Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Check It Out

My daughter turned me on to a blog I didn't know about today: Manifesto Joe's Texas Blues. Only a few entries convinced me that I should at the very least list him under "Politics" blogs I've pointed to here in Powderfinger. Apparent this patriot also lived in Oklahoma for a time, so he knows as few do, what it's like to live in the heart of the red beast. But he joins a long and lengthening list of blogs I wish I had the time to be reading every day. As it is I can dip and swoop over this ocean of good stuff like a pelican, coming up from the dive with a tasty morsel. A Truth Tell: Even the ones I've labeled "I Never Miss . . . ," I sometimes miss.

And then there's this magnificent site. My sister told me about this. This is what computers are really for. What the Internet can do. If we listened to the better angels of our nature, the Net could be fashioned into the greatest teaching tool ever invented. Think of what could be done if only have the energy spent on standing up junk and porn, were spent instead on constructing apps to help us learn. So much for the hopelessly idealistic aside. If you know about Google Earth, this is akin. It's Microsoft Universe, although that's not what it's called. I've just begun to explore it, and to so so thoroughly would take several days, I think. But I've seen enough of this place to know that it is one of the classic internet sites that's going to show up on everybody's list of Best Sites. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Mind Boggles

I've talked about irreverent, funny Bill Maher before. I discover in my little pile of web references this gem from his continuing "New Rule" series: "Smart President [not equal to] Smart Country." Funny how people seem to be landing on one of my recurrent themes.  He actually said during a TV interview that he wouldn't put anything past this stupid country. Well, the outrage was immediate! And what do you think the message was. This is the greatest country on earth and if you don't like it, go live somewhere else. Why, what else would you expect?

Just a random sampling from Maher's highly entertaining piece of the same kind of depressing factoids I've put out here occasionally:

  • Polls show that a majority of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, or explain what the Bill of Rights is. 
  • 24% could not name the country America fought in the Revolutionary War. 
  • More than two-thirds of Americans don't know what's in Roe v. Wade. 
  • Two-thirds don't know what the Food and Drug Administration does.
  • Nearly half of Americans don't know that states have two senators and more than half can't name their congressman. 
  • Gallup poll says 18% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. (I know, I didn't believe it either. But check this out. And read more to become more appalled than you already are.)
  • A third of Republicans believe Obama is not a citizen, and a third of Democrats believe that George Bush had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks---which is an absurd sentence because it contains the words "Bush" and "knowledge."
  • The average voter thinks foreign aid consumes 24% of our federal budget. It's actually less than 1%. 
  • Seven in ten think Napolitano is a kind of three-flavored ice cream. (Well, okay, that Maher's statement, but in the context of relating that most Americans don't know who's in the cabinet.)
  • Only about half of Americans are aware that Judaism is an older religion than Christianity That's right, half of America looks at books called the Old Testament and the New Testament and cannot figure out which one came first. 

I can't go on. And these are the people we're entrusting to guide us on matters such as healthcare reform? The mind boggles.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Endless Patterns

Here's part of the cheery beginning of James Kuntsler's blog entry today.

Whatever else appears to be going on in the upper stories and verdigris-tinged turrets of capital finance -- currency rackets, gold switcheroos, interest rate arbitrage games, concealment of losses under rugs and behind curtains, Chinese fire drills performed by Spanish prisoners, executive three-card-monte set-ups, boardroom work-arounds, accounting quicksteps, Peter-to-Paul-shuffles, check kitings, pigeon drops, Ponzi schemes, hugger-muggers, bezels, shucks, jives, and enough monkeyshines to make Lord Greystroke cry for mercy -- apart, in other words, from business-as-usual, such as it is these days, on Wall Street, there is a rising collective sense of anxious expectation that things are about to shake loose in the sad-ass shell of what remains of our economy.  And the most perplexing part is that there hardly seems any safe place to preserve one's savings.

Really gives you a warm fuzzy, no? Well, nobody reads Jim Kuntsler to feel good. (BTW, what I wouldn't give to have his talent for pouring out wonderful metaphors. Half the fun of Kuntsler is the gonzo writing ability he's got.) The upshot of the piece today is he doesn't trust experts, especially economists with all their computer models, reams of data and numbers--doesn't take a genius to distrust those people--to know what's going to happen. And he says he's not going to make any prognostications of his own, even if we're headed for awful inflation or awful deflation--although it will certainly be one or the other--having been off on the timing many times before. Instead, he's going to hold off any kind of prediction and just finish writing his novel. Good for you, Jim.

One of the respondents to the Kuntsler post, one "Walt," put it best: 

Reality is simply too complex to confidently predict the future, especially for economists whose existing viewpoints are the predicate of prophecy. We believe patterns we discern everywhere. They are endless.
Yes, oil is at or past peak. Yes, global temperatures are rising. Yes, our economy is a casino where the odds favor the house. That house is corrupt.
Still, we don't know confidently because the kaleidoscope is three-dimensional. We think we see something only to be disappointed. But the signs are still ominous. We know something is going to happen and it's likely to be bad. How bad? We don't know.

This is exactly what I think. If there's one thing that really gets me going, it's being confronted by unapologetic certitude in the face of mind-numbing complexity. I don't trust simple answers, ever. Because, except in Fantasyland, there are no simple problems.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama: Pentagon Patsy

You see what's going with this Afghanistan thing, don't you? The president is being maneuvered by the Pentagon into an inescapable corner. This piece from "Tom Dispatch" is worth your time. It spells out in wonderful detail how the military is working to force Obama's hand with the war. And in the process setting up him up to take the blame for failure no matter what he does on the question of beefing up the number of US troops there.

The big news on the Afghanistan front lately is that the new wonder boy there, General Stan McChrystal--essentially a mouthpiece for his boss David Patreaus, the true golden boy of counter-insurgency, who, let it be remembered was virtually put in charge of US military policy in the Middle East by George W. Bush-- has prepared his assessment of the situation in that wretched country. Basically what he says is that the war will be lost if he doesn't get more troops. And even then, there ain't no guarantees. The war could still be lost. This, recall, is after about $220 billion and 8 years. Eight years! Over a thousand US lives lost, thousands more maimed. And the war is a disaster after all this? And what's required is God knows how many more troops? Oh, you don't think the rumored 40,000 is all that's going to be required, do you? Come now. We've been here before. The military, you may have noticed, has one prescription for everything: more, more, more. More troops, more billions, more trust-us-we-know-what-we're-doing.

For its part, the administration is beginning to have second thoughts about this stinking mess in Afghanistan, in light of the rising death toll among US troops,  and especially since the so-called election there, which was seriously sullied by widespread corruption that reinstalled the current Afghanistan president, Hamid Karzai, a prince of corruption himself. Not only that, but support for the war in the US is waning and, more importantly, among the Democrats in Congress.

All good, of course--not the casualties, but the waning support. But I'll be surprised if Obama doesn't go along with what's being proposed by the generals. He looks less like a fool if he does, given all the previous rhetoric about how Afghanistan is "the necessary war." And let's not forget the relentless pressure from the Pentagon. What we've got is a full court press from there. And these guys want permission to escalate yesterday. According to the Washington Post,  "Obama's deliberative pace -- he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal's report so far -- is a source of growing consternation within the military. 'Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let's have a discussion,' one Pentagon official said. 'Will you read it and tell us what you think?' Within the military, this official said, 'there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration.'"

You know what? To hell with the whole lot of these generals. They're not going to be blamed for anything. No matter what Obama does, he gets blamed for the coming  failure in Afghanistan. And we will fail there. It's only our overweening hubris and ignorance that leads anybody to think that the US is going to succeed in subduing a country that's never been subdued by anybody, starting with Alexander the Great.

Update I: Another one worth your time. Bruce Jackson on the "McChrystal Infomercial"--the "60 Minutes" piece that ran last Sunday. He says exactly what I thought at the time. I told my wife while we were watching that it was a "kiss ass" performance from beginning to end.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dead Fed

Does Big Creek in Clay County, Kentucky, sound like a place where you would like to run out of gas . . . in the middle of the night . . . with anything but a hill billy accent? Well, let me answer that. No.

Although he didn't run out of gas, as far as we know, some poor bastard named Bill Sparkman unfortunately found himself near Big Creek--it's not clear exactly where--about two weeks ago now, and was murdered. His body was found deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Naked, hung from a tree, hands and feet bound with duct tape. His ID as a part-time federal census-taker was duct-taped to the side of his face, and his killer had scrawled "FED" with a felt-tipped pen across his chest. He was 51 years old. (See story here.)

At this point there are few answers about Mr. Sparkman's death, and everybody over there in Kentucky seems pretty close-lipped about this. It's said that Clay county has a number of drug traffickers and meth labs, but there's nothing to indicate these people had anything to do with poor Sparkman's demise.

Here's what I think. I think he was murdered because he was working for the federal government, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time in Deliverance country. He's a casualty of the right-wing madness that has branded the government of our country as the enemy of everything truly American.

I'll tell you what's truly American about this: mindless, vicious murder of a supposed enemy. We really ought to be proud of ourselves.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Munch, Munch, Munch

Here's some cheery news for all of you who expect to be around in 2050. The world is going to need 70 percent, that's 70 percent, more food than what's being produced right now. And the last time I checked, there are millions of people on the globe who are starving right now. The population of the globe in 2050 will be 9.1 billion people, up from its current 6.9 billion. But take heart, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization is "cautiously optimistic" that the world will be able to produce enough food to feed everybody by then. Some of the other projections are just downright terrifying: like 70 percent of the world's population in 2050, that's 40 years from now, will live in cities. Given some of the world's well-known hell holes--Lagos, Nigeria, below, anyone? Cairo? Mexico City?--today, can you imagine what kind of truly nightmarish cities will be around then?

I'm not going to get involved in any arm-wrestle about whether the globe will support that many people, resisting the impulse to differ strongly with those who don't see any virtue (indeed, see sin) in birth control. I merely indicate that most of the increase in population is going to be in sub-Saharan Africa . . . and you know how well we're doing taking care of their nutritional needs today. And then there's the additional land we're going to eat up so we can grow more crops. And how many habitats for the other species on the planet are we also going to eat up? I'm not sanguine humans are going to come out of this looking good.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can America Be Salvaged?

The title is the stark question posed by this recent article on The Smirking Chimp. And the short answer is nope. I cannot say I disagree. The only question for me as a historian is to formulate some sort of hypothesis as to exactly when the US moved from being salvageable to where it irrevocably sits now. I'm thinking Obama's predecessor, if not the one who brought us to that point, surely sealed the fate of this country. The writer of this piece, David Michael Green, a regular contributor to the blog, ticks off the crux of it in several weary sighs of "I really don't know what to say anymore about a country in which . . .  "

  • proposing a new and better version of corporate-plunder masquerading as national healthcare gets you burned in effigy for being a socialist stooge by gun-toting angry mobs.
  • the same people who hate you for being a socialist simultaneously hate you for being a fascist.
  • angry mobs of supposed anti-socialist demonstrators scream at their congressional representatives to "keep your government hands off my Medicare".
  • claims that the government is going to start killing off seniors are taken seriously by tens of millions of people.
  • people are all worked up about government czars, but sat silently while the Bush administration destroyed the Bill of Rights and used a thousand signing statements to write Congress out of the Constitution.
  • deficits have all of a sudden become the source of enormous anger among people who said nothing about them previously, as the tax cuts for the wealthy, off-budget wars based on lies, and unfunded prescription drug Big Pharma giveaway transmogrified the biggest surplus in American history into the biggest deficit ever.
  • politicians can rant incessantly about other peoples' sexual morality, get caught screwing prostitutes, and then still be reelected to the highest ranks of government by trashing the president.
Now I put it to you: do you know what to say about this? Think about last November, not even a year ago. All that promise, all that hope for the future of our country. Who could have possibly predicted the utter viciousness of the opposition to a guy who really, really wanted to fix some of the terrible problems that had been ignored for years and years? Who could have imagined that people would wear pistols to public gatherings, that they would virtually froth at the mouth at the thought of our awful, inequitable, inefficient, and horrendously expensive healthcare system being changed? Who in their right mind would have thought that the Republican party to a man would oppose everything the Democratic White House proposed. Everything. What in the world is wrong with us?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Moron Territory

The Mystery Man =====>>>

Are you ready for this? Three-quarters of high school seniors in the great state of Oklahoma, that bastion of progressive thought, that cradle of constitutional expertise, cannot name the first president of the United States. Wait. There's more. And I quote:

A thousand students were given 10 questions drawn from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services item bank. Candidates for U.S. citizenship must answer six questions correctly in order to become citizens.

About 92 percent of the people who take the citizenship test pass on their first try, according to immigration service data. However, Oklahoma students did not fare as well. Only about 3 percent of the students surveyed would have passed the citizenship test. . .'

This survey was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (a conservative think tank) in honor of Constitution Day on Thursday--I didn't know about such a day. Did you?

So what do you suppose this worthy council will do about this evidence of gross ignorance right here in the great state? They will not do squat. They will not decry this ignorance. What they will do lick their collective chops about the prospect of another herd of blockheads soon to join the ranks of their parents, siblings, and other adult relatives and friends whenever the times require a mob of screaming, clueless morons to push the right-wing agenda de jour. Like condemning health care reform, or what's sure to become a new cause for the Right: more troops into the Afghanistan hell hole.

Don't think too long about the implications of 75 percent of high school graduates not knowing about George Washington. It will make you crazy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two Poems

I spent several hours putting these two poems together, so I'll share them with you rather than launch into another of my laments for what this country has become. There will be time enough for that because I'm never going to run out of lamentable subjects concerning this country. But poetry . . . well, you cannot get poetry every day. Enjoy.

Crepe Myrtle

So puffy in pink just weeks ago,
you throw yourself
to the winds.
An aura of ice
wraps the dusk about you,
the rustle of remnants
a final prayer
at your feet.

Spider Web

Invisible in bright sun,
her web quivers into sight
in dark shadow, washed
in pale street light.
An eighth wonder, this intricate
fragility docked to brick
and wood like a shrimper
in from the grey Gulf,
bobbing in breezy repose,
nets bunched, catch bundled
and stowed below.

How nimble this tiny weaver,
schooled by mute impulse,
spinning complex equations
of proportion, balance, and cunning craft
out of thin air.
Strands so slight,
tenuous and spare,
casual masterpiece,
hanging by threads,
barely there . . . beautiful.

And temporary as tomorrow.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Want to Just Live My Life

I was talking to a lady the other day who grew up in Spain. She's now married to an American Air Force pilot, and she's going to graduate school to get a doctorate in aerospace engineering. I have no idea what that is and why it's different from aeronautics, but there it is. It's a far different world in colleges now than in days of yore, when there were basically about fifteen or so main courses of study. Anyway, this young woman--I cannot remember her name, but I do remember it was not a simple-to-remember one, was very interesting to talk to.

We got to talking about what's different in America than Spain. She begins by saying, "Well, it's socialism." (Good thing others didn't hear her or they'd be jumping out of the pool to avoid contamination.) What she meant, as further discussion revealed, was that Spain is like the rest of Europe. Basic human needs like health care, lengthy maternity leave, unemployment insurance, sick leave, pension are provided "free" to the citizenry, who must pay stiffer and more taxes than here. Higher education costs are also heavily subsidized by the government.

Of course she didn't like paying taxes. Who does? But here's what she said: she doesn't understand our system at all. Why should you be paying now for stuff that might happen (health insurance) or that is 40 years away (retirement)? And why should not everybody be taken care of? "I just want to live my life without having to worry about all that. I just want to live my life."

Indeed, wouldn't we all be able to do this in relative peace and security if we had a system like Spain, or Denmark, or France, or . . . ? Well, you get the picture.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

This Guy Needs . . . Help!

My brother sent me this piece in email. I'm sorry I can't point you to it in its entirety--I looked for it--so I have to stick it in here. It apparently was in the ESPN magazine. The writer is a former pro basketball player named Paul Shirley. Now, I don't know squat about pro basketball, but I do know something about music. And in my considered judgment, this guy is full of crap.

If you like the Beatles, you should read this. If you enjoy reading fractured processes of logic, you should read this. If, like this writer, you're inclined to consider everything that happened before you were born to be of lesser quality, read this and be fortified.

It is a commonly held belief that the polite soul discusses neither politics nor religion with unfamiliar dinner companions. We should probably consider adding music to the list of topics considered out of bounds. I was reminded of music's polarizing nature when I was host to a late-summer barbecue. It was a small gathering that would later turn raucous enough to draw the interest of my 85-year-old next door neighbor, who appeared in her nightgown to request that we turn down the music so her husband could get some rest in preparation for his vitally important 9 a.m. tee time. But before intrusions by octogenarians, the scene was more tranquil. Until we started talking music. 

The Beatles
Yesterday: The Beatles were very important in 1966, but many people they influenced have made better music since then.
A friend of mine had brought along three girls, two of whom I knew, and one of whom I didn't care to know, based on her exorbitant BMI and cigarette-parched voice. One of the girls with whom I'd previously been acquainted had attended the same Kansas City music festival I'd been to the day before. We talked about how impressive Weezer had been and agreed Blink-182 had been better than we'd expected.
Then she asked me if I'd heard of a band called Dirty Sweet. I replied that I'd seen them at Lollapalooza and that I'd even written about them. (In this space.) She asked if I liked them. I said yes, quite a lot. But, I said, my enthusiasm was dampened by my doubts about the band's authenticity. She asked me to explain. I told her that I was bothered by their attempts to affect a Southern rock vibe ... because the band is from San Diego. She was put off. Why did that matter, she wondered. I asked if she'd ever been to San Diego. She hadn't. I launched into an explanation of why I thought Dirty Sweet's schtick doesn't really match with their hometown, maintaining all the while that I liked the band anyway.
The girl was not happy. She couldn't understand my disconnect, which means either that I didn't do a good job of explaining it or that she's an idiot. Ten minutes later, another argument broke out -- this time about the Von Bondies. Ten minutes after that, BMI collected all the girls' purses, someone called a cab, and all three exited the premises. But not before telling my friend that they couldn't believe he hung out with jerks like me.
Admittedly, my dial has a setting labeled "Caustic." I can be intolerable in an argument. I contend, though, that if we're starting a fire, someone has to provide the spark and someone has to gather the wood. I always volunteer to bring the kerosene.  

Today is no different.
The release of a remastered version of The Beatles' catalog, coupled with an entry by the Fab Four into the "Rock Band" franchise, has people talking about the world's favorite band.
If you're among the 90 percent of humanity that loves The Beatles unconditionally, the next 2,000 words are going to anger you. I understand that, and I realize that I'm probably not going to convince you to take my side. My only objective is to make you think about why -- if you're in that 90 percent -- you have such a high opinion of a band that is not nearly as good as you think. 
My distrust for the world's affection for The Beatles, the band considered by many to be the most important in the world, can be traced to my belief that the mythology that surrounds the Beatles has overwhelmed rational humans' ability to judge the band by its music, music that doesn't stand the test of time nearly as well as music critics would have us think.  

First of all, let me clarify: If you love The Beatles and were alive for their arrival on the world's scene, you can skip ahead to the part where I wantonly trash their music. Feel free to read the interim section with a jaunty eye, laughing at my misconceptions and generalizations. You can get mad later. 
But if you're my age, slightly older, or any younger, you have to pay attention to the whole article. This is what I want you to pay attention to: We were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music. 
This impact is the crux of most arguments for their importance. 
If not for the mythology of The Beatles -- their explosive rise, their good looks, their hair, their Britishness, their experimentation with the East, their early breakup, the death of their misunderstood semi-genius -- they would not be held in such high musical esteem. 
My perception of The Beatles is a little like my perception of my parents. I'm sure my parents had fascinating lives before I was born. My mother probably got into all sorts of trouble in college. I'm sure my father often caused friends to double over in laughter during his time in the Air Force. But my mother has never been controversial since I've been alive. And I can't remember a time that my father told me something so funny that I nearly fell down. That's because my parents are different people now. Any stories about them that take place before I was born will always be, at best, two-dimensional. I didn't know them then. Therefore, I can't claim to understand their lives or their stories.
I can respect them, I can know a lot about them, but I'll never completely understand my parents. I was introduced to them after the fact. "The fact" being my birth which, like it does anyone, pretty much defines a start point for my ability to perceive the world around me. I can't go back and understand what their lives were like before me. I can try, but inevitably, I will fail. I cannot perceive something that happened without me. 
Opinion is, of course, a matter of perception. If a person is told over and over that something is important, or that something is relevant, or that something should be given the benefit of the doubt, his perception of that "thing" will be influenced. The above qualifiers are routinely and liberally applied to The Beatles' music. As long as a person is not raised in a bubble, he is taught by society that The Beatles are, in essence, above reproach.
But what if we tear away that shroud of mystique? What if a person examines The Beatles as he perceived them, which was as just another old rock band? 
OK, I'll take the job. 

Is it so wrong to think U2's "Achtung Baby" was better than "Abbey Road"?
I marched into the world as a semi-normal product of the 1980s and a Midwestern upbringing. When I started listening to music seriously as a teenager, I had no reason to think any more highly of The Beatles than I did of The Guess Who. In my mind, both were irrelevant. John Lennon had been dead for years, Paul McCartney was creating simplistic songs with a band called Wings, and George Harrison and Ringo Starr occupied the same mental real estate as my aspirations to one day be a concert pianist. That is to say: no mental real estate. I was the perfect juror for a murder case; I'd been in the figurative coma provided by my nonexistence while all the pro-Beatles mind-bending had been going on. 
I heard The Beatles, thought, "What's the big deal?" and moved on to U2. Contrary to popular belief, I think mine is the more appropriate reaction. Any other would have had to have been coached. My parents could have said, "Paul, seriously, listen to 'The White Album' 15 times in a row and then you can make an informed decision." Afterward, I probably would have professed a love -- albeit a trained one -- for The Beatles. But they could have inspired the same reaction if they'd pushed Fleetwood Mac. Familiarity does not equal greatness. 
I don't mean my flippancy toward The Beatles to imply that I think that no music made before I was born is good. Or that I don't like anything that came out prior to 1990. I routinely listen to The Rolling Stones and to Creedence Clearwater Revival. But any affection I hold for bands that were in their prime before I was around is a wary affection. I feel almost as if I would be stealing if I went around claiming that CCR is my favorite band. Plenty of good musicians have matured in my lifetime; there's no reason to take CCR from my uncle. 
More importantly, I believe there will always be a disconnect between older music and my brain. I can't fully understand what was happening in the world in 1964, so I'll never completely comprehend why "A Hard Day's Night" is important. It's as if those songs and albums are being translated; it's similar to reading Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and his "Brothers Karamazov," something I undertook -- in back-to-back fashion -- a few years ago. Because the action was coming to me through the lens of a translator, I was never fully able to connect to the words, brilliant as they might be. 
To me, The Beatles were -- and remain -- a band that created catchy tunes that were heard in ubiquitous fashion throughout my life. But they will always be a band with which I cannot connect. 
As I grew older, I was confused by everyone's reverence for The Beatles. Curious, I listened, read and researched. Eventually, I had to admit that the band was important and influential. But that didn't make their music any better. It was predictable, fairly dull and seemed elementary. Because I thought "Achtung Baby" was better, I listened to "Achtung Baby." 
A corollary can be found in my reaction to "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. When "Dracula" was released, it was a worldwide sensation. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive; Stoker was said by some to have surpassed even Edgar Allan Poe in creepiness. 
I'm sure that for the time (1897), "Dracula" was scary, exciting, and disturbing. But when I read it several years ago, the only thing that came to my mind was, "This is so boring." I'm no connoisseur of the literary thriller; I prefer to spend my time reading Tom Wolfe and Richard Russo. But I do know that the Dean Koontz books that entertained my 14-year-old mind are infinitely more complex and frightening than "Dracula." And Dean Koontz could hardly be considered the standard-bearer for the horror-thriller genre. Artistically, he's a midlevel writer at best. Yet his books are still better than "Dracula." 
That's not Bram Stoker's fault. Dean Koontz is better simply because he came later. You can resent that remark all you want. I resent that remark; I believe in reading the classics, and I hesitate to admit that I ever read Dean Koontz books, even as a teenager. But read "Dracula" and get back to me. When you do, don't say, "But Paul, it's important that you remember the time and place that it was written." Because I understand that. 
The same could be said about The Beatles. I don't question their significance. I get it -- my mother has explained it to me. 
My mother is the perfect Beatles test case. She was 11 when The Beatles performed on the "Ed Sullivan Show." Like every other preteen and teenaged American girl, she was smitten. Whenever I question how a band that wrote songs with lobotomized choruses like, "I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your ha-a-and," could have captured the world's attention, she tells me, "It just hadn't been done before. It was like nothing we'd ever seen."
Grudgingly, I've come to terms with that explanation. And I can understand why The Beatles have a special place in my mother's heart. I cannot, however, understand why anyone my age would donate the same important section of his musical soul. There's almost no way that someone from my generation can listen to the primitive hackings of "Eleanor Rigby" finish, and then listen to "November Rain" and say, "Yeah, 'Eleanor Rigby' is the better piece of music." That person can say, "I respect this 'Eleanor Rigby' song" or "I understand this song's importance in the flow chart of music" or "This is a timeless melody." But to say that "Eleanor Rigby" is "better" seems disingenuous. It reminds me of a fourth-grader who tells his music teacher that his favorite song is something by Beethoven
Or of the contemporary who tells me that The Beatles are his favorite band. 
It happens. I've been told by many, many people my age that The Beatles -- The Beatles! -- are their favorite band. Every time, I say, "OK, that's cute, but you don't have to impress me. Tell me what your real favorite band is." Inevitably, they stick to their guns. 
I feel the need to continue to reiterate: I understand that The Beatles are culturally significant and important in the historical progression of rock music. And I understand that they're talented. But unless you were locked in a time capsule like Brendan Fraser in "Blast From the Past," they cannot be your favorite band. If you're younger than 50 and you do make such a claim, you're either (A) trying to impress someone with what you think will be received as good taste, or (B) woefully behind in your consumption of music. If it's A, I'm disappointed in you. If it's B, there's hope -- we only have to help you find the good stuff.

Oasis took some great lessons from The Beatles and arguably improved upon the music.
I'd much rather listen to Oasis than The Beatles. Oasis, or any band that came after The Beatles, learned from The Beatles, improving on their work by listening to, building on and perfecting the styles pioneered by The Beatles. The result: The arrangements used by Oasis are more complex, the sound is denser, the production is better. Claims that Oasis is nothing more than a Beatles tribute band do little to disprove my theory. There is no question that Oasis was influenced by The Beatles -- most rock bands are. That influence was likely heavier with Oasis, but even Oasis -- brash as the band is -- understands the power of what came before. After all, Oasis named an album "Standing On the Shoulders of Giants."
All of these improvements can be chalked up to chronological order. Just as Dean Koontz came after Bram Stoker, Oasis came after The Beatles. Each had the advantage of superior technology, in addition to the natural advantage of the chance to learn from their forebears. The chance to, well, stand on someone's shoulders. 
Now, is that to say that Oasis is more important than The Beatles? Am I implying that Dean Koontz is more vital to the development of literature? Absolutely not. I would be remiss in making such a claim. 
It is important to understand the history of one's chosen art forms. Therefore, everyone should listen to The Beatles. And everyone should read "Dracula." But afterward, they should be able to separate importance from their own tastes.
And really, that's what this comes down to. I'd like people to make up their own minds. Too often, I find myself surrounded by people who spout opinions of politics or religion or music that are not their own. Much of the time, those opinions are a product of their parents, their upbringing and their inability to see two sides of an argument. 
It's enough to know that The Beatles were an influential band that created music that was loved by the world. You don't have to claim that you love them, or that they're your favorite band. You don't have to go along when other people start listing off their top five Beatles' songs. It's OK to say, "That's not my scene, man." (If you're going to use that exact quote, it would be most effective to be wearing a beret.) 
Cast off the cloak of mystique. Listen to The Beatles' music. Realize that it's important, but say you'd rather hear the new White Lies album because it came out in your lifetime and you can analyze its relevance. And because it rocks way harder than anything The Beatles ever did. 
I can appreciate The Beatles' contribution to the world of music; I can recognize their influence on Oasis, on Guns 'N' Roses, on White Lies. But if I hold their records up to the records of those bands and listen to them -- listening only for musicality and entertainment value -- I will never come away saying, "OK, 'Abbey Road' is better." I might be able to say that it was ahead of its time, or that it was groundbreaking work. But because I wasn't there, and because I couldn't give a damn about the mythology of The Beatles, you'll never hear me say: I really like The Beatles. 
I will hear others say that, and I'll hear it for the rest of my life. That I've written the above treatise will save me from the desire to argue the point every time it comes up, but I'm confident I'll still be pulled into a discussion from time to time. Much like a novelist or musician, I'll learn which argument worked and which argument didn't. By the time I draw my last ragged breath, I'm sure I'll have figured out something more about the right way to argue about music. Until then, though, I'll keep angering dinner guests and trampling all over the world's favorite band. 
On occasion, you should do the same.

 Well, what can I say?  I note that he makes many, many bows to the Beatles' influence and importance. Now why do you suppose he engages in so much ass-covering? Could it be that he needs that defense, when all kinds of people tell him he doesn't know what he's talking about? So what's the point of this piece? To tell the world in 3,000-plus words that he likes other bands of his own time better than the Beatles? Well, OK, dude. Knock yourself out.

It goes without saying I certainly don't think much of the guy's musical tastes. Guns 'n' Roses, Oasis, and White Lies in the same breath as The Beatles? What? OASIS?  This dude is at best myopic. Everything is defined by the present, his own time. Did you check his dismissal of Dostoevsky? And his scorn for people of his generation who claim that the Beatles are their favorite band? Now I ask you: why wouldn't this be possible? Surely there are people born the same year as Paul Shirley with more refined musical tastes.

Well, tell you what . . . why don't we just move on? Wasting any more words on this guy and his erroneous opinions, is a waste of my time. And, by the way, Beethoven did not write songs. And Actung, Baby is not better that Abbey Road, either.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Beyond Silly

FBI crime statistics are out today. Lots of Gee Whiz numbers on the news tonight, how rapes are down, murders are down. Yippee! What they don't report, though, are some appalling numbers about drug busts. Last year somebody got arrested on a drug charge every 18 seconds. This translates to "1,702,537 drug arrests in 2008, 82.3 percent . . . for simple possession of a contraband substance. Nearly half, 44 percent, were for possession of marijuana." Somebody was arrested for pot every 37 seconds in 2008.

You've really got to be kidding me. The report doesn't say how much this costs us taxpayers every year--and don't forget to factor in the courts and the incarceration expenses. It has to astronomical.

When is somebody going to clue these people that this country's drug policy is patently insane?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A-Rod Skates

The New York Times reports today that baseball--that is, the corporate colossus that pays outrageous sums of money to people to play a boy's game and charges even more outrageous sums of money for us poor schmucks who love baseball to attend the games--has decided it's not going to probe any further into the past shenanigans of Alex Rodriguez. Further. That is beyond the three years, 2001-2003 that A-Rod himself has bracketed as the time he admits to using steroids. But, it may have been longer than that. And that's what "baseball" is not going to poke into. Baseball, in this case, is office of the commissioner of the game, a former owner, Bud Selig. A loathsome creature who has done more to harm the game of baseball during his tenure as commissioner than anybody else I can think of. This is just the latest. The bosses don't want any more about steroid use. They've heard enough of it. Because every time the subject comes up, it's a reminder of how they let steroid use run wild through the game in the 1990s and early 21st century, and how they helped screw the record books up, cheat the fans, and destroyed the game's integrity. All for filthy lucre. As long as it made them money, the owners didn't give a shit. For those of us who love the game, Rodriguez's numbers will never be anything but tainted. The only question at issue here is how many years more than three he cheated.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

9/11 and All That

The TV, Facebook, and Internet blogs are all full of 9/11 remembrances. It's one of those iconic conversations now to discuss with others exactly where you were when you first heard of the attacks. (I was at work in Tampa, Florida, where most peopled spent the balance of the day watching TV.) And to remember the utter horror of watching what was happening from fires, to jumpers, to the gut-wrenching collapse of the Towers, one after the other. So many innocent lives, so many families devastated, so much grief, so many tears. What American cannot recall his or her feelings that day?

But let's understand something right now. The familiar phrase we've all heard a hundred times since--"The world changed on 9/11." or "After 9/11, nothing will ever be the same again." or variations. This is just nonsense actually. The United States was the victim of a terrorist attack. That's what happened. The world did not change. Any number of countries before the U.S. had been victims of terrorists, some of them repeatedly for years. What presumption and arrogance we have. The world changes when we're attacked, but not before.

It was not 9/11 that set the course for anything. That's a mistake almost everyone makes. Nothing was written in stone after that attack. For on 9/11/2001, this country still had a raft of choices, a myriad of directions, responses to what had happened. But the little pygmy in the White House and his advisers made the choice for us and quickly set upon probably the worst course possible. It appealed to the lowest of the animal instincts in us: revenge, bloody revenge for the attack. Upon discovering it was the work of Al Quaeda, Bush decided that countries as well as terrorist organizations would be held accountable: any country that harbored or encouraged terrorists would be adjudged equally guilty and equally deserving of punishment. What this decision did was initiate a conflict along familiar nation-state vs nation-state lines, which guaranteed that instead of the U.S. handling terrorist attacks like every other nation on the globe does, that is, as a matter for the police, there would be instead massive engagement by the military establishment, which never saw a war it didn't like, and especially one that would never end.

Thus began the so-called "War on Terror." Which is an insane notion to begin with because, although it plays well on Madison Avenue and on the vapid brains of cable news, it is an open-ended, never-ending enterprise. Bush said as much, and nobody so much as blinked. Eight years later, the country is doing its annual 9/11 ritual--the wreaths, the flags, the pledges to "never forget," countless assertions--all evidence to the contrary ignored--that the U.S. is the greatest country on Earth. Fine, but the way we're going eight years from now, this war won't be over, unless somebody with some sense calls an end to it. I'm not holding my breath.

Update I: Gary Hart argues much as I do about the "war" on terror.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Get Lost. In Books.

The New York Times had an op-ed the other day by Harold Bloom, one of the massive intellects of our time. Today's title is also the one affixed to his short article on September 5. (I might observe that far from getting you lost, great books tend to keep you sane and on the right course.) The basic message is not unfamiliar. Bloom is talking about what undergrads in college should read, but of course, the advice applies to all of us, at any age. It's never too late.

If you want to be a well-rounded person, an educated person, you have to read. It's not an option. You have to read the hard stuff, the classics, what Bloom calls the "indispensible canon." Everybody who, like me, has read the canon, knows who these writers are: Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Milton. These are the giants, nay, the colossi. The following from the 19th century till the present (just English and American authors), which Bloom concedes are "slightly more arbitrary," could include Brits such as Blake, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Yeats. Americans: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hawthorne, Faulkner, and poets Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane.

Just like Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch's famous book of 20+ years ago--it's been updated as a dictionary of cultural literacy with definitions that's gone through about 3 or 4 printings --a list like this will have you playing "how many of these have I done"?  OK. I'm going to 'fess up to some horrible sins here: I have not read one of the "indispensables" and two of the following group. And since it's too embarrassing to admit exactly who they are, I just won't. You'll have to guess. I will tell you that two of these three sins are Americans.

There's a lovely little barb at the end of Bloom's piece. We have a literate president now, he observes, but "too many other politicians are devoid of syntax and appear to have read nothing. Aggressive ignorance in aspirants to high office is another dismal consequence of the waning of authentic education."

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Couldna Said It Better Myself--An Occasional Series

This is Jim Kuntsler on Monday*:

Polls are reporting a steep slide in President Obama's approval ratings, especially among white voters.  I doubt that this is about the health care debate, which obviously remains unresolved at the time the polls were taken. I think it is about Mr. Obama's shoveling of huge sums into Wall Street, and the unabated obscene money-grubbing by the executives there -- while millions of ordinary people get thrown out of their houses, lose jobs that they'll never get back, and slip-slide permanently out of the middle class. His relations with Wall Street are destroying his legitimacy.  His failure to demonstrably clean house at the Securities and Exchange Commission and other regulators, or to direct the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute misdeeds stemming from the swindles and frauds in securitized debt, make him look like a stooge to the bankers.
The point. Obama daily looks more and more like the typical pol . . . beholden to the big money fat cats and a captive to their agenda and their interests. Nothing will lose you points with people faster than looking like somebody who's played them for fools. All that reformist, transparency, honesty, can-the-lobbies talk during the campaign. It's beginning to look like exactly that. Talk.
*The whole column is excellent. Another taste: 
 A large part of Mr. Obama's appeal as a candidate last year had to with presenting himself as an intelligent adult -- as opposed to a parent figure (or a crazy old uncle in the case of John McCain).  But so far, apart from his personal charm and good looks, his adult persona is that of an actuary -- someone who can read charts, parse figures, and report them down the line for other people to draw conclusions .  What he lacks at the moment is the very thing that history might foist on him: a sense that life is tragic and history is merciless and that sometimes we have to do the hard things that times require of us.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Liar, Liar! Pants on Fire!

As a former resident of the Sunshine State, I take some interest in what's going on over there. One of the many differences between Florida and Oklahoma is that in the former, it's actually possible to find substantial numbers of Democrats. Unfortunately, there are substantial numbers of Republicans also, probably more than there are in this hotbed of progressive thought in terms of absolute numbers. But there are ties that bind these people. Two that I can think of right off the bat: first, they have taken leave of their senses, and second, they lie. They lie like rugs. Here's what the GOP of Florida is saying about Obama's talk today to the nation's schoolkids: Schoolchildren across the nation "will be forced to watch the president justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies, increasing taxes on those who create jobs, and racking up more debt than any other president."

It's hard for me to fathom people so devoid of honor as to broadcast so blatant a lie as this. Consider: the people behind these statements, all the b.s. that has been spewed and is still being spewed by the Republican Party, these people know that what they're saying is not true. They know it. But they also know that the silly putty out there that believes this nonsense is composed of frightened, credulous victims, for the most part. People who are so distraught by the general tenor of the times that they simply must find someone to blame for their discomfort. Frank Rich had it right in one of his columns last month.
The biggest contributor to this resurgence of radicalism remains panic in some precincts about a new era of cultural and demographic change. As the sociologist Daniel Bell put it, “What the right as a whole fears is the erosion of its own social position, the collapse of its power, the increasing incomprehensibility of a world — now overwhelmingly technical and complex — that has changed so drastically within a lifetime.”
Considering that Bell made these observations in the early 1960s, when the crisis for the right was the election of a Roman Catholic as president, it's all the more pertinent today when the pace of technological and social change is a hundred times more chaotic.

The bottom line in all this is that the Republican politicians and right wing talk show haters, the enablers of the nut cases out there in the town meetings, the armed stooges in rally crowds, the screaming meamies at the tea parties--well, these people are beyond contempt. If and when some twisted not out there kills somebody for being a liberal, the blood will be on their hands. Oh, wait . . . that's already happened. (See Frank Rich, cited above.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Dignity of Labor

Dignity of labor: a phrase of little meaning in this country today. Labor Day means the end of summer, the beginning of school, good day for baseball, excuse for a picnic or day at the beach. A holiday disconnected from its roots. Sorta like the Geneva Accords on Treatment of POWs became "quaint" in the age of Bush, so has the phrase "the dignity of labor." Indeed, I put it to you, what is dignified about the treatment or condition of labor in this country? It's sobering to think about how much blood was spilled so workers could even earn the right to organize. Not until the New Deal was this right guaranteed by law. The preceding 70 years had been marked by horrific violence on both sides, worse than any other place on the globe. But the fact remains that rivers of blood were the price workers paid for the right to form unions. The violence done against them far outweighed the violence the unions did trying to enforce their strikes.

The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world. Labor violence was not confined to certain industries, geographic areas, or specific groups in the labor force, although it has been more frequent in some industries than in others. There have been few sections and scarcely any industries in which violence has not erupted at some time, and even more serious confrontations have on occasion followed. Native and foreign workers, whites and blacks have at times sought to prevent strike replacements from taking their jobs, and at other times have themselves been the object of attack. With few exceptions, labor violence in the United States arose in specific situations, usually during a labor dispute. The precipitating causes have been attempts by pickets and sympathizers to prevent a plant on strike from being reopened with strikebreakers,1 or attempts of company guards, police, or even by National Guardsmen to prevent such interference. . . . [But t]he most virulent form of industrial violence occurred in situations in which efforts were made to destroy a functioning union or to deny to a union recognition.

There's little doubt that over the long haul, management has triumphed anyway. From a high of about 36 percent of the workforce right after WWII, corporate capitalism has succeeded in squelching membership in unions to a little over 12 percent of the workforce. (Actually, in a strange twist, last year actually witnessed a slight bump in union membership as a percentage of the workforce.) For anybody paying attention, it will certainly come as no surprise to learn that in the South and Southwest union membership is below the national average. Nor that labor has paid a far disproportionate share of the cost of bailing out profligate corporate management over the past few years. It's on the back of workers that the richest sit to drink their champagne.

None of this is new, at least not to me. When I was growing up, in the heart of a Republican, business-oriented family, I heard nothing, nada, good about unions. Same as now here in the heart of darkest Oklahoma. Indeed, from this you would conclude that belonging to a union is about like contracting the plague and defending the rights of labor akin to advocacy of mass murder. Happy Labor Day, everybody.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Saturday, September 5, 2009

For Me, A Metaphor

What kind of twisted person would do this? I really have to stop with this question unanswered because I'm afraid my response would be vehement and unprintable. But I suspect your own response will take care of that.  Do you get the feeling, as I do, that this sort of behavior characterizes thousands of people in your area of the country? It does mine. The first thing I thought when I saw this was isn't this just a perfect symbol for America? Or for what we've become? Not only dismissive of the helpless among us, but actively cruel to them. Somebody meant to kill this innocent animal just because. For no reason whatever other than bloodlust whim. Is this a great country or what?

Thank goodness for the guardian angel who was watching over this little guy. He's going to be OK. But I hope the person who did this has the top of his head chewed off by a bobcat.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Of Course It's Criminal

Of course it's a crime to address the nation's schoolkids and urge them to study and stay in school. Hell, all you have to do is get a load of the uproar that the Republicans are raising about the president's plans to make such an address next week. You would think this would not be controversial. But, no, you would be wrong. Some schools across the country are refusing to show the address at all because of protests by parents and administrators.

Wingnuts in Oklahoma are raving about it. Here's some clips from the story about this:

"I just don't think that my child should be forced to watch the president," said parent Kimberly Martin.
KTOK radio host Mark Shannon and a slew of supporters said superintendents across the state should refuse to show the speech
They said they fear the President's plan is to brainwash students with his ideologies.
"If they won't pull the plug on it, pull your kids out of school on September 8th. Just write them a note. Tell them they have socialist swine flu," Shannon said.
Many parents parked outside an Oklahoma City elementary school  agreed schools should have another option for students who will not be watching Tuesday's speech per their parent's request. 
"There's too many things that he's doing that don't agree with America right now," said parent Diana Pierce. 

Brainwashing? You must be kidding. Oh, no. We're not kidding. No less than the chairman of the Florida Republican party says Obama is attempting to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda." Oh, good grief, man! Have you been in the sun too long?

Let's be precise about what Obama is going to say in his brief remarks. According to the Sec of Education, the president will "challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning. He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens."

Now, this is pretty frigging subversive, isn't it? Friends, I am really beginning to weary of these nutcases. Really weary. What planet are these people inhabiting? And I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe that people could be this terrified of a black man in the White House. I honestly think this race thing is not far from the surface in all this exaggerated terror that Obama stirs up. I've read some of the remarks people make on Facebook about Obama and I have to pinch myself to believe what I'm seeing.

And you think you'd hear some stern protest from the Republican leadership about the behavior of these people, wouldn't you? This is one of the most despicable aspects of this whole thing. Indeed, for the last six months, you have the top Republicans in the country doing absolutely nothing to blunt these absurd and increasingly hysterical attacks on the man who was elected by a vast majority of the people not even a year ago. I have to confess that this just makes me more disgusted with the whole damn lot of them.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Not Real Good News

Curt Schilling, a pretty fair country pitcher for several teams--he was longest with the Phillies--maybe wants to run for the Senate. We're talking about the Massachusetts seat once held by Edward Kennedy. Schilling says he's mulling it over and saying that stars have to align (not that metaphor, he's not that articulate) before he makes any kind of decision. Hey, Curt, listen up. We don't need another millionaire right-wing senator in Washington. You'd just be another Jim Bunning, without the perfect game or membership in the Hall of Fame. Stay home, dude, the last thing we need is another dunder-headed jock in the U.S. Senate.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Years, Friends, and Other Stuff

Tonight I'm sleeping in a strange bed. I've got to go to a sleep center and spend the night, all wired up to a bunch of monitors. It's to see if I've got sleep apnea. I'm pretty sure I do, since I've been diagnosed with it before. I'll let you know. This is the kind of stuff you must put up with when you're falling apart. I'm not really, but sometimes it seems like it. That's not really true either. For a person who will be 66 years old on the morrow, I'm in great health, thanks be to God. I know people much younger than I who have awful ailments; I know people much younger than I who aren't younger anymore. They're dead.

One of the features of life as you begin the autumn years is the increasing frequency with which friends die or get seriously ill. It's always painful to experience. Next to family, friends are the greatest blessing I think we can have. Who else besides family and friends know you . . . and still love you? There's a human vulnerability in friendship that gets to the core of us. It's about love. I frankly think there is more to love in people than to despise. When people are despicable, when they inflict great pain and suffering on their fellow human beings--almost the definition of "despicable" . . . well, as hateful as that is, I consider it much more a betrayal of our true nature as human beings than a reflection of our true selves. Granted, some people disguise their true nature under layers of meanness, selfishness, and bile . . . but which of us has not been guilty of that? And considering the infinite number of factors and circumstances that bring us to the exact moment of now . . . well, who is ready to pronounce judgment on that person's experience? Who is ready to say what that same combination of infinity would have made of you? Verily, I do believe this, but damn, is it hard to put this into practice in your life. It's practically impossible to get beyond the meanness, selfishness, and bile most of the time.

I could have never, I don't think, come to these kinds of conclusions without the benefits of having experienced a good deal of life. The years are kind in that, if you pay attention, they can actually teach you something about what life might signify and all your fellow creatures who are living with you. Sometimes, too, life provides coping, survival tools to allow one to live at total peace within one's self. Once you get there, you're where you can actually forego judging other people. Alas, you might have have to live 200 years to get to that place. I'm sure that's about how long it would take me.