Friday, December 21, 2007

Off The Reservation

In today's Washington Post, Eugene Robinson takes on Hillary's Bill problem: specifically, that Bill doesn't stay "on message" when he's campaigning on Hillary's behalf, and can't stop talking about himself in general. The implication is that Bill is a dubious asset as a campaigner and would be a unique problem if Hillary won the White House.

Personally, I take for granted that First Gentleman Bill would be unlike any presidential spouse we've known, that he would demolish the old-fashioned role that Laura Bush inhabits (I imagine her despising it), and good riddance to it. But I'm sure Bill gives campaign staffers agita at a grocery store in Iowa.

The Matt Bai piece I blogged about yesterday touched on the issue of "message discipline."
Hillary strives for tight discipline, whereas Bill is an improviser. Once I read a quote about George W. Bush, from someone who knew Bush in his Texas days (maybe from Karl Rove), that marveled at his message discipline--Bush was an amazingly talented politician, in this person's view, because whatever the question he was posed, he could drag the discussion back to the day's approved talking point(s). At some point, this virtue becomes a shortcoming: in a White House press conference or other venue where the questions are pointed and the issues are weighty, "message discipline" looks more like clumsily, slavishly, even stupidly parroting the same few stock phrases over and over. But I give Bush a little grudging credit for his parsing skills: in the recent saga of the Iran NIE (Iran is nowhere near being the rogue nuclear state of song and story) it was pointed out that in midstream Dubya began speaking not of the mullahs getting a bomb but of "acquiring the knowledge necessary" to have a bomb. You might not have noticed the shift in wording in real time, but it looms large in retrospect. So the man is capable of subtle shifts in phrasing, when his political carcass (or a felony charge) is on the line.

On the other hand, a Bill Clinton's improvising skill can serve to salvage the day's message, not just fuzz it up. I've forgotten some of the details, but there was a major televised speech during which Bill's teleprompter malfunctioned, and he didn't miss a beat. He understood his topic on the level of themes and ideas, not stock phrases.

Message discipline is what a politician needs if s/he lacks intellectual integrity. So you see why it's so highly sought after.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Media diary, December 19

Because I was running late this morning, I was in the car to hear part of BBC World Service on public radio. The program is celebrating its 75th anniversary and has been rebroadcasting clips from its early days. Today a BBC producer commented on what she learned from combing the audio archives. During the Second World War, BBC broadcasts were important not just to the British people but to the French Resistance movement across the Channel--for instance, BBC carried speeches and announcements by De Gaulle, in French. The letter V was a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance: I knew about Churchill often flashing the V for Victory hand sign, but also, French residents under occupation chalked V's onto sidewalks and buildings. In addition, BBC began tacking on, as an intro or outro, a short musical phrase played on a tympani: bip-bip-bip-bummm, bip-bip-bip-bummm. Dot dot dot dash--the letter V in Morse code.


Reflecting on the developing rivalry between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, Slate posted a piece today about tensions between the LDS Church and the Southern Baptist Convention since about 1980. I was intrigued to learn that Mormons have converted a lot of Baptists and made serious inroads in heavily Baptists areas like Atlanta and Dallas. Evangelicals respect people who offer a testimony, and those clean-cut young Mormon missionaries certainly qualify.


Matt Bai has written a piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, dated December 23 but pre-posted on the Web, about Bill and Hillary Clinton--his past, her present and future, and their relationship to the Democratic Party.

It's worth a read. Bill Clinton is much more present and prominent in the article than Hillary; Bai interviewed Bill a few times for his recent book, and draws on that material. (Bai and Bill scheduled an interview more recently, but Hillary's campaign quashed it, and Hillary would not be interviewed herself.) I would have placed the emphasis in different places, but Bai engages a lot of the relevant issues for a party searching for a new identity.

Certainly, the legacy of Bill's presidency has a complicated relationship to Hillary's presidential prospects. Bai's notion is that among rank and file Democrats, Bill is personally very popular, but "Clintonism" (expressed both in his founding work with the DLC and in his White House tenure) is not universally popular in left circles. There's some truth there, but Bai overlooks the need for Hillary to stand on her own feet, regardless of Bill's continued popularity or lack of it. Bai quotes poll data that Bill's record reflects well on Hillary among voters. I had a "no duh" response to that: Hillary's political existence depends on Bill; it's not that he benefits her, it's that she wouldn't exist without him. The dilemma for Hillary's campaign is not just how to show him to best advantage, it's how heavily to deploy him in public.

Another of Bai's guiding theses is that Hillary's campaign is a referendum on Clintonism. I'm not so sure. I'm overwhelmingly conscious of the 2008 election as being a referendum on Bushism, and so are many rank-and-file Democrats, and we evaluate the contenders for their potential to defeat Bushism at the polls and in Washington over the next quadrennium.

I plead guilty to not appreciating what we had with Clinton-Gore when we had it; I made gruff Naderite noises in '96 after welfare reform, and in 2000 when the legacy of Clintonism seemed merely the effort to be all things to all people. Seven years later, I long for a government that is competent, innovative, fiscally responsible at home, morally responsible abroad--that respects the rule of law and balances ideology with merit and fairness. Clinton-Gore did a solid job of providing that kind of government. Moreover, they deserve a lot of credit for accurately diagnosing the American condition in the 1990s: most notably, the shift to a post-industrial information-based economy.

Yet I have trouble giving all that much credit to Clintonism as a philosophy of governing.
Bai discusses Clintonism as both a philosophy and as an electoral strategy. Both Clintons would attest that the former is irrelevant without the latter. Bai concedes that the Clinton style of campaigning was probably the only way to win in 1992, to exorcise the ghosts of liberals past, but he also seems to agree with Al From: "Just as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism by dealing with its excesses, Clinton saved progressive governance, and he saved progressive governance all over the world."

Maybe I came of age too late to understand properly, but I don't see much cause to regret the "overreaches" of liberal policy in the 60s and 70s. Did the Dems go astray in ensuring civil rights? Did they go too far in pressing the interests of women and environmentalists and labor unions? On the whole, I don't believe so. They got caught up in a culture war that was bigger than they were, and they suffered a backlash on civil rights, which perhaps they could have countered better but which in the long run was worth suffering for the sake of racial justice. (Even knowing what we know about the tenures of Nixon and Reagan and the Bushes, which of us would go back in time and BLOCK the Civil Rights Act?)

The Democrats' problem is more one of image and public perception. I'll concede that they may have been too closely identified with the poor rather than the middle class, a hangover from FDR and the New Deal when the country faced starvation and homelessness. Adjusting to postwar economic growth, Clinton helped the party change the frame, away from protection against poverty, toward access to opportunity. But mainly, due to the old internal party machinery (which is a different thing than the policies), the Democratic Party gave us an excess of dry, humorless technocrats as candidates. In an aside, Bai mocks Dennis Kucinich as having been "teleported straight from 1972." My main perception of Kucinich is he's a mousy little guy, reminiscent of Mondale and Dukakis and other also-rans, who lack that ineffable "want to have a beer with him" quality that Bush supposedly has in spades. I don't mock Kucinich for lacking that, I weep for myself and our politics that we place so much weight on that.

Bill Clinton has that charisma, and thank God he's also brilliant and an insanely hard worker. But the hallmark of his governance (Bai reminds me of the term) was triangulation: co-opting an issue near and dear to the Republicans (welfare, for example), acknowledging the problem, then proposing a more moderate and humane fix than the Goopers were offering. That may be a sound strategy much of the time, but not all the time. It strikes me reading this article that triangulation is probably an apt term for what Hillary has tried to do as a Senator regarding Bush's foreign policy: acknowledge his assumptions about Iraq's and Iran's treachery, and HOPE that he would act soundly and proportionately, although she had no leverage. The most charitable read on her votes is that she was suckered. Triangulation isn't appropriate when the other side doesn't play fair. It isn't compatible with being the principled opposition.

I wonder how old Bai is. It's worth being reminded that political renewal comes in constant cyclical waves, always with young people chafing at the assumptions of their elders. Today's insurgents will be tomorrow's establishment: From and his DLC still perceive themselves as the gatecrashers that they were in their heyday.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"A laundry bin full of jock straps at Shea"

I’ve been meaning to finish a couple of posts on politics and media and other serious respectable topics, but here’s an easy post to write: reaction to the George Mitchell report on steroids in baseball.

It bugs me a little bit, the increasingly undeniable evidence that a lot of top-flight players were juicing. Which makes me examine my assumptions: Why at this late date do I expect fine athletes to be persons of fine character? Why care about the purity of baseball statistics, when I don’t care about the purity of the exchange value of the dollar or anything else measured with numbers? To be shocked by Mitchell’s report is a sucker’s response. Ballplayers have always cheated one way or another, and if anything the incentives to cheat are rising as the amount of money at stake is rising. The margin between being an average player and a slightly above-average player, between being a bench player and a starter, or a setup reliever and a closer—these distinctions of apparent quality are not large; they are well within the margin of luck. But they also might be worth $10 million at contract time.

One thing that strikes me about the list of players is how many journeyman players there are on it. The typical steroid-taking player isn’t Barry Bonds, on a Promethean quest for immortality. It’s more someone like Todd Hundley, trying to manage injuries, trying for one breakout 40-homer season that will boost his status in the sport.

Another thing that strikes me: Without doing a rigorous analysis, a lot of players on the list are the sons of former big league players: Bonds, Hundley, Jerry Hairston Jr., David and Mike Bell, David Segui, Gary Matthews Jr. Bret Boone isn’t on the Mitchell list but has been named in steroid rumors. Jeremy Giambi has an older brother, Jason, also on the list, and Gary Sheffield has an older cousin, Dwight Gooden, who was a big league star. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything, but it might mean that the better connected a player was, the more exposure he’d had to the culture of pro baseball from an early age, the more likely he was to seek a strategic advantage through chemistry. In other words, the drugs work. Savvier players were more likely to use them.

I sure would feel better about baseball’s future if George Mitchell was in charge of the sport full-time, instead of Bud Selig. The wisest thing George Mitchell said yesterday was that he hoped the commissioner would not seek to punish every player named in the report. If anything, I wish Mitchell had said it more emphatically. The best use of this report (and Mitchell's vision for it, I'm sure) would be as part of a South Africa style truth and reconciliation process, speaking the truth and clearing the air, without meting penalties for infractions committed perhaps nine years ago and which were effectively condoned at the time. For his part, Selig immediately asserted his authority to punish them all, saying they would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

So one wonders whether the point of the exercise is to address the steroid problem or to make a show of toughness and improve public relations. I feel a sense of resignation about the problem, because of the incentives to dope, and because the doping athletes and trainers are always two steps ahead of the enforcers. Human growth hormone is a drug of current choice, largely because there is no effective test to detect it. Selig touted a plan for baseball to partner with pro football to develop a test of HGH. Of course, as I heard a radio host point out last night, this was a way for Selig to spread the blame—to remind people that other sports have this issue too. The NFL is probably seething to have its name read out at the press conference.

I don’t want this controversy to linger. I want MLB to put up a duly diligent and unbiased detection system, as a roadblock, but recognize that the problem won’t disappear overnight. Give amnesty to players who doped in the past. Sanction but don’t ban or demonize future violators.

And put Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens in the Hall of Fame. The 90s and early 2000s were the steroid era; let’s face it, perhaps regret it, but let’s don’t willfully forget those who excelled according to the standards and conditions of their era.

Ezra Klein posted briefly yesterday about this story, expressing bemusement that, in light of a long distinguished career, George Mitchell is getting so much attention for digging dirt about baseball players. A commenter at Ezra’s wrote:

George Mitchell is Exhibit A in why you should never stay in your current job out of loyalty to your co-workers when you are offered a promotion.

Bill Clinton was going to make Mitchell a Supreme Court justice and instead he stayed in the Senate to shepherd throught the Clinton health care plan.

Fast forward a few years, Steven Breyer is a Supreme Court justice and George Mitchell is poking around in a laundry bin full of jock straps at Shea. And I still don't have health care.

Nicely played Mr. Breyer. D'oh, Mr. Mitchell.

(Bringing it back around to policy and law at the end. Yay me!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Long Cool Woman

What I learned about The Hollies in the last two days, while shirking my adult responsibilities:

"Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" is a staple of oldies radio, and over the years it has made an impression on me as a song with a really good sound, only partially counteracted by really stupid lyrics. Recently some friends and I have been brainstorming a list of songs of the genus "Good Sound, Stupid Lyrics," which put me in mind of LCWIABD and sent me on a quest to the library in search of a Hollies disc.

I was surprised to discover that the Hollies rate this 3-disc retrospective. I didn't know much about the band beyond the fact that they gave Graham Nash his start, but they were responsible for a number of familiar hits in the 60s: "On A Carousel," "Bus Stop," "Carrie-Anne," "Look Through Any Window," and the unforgettable period piece "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," to name just a few.

I read up on the Hollies a little bit, on Wikipedia and in the liner notes to this 3-disc box, and got caught up. They were a work-a-day pop band who had some successes but also their share of trials: personnel changes, struggles with labels and management (particularly a lazy unimaginative producer named Ron Richards), competition over songs and songwriting credits. They had a bruising encounter with the Beatles; they did a cover of "If I Needed Someone" only to have George Harrison badmouth their version in public. They tried to evolve from moptops into hippies, the related frustrations driving Graham Nash from the band and toward a California dream. In the interims between bass players, they had future notables John Paul Jones, Jack Bruce, and Klaus Voormann play on their records. Elton John played piano on "He Ain't Heavy." The liner notes are too flattering to the band, the way liner notes tend to be, but the lads come off as down to earth and realistic about their status as relatively lowly conscripts in the British Invasion. (One of the band's singles was blocked from the top of the UK charts by The Archies's "Sugar Sugar." The drummer remarks, "We needed that Number One hit more than they did. They were drawings, after all, we were real!")

"Long Cool Woman" has a somewhat complicated backstory, as befits a long cool woman. From Wikipedia:

[Allan] Clarke, devastated by the departure of his friend of more than 20 years [i.e. Nash], had been locked into the group identity for nearly all of his adult life, and now felt the urge to step out on his own. The group was beginning work on a new album, which Clarke would do with them, after which he would begin work on his own career and his own recordings, independent of the band. Ironically, the new album was to benefit from Clarke's plans for a solo career, but the group's ability to take advantage of its unexpected success was to be sorely tested. While recording the album, titled Distant Light, Clarke turned up with a song that was to be added to the record: a throwaway, co-authored by Clarke, Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, titled Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress (Eder, 1996[1]).

Recorded on a day when producer Ron Richards was absent [emphasis mine], the album gave Clarke a rare chance to show off his guitar skills. The problem was that Clarke had not intended it to be released on a Hollies album, but as a record of his own. However, a couple of members of the group did play on it and he was forced to include it on Distant Light. This, in turn, led to an open breach between Clarke and the rest of the group, once they learned that he intended to do a solo recording. Clarke was issued an ultimatum, that he either remain with The Hollies or pursue a solo career, but not both.

In a 1973 interview with Melody Maker, Clarke states (Eder, 1996[2])

They thought that when I became successful, I'd leave them anyway, so they just shortened the agony by forcing me to do one thing or the other. It was silly, really, because I wouldn't have left the group.

Long Cool Woman came out as a single after a modest slide in the early '70s. The song was a Creedence Clearwater Revival style million record selling rocker that made #2 in the States in 1972; suddenly, this became the group's new signature tune, saturating the airwaves in the United States. However, Clarke was already gone, being strangely replaced by Swedish star Mikael Rickfors, who attempted to overcome language barriers. The new Hollies yielded the minor hit The Baby; however, Rickfors could sing in English but not speak it fluently, which created problems that were never fully resolved (Biography, 2002).

Much to Clarke's disappointment The Hollies were offered their first major US tour due to the success of Long Cool Woman, a song which Clarke considered to be his. The new Hollies line-up toured the US and for the first time received a major push in that country, appearing on the major music TV shows of the day. The personnel changes meant that the band had to re-invent their style somewhat, switching instruments and lead vocals on various songs. While a very interesting period for the band, the overall cohesive nature of The Hollies sound was somewhat damaged and the tour was not a big success with audiences.


Clarke rejoined after just a couple of years away; eventually even Nash re-upped for a reunion tour and album.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Butterflies & Wheels pointed me to this Comment Is Free post by Theo Hobson. A good shot by the theist side in the spitball match with Big Atheism ™ . I don’t want to really want to dwell on the spitball match, but the post includes a useful definition of prayer:

… The believer does not pray in order to try to influence God's will. Instead, he's trying to influence his own will, to make it conform to his worldview. Prayer is essentially a matter of saying "Help me, God, to be what I should be". The believer acknowledges a conflict between what he is naturally inclined to be, and what he feels he should strive to be. …

Also, the believer reminds himself of the worldview he subscribes to. In the case of Christianity, he re-states his belief in the coming of God's kingdom, which is a sort of utopian hope that all will be well. And he acknowledges his own fallibility, the fact that he is part of the problem, in need of radical reform, dangerously prone to evil. And he acknowledges that everything is dependent on God, that he is the absolute authority.

A lot of Christians will object to a description of faith as “a sort of utopian hope.” It resonates with me, though. In the tug-of-war between faith and doubt, one makes a hopeful resolution to live as if the religious teachings are true.

Somewhere I came across a comment that two sentiments always appropriate in a prayer are Help Me and Thank You. Indeed, those may be THE two sentiments appropriate for prayer. I have a friend who is studying the theology of gratitude, and she defines it as reorientation. The point is not to make God do anything, it is to change our attitude toward the reality that we have to accept and make the best of.

Friday, November 02, 2007

"No Separation of Politics and Ethics"

This is a great manifesto of religious progressivism by Tom Perriello, Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia's Fifth District.

It is worth noting a third group that I do not consider part of the movement – pundits who say values voters are a reason for Dems to run to the middle and quote the Bible more. This argument is morally and strategically bankrupt. My argument earlier this week was for conviction politics over poll-driven politics both because the former is a better way to win and a better way to make a difference once we win. Far from endorsing centrism, the vast majority of progressive faith organizers I know are furious with Dems for not being progressive enough on poverty, health care, living wage, FISA, torture, the War, climate change, and other issues. ... The work of people in this spirit is not new. From abolition to worker's rights to civil rights, this version of the religious left has been a leader in American progressivism since our founding.

Perriello cites the role of theologians who signed a letter decrying Alberto Gonzalez's AG nomination, on anti-torture grounds, as breaking the logjam for progressives who were afraid to oppose Gonzalez due to his Latino heritage. I particularly like the fact that Perriello disconnects the Religious Left from "centrism."

Another snippet:

One woman was defending me last night by telling a couple of the critics to give me a break since I was trying to win in a religious Southern district. I sincerely appreciate the solidarity, but let me be clear that this is not a strategy for winning elections. These are my convictions. I genuinely believe that a culture of instant gratification is part of what enables a bomb-first foreign policy, torture, and a Wal-Mart economy. It is my faith that makes me more likely to oppose torture in all its forms than to get into a pragmatic debate about whether it helps or hurts our national security.
I have one reservation about Perriello's candidacy, and that reservation led me to scour TPM and Perriello's own website and Google, looking for his position on abortion. He never states that position clearly, which says something in itself. By his associations I infer that Perriello is not strongly pro-choice. He may be somewhere in the neighborhood of Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who disapproves of abortion-on-demand, but isn't a full-on woman-hating pregnancy enforcer; for instance, Casey favors the availability of the morning-after pill. But the point of Perriello's career as an activist has been to define the Religious Left broadly, as concerned with social justice issues, including a "consistent ethic of life" which presumably includes reducing unwanted pregnancies as well as opposing capital punishment.

Perriello wants to address issues of "private" behavior such as consumer culture and pop culture, which are going to be hard to advance in some quarters of the Democratic Party. I'm willing to hear him out (stay tuned for a post on sustainability and anti-globalism--coming sometime in the month of November, I promise!) but it will get some liberals' anti-religion guard up.

That said, I'm rooting like hell for Tom Perriello, because I know his district (I'm heading up there for the long Thanksgiving weekend) and I was really pissed at the GOP incumbent there, Virgil Goode, who demagogued on the election of Keith Ellison, the first-ever Muslim member of Congress, in 2006.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On West Virginia

[Unused grafs from a writing project]

“Wild, Wonderful West Virginia”, the official travel bureau slogan reads. That’s been the state slogan for as long as I can remember, 35 years or so, so it must fit. West Virginia abounds in natural beauty, but it is truly a wild, gnarled beauty. The mountains that cover the state are not as majestic as the Rockies or even the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, but more tangled and dense. The state is popular with extreme-sport enthusiasts, for the ski slopes, the turbulent whitewater, and the sheer cliffs.

The landscape is rugged, and so are the people. They’ve been hardened by a history that includes John Brown’s raid, the Hatfields and McCoys feud, the Matewan massacre, the Buffalo Creek flood, the Saco Mine collapse. Established in 1863, West Virginia is the only state that was actually founded during the Civil War, born of a rebellion within a rebellion. The state’s great folk hero is John Henry—who held a contest with a machine, and dies with his hammer in his hand.

A place can be wild and yet be far from pristine. There were once 10 million acres of virgin forest in West Virginia; now there are 263 acres. Every hill and hollow in the state is marked by humans. A lot of scenic vistas include a bridge or a railroad or an old coal pile. It’s not all postcard-perfect. West Virginia’s beauty and its violent history are not really separable. Life was always hard in West Virginia, even for the Shawnees before Europeans or Africans ever showed up. People contemplating earning a living in the area knew they were making a hard, perilous bargain. It is not easy to break that ground with a plow. It is risky and expensive to get at the timber and the coal.

Many enterprising souls over the years have come intending to make a score and then promptly leave. One of my great-grandfathers came and started a timber business, made a fortune, lost it, made and lost a couple more fortunes, and at the end of his life was bust. Three generations later, here we are. If one sticks around, he might get stuck. He might find himself hemmed in, without room to gun the engine and open up the throttle.


Among my family, the question whether to stay or to leave is constantly looming, at least in the background. My parents love West Virginia, yet they eventually felt they had to leave it, for wider horizons for themselves and their grade-school aged sons. That worked out fine—they lived the American dream and gave their children a good start in life, better than they themselves had had, objectively speaking. Yet we all wonder about the road not taken. As they close in on retirement, my parents toy with the thought of moving back home. And Mom and Dad made the cleanest break of anybody in the family. A couple of aunts and uncles left as young adults, but pretty soon moved back. Some cousins have only barely moved away, edging over the Virginia line.

The Hillbilly Highway definitely runs both ways. Every holiday weekend the roads south from Ohio and north from the Carolinas are jammed with traffic. I have escaped as far as North Carolina, but if as an undocumented immigrant I were required to “tag up,” I can make the drive back to West Virginian soil in less than four hours. I go back once or twice a year. The last time was on a rather bittersweet errand: to help my mother and my uncles close up my grandmother’s house after she moved into assisted living. The intimations of mortality cast shadows not just on me and my loved ones, but on the town where my grandmother lives. Someday I may be without an excuse to visit it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Made out of love, to help each other win

I’ve been dying to repeat this somewhere. I was watching TV over the weekend—with a notebook and pen in my hand, because I was supposed to be writing something. I’ve watched a lot of VH1-Classic the last few weeks; it was recently added to our basic cable package, so it has novelty value, and I can really soak up some rock-music documentaries, or the odd re-broadcast of “The Wall” or “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Anyway, the documentary of the day was about soul music, and they devoted an hour to Motown. We learn that Berry Gordy founded the label out of frustration that white-owned labels wouldn’t serve his songs the way he wanted them served. Spotty distribution was causing his records to lag in sales, and Smokey Robinson suggested that Gordy may as well press records himself and market/distribute them to his liking, because hell, he was losing money anyway.

Motown’s very first record was a Top 5 hit, and the label was off and running. We hear several Motown performers telling us that in its heyday, Hitsville USA was active 24 hours a day, with a recording session going on in one part of the building, rehearsals in another, Holland-Dozier-Holland polishing a song in another. Members of the Motown stable would drop by and see how they could pitch in: twist a knob, shake a tambourine, suggest a rhyme, sing an ooh-baby-baby.

Duke Fakir, one of the original Four Tops, said that the Motown sound was “made out of love, to help each other win.” And that struck me as such a lovely phrase, practically a prayer, that I wrote it down in my procrastinator’s notebook.

Two days later, I’m still thinking about it, still struck by it, but I’m also thinking what a gloss that is on the Motown phenomenon. It wasn’t an Amish barn-raising, for cryin’ out loud, and even as a non-expert I’m certain there was plenty of drama going on at Hitsville. I mean, Berry Gordy and others at Motown had at least a corner of one eye trained on the cashbox. Artists were competing over who got the best songs from Holland-Dozier-Holland. Surely somebody from the Motown family, at some time, was really there for the party, the drink and the smoke and trying to get into somebody’s pants. Diana Ross was lording her status as big star and Berry Gordy’s girlfriend, and some people resented her. The documentary left all this out.

Also, I wonder how long Duke Fakir has been rehearsing that phrase.

On the other hand, petty shit goes on at least in the background of any communal human enterprise. I do believe Motown was a remarkable communal entity, marked by a high degree of trust and cooperation. There’s so often a cynical view and an idealistic view of the same thing. The glass is half-full or it’s half-empty.

"And then the blogger was hit by a truck." I have no conclusion to offer. I still like Duke Fakir’s phrase.

Monday, September 10, 2007

US Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC-02)

Bob Etheridge, Congressman from the 2nd District of North Carolina, made Open Left's list of "Bush Dogs," Democratic reps who consistently and frustratingly vote with the White House on Iraq. I'm not in his district, but let me take a stab at writing an Etheridge profile. I welcome comments or even competing evaluations of Etheridge. Let Matt Stoller know if you have an Etheridge profile.

From this spreadsheet linked at Open Left, analyzing the Bush Dog reps and districts, I see that NC-02 has a PVI of 03 (+R). Bush carried the district in 2004 with 56% of the vote. On the list of Bush Dog districts, NC-02 is roughly in the middle of the pack by most measures. By Bush's 2004 margin, it ranks 18th out of the 37 on this list. By PVI, it is the 14th most favorable district for Democrats out of 37.

In 2004, at the same time Bush was winning NC-02 with 56%, the Democrat Etheridge was winning with 62%. In 2006 he got a boost to 67%. (Again, this places Etheridge in the middle of the pack of Bush Dogs, most of whom performed 10% or more better than John Kerry did in their district.)

Etheridge's Progressive Punch score, which evaluates his voting record. is 77.58, ranking 10th on the Bush Dog list. He doesn't stand out as an especially egregious Bush Dog.

An important fact about the Second District is that it includes part of Fort Bragg, a major Army base. It's a rural district, home of Campbell University--Etheridge's alma mater, and a conservative Southern Baptist-affiliated institution. And it's home to a lot of people with connections to Fort Bragg or Pope Air Force Base. Etheridge is an Army veteran himself and serves on the Homeland Security committee, and "supporting the troops" is pretty imperative for his political survival. He has said some things critical of White House policy, but it's hard to imagine Etheridge voting to de-fund combat operations.

Etheridge's district borders that of Mike McIntyre, another Bush Dog. Etheridge has sometimes worked in tandem with Walter Jones, a GOP representative who has taken some pretty brave stands against Bush and his party.

I've heard Etheridge speak in person on one occasion, at the Wake County party convention in early 2006. Brad Miller is my rep, Etheridge reps another part of the county, and both of them spoke at this convention, in front of a pretty activist crowd. I didn't keep notes, but my memory is that Miller said some things that got the crowd fired up, about the Orwellian character of working in George Bush's Washington. Etheridge didn't inspire; he tut-tutted about the bad news from Iraq and ballooning deficits, or something. Those two guys exemplify the divide in the Democratic caucus.

But Etheridge is folksy and likable. As a onetime farmer and member of the Agriculture Committee, he looks out for the farm lobby and agribusiness. As former NC state schools superintendent, he's strong on education. He's pretty good on the environment. He's pretty good on pocketbook issues, and he has good labor support. He has a good record on Latino issues, befitting a district with a lot of immigrants. He hedges a little on culture war issues like abortion and gun control. My basic sense of him is that he's a decent guy and a veteran politician who knows to a fare-thee-well how to survive as a Democrat in a conservative-leaning district.

I would venture to say that there's not much appetite in the state party for mounting a primary challenge against Etheridge. He climbed the ladder, from county to state then to federal office, and has plenty of allies in the state party. (Unlike John Edwards, incidentally.)

Like most Netroots people, I am dismayed by Democratic torpor on Iraq, by the existence and influence of the Bush Dog phenomenon. It's a long-term project to persuade the national party to tune out the Beltway insiders, actually listen to public opinion, and stop being neurotic about national security and the spectre of being perceived as soft. But in the shorter term, Etheridge's circumstances make him one of the Democrats least amenable to pressure on this front. At the same time, he is a good fit for his district, and throwing this bum out would probably result in a Republican bum taking his place.

Again, comments are welcome.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Notes on spirituality and health

I heard a talk today about spirituality and health, given by a clinical psychologist. The guy’s heart was in the right place, let me put it that way, and some people got into interesting discussions afterwards. So we’re groping toward a fruitful understanding of these issues and relationships.

I got a handle on one of the things that sometimes bugs me in these discussions: There’s a causation vs. correlation problem. Today’s speaker alluded to a finding that people who attend church regularly have a higher life expectancy than non-churchgoers. To me that says that (1) taking care of your health and (2) religious observance are two behaviors of a certain type of person—two manifestations of a syndrome. But it’s silly to believe that one caused the other. The implication of “Faith Heals” is believing that exposure to stained glass is like chemotherapy, or that prayers are like radioactive isotopes that bombard tumors. The last few months I have been making more of an effort at praying for people who are sick or in trouble. I would like to have some informed theological discussion of what that means—a theory or theories of how prayer is supposed to work. I think prayer is worthwhile, but I don't believe in faith healing.

I wrote once, paraphrasing another of these Spirituality & Health brown-bag lectures: “The best measure of religiosity is not fidelity but fluency. The specific content of any worldview, religious or not, is less significant than whether one can articulate it coherently.” I was reminded of that today when our psychologist quoted a study of responses to the 9/11 attacks, that showed people who attributed divine implications to the attacks (in other words, that the death and destruction were an insult to the respondent’s view of the sacred) were markedly more affected, more prone to depression and PTSD symptoms, and more likely to endorse extreme statements such as “We should hunt down Al Qaeda and kill them, their children, and their children’s children.” (The speaker was proud of coming up with this survey item, because of the Biblical echoes in the language.) The speaker’s thesis is that spirituality has health effects for good or for ill, that spiritual struggle can lead to measurable health setbacks. I have a problem with any framework that credits “spirituality” to a person who vows vengeance on his enemies. The definitions of spirituality and struggle need to be examined. Fluency is the key—a robust and mature spiritual framework that can absorb new experiences, even awful and unthinkable ones, with integrity. A healthy spirituality can stand up to doubt and struggle, the way a healthy marriage can survive “for better or for worse.”

Funny how different people interpret the words “spirituality” and “religion” differently. One woman in today’s audience, who shared that she was gay, put a negative spin on “religion” because it implied hateful authoritarian structures. In theological education I observe that people put a negative spin on “spirituality” as religion without any rigor, with all the demands and coherence drained out of it. Our speaker’s view (which I take seriously) is that you shouldn’t isolate either term, that every individual’s spirituality is informed by organized religion in American culture—e.g. that even if you’ve fled from the repressive church or mosque of your childhood, your identity is formed by it, just like a repressive father or mother.

The speaker commented that it was much easier to present to audiences of clergy, chaplains, or religious laypeople than to psychologists or journalists. The latter tend to be dismissive of religion as a legitimate subject of study. It occurs to me that in this field, HIS field, the most progress has been made in the hospice movement and palliative care. When confronted with end-of-life situations, caregivers abandon the measurement of “positive and negative health benefits” in favor of accepting the inevitable, making peace with family and community and self. Palliative care turns the whole medical mindset on its head. Acceptance, denial, and hope in the face of suffering—these are key elements in the intersection of spirituality and health.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Misquoted in his Autobiography

I just read the new Matthew Scully piece in The Atlantic debunking the myth of Michael Gerson. (That would be the dual myth that Gerson is a singularly brilliant speechwriter as well as a nice, selfless guy.) It's a guiltily pleasurable read. Whenever I am tempted to sneer at people who follow the gossip-column exploits of Britney or Lindsay, I try to remember that I enjoy reading gossip as well, only I incline toward gossip about politicians or writers. I don't think Scully has contributed much to historical understanding of the Bush Administration with this article, it's just amusing to watch one right-wing Niedermeyer shooting spitballs at another. We get a little insight into how presidential speechwriters do their work, but not much more than an episode of The West Wing gave us. It's basically a petty-office-politics soap opera.

One remarkable thing is that, in Scully's topsy-turvy view, Michael Gerson is vain and presumptuous, but George W. Bush is modest:

Above all, we shared a respect and affectionate regard for George W., the straight-up guy we’d come to know in Austin. Though our rhetoric did have a way of overdoing the drama sometimes, none of that was ever to be confused with the personal qualities of the man we served, who in the opinion of those who worked there was the actual conscience of the White House. I have never encountered a politician less impressed with himself. There was no surer way to get a laugh out of Bush than with some personally grandiose sentiment, or even an excessive use of “I.” He paused once during the rehearsal of a speech when we’d gone overboard with the global-freedom-agenda rhetoric: “What is this stuff? I sound like Spartacus or someone.” A similarly overwrought speech inspired him to rise and read it aloud with the exaggerated solemnity of Edward Everett Hale or some other 19th-century orator, to laughter all around. Modesty is a very becoming quality in people of his standing. There are CEOs and Washington bureau chiefs who carry themselves with a greater sense of their own importance than this president of the United States ever has.

Excuse me, but I don't buy it. There's a difference between having camaraderie with your hand-picked retinue, your fellow insiders, and being genuinely down to earth. With outsiders Bush has been known to go out of his way to sound like Spartacus.

This is a good time for me to air a rant I have made privately but never on the blog. Back in 2003 the Uranium From Africa story fell apart. This was a significant part of the hype for why the U.S. had to invade Iraq and remove Saddam--so significant that Bush had made the claim in the 2003 State of the Union address. (Some of the shady innuendo they left in the mouths of Cheney or Condi Rice; this bit came from the Commander Guy hissownself.) We're all aware that politicians have speechwriters, but I always assumed we held the politician accountable for the words he spoke from the podium. And here we had the President making a flatly false statement in a major nationally-televised speech, as part of the rationale for launching a not-strictly-mandatory war. This struck me as a big deal that ought to get said President into hot water up to his ears. Not in this case. A few of us dirty hippies expressed outrage that Bush Lied, but the mainstream discourse quickly turned to which administration official had "allowed" the false statement to get into the speech. (Apparently lies will creep into a speech all by themselves, the same way crabgrass creeps into your lawn if you, or the household help, are not diligent.) In this way the President of the United States benefited from being known as a mental lightweight. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Scully gives behind-the-scenes glimpses of the making of the phrase "Axis of Evil" as well as of the "Mission Accomplished" speech (he's somewhat less chagrined about these than I would like for him to be, but hey) but he won't touch Uranium From Africa with a ten-foot pole. The last part of Scully's article talks about how the President's speechwriters should be invisible; that it is proper that we should remember JFK rather than Ted Sorensen. On the contrary, I think Bush should thank his lucky stars that speechwriters aren't invisible.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

White Collar

Earlier this year, the former Democratic speaker of the N.C. House, Jim Black, got indicted for influence peddling. Jim Black is not quite a Tom Delay-level sleazeball, but he lived on the edge of campaign finance laws, and beyond the edge, for a long time, so the indictment was no surprise and richly deserved. Black's antics included having contributors write checks with the Payee line left blank. He used the resulting slush fund for such things as bribing a Republican legislator to defect to the Democrats (and thereby make Black the speaker). His sentencing hearing is coming up soon.

Here is what we read in this morning's paper:

RALEIGH - Instead of going to prison, former House Speaker Jim Black wants to give free eye exams and glasses to the poor.

In court papers filed Monday, Black submitted an 11-page business plan for an optometry clinic and said it could be running within days. He has been an optometrist more than 40 years.

Black suggested he could give exams five days a week, 2,000 exams a year, at a benefit to taxpayers of $543,882. He would also be on house arrest.

"This plan would allow Dr. Black to serve his punishment in a way that is beneficial to the community at large," wrote his attorneys, Ken Bell and Jack Knight of Charlotte. "This plan would save the taxpayers considerable money, and would provide indigent children with corrective vision services that would otherwise go

This idea seems to be going nowhere, as one would expect with a federal charge against a Democratic politician under the Bush Justice Department. And it shouldn't go anywhere. But I'm embarrassed to say, I was a little impressed by the idea when I first read it. It's not every defendant that submits a business plan to his sentencing judge!

But it puts me in mind of the Scooter Libby matter. One of the crazy-making things about it was all Scooter's allies in Washington pleading for leniency because of who Libby is. A man of stature, a family man, an ornament of polite society, a witty conversationalist. One of us! Give Jim Black this much credit: he's offering to roll up his sleeves and buy special treatment with tangible services; he's appealing to the financial burden on the taxpayer, not just the specialness of Jim Black.

The Free Scooter crowd also argues the supposed triviality of the perjury charge; "no underlying crime," don't you know. I freely admit, Dick Cheney, not Scooter Libby, is the person who most deserves to go to jail for blowing Valerie Plame's CIA cover. Some of my anger at Libby is a desire for somebody to pay for the Plame-Wilson scandal. But Libby volunteered for scapegoat duty when he eagerly and effectively served his boss's legal and political interests by lying to a grand jury and obstructing the investigation of Cheney. He perjured himself to protect the higher-ups in a strategic and clearly premeditated way. How can we not punish this? If Scooter Libby thought he was serving a greater good than mere legality, he should accept the legal consequences.

In football, a pulling guard can block for the ball carrier, but then the guard has to take the hit. This is not to say the Plame matter is simply political football, as Richard Cohen and others would have you think. This is not "the criminalization of politics." The underlying crime, the real-world consequences, were that the truth about the Niger-yellowcake story was obscured (though the story was so flimsy that even the White House had to drop it in short order); and perhaps more importantly, that the career of an actual anti-nuclear proliferation expert was torpedoed. Wing-tipped ratfuckers like Scooter Libby are way more plentiful than experienced anti-WMD cops like Valerie Plame. Pundits and politicos in the Bush Era tend to forget, at some point the goings-on in Washington mean more than fixing the blame for a PR snafu. At some point it has to do with protecting the national security of the United States.

My point in merging Jim Black and Scooter Libby is this: White collar crime is crime. It counts. There's a disturbing tendency among people in this country to feel that only street crimes and maybe drug crimes count. Even some liberals of my acquaintance, who at least are libertarian on the drug issue, argued that imprisoning Scooter Libby was a waste of resources because Libby wasn't a threat to anybody, he doesn't need to be removed from society for the sake of public safety.

The easy retort is that of course Libby is a threat; he's a significant threat to US military personnel who get sent to misbegotten wars thanks to the manipulations of the OVP. Libby's a much greater threat to the public good than some small-time thief or dealer. More abstractly, our court systems are for more than isolating "dangerous" people in a cost-effective way. ("Cost of imprisonment" arguments are insidious. Lynch mobs for jaywalkers would be cost-effective, after all.) The purpose of courts is to maintain the social contract and mete out punishments fairly and impartially.

Actually, I just this second realized that Black's lawyers would never have filed a motion like this if not for the Libby thing just last week. It's the temporal juxtaposition.

Katharine Lee Bates + Ray Charles

The Scooter Libby thing early last week (Bush’s announcement that he was commuting Libby’s jail term) angered and depressed me—it didn’t really surprise me, but nonetheless it gnawed at me, like a lot of political news stories in the past four years. Part of what was galling was the timing of it: the week of Independence Day, the week when I make an effort to reacquaint myself with patriotism. On Tuesday the Third I was indulging in some snide remarks: "Nation of laws, blessings of liberty, yeah right." Not even clever snide remarks, as you can see.

Despite that, the family and I had a nice Fourth. We were in Swansboro, NC, a quaint little coastal town on the White Oak River, which serves good seafood and puts on a nice fireworks show. Also, kicking back by the swimming pool on the Fifth, we watched Harrier jets making low, slow turns as they approached the Marine Corps’s Auxiliary Landing Field in Cape Carteret. A guy at the pool told us that the USS Iwo Jima had just put into port, returning from the Persian Gulf. Those fighter jets are loud, I wouldn’t enjoy experiencing them every day, but they are impressive, and on this occasion it was good to see and hear them.

Here is something else that improved my mood: I’m not a huge sucker for patriotic songs, but I make an exception for Ray Charles’s rendition of "America The Beautiful," which we heard on the radio. Good stuff. Then in church on Sunday we got to sing ATB. I reflected on this verse, which isn’t one I tend to remember (and which Ray Charles skips in his version):

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words in 1893, with later revisions. She was initially inspired by a trip to the summit of Pike’s Peak. I draw hope from thinking that the sentiment of her words will prove more enduring than the small-mindedness of the incumbent White House gang.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Satisfied hound

Crooked Timber's Belle Waring on Fred Thompson. Smarter and funnier than what I was trying to say.

Why are people trying to convince me that Fred Thompson is sexy? A lock for
the Republican nomination, OK—I feel that since all the other candidates have
some truly fatal flaw, and since ol’Fred has been conveniently out of office
during the late unpleasantness of the Bush II era he’ll get the nomination by
default. I even think he could make a decent candidate in the general election,
but sexy ladies man who’s going to Smoove B my vote by freaking me gently all election cycle long? I think not.

First of all, are women voters, taken as a whole, really so much like retarded kittens in our motivations? And secondly, doesn’t Fred Thompson pretty much look like a basset hound who’s just taken a really satisfying shit in your hall closet?

There's just not much there there with Fred Thompson, as the New Hampshire Republicans underwhelmed by his recent nine-minute speech will attest.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


It's not so much that I feel sympathy for Mike Nifong, it's that I feel a lot of distaste for some of the people who are crowing at his downfall: For former Duke lacrosse coach, now "professional victim" Mike Pressler. For our governor Mike Easley, who piled on to Nifong after he saw which way the wind was blowing. For KC Johnson and other bloggers who have made a cottage industry out of blog-flogging Duke and Nifong and Crystal Mangum. (Johnson proudly struck a blow for justice by ferreting out and publishing Mangum's name early on, when the mainstream media was refraining from that.) For the Duke student newspaper, which on the day Nifong was disbarred, ran the banner headline A GREAT DAY FOR NORTH CAROLINA. (Quoting the defense lawyer for one of the lacrosse players.)

Look, getting rid of an outrageously inept prosecutor wasn't a great day, it was a necessary day for North Carolina. It was like a tumor being excised, the day when healing hopefully will begin. Maybe it was a great day for high-priced defense lawyers, maybe it was a great day for carpetbagging college students, but for many of us it was somewhat somber. I don't know if it's generally understood how bad the Duke lacrosse case was for virtually everybody touched by it, in addition to the wrongly accused players. It was bad all the way around for Duke (the president, the faculty, the students). Duke students now hate President Dick Brodhead, they truly hate him, he's down there with Osama Bin Laden and venereal disease, which I think is an unfortunate and corrosive situation. Given the givens, I'm not certain any other university president would have handled it much differently. It was bad all the way around for Durham (the cops, the courts, the mayor, the city's national image). I guess it was good for the defense lawyers, and it was good for the media.

Another thing to say about the lacrosse case is how topsy-turvy it was, how uniquely bizarre. Not that prosecutorial misconduct is so rare. What's rare is that a DA would stick his neck out so far in pursuit of well-heeled white defendants on behalf of a poor black accuser. In the first days when the dogs were baying for the lacrosse team, among the friends I was talking to locally, it was clear how far Nifong was sticking his neck out (I remember one conversation with a friend, about how much differently Raleigh DA Colon Willoughby, a model of probity, would have played it), but it was hard to imagine Nifong was bluffing, that he wasn't holding the cards. I made an error, one shared by many Duke faculty and employees: I generalized about the lacrosse case. I thought of it as a symptom of broader social problems at Duke: overuse of alcohol, abusive sexual politics, jock worship taken to extremes. Like the Group of 88 faculty members, I mouthed the prophylactic phrase "innocent until proven guilty," but I was much too willing to conclude the players were guilty, not nearly skeptical enough. One of the lessons there is, do not generalize from this bizarre case. This advice is for you, my conservative counterparts, as well as for my liberal allies. Do not draw broad conclusions about the raw deal white guys get in the courts, or the way hetero guys are constantly harassed by false rape charges.

This entire mess was all Mike Nifong's fault. It feels funny to say that; I'm used to looking for sociological undercurrents to explain events. But I put this all at Nifong's feet. It makes me curious about him, hungry to understand him, even (contra the opening sentence of this post) a little sympathetic to him. One thing I think explains a good bit (I learned this from the Raleigh N&O’s excellent Rush to Judgment series about the lacrosse case) is the fact that Nifong knew the accuser's family. An uncle of the accuser had been murdered several years ago, Nifong tried the case and got a conviction, and there was a bond between the prosecutor and the family.

Nifong put his head down, plowed ahead, didn't pause to entertain doubts Sure, there was a re-election campaign and he figured the media attention would help him, but a moment of career calculation veered off into months of fatal single-mindedness. A halfway competent Machiavellian would have switched course much earlier. As the N&O's Steve Ford related in an editorial last Sunday, the state bar judge concluded that Nifong's actions were the product of "self-deception arising out of self-interest," and that might be as good an explanation as we can hope for.

More Steve Ford:

[Nifong] had entered the territory where character was put to the acid test. To have backed down would have been humiliating, or worse, could have amounted to an admission of misconduct. It would have meant defeat at the hands of defense attorneys who had engaged him in a vicious legal knife fight. His stubbornness, combativeness and pride all must have kicked in -- all-too-human flaws.

So Nifong slid down the slope of deceit in the sharing of DNA evidence -- perhaps, in his mind, not all the way to the bottom, but far enough that the defense was able to cry "cheater" and make it stick. He couldn't summon straight answers when asked in court to give assurances that all the evidence helpful to the defense had been disclosed.

Ethical guidelines exist to protect us against ourselves. Nifong thought he was justified in bending the rules because of the greater end of justice, a favorite theme of television drama. (Think Andy Sipowicz, think Jack Bauer.) Look where he ended up.

Steve Ford concludes his column by giving Mike Nifong a little credit: "With the blade poised to drop on his legal career, Nifong at least had the grace to acknowledge that he was getting what he deserved." Actually, to some observers (such as my wife) this was the final insult, for Nifong to cop a plea after all the trouble and expense he put the system through. If it was calculation, it was certainly inept, wrong-headed calculation. I wonder if maybe Nifong never understood the players' ordeal, really never got it, until he saw Reade Seligmann's tearful testimony, given right in front of Nifong's face. It was only at that moment that the blinders came off.

A lot of books are being published to capitalize on the Duke lacrosse controversy, by KC Johnson and Mike Pressler and the lacrosse players' families and others. I may be all alone in this, but the only Duke lacrosse book that would interest me would be a profile of Mike Nifong, extraordinary villain, extraordinary fool.

Friday, June 22, 2007

"the hits from coast to coast"

I’m gonna meme myself – Here is a list of pop songs from 1982, the year I turned 18, and my memories of some of them. This is freshman and sophomore year of college for me. The list is of the “most requested songs,” whatever that means—on FM radio? I know I listened to a lot of The Police, a lot of Squeeze, a lot of Duran Duran during 1982, but they don’t appear anywhere on the list. Here are some from the list that trigger something with me.

867-5309 (Jenny Jenny) - Tommy Tutone: In the dictionary next to One-Hit Wonder, there is a picture of Tommy Tutone. I actually love this song, but as far as I can tell it’s the only thing they ever did that was halfway decent, so they totally deserve one-hit wonder status. I dated a girl named Jenny in 1982, and boy, did she get tired of being serenaded with this.

We Got The Beat – GoGos: I have a visual image here: I’m standing in the front yard of the fraternity house, it’s warm and sunny, a crowd is building, it feels like the first day of fall term sophomore year, all my friends are reassembling after a summer apart. It’s a joyful scene, and this is an upbeat and carefree song to match it. The music is blaring, we’re probably about to blow another speaker or burn out another amp, but we don’t really care. 1982 was the year of the GoGos in many ways; I imagine they would agree.

I Love Rock and Roll - Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: I loved this song. Joan Jett was a revelation, a girl who rocked. Who are the guys who sing backup on the chorus, are they somebody famous? I can’t remember now, but that’s the part I used to sing along with at the top of my lungs. This song I associate with the radio and my freshman dorm room.

Rock This Town - Stray Cats: 1982 was the year I discovered MTV—a group of my older friends had a house off-campus with cable TV (!), and I’d veg out on their couch and watch for hours, making a nuisance of myself no doubt. This was a good video, although as a band the Stray Cats were rather contrived. I fancied that rockabilly was a type of music I liked, but I didn’t hear early Elvis or Buddy Holly or any of the real stuff until years later—the stuff of which the Stray Cats were a pale imitation.

Tainted Love – Soft Cell: Emblematic of all the foofy English synth bands that were around in the 80s, on MTV and on our turntables. Soft Cell was better than most, looking back on it.

Who Can It Be Now - Men at Work: I was reminded of Men at Work just the other day; their singer did a cameo on the TV show Scrubs, which is my daughter’s current favorite, and I was compelled to bore her by explaining who the guy was. They did this one album and then sank out of sight, but we played the one album a lot on my dorm hall.

Get Down On it - Kool & the Gang: Oh Jesus, this represents a number of songs on the list that were staples of dance mixes at college parties. “Whip It” and “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” are two more. I danced to these songs a thousand times at frat parties and never, ever listened to them otherwise. R&B songs, a little funky but just a little. It’s weird and rather sad how racially segregated music was in the 80s; we danced to black acts at the fraternity house, listened to white acts in our dorm rooms, and never the twain did meet. After The Big Chill came out, a bunch of Motown songs became party staples as well—again, a little funky but not too much. (Then there’s beach music, which is basically a slowed-down bleached-out version of Motown.) The emerging genre of rap music was too radical for us, even James Brown or Stax would not have gone over well.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go - The Clash: Heard this song a bazillion times—it was a popular dance number too, for the tempo changes and the romantic confusion from which we were all suffering reflected in the lyrics. I suppose this and “Rock The Casbah” were the Clash’s biggest U.S. hits, even though the band was on the downhill side and these songs don’t get within a mile of their earlier stuff.

Someday, Someway - Marshall Crenshaw: From the guy who played John Lennon in Beatlemania! Marshall Crenshaw played a concert on my college campus in ’82 or maybe ‘83. I have often lied and said that I was there, but in fact I wasn’t there. Don’t remember if it was apathy or lack of money that kept me away. I remember hearing that Crenshaw’s set was only 45 minutes; they played their then-current album and that was all the material they had. This is a hell of a good pop song—Crenshaw had a handful of songs that I really like a lot. I wish he had had a bigger, better career.

Paperlate – Genesis: I liked Genesis at this point; in about four years I would reach terminal Phil Collins overload. I remember “Paperlate” saw the band Genesis embrace its onetime fill-in drummer, now superstar frontman Collins’s hit-making formula, the EWF horns and all that,. The song was some kind of oddball release—single-only or on a benefit album or something. I had to go to some unusual lengths to get a copy, but I did.

Centerfold - J. Geils Band: In this song, a guy has a crush on a sweet virginal girl in his high school class, then years later sees her posing nekkid in Playboy. What can I say? It spoke to me. Unrequited crushes and Playboy were both big parts of my life when I was 18. This album (Freeze Frame) was good, it represented a long-awaited commercial breakthrough for the J. Geils Band, and they broke up almost immediately afterwards. Funny how often that happens with bands.

I Can't Go For That (No Can Do) - Hall and Oates: God help me, I liked Hall and Oates at the time. I was funk-impaired.

Jack and Diane - John Cougar (Melloncamp): This song outraged me. This guy John Cougar, who I’d never heard of, was blatantly ripping off Bruce Springsteen, a favorite of mine but who at this point, before Born in the USA came out in ’84, was practically a national secret.

The Message - Grandmaster Flash: Since this was a rap song I barely knew it in ‘82, I had to go abroad to hear it. In the summer of ’84 this song was playing in a nightclub in Cambridge, England on a night when I had to confront this guy, an English soldier, who was making unwelcome advances on a girl, a fellow American exchange student in my program. An upsetting night.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Just a quickie post, of the genus "things I read online that I might want to refer to later."

I saw somewhere that Antioch College in Ohio had suspended operations, but took little notice. I didn't know much about the school. Here Michael Goldfarb, former NPR correspondent and an Antioch graduate, wrote a NYT op-ed piece reflecting on the college's fate. Before the piece disappears into the Gray Digital Lady's archives, I wanted to preserve part of it.

THIS is an obituary for a great American institution whose death was announced this week. After 155 years, Antioch College is closing.

Established in 1852 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, by the kind of free-thinking Christian group found only in the United States, Antioch College was egalitarian in the best tradition of American liberalism. The college’s motto, not in Latin or Greek but plain English, was coined by Horace Mann, its first president: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

For most of its history the institution lived up to that calling. .. Yet it was in the high tide of liberal activism that the college lost its way. I know this firsthand, because I entered Antioch in the fall of 1968, just when the tide was nearing its peak...

So much of the history of 1968 reflects an America in crisis, but if you were young and idealistic it was a time of unparalleled excitement. The 2,000 students at Antioch, living in a picture-pretty American village, provided a laboratory for various social experiments of the time.

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the college increased African-American enrollment to 25 percent in 1968, from virtually nil in previous years. The new students were recruited from the inner city. At around the same time, Antioch created coeducational residence halls, with no adult supervision. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll became the rule, as you might imagine, and there was enormous peer pressure to be involved in all of them. No member of the faculty or administration, and certainly none of the students, could guess what these sudden changes would mean. They were simply embraced in the spirit of the time.

I moved into this sociological petri dish from a well-to-do suburb. Within my first week I twice had guns drawn on me, once in fun and once in a state of drunken for real by a couple of ex-cons whom one of my classmates, in the interest of breaking down class barriers, had invited to live with her.


Each semester, the college seemed to create a new program. “We need to take education to the people” became a mantra, and so satellite campuses began to sprout around the country. Something called Antioch University was created, and every faculty member whose marriage was going bad or who simply couldn’t hack living in a village of 3,000 people and longed for the city came up with a proposal to start a new campus.

“It was liberalism gone mad,” a former professor, Hannah Goldberg, once told me, and she was right. The college seemed to forget the pragmatism that had been a key to its ethos, and tried blindly to extend its mission beyond education to social reform. But there were too many new programs and too little cash reserve to deal with the inevitable growing pains.

For the increasingly vocal radical members of the community, change wasn’t going far enough or fast enough. They wanted revolution, but out there in the middle of the cornfields the only “bourgeois” thing to fight was Antioch College itself. The let’s-try-anything, free-thinking society of 1968 evolved into a catastrophic blend of legitimate paranoia (Nixon did keep enemies lists, and the F.B.I. did infiltrate campuses) and postadolescent melodrama. In 1973, a strike trashed the campus and effectively destroyed Antioch’s spirit of community. The next year, student enrollment was down by half.

That's interesting about the Rockefeller Foundation.

I reflect on my own college, a liberal-arts school but not nearly as progressive as Antioch, which also went through some wrenching changes in the late 60s and early 70s, but always incrementally and at "deliberate speed," always, it appears to me, in response to external pressure. There was never a moment of exhilaration when the lid came off, like Antioch '68. And by the time I arrived in Reagan's first term, the pendulum was swinging a bit the other way: reforms in the Greek system had been tacitly undone, for instance. But the center held, and my college is healthy and thriving today.

Most of the talented faculty members began to leave for other institutions, and the few who were dedicated to rebuilding the Yellow Springs campus found themselves increasingly isolated.

I have a friend in Raleigh who attended Ole Miss in the early 60s, when James Meredith enrolled over the fierce opposition of the university hierarchy and state government. In the aftermath of the school's official hostility to integration, lot of Ole Miss's faculty left, all the decent faculty in my friend's view, and my friend left as well, for Chapel Hill, saying goodbye to his home state forever. Interesting that there was a similar faculty exodus after Antioch went whole-hog for hippie culture.

Antioch College became a rump where the most illiberal trends in education became entrenched. Since it is always easier to impose a conformist ethos on a small group than a large one, as the student body dwindled, free expression and freedom of thought were crushed under the weight of ultraliberal orthodoxy. By the 1990s the breadth of challenging ideas a student might encounter at Antioch had narrowed, and the college became a place not for education, but for indoctrination. Everyone was on the same page, a little to the left of The Nation in worldview.

Much of this conformist thinking focused on gender politics, and it culminated in the notorious sexual offense prevention policy. Enacted in 1993, the policy dictated that a person needed express permission for each stage in seduction. (“May I touch your breast?” “May I remove your bra?” And so on.) In two decades students went from being practitioners of free love to prisoners of gender. Antioch became like one of those Essene communities in the Judean desert in the first century after Christ that, convinced of their own purity, died out while waiting for a golden age that never came.

I grieve for the place with all the sadness, anger and self-reproach you feel when a loved one dies unnecessarily. I grieve for Antioch the way I grieve for the hope of 1968 washed away in a tide of self-inflated rhetoric, self-righteousness and self-indulgence.

The ideals of social justice and economic fairness we embraced then are still right and deeply American. The discipline to turn those ideals into realities was what Antioch, its community and the generation it led was lacking. I fear it still is.

I hear it said that liberal Democrats jumped the tracks in 1968, and I nod, without quite grasping what that means. This case study helps my understanding quite a bit.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Lip

It's been a lousy year for me and reading books, so I've got to claim this one, even though it's a cheapie: Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher as told to Ed Linn. It's a 1975 publication, apparently out of print. I came across it at a used book store in Chapel Hill.

I had heard this was one of the better baseball memoirs, and I would agree. Durocher was a really vivid character, and he was present for a huge swath of baseball history. His early life fits what to my mind is the dominant mold of the early days of major league baseball: he was an "ethnic" kid from New England. Durocher's family spoke French at home in Springfield, MA, and an early mentor of Leo's was Rabbit Maranville, a fellow French-American from Springfield. But his career reaches forward into the modern era: the 40s-50s heyday of baseball in New York City (definitely the heart of the sport in the literary imagination), network television and West Coast expansion. Leo was on the spot for many of the big episodes of baseball history: Murderers' Row, the Gas House Gang, Jackie Robinson's debut, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, the Miracle Mets. Early on in the book Leo is a wiseass rookie getting cussed out by Babe Ruth. By the end he's the sexagenarian manager of the Astros getting cussed out by Cesar Cedeno.

The narrative voice is so lively and there are so many good anecdotes in the book, it carried me along for quite awhile before I stopped to wonder whether Durocher was sanitizing his own story at all. In the first chapter Leo explains that, unaccountably, despite his humble son-of-a-railroad-man background, he got a taste as a teenager for fashion and expensive tailor-made clothes. From that I guess we're supposed to infer a whole lot about Durocher's life, the whole high-living and envelope-pushing strain: the pool sharking, the high-stakes gambling, his close friendship with George Raft, dating and marrying Hollywood actresses. There's got to be a lot that was left out of the story. What broke the spell as I was reading was Durocher's long, impassioned defense of Frank Sinatra's reputation. (Sinatra was a friend who offered to invest in the Los Angeles Angels if it would help Durocher land the Angels' manager's job. I suspect there is more to the relationship than that.) Then later Durocher resorts to some fairly crude score-settling with umpires and some of the players from late in his managerial career with the Cubs and Astros. He has some harsh words about Ernie Banks, which are striking since Banks was Mr. Cub, and which was exactly Leo's problem: Banks was such a favorite of the Cubs' owner, fans, and beat reporters, that it was hard for Leo to bench him even if he deserved it.

It would be interesting to check out a good Durocher bio, as opposed to autobio, and try to reconcile the rakishly charming hero of Nice Guys Finish Last with the ruthless SOB that others have portrayed Durocher as being. In his book on managers Bill James relates how the sportswriter Dick Young characterized Durocher:

You and Durocher are on a raft. A wave comes and knocks him into the ocean. You dive in and save his life. A shark comes and takes your leg. Next day, you and Leo start out even.

Of course, Dick Young was one of the meanest sons of bitches who ever lived himself, so factor that in.

As a footnote, the title of the book is the famous saying of Durocher's that he didn't exactly say. It seems he was actually discussing at some length Mel Ott and the New York Giants, a bunch of nice guys who didn't win as many games as Leo thought they ought to, and a sportswriter punched the quote up. And Durocher embraced the inaccuracy; he appreciated good PR as much as anyone. The pedigree of "Nice guys finish last" made it into this Luke Menand review in the New Yorker, of the Yale Book of Quotations:

“For lack of a better word” spoils a nice quotation—the speech is about calling a spade a spade, so there is no better word—and “Play it again, Sam” is somehow more affecting than “Play it, Sam.” But not all emendations are improvements. What Leo Durocher actually said (referring to the New York Giants baseball team) was “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The sportswriters who heard him telescoped (the technical term is “piped”) the quote because it made a neater headline. They could have done a better job of piping. “Nice guys finish seventh” is a lot cleverer (and also marginally more plausible) than the non-utterance that gave immortality to Leo Durocher. But Leo Durocher doesn’t own that quotation; the quotation owns Leo Durocher, the way a parasite sometimes takes over the host organism. Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. “Nice guys finish last” profits by its association with a man whose nickname was the Lip, even if the Lip never said it…

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

“It’s Not Just About Knocking Bitches Down”

Prompted by my sister-in-law, a bunch of us packed up the kids Saturday night and headed over to historic Dorton Arena to enjoy the spectacle that is the Carolina Rollergirls. It made for a fun evening, and I was struck by the aesthetics and ethos of the event—struck well enough to want to sound off about it.

The first thing to say is that Roller Derby Night is a festival of over-the-top fun with gender roles. There’s a distinct Riot Grrl vibe, and some of the skaters affect a self-conscious trashy-slutty image. I ain’t no lady, all of these athletes would affirm, I’m certain. This attitude is perhaps most obvious with the punning team names (e.g. the Trauma Queens, the Debutante Brawlers) and the alter-identities that the players adopt (e.g. Tsunami Sue, Sweet and Lowdown, Trudy Struction, and omigod, I just came across the best roller derby alias ever: Harlot O’Scara). There are cheerleaders of a sort who, far from being eye candy, tend to be scruffy guys who run around like maniacs holding hand-lettered poster board signs. One of the team mascots, for the Tai-Chi-Tahs, was a man who seemed to be dressed as a James Bond villain, petting a stuffed cheetah held in his lap.

I’m far from the first person to comment on the roller derby revival. It’s a pretty big phenomenon. The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association boasts 30-some member leagues around the country. There’s a book and a TV show, evidently. Additionally, roller derby was the subject of some controversy in the feminist blogosphere a year or so ago. A good discussion took place at I Blame the Patriarchy, where Twisty made an anti-derby post (“proto-porn,” “kindergarten burlesque”) but then got some pushback from pro-derby commenters, including some women who play the sport.

I am loath to get embroiled in an argument about sex-positive feminism; I get exhausted just thinking about it. (The argument, not the sex-positivity.) Suffice it to say I come down much closer to the perspective of Robust McManlypants (fellow Carolina Rollergirls fan) and The Bellman (who relates what the Patriarchy wishes roller derby was like).

Maybe I haven’t been to enough matches to have a complete picture, but superficially, the skaters were really not very titillating. In helmets, knee pads, and elbow pads, they were outfitted for action at least as much as for display. (Some of them wore leggings. There may have been fishnets. Did they wear miniskirts? Maybe--I’m honestly not sure, but if so they were worn over their spandex workout shorts.) The most obvious thing to say about the skaters is that they were hard-working athletes, and they exemplified the fact that athletes come in all shapes, sizes, and numbers of visible tattoos. They projected toughness and confidence and determination, all attractive traits, but not ones that reinforce the patriarchy, seems to me.

Contra Twisty, I saw no fake fights a la WWF wrestling. There were some fouls called, and some hits that, even if they were legal, were a little more enthusiastic than was strictly necessary. I never got a firm grasp on the rules, so the climax (the Tai-Chi-Tahs came from way behind to snatch victory from the Debutante Brawlers) felt like a somewhat arbitrary result dictated by the officials. But that’s down to my ignorance. The match was a legitimate competition.

I will say, the two women who were hawking popcorn in the stands were eye-catching in their short skirts, plunging necklines, and loads of makeup. But these women were not Barbie dolls; while pretty, they were closer to Lane Bryant models. And given the anti-sexy profile cut by the popcorn vendors at a “mainstream” spectator sports venue, I read these gals as another variation on having fun playing dress-up. Opinions may vary.

Being a straight white guy, there’s nothing much good that can be said for me, but one of my trump cards is that I am the father of daughters, hence a prospective future feminist-by-proxy, or something. Bottom line, I was happy to bring my girls to the roller derby. It was to a remarkable degree a family affair, albeit one like a Bugs Bunny cartoon that the kids could enjoy on one level, and the adults could enjoy on a less innocent level. The kids supplied our rooting interests: one of the skaters is my oldest daughter’s hair stylist; another is the mother of a classmate of my middle daughter (who actually went and got skaters’ autographs afterwards).

The case of the popcorn vendors brings me to the other point I wanted to make. To an ESPN-watching guy like me, roller derby is an ongoing ironic commentary on big-time sports. I found it thoroughly refreshing. I went to two games at Raleigh’s RBC Center last winter, a NC State men’s basketball game and an NHL hockey game, and believe me, nothing happens at RBC that is the least bit spontaneous or un-slick. By contrast, I was charmed by the Andy Hardy, “hey gang let’s put on a sports event!” character of the Rollergirls. All the challenges of mounting an event were met in impromptu ways (albeit often clever and computer-savvy ways). The tickets you buy (generated by seem DIY. The uniforms are homemade, the play-by-play announcers are voluble and endearingly silly, the “scoreboard” is a PowerPoint-type setup projected onto a plain white panel on one side of the rink. The halftime contest was a gurney race around the derby track. In place of the big Zamboni machine that resurfaces the ice at a hockey game, the Rollergirls employ a dude pushing a dustmop to clean the track.

Carolina Rollergirls does have corporate sponsors, barely: they include some local bars and restaurants, a fair trade coffee distributor, a tattoo parlor. Anti-derby blogger Vicky Vengeance wondered whether someone is profiting from the exploitation of the rollergirls; personally, I can’t believe anyone really makes money on the deal. The sponsor list mostly represents a convergence of the hipster alt-community in Raleigh. Players, coaches, referees, and everyone else volunteer their time.

Incidentally, Dorton Arena itself is a kick to visit, a piece of futuristic kitsch like something out of “The Jetsons.” Someone once described it as “industrial origami.” The Carolina Cougars of the gloriously tacky, long-defunct American Basketball Association played there in the 70s. It sits on the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, and its most active function nowadays is to host 4-H exhibitions and livestock shows and the like. Different areas of the grandstand are labeled Poultry Science, Integrated Pest Management, etc. A nice touch for roller derby, in my opinion.

I certainly don’t know much about the history of roller derby; I prefer to believe there isn’t much history to it. I was reminded of the phenomenon of adult kickball leagues; it just seems like a bunch of friends who took roller skating, an aimless and unprofitable pastime from childhood, and decided to have fun with it, dammit, maturity and respectability be hanged. The Rollergirls crowd felt quite different than being at an RBC Center event, which is a little like a frat-house mixer--well-scrubbed, pro-corporate, pro-establishment and, yes, patriarchal. The roller derby crowd is more like a coming-out party for the kids in school who hated pep rallies, who may have liked games but hated jocks. The game is the thing, and all the surrounding trappings of the game are there to be laughed at and winked at.