of staff of the Army; Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations; Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen. Norton Schwartz, chief of staff of the Air Force; and Adm. Robert Papp Jr., commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, appeared Thursday in Washington at a Senate hearing on the prospects for DADT within each service branch.

After hearing them answer in the affirmative — not on their personal position on DADT but as to whether a repeal of DADT could be feasibly implemented in their respective service branches — McCain played his last card, vowing to stall repeal by blaming the economy. “I will not agree to have this bill go forward, and neither will, I believe, 41 of my colleagues, either, because our economy is in the tank,” he said.

(For an earlier unexpurgated view of a 19th century man in profound denial of the arrival of the future, check this video):

McCain has done everything he can to obstruct, delay, postpone, hamstring, hobble and prevent discussion of the repeal of DADT by the Senate. But all his maneuvers may have come up against an opponent he can’t bluff or bully, someone whose sacrifice for his country is larger and more profound than his own — by his own admission.

The fire and bluster of John McCain on the issue of DADT must confront the quiet dignity of Alice Hoagland.

Hoagland is the mother of Mark Kendall Bingham, a young 6-foot-5 Cal rugby player, PR executive, world traveler, wine connoisseur and one of the passengers on United Flight 93, on Sept. 11, 2001. Bingham was one of those who stormed the cockpit on that pivotal day, thwarting what might have been a plane strike on the Capitol, and an epochal American catastrophe. Mark Bingham was gay.

"We now believe the terrorists planned to crash that plane into the Capitol, where I was that morning," McCain said on Sept. 22, 2001. "I may very well owe my life to Mark." The senator further eulogized Bingham as “an extraordinary human being.”

◊ ◊ ◊

In the years since 2001, Hoagland, of Redwood Estates, Calif., has been a friend of the senator. It was in that spirit she went on cable and online on Monday, letting a friend know when he was wrong.

“I think the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is an idea, a concept whose time has come,” she told Thomas Roberts of MSNBC. “The truth is there have been many, many, many thousands perhaps, gay people who have served humbly and quietly in a low-key manner in the United States armed forces without drawing attention to themselves. That’s the way it should be and that’s the way it will continue to be. Sexual orientation should be a parenthetical issue — a non-issue.

"I hope he comes around on Don't Ask Don't Tell. I know he's entrenched in the mistaken notion that gay people somehow are weaker, that gay men are predators, that gay men are seeking a sexual outlet with straight men, and I think it is that kind of misconception that is driving that needless clinging to Don't Ask Don't Tell."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Times They Are a-changing hands

There’s a visual religiosity to the original handwritten lyrics of “The Times They Are a-Changin,” by Bob Dylan. At first glimpse, when seen against a stark white background, the two pages of slanted scrawl on unlined paper look like something from the era of the Dead Sea scrolls. When seen together, and given what they’ve come to represent, you can almost see tablets brought down from the mount — or out of the wilderness of Bob Dylan’s feverishly creative mind in 1963.

If you’re looking for a spiritual starting point to The Sixties, this may be it: the words to the song that set the terms of engagement, the song that spelled out the stakes and exploded the collective unconscious into an angry, clarion consciousness. It’s the philosophical operating manual for the years that were about to unfold.

No wonder, then, that when the lyric sheets went up for auction at Sotheby’s on Friday, they moved, and moved fast, for well above the reserve price. Originally thought likely to fetch between $200,000 and $300,000, the “Times” lyrics went for $422,500, a handsome premium for the previous owners.

Selby Kiffer, a Sotheby’s senior vice president, told The New York Times that Dylan gave the lyrics to Kevin Krown, a folk singer whose Dylan befriended shortly after arriving in New York. When Krown died in 1992, the lyrics were passed to Mac and Eve MacKenzie, who hosted Dylan in his early days in the city.

It’s maybe a little ironic that the new owner of the lyrics — Adam Sender, an American hedge-fund manager and art collector — could be considered one of Dylan’s “Masters of War,” given the source of today’s prevailing economic hardships.

But maybe the change of ownership is a perfect example of the heads-is-tails philosophy of life Dylan espoused in the song: the unexpected is always right around the corner. In that fact, the more times change, the more they stay the same.

Image credit: Lyric sheet: AFP/Getty Images. Dylan 1962-1964?: Columbia Records.
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