Friday, May 31, 2013

Cheerios, breakfast of champions

WHO KNEW that whole grains, sugar, flavorings, vitamin E and a smidgen of advertising could be so combustible? Those are the ingredients of a bomb of a controversy that’s roiling the comment sections of blogs and Web sites ... and showing us, sadly, that if you want to find out how much some people hate, and how fast they can prove it, there’s nothing like the Internet.

By now, you’ve seen it, the Cheerios video that’s everywhere. Its basic human components — mommy, daddy, impossibly cute little kid(s) — you’ve seen a thousand times. But in the newest one, “Just Checking,” the folks at Cheerios (and at Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency that created the ad) have gutsily tweaked the family equation to reflect the times we live in. You already know how:

Let the hating begin. No sooner than the ad turned up on the Cheerios YouTube page than a torrent of racist-troll bile began, the comments coming so thick, fast and mean that the page’s comments had to be disabled and scrubbed.

From a purely commercial perspective, the ad did what ads are supposed to do. You Tube view counts of “Just Checking” have swamped those of every other Cheerios You Tube ad-videos on the page, by orders of magnitude. At this writing, it’s been viewed more than 635,000 times in the last three days.

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BUT THE ad did something else. It opened a window into how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go as a society. Even the casual student of modern American history knows that it wasn’t so long ago in our lifetimes that such unions as the one depicted in the Cheerios ad were flat out against the law.

Until Loving v. Virginia, the momentous 1967 Supreme Court decision prohibiting laws that barred marriage between the races, interracial couples walked a grim and sometimes tragic existential tightrope in a society that wasn’t nearly ready for that reveal of the romantic experience. Back then, Cheerios wouldn’t have dared to release an ad like that.

Then was then and now is now. We’re four and a half years into life with the first African American president in the nation’s history; a decade at least into a reordering of the country’s historical demographic hegemony. We live in a time when people have let go of that poisonous past. We also live in a time when, simply put, some people haven’t.

For all the outright hatred of the ad campaign — associations with Nazis, and the words “racial genocide,” “troglodytes” were some of the tamer flames — the ad’s generated an equally broad expression of gratitude, and (finally) recognition of the biracial experience from a major corporate player, part of a business world that remains largely risk-averse on matters of company branding and image.

AGAINST all the odds today, people showed they understand right from wrong. The Cheerios Facebook page just topped 1 billion likes. And some weren’t afraid to fire back at the trolls with equal brio. On the SuperHeroHype forum site page about the ad and its reaction, chamber-music, from the United Kingdom, let fly: “Mostly morons post comments on YouTube so it’s not a surprise. Most of those racist knuckle draggers wouldn't have the balls to say the stuff they post in real life or to peoples of colours faces. Typical Internet cowardly racists.”

In a statement, Camille Gibson, Cheerios vice president of marketing, said “[c]onsumers have responded positively to our new Cheerios ad. At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all.” Can I get a billion witnesses.

The new Cheerios ad asks us to buy cereal. It wouldn’t be much of an ad if it didn’t. But in a sweetly sly way, a way that’s no more benignly subversive than any other ad on television, it’s asking us something else. Something that’s more about character than cholesterol: “Hey America — is your heart healthy? Is it in the right place?

“Just checking.”

The little girl: Still image from the ad. Cheerios box: © 2013 General Mills Inc.

Felons' rights: Virginia breaks with its history

VIRGINIA GOV. Bob McDonnell’s decision this week to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons returned to society is already different things to different people. It’s a sign of a welcome and surprising centrism from the leader of the state called “the cradle of the Confederacy.” It’s one of the most politically counter-intuitive moves from a Republican governor in a southern state in a long time.

Mostly, it’s an uncharacteristically bold conservative reach for the center — and for minority voters — in a state apparently turning its back on some of its corrosive past. It also could be McDonnell’s first dramatic step onto the national stage, positioning him optically as someone with vision and reach enough to be a possible presidential contender in 2016.

Read the rest at The Root

Image credit: MSNBC

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Trayvon Martin case:
Circumventing the circus

ON TUESDAY, Florida Circuit Court Judge Debra S. Nelson sent a message to opposing counsel (especially the defense) about how things will be handled in her courtroom for the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of the 2012 second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin: When the trial starts on June 10, as scheduled, be prepared to bring the substance and leave the silliness at home.

Besides ruling that the start date wouldn’t be moved, as the defense requested, Judge Nelson ruled that the defense for Zimmerman won’t be allowed to open the trial with potentially damaging information about Martin’s alleged marijuana use and certain text messages and certain behavioral appearances — head fakes that have more to do with indicting the tropes of hip-hop as a cultural influence than anything else.

Judge Nelson’s ruling on the admissibility of Martin’s past as an opening gambit was one of 22 motions that she rejected, short-circuiting the defense’s attempt to in effect put Trayvon Martin on the stand, and setting the stage for a trial that, at this point anyway, appears to be on track to actually be a trial, and not a circus.

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Watching video of Judge Nelson in action in the courtroom, you come away with the idea that she’s disinclined to suffer fools gladly in this, what may be the most watched civil-rights-related murder trial in some time. There’s a drive in her public persona on the bench, a visible sense of purpose that suggests an intent to Get On With It, to stay away from dilatory bullshit that distracts jurors and the public from the issues at hand.

Nelson “has a reputation for working hard, being ambitious and imposing long prison terms,” Rene Stutzman of the Orlando Sentinel reported last August.

Stutzman quoted Isadore Hyde Jr., a Florida attorney, as saying "You don't mess around with her. I think her sense of justice, civility is such that she's going to make sure that this place, Seminole County, is not Mogadishu.”

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THERE’S been some speculation that, even those Judge Nelson has barred the comments from being admitted at the opening of the trial, she may allow this misinformation to be admitted later down the road. This isn’t likely to happen. It doesn’t make much sense to bar these existential speculations at the opening of a trial — when the principal arguments and rationales for defense and prosecution alike are being laid out in cosmic, comprehensive terms — and then allow them later on during the trial.

Such conjectures about Trayvon Martin’s personal life and habits will be no more corroborative, and no less speculative, a week or two into the trial than they will be at the opening — barring, of course, some direct casual connection between the teenager’s personal past and what happened to him the rainy evening of Feb. 26, 2012, when Zimmerman shot the teenager once in the chest point-blank with his 9mm Kel Tec semi-automatic seven-round pistol, between Twin Trees Lane and Retreat View Circle in Sanford, Fla.

Without that causal relationship, It’s hard to believe Judge Nelson would contradict her wise action from the bench. Daryl Parks, an attorney for the Martin family, said as much in an interview on Tuesday: “All the things they did to defame his character, to give him a bad name, to turn people against him, will not work because it doesn’t fit in the legal arena.”

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Kerry Sanders of NBC News reported Tuesday that some 500 people have been called as potential jurors. Sanders speculated that Martin’s possible use of marijuana may have some impact on which jurors would be empaneled and which ones would get bounced in the voir dire process. But in some ways, that would seem to be a non-issue.

As the recreational use of marijuana has widened in the mainstream culture over the last 40 or 50 years (if you don’t go back to the days of “Reefer Madness”), that increases the likelihood that anyone in a prospective jury pool is likely to have puffed the peace pipe at some point in their past.

But it’s precisely because the context of that use would be so speculative to begin with — Was it under a doctor’s care? Was it accidental? Was it a one-time indiscretion and not a habit? — that any defense attempt to ask about this has the effect of impugning the reputation of the prospective jurors, as well as Trayvon Martin himself.

To do that could be interpreted as an oblique, passive-aggressive way for the defense to introduce the very speculations that Judge Nelson on Tuesday barred from the trial’s opening next month.

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SINCE JUDGE Nelson has the judicial latitude to do so, she may well declare that neither defense nor prosecution can make prior drug use a question for the jury pool. That’d be consistent with the spirit of her ruling on Tuesday. It’s also consistent with Florida law, which lays out the scope of a judge’s authority: In January 1983 the Third District Court of Appeals ruled that “The materiality and propriety of voir dire questions are to be decided by the judge.” (Peri v. State, 426 So.2d 1025).

And there’s another option: under Florida law, the Court — Judge Nelson — could just conduct voir dire herself, requiring defense and prosecution to submit their questions for prospective jurors directly to her. Under either scenario, and for reasons of settled law in the Sunshine State, the idea of having defense attorneys quizzing possible jurors on whether they smoked pot or not would seem to be dead on arrival already.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Not dead yet: Alec MacGillis
on the gun-law reform movement

IN A FINE piece in The New Republic, on Tuesday, TNR senior editor Alec MacGillis explains how — cue the Mark Twain scholars — news of the demise of the gun-law reform movement is greatly exaggerated, despite April’s woeful surprise in the United States Senate.

MacGillis lays out the background of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Independence USA, two organizations built and bankrolled by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — the two prominent and well-capitalized groups that have lately taken point in the battle against the National Rifle Association and its stranglehold on conservative Washington and the nation’s gun culture.

And as MacGillis makes clear, the figurative MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner that the pro-gun lobby hung across the gun control debate after the disastrous April 17 Senate vote was at best premature. Or more likely, like Mark Twain said, greatly exaggerated.

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First, the history:
“Bloomberg created a Super PAC, Independence USA. In 2012, it spent $10 million on ads supporting pro-gun-control candidates running against NRA-friendly opponents in districts where polling suggested such a stance should be a liability. This investment was credited with unseating Democratic Representative Joe Baca of California. In the past year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which now has 975 mayors, has expanded from 15 paid staff to more than 50, with lobbyists in Washington and field organizers around the country who will likely be deployed to states with legislative fights looming. The organization is also developing its own candidate rating system.

“Above all, Bloomberg is planning to hit the airwaves on a scale Washington has not fully grasped. ‘He described his effort last year as putting his toe in the water,’ says Wolfson. Bloomberg plans to spend heavily in the 2014 midterms to support Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Hagan, both of whom voted for background checks. And he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor.

“Pryor is no NRA favorite — he had a C- rating before the vote — while Begich is a former member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. But Wolfson emphasized that only their votes on the bill counted. “It will be critical to ensure that people who voted for it are reelected, and people who voted against it pay an electoral price,” he says. I asked Wolfson if he was worried that going after Pryor — whom they regard as especially vulnerable — would simply lead to his replacement with a pro-NRA Republican. “The fact that a Republican would get elected is irrelevant to our cause,” says Wolfson. “On this issue, a Republican would not be worse.”

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BUT WOLFSON’S position poses at least a challenge, and maybe a problem, for the gun-law reform movement generally and Democrats in particular. A willingness to go after senators and Congressional members on the basis of their positions on this one issue risks the loss of those senators or Congressmembers otherwise philosophically disposed to support other progressive (read: Democratic) initiatives — from immigration reform to more populist economic policies to voting to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

Voters overall may not be quite as ideologically rigid as Bloomberg and Wolfson are on gun control (or as uniformly rabid as the pro-gun lobby). As big as the issue is as a national phenomenon, gun control doesn’t resonate in every state with equal force. In many states, gun-law reform will be one of several issues that compete for voters’ attentions in 2014. Those various local issues — remember what Tip O’Neill said — will have equal weight with the voters who’ll ultimately decide the importance of gun-law reform.

There’s a boulevard of space between the Democrats and the Republicans on most pressing domestic issues. Successfully targeting Democratic candidates on the gun issue may be a short-term victory for Bloomberg and MAIG. But defeating red-state Democrats who are vulnerable on guns means losing their votes on everything else. From the standpoint of anyone who thinks the control of Congress matters, and from the perspective of voters (who tend to be locally panoramic in off-year elections), that’s not necessarily the best tradeoff.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

‘The rhetoric of peace, the reality of war’
The Obama speech at NDU

IN ONE OF the more pivotal speeches of his presidency, and the one that could define his second term, President Obama on Thursday called for an end to the persistent vision of the United States as ubiquitous, well-armed heavy bristling for war 24-7-365, and for better definition of the parameters of future wars — even while doubling down on a geopolitically corrosive policy, one that’s become indistinguishable from the war we’re still fighting.

The president, speaking at National Defense University at Fort McNair, Va., said “America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.”

This manages to be both a leading and a lagging indicator. It smartly frames the challenges before us as a nation, lays out the stakes and the risks in galvanizing, inspiring language. But in some ways, it’s, well, late. We’ve known for years how “this struggle” has already defined us. It has certainly defined our politics in the last decade: bellicose, contentious, obstructionist. And economically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have absolutely defined the shape and arc of our domestic economy for the last decade, in ruinous ways.

The question, then, is how to keep this beast from becoming an even bigger part of the national psyche? Obama answered by stating the obvious and the insightful at the same time.

“This war, like all wars, must end,” he said, and he’s right. Despite the stateless asymmetricality of the two past and current conflicts (that’s led some in high places to call for the United States to be on a permanent military footing), the president understands that if war never ends, its very existential identity as an exception to normality utterly vanishes. If war forms the fabric of an indefinite “new normal,” the very idea of “normal” itself becomes a fiction.

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And that’s where the strangely hybrid aspect of Obama’s speech comes in. While advancing the perfectly welcome idea that “this war must end,” the president also reinforced his faith in the core of the drone targeting program used with deadly efficiency in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2009 — the program that has the potential to usher in a whole new construct of geopolitical conflict: the stealth war.

This came through when he sought to define the parameters of the current war, “not as a boundless global war on terror, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks ...”

One of the operative words there, of course, is “targeted.” And then there’s the phrase “dismantle networks,” used more than once. This was really the beginning of a wholesale, categorical defense of the drone program.

“To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, ‘We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.’ Other communications from Al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled Al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.

“Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war -- a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

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THERE MAY be little to argue with factually on either point. But it’s at least curious that the president, with the opportunity to rhetorically itemize these justifications for drone policy in their order of importance, placed effectiveness before legality.

With effectiveness of drones as the rationale that is, apparently, first among equals, The White House and the U.S. military face a challenge built in to the technology that conveys us leverage: the real and historically manifest risk of our ability getting ahead of our values.

The president was less than convincing when he defended the drone program on a disputed call, namely, the “wide gap” between U.S. assessments of such [civilian] casualties and nongovernmental reports.”

When you take it all together — the ends justify the means; it’s self-defense; it’s our word against theirs — it’s hard not to pick up on a prickly defensiveness just under the words, a defensiveness about whether this policy is endangering not just high-value targets, but also our own high-value values.

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Maybe the president grasped this when he suggested that there’d been an end to so-called signature strikes — drone hits based on patterns of behavior instead of confirmed identity. Or when he wisely called for more foreign assistance, more non-military engagement in the flashpoints in Africa and the Middle East, and more overall applications of the economic and cultural “soft power” our nation has employed in the past.

“I believe,” he said, “that the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion we need to have about a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy -- because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.

“[T]he next element of our strategy involves addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism -- from North Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we can quickly resolve deep-rooted problems like poverty and sectarian hatred. ...

“This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya -- because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist elements ... We are actively working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians -- because it is right and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship -- because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with people’s hopes, and not simply their fears.”

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THE PRESIDENT’S speech seemed to alternately veer from soft power to tough love, and back again. Obama said that civilian deaths from drone strikes were “heartbreaking,” but that doing nothing against terrorists “is not an option,” and drones were simply the best, most surgical tool in the toolbox.

In response to the withering criticism over the four Americans killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, Obama said there was a “preference” for capture rather than killing and he said he opposed targeting killing whether done “with a drone or a shotgun, without due process” — right before he said, with harsh pragmatism, that American citizenship shouldn’t be an absolute shield against a pre-emptive drone strike.

In response to the already-gathering storm over the Justice Department’s bid to conduct surveillance on journalists at The Associated Press, the president was full-throated in his defense of the fourth estate. “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs,” he said. “Our focus must be on those who break the law.”

Then Obama said that Attorney General Eric Holder would be dispatched to review DoJ guidelines on government investigations that involve reporters, reporting to the president on July 12. All of this the day before Holder was found to have signed a search warrant for the personal e-mails of a Fox News reporter — a man at legal risk for doing his job.

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For all its rhetorical power, Obama’s speech was in some ways neither fish nor fowl — an address with an odd amalgam of objectives. In his reaction on MSNBC, Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, may have put it best: “It’s a strange situation, where you have the rhetoric of peace but the reality of war.”

Early on in the speech, outlining the stakes for the national future, the president may have unknowingly ventured into political forecasting. “From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects,” he said, “the decisions that we are making now will define the type of nation — and world — that we leave to our children.”

True that. And it’s equally inescapable that the decisions on national security the Obama White House is making now, directly or by proxy, by actual order or as a result of passive actions leveraged by plausible deniability, will likely define not just the Obama second term but the whole of his administration.

President Obama has dared to propose an end to the formulation of the war on terrorism according to George W. Bush. That works for me and you and everyone we know. The questions are: how and when? For that achievement, the devil’s not in the details. The devil is the details.

“This war, like all wars, must end,” he said. Agreed. But President Obama’s great second-term challenge may be to resist this second-term temptation: transforming war into a subliminal, imagistically benign, multigenerational experience, and doing so in the name of national security.

“It’s one thing to commit to end the war,” Jameel Jaffer said, “and another thing to end the war.”

Image credits: Obama: Drone in flight: via DoJ Seal: U.S. Department of Justice. AP logo: © 2013 The Associated Press.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Three crises: The slow undoing of Obama II

RON FOURNIER of the National Journal Group was part of the round table on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday morning, lighting into President Obama over the ever-evolving IRS mess: “I’m really not interested in what the president knew two weeks ago. I’m more interested in knowing whether the president or anybody working on his behalf in the White House or at the campaign had knowledge of or directing the targeting during the campaign. I’m not going to assume that the answer’s yes, but we sure as hell shouldn’t assume that the answer is no.”

You’ve seen the rhetorical distillation of this idea as a question — “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — and as a single phrase. That phrase is “plausible deniability,” that durable cold-war idea and one very unsettling to hear in the context of actions by the Obama administration: the strategy, in no way singular to the Obama White House, that well-meaning underlings would keep bad news away from the boss, the better to establish unassailable cover for the president whenever the blowback hit the fan.

Some in the media are pulling their chins on this, calling for the e-mail smoking guns, the data that, presumably anyway, will show the origin trail of the Internal Revenue Service’s actions against select conservative groups with the 501(c) (4) designation. Fournier and others in the conservative media are darkly hinting at connections between the IRS actions and a White House request for those actions.

It could be there’s no there there. President Obama is an able student of constitutional history; we can be sure he knows about the constitutional crisis that was skirted during the Nixon administration, when the Watergate scandal was in full flower. You have to hope that Obama’s smart enough not to repeat that hubris of the national past.

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As we know now with benefit of 40 years of hindsight, President Nixon didn’t even need the Plumbers to do their dirty and politically fatal work at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972. He was already poised to win the election. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee, was plagued with intraparty squabbling, a muddled campaign message, the disastrous Thomas Eagleton situation, and a building narrative in middle America that McGovern was for “amnesty, acid and abortion.”

Nixon’s Watergate gambit was, politically, a bid to rig a game he’d already won. We’ve come to find out how utterly unnecessary it was. As it turned out, the Watergate fiasco was a moment Shakespeare would have loved: the tale of a powerful king brought low by a too-readiness to act rashly on his own grim suspicions. The fault not in his opponents, but in himself.

Fast forward to 2012. The serial ineptitudes of the Mitt Romney campaign would similarly seem to have made it unnecessary for President Obama, on a relative glide path to a second term, to put his thumb on the scale by directing the IRS to surveill conservative 501(c) (4) donor groups in the runup to an election he was increasingly favored to win. What the hell would he do that for? He was gonna flatten Romney anyway. The Tea Party orgs that organized as 501(c) (4) groups were trying to do with money what they never could do with message.

Use the IRS to spy on right-wing donor groups? For the president to do that in the face of a GOP campaign that by last October proved it didn’t know up from down, to do that in the face of the tragic historical arc of the Nixon presidency would be the height of folly, something displaying a historical, chilling arrogance for the rule of law.

The IRS as spies? Hell, not even Dick Cheney thought of doing that.

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WE HOLD out the hope that Barack Obama is a better president, a better leader, than that. But there’s something else loose here, something more problematic for the Obama White House. While plausible deniability on the IRS matter may carry the day, it becomes another matter entirely when one considers the second crisis of Obama II.

On May 13, it was reported that The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives

The AP reported that the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012, in the heat of the presidential campaign.

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“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” wrote AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“These records,” Pruitt writes, “potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP's newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP's activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

The incidental symmetries between this and the Watergate era are, sadly, pretty obvious. They’re the kind of unfortunate dovetail that led The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to warn that “[t]he president needs to understand that behavior commonly known as 'whistleblowing' and 'journalism' must not be construed as espionage.”

And there’s the heart of the problem: The ways in which a president’s leadership style seeps into the subculture of his own administration, with unexpected results.

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LEAVE IT TO Fournier to go overboard on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, with a cheap and thoroughly inartful shot about Obama conducting a “jihad against the press.” In fact, what’s going isn’t so much an Obama war with the press per se — no more for him than any other administration, Ron — as it is a behavioral pattern of this president, his longstanding tendency to play cards not just close to the vest but inside the vest when he can, a penchant for secrecy, and a belief in communicating as little as possible about policy and its origins to as few as possible for as long as possible.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Woman, unstoppable

BADASS.” That’s what a male friend of mine called Angelina Jolie yesterday. It wasn’t a spot assessment of the actress’ career. It wasn’t said as a comment about her role in “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” or her Oscar-winning star turn in “Girl, Interrupted,” or her brutal work in “Salt,” a film where she punched more tickets than an Amtrak clerk at Grand Central Terminal.

My bud’s offhand tribute — intended as the highest compliment — came for a role Jolie’s playing in real life, a role that trumps anything she’s ever done in the movies. On Wednesday, in a stunning, powerful op-ed piece that ran in The New York Times, Jolie announced that she’d undergone an elective double mastectomy in order to short-circuit the “faulty” BRCA1 gene she inherited from her mother, the actress and activist Marcheline Bertrand, who died of breast cancer in January 2007, at the heartbreakingly young age of 56.

The power of Jolie’s piece — unfair advantage: this actress, director and activist has the gift of writing, too — stems from its frankness. It’s passion and practicality without a shred of sentimentality. She explains, for example the process of trying to tell her children about the disease that “Mommy’s mommy” got.

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Her children, she said, “have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a ‘faulty’ gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

“My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.

“Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.

“Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much as I could.”

And thus, courageously, Angelina Jolie went under the knife.

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I WON’T excerpt her Times’ op-ed piece much further; the runup to the operation two days after Valentine’s Day, the post-op disorientation, her road back — all deserve to be read as part of the piece’s own considerable merits. But the real impact of a piece like this isn’t in the writing itself, but the reactions it inspires.

The cable networks, with a welcome predictability, covered the topic of Jolie’s disclosure like a blanket. Other reactions elsewhere, in mainstream and social media, have been numerous in the days since Wednesday, and, to go by comments in The Times, deservedly supportive.

Linda Charnes of Bloomington, Ind.: “Angelina Jolie’s essay about her choice to undergo a double mastectomy upon learning of her genetic risk was brave and generous. She writes straightforwardly, without a trace of self-pity, about her decision, which was obviously fraught and difficult on many levels. What rings through loudest is her commitment to her children, to be alive for them many years into the future.”

Calaneet Balas, CEO of the Ovarian Cancer Alliance, Washington: “Kudos to Angelina Jolie for speaking openly about her risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Despite decades of advocacy, many women are reluctant to speak about cancer, especially below-the-belt diseases like ovarian cancer. ... I hope that Ms. Jolie’s frank talk about her medical choices will encourage other women to start a conversation about ovarian cancer — and what they can do to reduce their risk.”

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Jolie noted that the genetic testing she had done before the operation costs about $3,000, a prohibitive amount of money for most everyday women. “It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live,” she says. The actress thus threw down the gauntlet to the health-care industry: It’s time to cut the crap. It’s time to cut the cost.

But Jolie also threw down a challenge to the rest of us. Maybe the most valuable thing in Jolie’s op-ed, ironically enough, was a message for all people, women and men alike. It’s that the courage she displayed at the Pink Lotus Breast Center was rooted in an awareness of the facts, the stark realities before her, and the willingness to act on them. It was having the courage to do what it takes to stay alive.

“Life comes with many challenges,” she said. “The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”

The op-ed told a personal story of one actress, one woman unstoppable. But something else’s clear in that first-person story of survival: In the world according to Angelina Jolie, we can all be badasses.

Image credit: Angelina Jolie: via BRCA1 gene illustration: National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Their Economic Majesties’ Request

“From my point of view, it's like this: We say we want to put a Stones tour together and people come to us with proposals. And these proposals are all basically the same. We actually did push down the prices a little bit. We took the lower offer, in other words. ... I don't have much to do with it other than I would like people to get in, to be able to afford to get in, without sort of starving their babies and all.”

— Keith Richards, interviewed in April by Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
                                     — Mick Jagger

MICK AND KEITH have been at odds before in their time at the top of the leaderboard of the Rolling Stones. With the recently publicized public pushback against ticket prices for the Stones current tour, there’s another M&K disconnect, distilled in the two previous quotes: a difference in the pain threshold for those who want to see the greatest rock and roll brand in the world, the fans who’ve helped them hold that lofty perch.

The band’s 50th & Counting Tour tour started on May 3 — they play the Honda Center in Anaheim on Wednesday and Saturday — but the group has already encountered reticence from the public about the tour’s ticket prices, the kind of resistance that a band like the Stones doesn’t want: the specter of empty seats on what could be the group’s valedictory lap.

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Edward Helmore of The Guardian reported on May 4: “Last week the band said it was dropping the price of thousands of premium seats — ‘flexing’ in industry parlance — rather than play to half-empty arenas. The situation was so dire, one insider revealed, that the band's own allotment of tickets was released because of a lack of requests.”

“Insiders are even speculating that the band will have to renegotiate the huge guaranteed fees for their American tour ... as ticket prices are radically reduced in light of poor sales,” Helmore reports. “A perfect storm of management hubris, fan indifference and technology change is threatening to turn the tour into a disaster.”

The problem is as simple at looking at the pricing for the current Stones tour shows. Base ticket price is $150; from there the cost escalates to $250, $450 and $600 each. And that’s not including the VIP seat packages ($2,000 a pop).

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CONTRAST THAT with ticket prices for other top tours: Fleetwood Mac ticket prices are moving in a more humane price range ($55 to $165); so are ducats for Paul McCartney’s summer tour stops ($57.50 to $250).

Pricing according to the Rolling Stones business model appears to be a self-inflicted wound where it really counts. First, it’s a slap in the face of the fans what danced with ‘em all these years, the salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar everyday people that have stuck with the Stones for ... forever. This isn’t how you reward your legacy fan base.

Second, it’s a thumb in the eye of music industry practice and common sense. Both indicate, with some uniformity, that bands go on tour to promote their new material. That’s at least a challenge, and maybe a problem, if you’re a touring band that doesn’t really have any new material. Or at least more than the two or three new songs on the band’s latest, “GRRR!”, primarily a collection of old favorites, previously released.

The Stones haven’t released a new album of original material for years, content instead to repackage and recycle old catalog chestnuts, unearthing just enough jurassic tchotchkes — a backstage-pass laminate replica, a tour poster knockoff — to make it all look new, sort of.

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Then there’s the fact that the Stones haven’t gone out of their way to enlarge the fan base they started with in the 60s. The Associated Press reported in November that “The average age for the four living members of The Rolling Stones is about two years older than the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.” It’s probably safe to say that their most reliable fan base is at or close to that average age, too.

The Stones are coming back to the same well of customers, and that well isn’t being replenished by younger fans, who tend to spend money on bands that are making new music. The loyalty of older Stones fans isn’t in question. It’s a matter of how expandable that fan base is, beyond itself. That’s not something a one-off appearance on “Saturday Night Live” or “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” can address.

Now add to that the Stones’ current strategy of playing smaller venues in fewer cities. Helmore reported that the Stones “are playing in arenas holding from 10,000 to 15,000 people, not stadiums.” The 50 & Counting Tour is set for 21 concerts in 11 U.S. cities; a June 24 stop at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., was added last week. So ... the diehards willing to pony up serious money to see the band face the prospect of going on the road themselves, to attend a concert very likely to be some distance from home.

On this tour, the Rolling Stones will be making fewer appearances in smaller arenas and charging dramatically higher ticket prices, touring behind what amounts to another greatest-hits album, performing for a hardcore fan base that’s getting smaller, in the middle of an economic crisis that negatively impacts that fan base — and just about everyone else.

You don’t have to be a student of the London School of Economics to see how big a problem this could be.

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THE STONES have a history of this kind of gravity defiance, but online and en masse, the salt of the earth is weighing in. William McGinniss, commenting at Rolling Stone: “The big story of this tour is the slow ticket sales. Too much money for the same basic set they have toured with for far too long. They had/have an opportunity to mix it up by adding more songs with Mick Taylor, which would bring some spark to a boring and predictable set list. They rehearsed a lot more with him — it's time for a rethink before this tour ends sadly.”

Stonesy at Rolling Stone agrees: “No one complains about their age, but if you pay 600 dollars to see the ever same setlist only this time it's going to be out of key, out of time and out of breath, performed by musicians who don't even look at each other anymore on or off stage, then something is dramatically wrong. No effort, fun, passion or connection whatsoever. They play for the buck and their egos only, contemplating the ashes rather than carrying on the fire and in that dragging their entire legacy through the mud on their way out. It's a shame.”

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Persons of interest: Charles Ramsey
and the meme parade

KNICKERS ARE in a serious twist over Charles Ramsey’s ascension to the top of the meme-of-the-moment pyramid, for his role early this week in the rescue of three women held captive for 10 years or longer in a row house in Cleveland, Ohio. Ramsey’s plain-spoken recounting of the experience has aroused volatile passions as to whether he’s being used, or whether he reflects nothing more than a mainstream media fascination with blacks as curiosities.

Much of the hue and cry overlooks the ways our society as a whole plays a role in such 60-second canonizations, and, following on that, the way all members of our contemporary, visually-driven American society are subject to the same experience.

Andy Warhol’s celebrated prediction on pop culture’s persistence has been invoked time and time again: “Everyone’sbody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” But Warhol died years before the Internet. He didn’t live to see what happens when the 15-minute fame clock gets reset every minute of the day. He didn’t get to experience life when technology gives everyone a fame clock of their very own.

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Helene Andrews, a Root contributing editor, wrote Tuesday in The Root about Ramsey, and two other meme-comets, Sweet Brown (famed for saving her own life in an apartment fire) and Antoine Dodson (whose rescue of his sister from an attacker led to comments that became a YouTube sensation). Andrews said that: “What's happening now, with the seemingly prolific oversharing of problematic depictions of poor black folk, is less an issue with the images themselves than our own voracious consumption of them.”

Aisha Harris, in a Tuesday essay at Slate, seemed to agree. “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform. Even before the genuinely heroic Ramsey came along, some viewers had expressed concern that the laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the 'ghetto,’ socially out of step with the rest of educated America.”

Andrews again: “But is the issue with the factory? The anonymous Internet machine churning out one screwed and chopped video after another? Or does the product itself have any liability here? The flash impulse to perform, as opposed to the exploitation of the performer, seems like the most interesting issue.”

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BUT ANDREWS leaves out the indispensable third leg of the three-legged stool of the meme industry:  The consumer. Neither the factory nor the product can function, or last very long, without the consumer. The Internet shows us every day how the consumer creates more and more of the product in this relationship, how the consumer makes the factory what it is today.

That’s the most interesting issue here: It’s the fact that the “flash impulse to perform” isn’t a respecter of race, religion, gender or anything else. These videos that focus on exponents of the foibles of the African American underclass aren’t necessarily there to perpetuate a malign, insensitive world view of black Americans. Those videos are out there, they’ve attracted the popular attention, because they reveal the fundamental aspect of performance that’s built into the culture we live in. All of us. Regardless of race.

It’s a premise basic to Erwin Schrodinger’s Cat, some of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the study of quantum theory: The act of observing something changes that which is being observed. While that may still be theory in the scientific world, it’s never been more of a rock-solid truth than it is in the mediasphere of today, the era of 24-hour cable news, YouTube, Facebook and the Twitterverse. And cat videos forever.

Society at large is the main source of today’s viral performance art. In a culture shot through with cameras on lightpoles, in places of business, in smartphones and on public conveyances, the act of being observed, recorded and ridiculed is an ecumenical experience, one that pulls everything and everyone into the Great Lens. We’re all persons of interest. All of us. Regardless of race.

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It can’t have escaped the attention of the serious student of pop culture that, before the Charles Ramsey rescue, people were abuzz about the Sunday marriage of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” redneck reality-TV star June “Mama June” Shannon and her longtime paramour, Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson. The bride wore camouflage and orange.

For more than four years, Jodi Arias, who is Hispanic, was the meme poster child for outlandish behavior — until her conviction in Arizona on Tuesday Wednesday for first-degree murder, in the death of her boyfriend. Before then, Arias was known for her changes of hair color, her serial embroideries on her stories to the police, and her overweening confidence of being acquitted (made clear in at least one TV interview).

You’re hard-pressed to prove how the act of their being observed didn’t change whatever they were doing.

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BLACK FOLKS as gifted oddballs is nothing new, of course. Remember Nathaniel Ayers, the troubled black Juilliard-educated cellist whose story Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez transformed into attention that led to a Major Motion Picture?

Or how about Ted Williams, the black homeless man with a “God-given gift of voice” discovered by a videographer at The Columbus News-Dispatch? It’s true that their discoveries changed the basic way they did what they did and how, and how well, they moved through the world from then on.

But there’s nothing that happened to them in the teleculture that didn’t happen to Joe the Plumber, the white guy who tried to be Barack Obama’s bête noire in the 2008 campaign, only to achieve a certain reflexive comic notoriety within the conservative movement, and the political culture in general. And don’t forget Orly Taitz, the Moldavian-born lawyer, dentist and darling of the birther movement whose antic attempts at disproving the citizenship of President Obama got more ridiculous and insistent the more she knew she was the subject of media attention.

The meme parade has now begun. Again. As usual, it pulls no punches; it plays no favorites that society doesn’t have already. At the end of the day, it plays no favorites at all. The appetite for information, for content 24/7, knows no letup, even if it’s content without context. Especially if it’s content without context.

The video identities of Ramsey, Williams, Taitz and all the rest are thoroughly connected to our “voracious consumption” of those identities; one is utterly dependent on the other. And in an omnivorous media culture like the one we live in, there’s really little distinction between one in flagrante delicto moment, one embarrassment, and the next. Outrageousness is an equal opportunity employer.

Image credits: Charles Ramsey: Public domain. Antoine Dodson: via YouTube. Mama June and Sugar Bear: Jason Winslow/Splash News. Ted Williams: Columbus News-Dispatch. Orly Taitz: FiredUpMissouri, via Wikipedia.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Vargas’ war: Making ‘illegal’ illegal in the news

ON WEDNESDAY, the Los Angeles Times announced it would move away from the use of the phrases "illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant" in its reporting. Pragmatically timing the announcement to anticipate the increased coverage on the immigration issue soon to heat up on Capitol Hill, the newspaper said it would stop both those phrases in order “to provide relevance and context and to avoid labels.” The Times is exploring phrasal alternatives, including fuller descriptions of a person’s actual circumstances.

A staff memo from the Times Standards and Practices Committee explained that “‘Illegal immigrants’ is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, ‘undocumented immigrants,’ similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other documentation but lack valid visas.”

The Times follows by a month a similar edict from The Associated Press, a change made in the AP online stylebook immediately, and one heralded on the AP Web site under the title “ ‘Illegal Immigrant’ no more.”

And The Times action follows by one year, ten months and five days the published moment when the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas fired one of the biggest broadsides in the culture war on the reality and the rhetoric of “illegal.”

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Vargas’ personal narrative is thoroughly compelling, an American story that deviates from the nativist script-tropes of American identity. Vargas was born in Antipolo, the Philippines, and raised in the United States starting at the age of 12, but without obtaining the required authorization for him to stay in the country on a permanent basis. Despite that, he adapted to his surroundings. He was an American in the heart, if not according to the document.

An interest in journalism in high school led him to his first job, an internship at a California paper, then a gig at the San Francisco Chronicle, and an internship at The Washington Post. From there, Vargas exploded into the national consciousness with reporting on a variety of topics. He was one of the reporters who contributed to the Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings.

His New York Times essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” published in June 2011, was nothing less than a game-changer. With an essay deftly written, achingly personal and quietly defiant, Vargas called the question on the nature of our national identity, and proved that a citizenship at heart, at root, is always bigger than the papers in one’s possession.

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MORE RECENTLY, he’s been the founder of Define American, a nonprofit group that, according to his Web site, “seeks to elevate the immigration conversation.” The Times and AP announcements indicate he’s doing exactly that — by going direct to the purveyors of that conversation. And getting results.

Last September, he told Mackenzie Weinger of Politico that getting The AP and The New York Times to make changes in editorial policies was a big goal. He’s halfway there.

His strategy then was simple: “I have started and will continue communicating with Margaret Sullivan, the new ombudswoman, the New York Times public editor, who is, like, amazing. I think she’s doing a really, really good job. She seems open. So getting the New York Times and the AP is kind of the first target right now.”

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Fast forward to April 25 and ... maybe things with Margaret Sullivan didn’t go as well as they did before. That may be why, according to Politic365, Vargas, accompanied by Cesar Chavez’s son, Fernando Chavez, deposited 70,000 signatures at The New York Times building on Tuesday, requesting that the paper stop using “illegal immigrant” in its reporting.

Politic365 reported that after the petition delivery, The Times, in a shift, announced it wouldn’t abandon the phrase “illegal immigrant” completely, but instead would encourage reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question.”

That essentially leaves it up to the reporter, a curiously elastic option in a stylebook not historically known for such gray areas, reflecting an editorial policy that seems oddly squishy for the preeminent voice in American news.

◊ ◊ ◊

REGARDLESS OF how long it takes The Times to make the series of baby steps before banning “illegal immigrant” outright — don’t forget, we’re talking about a paper that didn’t adopt color photography until the end of 1997 — it’ll be an implicit endorsement of Vargas’ bedrock philosophy: words, particularly in the hands of capable wordsmiths, can convey accuracy while, ironically enough, missing or obscuring the truth.

The modern lexicon is stuffed with other terms that similarly shade the facts, or torture the language outright. In the 2012 presidential campaign, the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney was one with the phrase “job creators,” which the Republicans resurrected after briefly using it the year before.

“This line is standard operating procedure for the GOP when discussing the Bush tax cuts, which Obama has long wanted to roll back for the wealthiest Americans,” Evan McMorris-Santoro reported in Talking Points Memo, back in July. “Congressional Republicans loved to throw “job creator” around during the budget fight of late 2011, arguing that it burdens the people doing the hiring, perpetuating a vicious cycle.”

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“Republicans seem to be operating under the backwards economic principle that only tax cuts for the richest Americans and biggest corporations are worth fighting for,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray said on the floor of the Senate in December 2011, and as reported by TPM. “In fact, they have a name for this group of people: They call them ‘job creators.’”

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lee Siegel secedes from reality

SOMETIMES FOR a writer, it’s all just too much. The protracted stasis from Capitol Hill, the inability (or the unwillingness) of lawmakers to get things done bubbles over in frustration and outrage. When writers get mad, sometimes madness gets into writers. The author and cultural critic Lee Siegel understands this, on purpose or by accident.

Apparently still smarting from the rash of post-election petitions from people in several states wanting to secede from the United States, Siegel wrote an essay in The Daily Beast on Tuesday, effectively calling the question: If they want to leave, why don’t we let ‘em go?

In a piece that’s by turns reasoned and ridiculous, Siegel gives full vent to his frustrations with “a solid block of Southern states” he blames for every current American ill. But in his attempt to fix the source of the national malaise, he overlooks much of what would make his plan practically unworkable. The political geography isn’t as clear-cut as he thinks.

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“The sad truth is that ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ can only be achieved at this point if the nation is split in half,” Siegel writes. “Far from being fanciful or fanatical, the proponents of secession have a stronger grasp of political reality than just about anyone else. In fact, there are serious reasons why the North itself should take the lead in a secessionist movement.

“Just think what America would look like without its mostly Southern states. (We could retain ‘America’: they could call themselves ‘Smith & Wesson’ or ‘Coca-Cola’ or something like that.) Universal health care. No guns. Strong unions. A humane minimum wage. A humane immigration policy. High revenues from a fair tax structure. A massive public-works program. Legal gay marriage. A ban on carbon emissions. Electric cars. Stronger workplace protections. Extended family leave from work in case of pregnancy or illness. Longer unemployment benefits. In short, a society on a par with most of the rest of the industrialized world — a place whose politics have finally caught up with its social and economic realities.”

Siegel’s vision of this new nation conceived in vitriol is at times thunderously comic: “The red-state nation, giddy with new mobility, could make the 1958 Chevy its official car, and use the cutting-edge resources of cable television and the Internet to broadcast postwar situation comedies 24 hours a day. It could arm all of its citizens, and thus relieve itself of the financial burden of maintaining law-enforcement agencies. And without any type of regulation, it could finally compete with similarly unhampered societies all over the world.”

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AT OTHER times, he’s just pessimistic. Siegel says “we are stuck living in an America whose politics hang suspended somewhere in the 1850s, when the almost symmetrical divide in the country kept one half of it mired in a barbaric system of slavery — itself rooted in ancient customs and conventions—and the other half moving quickly, along scientific and technological lines, into the modern era. ... the country is still as neatly divided as quinoa pilaf with mushrooms on one side and roasted pork belly on the other, and will continue to be.

“The presidency will swing one way and Congress — then, or two years later — will swing another. No matter the current state of the Republican Party, the iron law of “throw the bums out” will kick in, and the outsiders will once again have the White House. And still nothing will have changed. ...

“May I, with the subtlety of cannonballs falling upon Fort Sumter, suggest that we stop using the anodyne categories of red and blue, and start calling the two sides ‘Confederate’ and ‘Union,’ which is what they really are?”

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No doubt about it, Siegel’s dystopian conjuring is passionate and provocative; it also invokes a geographical convenience that today’s political reality thoroughly contradicts. His real beef isn’t with the states themselves; it’s with the politics that history and the collective regional culture have embedded in those states. In the American South of our lifetimes, that politics has been Republican, more often than not.

When you consider that, you have to ask the obvious question: Where, exactly, in Siegel’s political cosmology does the “South” begin? Let the South secede? What do we do about Arizona and Utah, North and South Dakota — states that aren't in the geographic orbit of the South, but are run by Republican governors obliged to uphold the Republican principles that define the Southern states?

Strong unions? Stronger workplace protections? Wisconsin’s nowhere near the South, but Gov. Scott Walker signed a law intended to curtail unions and workers’ rights in a state with a long and powerful history of championing labor reforms. A humane immigration policy? Arizona wasn’t listening. We can thank Gov. Jan Brewer and the state legislature for a law that effectively profiles Latinos on sight, and does so a long way from the Southern states.

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LEGAL GAY marriage? What about California? Not that long ago, the sun-kissed bastion of the lefties elected a Republican governor. Then, to make sure nobody thought it was a mistake, they turned around and elected him again. For all the purported progressive values the Golden State espouses, the Bear Flag state is still lagging in its historical bellwether status on matters of gender equality.

Cali’s run by a Democratic governor now, but what happens if they flip back to a Republican leader? It could happen: In the last 45 years, as many Republican governors have occupied the statehouse in Sacramento as Democrats.

California passed Proposition 8 in November 2008, eliminating the rights of same-sex couples to get married. It’s still on the books today. Does that mean California should secede too, on the basis of its legislative fidelity (on this issue) to the southern states Siegel’s willing to cast adrift?

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All of this points to the primary fallacy in Siegel’s thinking. As convenient as it would be to ascribe a particular way of thinking to a particular geographic region of the country, the fact is, the problem is wider than that. As any number of states west and north of the Mason-Dixon Line have shown in recent decades, and certainly since Barack Obama’s election as president, the “South” is bigger than the South.

At this point in our political culture, and with the gridlock on Capitol Hill as evidence, it’s clear that, legislatively and culturally, the South is not so much a confederation of states as it is a state of mind — a way of thinking that slipped the easy boundaries of state lines a long time ago.

Separating the United States from the southern states with some kind of emancipation chainsaw is a tantalizing idea that owes a lot to the persistence of history. We might as well try to separate American history from America itself.

Image credits: Lee Siegel: via The Daily Beast logo: © 2013 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

MSNBC morphs again, CNN not so much (yet)

PHIL GRIFFIN, the president of MSNBC and master of employee Circadian rhythms, has directed a juggling of the on-air staff, a series of bobs and weaves that promises to shake things up going forward in what’s been MSNBC’s most vulnerable area: the weekend. In that TV-lonely part of the week, MSNBC may be plotting a run at a new identity.

Rachel Maddow, who continues in her prime-time hosting roost at the network, used to make it a mantra on Friday evenings, right before her program, “The Rachel Maddow Show,” signed off: “Now, it’s time for you ... to go to jail.”

It was Maddow’s way of alerting MSNBC viewers that the network was about to go into its weekend block of rebroadcasts of “Lockup,” the long-running series of inside-prison-walls docs that once dominated MSNBC programming from early evening on Friday until sometime on Sunday, when MSNBC’s pickup of “Meet the Press” signaled the end of our weekend incarceration.

That’s been changing over the last year or so. MSNBC started it in September 2011 with the debut of “Up With Chris Hayes,” awarding a weekend morning news and political analysis program to Hayes, a frequent MSNBC commentator and pinch-hit host for MSNBC programs in the past.

That month, MSNBC also rebranded the weekend news block hosted by network news vet Alex Witt. Her show, “Weekends With Alex Witt,” helped make MSNBC a destination for viewers used to going elsewhere for the day’s news on weekends.

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The network followed in mid-February 2012 with “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a news analysis program hosted by its namesake, an author, Tulane University professor, columnist for The Nation, and the first African American woman to host a news show on a major network.

Then in June, MSNBC introduced “The Cycle,” a five-days-a-week midday program with four hosts sounding off and squaring off with guests on topics of the day. The hosts — writer and commentator Touré, conservative columnist S. E. Cupp, Salon senior political writer Steve Kornacki, and businesswoman and former congressional candidate Krystal Ball — found their niche, interviewing newsmakers and journalists in freewheeling fashion.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fast forward to March of this year. Griffin exercised his control over the sleep habits of his on-air personalities, making some ... adjustments. Effective in early April, Chris Hayes, the father of a 16-month-old daughter, got his weekend mornings back — in exchange for his weekdays. Hayes moved to prime-time to take the helm of “All In With Chris Hayes,” a new Monday-Friday hourlong program that went up in the 8 p.m. slot once occupied by Ed Schultz, the pugnacious radio talk-show host and namesake of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show.”

Griffin and the MSNBC brain trust moved Kornacki to the old Hayes spot on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Voila! “Up With Steve Kornacki” debuted on April 13, keeping the expansive two-hour format intact.

But there’s more. MSNBC announced on April 25 that “The Ed Show” will be back on the air on May 11, with Schultz, the reliably combustible progressive, bringing his prime-time show’s intensity to the weekends. Also, Karen Finney, a longtime MSNBC contributor and Democratic strategist, will get her own weekend show (Saturdays and Sundays from 4 to 5 p.m.), setting the table for Schultz, who’ll roll from 5 to 6 p.m. before expanding to two hours (5 to 7 p.m.) sometime this summer.

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GOT ALL that? Give it time. In the short term, the changes mean two things: First, MSNBC is truly serious about relegating to the sidelines the “Lockup” docs (and their tabloid cousins in the “Caught on Camera” series, hosted by Contessa Brewer, who hasn’t been in the MSNBC lineup since 2011).

More than just about anything else in recent years, it’s been the network’s weekend morph into the Incarceration & Forensics Channel that compromised its ability to truly become the full-service news machine that the ubiquity of cable has entitled viewers to expect. With the full-on assault on weekend dayparts, MSNBC stands poised to really go head to head with its counterparts in the space.
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