Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomatoland




I remember reading Summer Lightning some years back about an old man and a boy growing up in Depression-era South Florida, not much unlike Huck Finn and Injun Joe.  In this case, the two had come across a bunch of crates of tomatoes piled up in a barn that seemed to be allowed to go rotten, so the two proceeded to eat as many of the juicy fruits as they could, until someone caught them and the old man, Mr. McCree, found himself faced with charges for trespassing and theft.  Young Terry was only 6 years old.  Of course, the old man was eventually acquitted and the tomato plantation owner revealed to be nothing more than an evil tyrant.

My mother and I had tried to grow tomatoes in Northwest Florida, but they came out rather salty being so close to the beach.  As Barry Estabrook describes in his book, Tomatoland, on the tomato industry in Florida, the soil simply isn't right for tomatoes.  What you have instead is a year-round climate that allows for the mass cultivation of tomatoes, picked green, gassed in the freight trucks to a sickly light rose color and delivered to supermarkets around the country come winter, when most of America's fields are in hibernation.

I had first heard of this gassing process from a high school friend, who had become a truck driver bringing in tomatoes from Mexico.  Florida farmers aren't the only culprits here, but Mr. Estabrook focuses on the Sunshine State, long noted for its questionable environmental and safety regulations.  He provides historical snapshots, including tomatoes being cultivated by the Aztecs who came up with the first salsa, apparently adding body parts to give it more flavor.  The Aztecs were a gruesome lot, but not as gruesome as the conditions many migrant farmers face in the town of Immokalee, which has become "Tomato Central."

South central Florida has had any number of dubious distinctions over the decades. The conditions in Immokalee aren't much better than in Mexico, which has led to workers trying to organize themselves into a coalition for better pay and health care.  Estawood provides of litany of infractions that would make most persons cringe, but the tomato syndicates are able to get away with it because of the low cost to consumers.

The odd thing is that tomatoes are one of the prized garden fruits (or vegetables depending on how you look at them).  Yet, we are willing to give up taste for price at the local supermarket for these "hard, tasteless, uniform green balls" that can survive an impact of 60 mph  off a truck.  According to Estawood, any attempt to grow a better tomato is met with condemnation from the Florida Tomato Committee.

Old Mr. McCree wouldn't have stood a chance against this all-powerful committee.  One can only hope that Estawood's book calls attention to plight of Immokalee workers and others migrant workers being abused around the country.

Image from Little Feat's album, Waiting for Columbus.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

That's right, Kevin. You don't have to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance



Another Memorial Day is upon us and if you have a facebook account, I'm sure you've seen a steady stream of memes commemorating our men and women in uniform.  One of my favorites is this one about little Kevin who apparently doesn't understand the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.  This kind of "shaming" is not unusual.

Apparently, a lot of schools do make their students stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, resulting in a growing sense of resentment and outrage among parents and students, particularly those who object to the line, "one Nation under God" which was amended to the pledge in 1954.  The idea that we live in a plural secular society seems lost on a great number of people, who see public schools as a way of inculcating what they believe to be American "values."

The "Pledge" was not formally adopted by Congress until 1942, during time of war when many felt Americans had to show their loyalty to the nation.  Initially, it was conceived as a way of commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America for a children's magazine, The Youth's Companion.  It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister, who chose not to include any religious reference.


It wasn't long before you saw images like this one in elementary schools across the country.  The problem with forcing kids to recite a pledge or do anything against their will is that it breeds resentment, not loyalty, particularly if a kid feels he has been shamed into it.   There is already too much peer pressure and bullying in high schools.  If you want children to understand the role wars have had in shaping this country you do so in history class, not turn them into little "pioneers" reciting national pledges and passages from the Bible, which seems to be what religious conservatives in this country would like to see done in schools.

This Memorial Day it would be nice to see a more somber note of reflection for the men and women who died serving this country in combat, remembering that this holiday was born out of the aftermath of the Civil War, with the intent of healing a divided nation.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Israel I go




It seems that for every Republican presidential candidate it is a prerequisite to visit Israel.  They've all gone over in recent months, including Ben Carson, who apparently made quite an ass of himself, showing a blissful ignorance of the region, including the time span of Islam, charting it back to the Old Testament.

Now, we have Scott Walker fresh from his "listening tour" of the Holy Lands, excluding the Palestinian territories.  He even managed to book a date with Bibi Netanyahu, pledging his unequivocal support of his government.

Like all the other candidates, Walker believes that the President is letting Israel down, and that we need to reaffirm our relationship with the country.  I guess he didn't take time to read of the current infighting in the Knesset, where Bibi just barely was able to cobble a coalition of religious right wing parties and the Likud together.  It is not Obama who is openly critical of Netanyahu, it is his own country, and for good reason.

Back in March, Bibi drove a wedge in the politics of the nation by urging religious conservatives to come out to vote as the liberal parties were bringing Israeli Arabs to the polls in bus loads.  He later apologized for this inflammatory rhetoric but the damage was done.   It took Bibi all the way up to the 11th hour and 59th minute to get the 61 seats in the Knesset he needed, which few believe will hold together.

Yet, Walker, like all the GOP candidates, tells us every chance he gets that it is Obama who is inflaming tensions in the region.  The Republicans have made the President into a straw man for everything that is wrong in the world, and continue to present the notion that the biggest single threat to the United States is ISIS, refusing to acknowledge the chain of events that lead to this radical new terrorist group.

Scott Walker has gone a step further than his rivals, vowing pre-emptive strikes if elected President to prevent these existential threats.  He missed the sad irony in giving this inflammatory speech in Oklahoma City, where the Alfred P. Murrah Building was bombed by homegrown religious extremists 20 years ago.  Instead, he revives the Bush Doctrine, no doubt as a result of the support he has garnered from hard line factions in the GOP.  Walker has zero foreign policy experience, much less tact.



The trip to Israel was designed to give him some kind of "street cred" among Republican faithful.  This was also true for Carson and Christie and Huckabee, who have all made the pilgrimage.  Christie cut quite a profile on his 2012 visit.  Being governors and neurosurgeons doesn't make you privy to White House or Congressional foreign policy briefings.  These guys garner no more of what is going on in the world than we do scanning the headlines.  Yet, to a man they think that having made this trip they are eminently qualified to lead the nation on the global stage.

What we get is the kind of bellicose rhetoric you would hear from any religious conservative spouting off on facebook or some other chat group, hoping to get "likes" from an all too gullible audience.  We went through this before with George W. Bush, and we all saw where that got us.  I would hope voters, even conservative voters, would be more circumspect today.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

So long, Dave, and thanks for all the fish


What do we do now?

The one-time iconoclast is now being treated like royalty as he ends his 33-year run of Late Night television.  With over 6000 episodes under his belt, he officially gets the title of "Iron Man" having beaten Johnny Carson by a mile in terms of endurance.  But, for all the accolades, Letterman was neither original nor all that funny.  In fact, most of the time he was just downright annoying, especially the way he treated his guests.

How many times did he make Terry Garr undress on his show?  Well beyond the point it was clear she was uncomfortable in the role  Tina Fey seemed all too happy to revive this antic during the last week of his run, albeit looking more like a Romanian weightlifter.   

Guests were foils for Letterman's antics.  Some gladly played into them, like Bill Murray.  Others seemed to squirm and grow visibly agitated.   Occasionally, a guest would beat Letterman at his own game, like Harmony Korine, whose three appearances on the Late Show are considered classics.  For once, it was Letterman who was uncomfortable, unable to get what he wanted out of the precocious talent.  Dave later claimed that the reason for the ban he placed on Korine was that he caught the young upstart rifling through Meryl Streep's purse back stage.

Letterman became ever more condescending as his ratings rose.  Still, he longed for Johnny Carson's time slot so that he could reach an even bigger audience, only to find himself taken down a peg when Jay Leno was tapped to succeed "Carnac the Magnificent."  However, CBS was only too happy to take Letterman off NBC's hands, giving him the time slot he coveted, opposite his new late night rival.

The styles couldn't be more different.  Leno gave his guests space, to the point that they even took over his shows at times.  Robin Williams had a field day one night, getting everyone, including Jay and Harry Connick Jr, involved in his antics.  Letterman would have never allowed a guest that kind of license, because ultimately everything about the Late Show was about himself.

What Letterman was good at was gimmicks like his Velcro suit, Stupid Pet Tricks, his Top Ten lists and odd recurring characters like Bud Melman.  There were some gems in there, but like everything else about his show, they grew stale quickly.  We just tend to remember our favorites.

It's not easy keeping a show going so long.  Letterman seemed at the end of his rope in 1999.  He underwent quintuple bypass surgery on his heart in 2000 and seemed to gain a new lease on life.  You figure he had Johnny Carson's late night record in the back of his mind, and as long as CBS was willing to pay him 8 figures, why not?  He made a quick recovery and enjoyed a good run the last decade.  But, with the rise of Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, Letterman was no longer relevant.  Much like Carson in his last decade, when he pretty much turned over the show to guest hosts like Letterman himself.

Say cheese, Dave

Dave's biggest boost came last April, when he announced his retirement and CBS pegged Stephen Colbert to take over his show.  All of the sudden, everyone became interested in Letterman again.  This last week has been an orgy of guests and musicians, capped off by an overlong final episode that featured everyone who is anyone in the entertainment industry, and even the President himself.

It was far more than Letterman ever deserved, but after 33 years he has become an icon and icons apparently now warrant respect.  There he was in 2012 along side Led Zeppelin, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy and Natalia Makarova being honored at Kennedy Center, just like Johnny Carson 20 years before.

I don't think it will take Stephen Colbert long to make us forget David Letterman.  While he too is about himself, it is in a much more self-deprecating way that we can all enjoy.   I just hope that Dave doesn't get it into his head to mount a comeback when he gets bored with retirement. 


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Riding with the King




Psychedelic Rock and Blues seemed like a strange combination, but it became the norm in the 60s, with many Blues musicians playing along side Psychedelic musicians, or vice-versa depending on your point of view.  Here is a recording of B.B. King playing with Jimi Hendrix at the Generation Club in NYC in 1968.  A lot of Psychedelic guitarists moonlighted as Blues musicians like Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, offering up songs like Hesitation Blues.

After Cream had reached its peak in the late 60s, Eric Clapton went back to Blues-based ballads and formed a life-long relationship with B.B. King, capped by the wonderful album, Riding with the King.  Many felt that relationships like this kept Blues alive, but the music was never going away.  It is the most identifiable American music, and immensely popular the world over.

When Ry Cooder teamed up with Ali Farka Toure in the 1990s, many thought that the Malian musician was playing a form of the Blues, and were surprised to learn that these were traditional ballads from his home country.  The late great Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was part of this collaborative album, Talking Timbuktu.  Martin Scorsese explored this musical bridge in his documentary Blues: A Musical Journey with Correy Harris serving as host.

B.B. King has received the lion's share of attention over the years, but so many great musicians have come and gone including my favorite, John Lee Hooker, who gave us many memorable songs, like One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, which never seems to grow old.

It is hard for us to imagine anyone filling these legends' shoes, but there are young musicians keeping the music going.  Some returning to the roots, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Blues grew out of the negro jigs and minstrel shows of the 19th century, eventually shaped into the music we are most familiar with by immortal musicians like Leadbelly.  Each region had its own indigenous form, but it is the Mississippi Delta Blues that became the standard by the mid-20th century, personified in Robert Johnson.

Thanks to the tireless effort of Moe Asch many of these early songs were recorded and became a part of the American discography at Smithsonian Folkways.

This is the sound that would shape the music of Eric Clapton, Robert Plant and other Rock musicians.  Led Zeppelin did a wonderful variation of Memphis Minnie's 1929 classic, When the Levee Breaks.  She was one of the great vocalist of her era, along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Blues is living history.  The songs have been passed down from one generation to the next for the last two centuries.  For many, B.B. King personified the Blues.  He was able to enjoy a stellar career, along with the royalties that came with it.  Most Blues musicians saw little of the revenue their songs generated, often dying in poverty, with their ballads resurrected by later musicians.  B.B. was one of the few to enjoy the fruits of his labors, honored at Kennedy Center in 1995, and again by President Obama in 2011, making him the undisputed King of the Blues.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

No need to fear, Underdog is here



Look up in the air!  It's a bird.  It's a plane.  It's a frog.  A frog?  No, it's Lindsey Graham!

Yes, that's right folks, Lindsey Graham is running for President because the "world is falling apart."  He is only polling a miniscule one per cent in GOP presidential straw polls, but not to worry Underdog is here to save us from the evil forces confronting us in this crumbling world.

Lindsey has been sounding the alarm for some time now, firmly believing that ISIS may kill us all.  That's why he plans to send no less than 10,000 troops into Iraq, if elected Commander-in-Chief, to rid us of this pernicious threat once and for all.  Uber-Lindsey doesn't think the Iraq War was a mistake, saying, "at the end of the day, I blame President Obama for the mess in Iraq and Syria, not President Bush."  Are you listening, Jeb?

It is easy to dismiss Lindsey's candidacy as a joke, as he is seen as little more than a fringe figure in the Republican Party.  But, that's the way many felt about Rick Santorum last time around and he ended up winning 11 states and nearly 4 million votes, a whopping 20 per cent of the GOP electorate.  In a much more crowded field this election year, Lindsey would be in the hunt with numbers like that.  The only question is whether the Republican electorate will embrace this rather effeminate man who is now projecting himself as a super hero.

My guess is not, but that shouldn't stop Lindsey from running.  The more the merrier I say.  It's looking like a new season of Survivor with all these candidates. Reince Priebus will have to split these presidential wannabes into "tribes" to accommodate a field that could be as many as 30 candidates, looking at this GOP straw poll.

If it is any help, Lindsey Graham appears to have Sheldon Adelson in his corner, who has pledged $100 million this election cycle.  Of course, Sheldon backed Newt Gingrich last time around and he didn't get very far, only managing to win two states, Georgia and South Carolina.  Still, Lindsey's home state is one of the first primaries, so he should get a leg up early in the race, and maybe more money will pour into his campaign, if Jeb doesn't score well among early Republican voters.

In the meantime, we will continue to see a lot of posturing on the part of the GOP presidential candidates. This is what Lindsey does best, so he should manage to keep himself in the news.  Good luck, Underdog!

Monday, May 18, 2015

That Giant Sucking Sound




Like the Republicans wrestling over the "hypothetical question" of what they would have done if they had been in Dubya's shoes back in 2003 in regard to Iraq, Democrats find themselves wrestling over what they would have done if they had been in Bubba's shoes back in 1993 when he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA, into law with broad Congressional support.

The current Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, has been unfavorably compared to NAFTA.  Democrats have come down hard on the free trade agreement being proposed by the Obama administration.  One of the harshest critics is Robert Reich, who was Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor back in 1993.  I guess if he knew then what he knows now, he would have never gone along with NAFTA, like so many Democrats anxious to create a greater North American trade union.

It was Ross Perot who likened NAFTA to a giant sucking sound drawing away jobs from the United States.  The AFL-CIO estimates that 700,000 manufacturing base jobs have been lost over the last 20 years.  It had been a bill first floated by George H.W. Bush at the end of his administration and embraced by the Clinton administration, ushering the new age of "globalization."  To be fair, what we lost in manufacturing jobs, we have more than made up in service-related jobs, but for a nation that so long prided itself on its manufacturing spirit, this trade agreement has gutted the traditional blue collar labor force in America.

Hillary Clinton finds herself in a similar situation to Jeb Bush in that she has to draw a line of distinction between herself and her husband.  So far, she has been non-committal on the subject, calling for a "time-out" on new accords until the impact of these trade agreements can be fully evaluated.  This was pretty much the same answer she gave when asked her position on the legalization of marijuana.


Bernie has made no bones about where he stands on the TPP, saying that this is nothing more than a tool of the "billionaire class" to fully subject us to low wages, poor environmental and health regulations.  Basically, echoing the same sentiments as Ross Perot back in 1992.

I have to admit it was kind of suspicious to see President Obama using Nike as the backdrop for his sales pitch on the TPP.  Nike is one of the biggest culprits in taking advantage of weak trade policies to outsource its labor, but Barry says that if Americans think these low skill manufacturing jobs are coming back to America, we are hopelessly naive.   The President has said it is more important to protect our "intellectual property" and service-related jobs, which we consider ourselves so good at.

The United States has long shifted toward service-related jobs and Americans seem comfortable having production outsourced to developing countries, as long as they get their "everyday low prices" at Walmart.  Naomi Klein noted in No Logo that these American companies do not operate directly with developing countries, but rather sign contracts with local producers in these countries, freeing them of any liability in the manufacturing process.  Some of us would think this gives American companies a greater profit margin, but Nike would like us to believe it allows them to focus more on R&D and marketing back in the States.

Even curiouser is that you see very few Republicans coming out against this trade agreement.  In fact, Barry, Mitch and Boehner all seem to be on the same page on this one, which makes you wonder what the hell is going on here.  Truthout has gone so far as to label Obama a Trojan Horse President for pushing what looks like a Republican trade bill.  After all, isn't that what NAFTA was until the Democrats co-opted it as their own?

None of us really know for sure what is in this trade agreement, since it is subject to a level of secrecy that has frustrated the mainstream media determined to see what lies at the core of the TPP.  Our President says he is fighting for concessions on the part of Japan, South Korea and the Indochinese republics that would open doors to increase American exports to these countries.  Barry insists the TPP will level the playing field, which to this point has been heavily slanted in favor of Asia.  We shouldn't be thinking along the lines of NAFTA.


Given we have so little to go on other than cheat sheets provided by the Washington Post and New York Times, pardon us if we do compare the TPP to NAFTA.  It may not be the "giant sucking sound" that Ross Perot or Bernie Sanders would lead us to believe, but I think many of the fears being expressed are genuine and that if Obama wants to bring more Democrats on board, he better make a better sales pitch, otherwise it just sounds like a promotion for Nike.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jeb misspeaks ... again




Things are getting kind of squirrely on the campaign trail.  At first Jeb gave his unconditional support for Brother George on the Iraq War, saying he would have done the same in his position.  However, Brother Jeb backed away a little after being pressed on the issue, and by the end of the week had turned 180 degrees and said he would not have gone to war with Iraq, having issued his fourth statement on the subject in a matter of days.  You have to wonder what George feels, but if anyone should know, all's fair in war and politics.

Jeb would have been best to follow Lindsey Graham's lead and blame the whole thing on Obama for "coitus interruptus."  Lindsey remains unabashed in his defense of the Iraq War, saying that while Dubya mades some mistakes, Obama leaving Iraq was the biggest mistake of all.  Graham believes that we should have maintained our military position in Iraq, even if military advisers supported full withdrawal.

Dear Lindsey refuses to concede that Obama is battling ISIS with continued air strikes and the joint ground forces of Iraq and Iran.  It's the Iran part that troubles Graham the most, as he would like to put military pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program.  It's kind of hard to do when we are allowing Iran to help stabilize Iraq.

Ted Cruz is having nothing to do with the war.  He wasn't around to vote on the war resolution back in 2003, not that he votes on much else in Congress.  As far as he is concerned, we came, we saw, we conquered, and whatever mess remains behind is Obama's mess.

As we saw in Texas it is very convenient to have these existential threats to stir up the conservative base.  We seem to have a great number of existential threats these days.  There is a firmly held belief among the religious conservative electorate that their Christian beliefs are under attack from all sides.  We have ISIS crawling under the border of Texas, according to Rick Perry.  The LGBT community forcing their beliefs on poor Christian bakers to hear Mike Huckabee.  Russia is once again exerting its influence, much to the chagrin of John McCain.  Last but least, the greatly exaggerated threat of an Obama imperial reign. So it goes.

Sadly, Iraq just won't go away, and poor Jeb stuck his foot into his mouth and has yet to unlodge it.  Of course, he wants to defend his brother, who is actively supporting his bid for President, but the reality of the situation, as George expressed himself, the "intelligence proved false."  It doesn't matter at this point that the intelligence was false to begin with, as there was no evidence of weapons in mass destruction in Iraq before, during or after the invasion, but it gives George a convenient way out of his decision.

Most Republicans want to put the blame on Obama for the insurrection currently taking place in Iraq, refusing to accept that he simply followed through on the withdrawal plan conceived and begun in the last quarter of Bush's tenure.  Robert Gates was kept on as Secretary of Defense for this expressed purpose, although he too would now like to claim he wanted to leave some small American force in place in case something like ISIS kicked up, but naturally was overruled by President.

Everyone knew that rebellions would take place given that Iraq has long been a battleground of Islamic sects, but civilian and military advisers all felt that the Iraqi military had the means and logistical support necessary to repress these insurrections.   After all, the Iraqi military forces had over 10 years of intense training. Unfortunately, the "intelligence" community didn't count on the weak-kneed response from the Iraqi President, who seemed to be waiting for US troops to come back to fight these civil battles for them.

I don't think the Republican electorate understands the complexity of the situation, as Rick Grennel opined.  Most Americans just want Iraq to go away.  They've already pushed Afghanistan out of their heads, even though we still have a small force in place.  The operation is now called Resolute Force, with about 13,000 NATO troops still stationed inside Afghanistan, half of which are American soldiers.

What this little episode with Jeb showed is that the Republican candidates are woefully deficient when it comes to Foreign Policy, even the brother of a former president who has access to the very same advisers, including Paul Wolfowitz.  The only problem is that Wolfie is no apologist for the war.  He too remains fully supportive of the invasion.


This doesn't bode well for Jeb as it looks to anyone on the outside that he would bring back pretty much the same administration of his brother.  I don't think anyone is ready for The Bush Dynasty, Part III.




Wednesday, May 13, 2015

History distilled




Nothing I enjoy more than a good bourbon.  I stumbled across this bottle the other day in the vynoteka, as they call liquor stores here in Lithuania, and have to say I was very impressed.  Woodford Reserve had the full body taste of a Kentucky whiskey but was smooth as silk.  It was so good that the bottle was the first to go at my wife's birthday celebration, and I had to go back the next day and buy another bottle for myself.

The distillery don't go much into its history on its website, but it has been around for quite a while.  I guess they feel that the whiskey speaks for itself.  I did find some more information on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website, which noted that Woodford Reserve dates back to 1797 when Elijah Pepper began distilling in Woodford County, and that the distillery is a national landmark, as well it should be.  Not surprised that it is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, which was run last weekend.

I imagine it makes for a fine mint julep, but I like my whiskey neat, swirling it around in a snifter so that I can get the full aroma.  Bourbons have such a rich intoxicating smell, but can taste a bit harsh if not blended with rye.  By law, a Bourbon has to be at least 51 per cent corn. The rest is up to the distiller.  It is the corn that gives a sweetness to the smell, but it is not very smooth to the taste.

The minimum age is a short three months, but the longer you let the bourbon age the more the flavors come together, including the oak from the fresh cut barrels.  But, you don't see age distinctions as you do on Scottish whiskeys.  For the record Woodford Reserve is aged an average of 7.3 years.

With the Internet today there isn't much need for guidebooks or history books on the subject, but there is a new title, Bourbon Empire, which has received favorable reviews.  Bourbon was in danger a few decades back as Americans had become enamored with Single Malts and other fine Scottish and Irish whiskeys, but since then a revival has taken place and Bourbon is doing well with a great number of small batch distillers springing up all over Kentucky and Tennessee, as in the days of old.  Reid Mitenbuler tries to guide you along the Bourbon Trail so that you won't get suckered in by a fancy bottle, as all too often marketing tricks trump the quality of the whiskey.

However, I can say without reservation that you can't go wrong with Woodford Reserve, and if the distillery would like to send me a select bottle of Double Oaked for this glowing review I would greatly appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What a tangled web we weave




The biggest appeal of House of Cards is that it reduces politics to its basest level, even to the point of murder to cover a messy trail.  This is how most people see politics, which is why it is so easy to invent conspiracy theories and have so many persons believe in them.

It's nice to see that in the third season of House of Cards, Claire Underwood appears to have discovered her moral center and no longer is playing the game as set by her husband Francis.  The all too obvious allusions to the Clinton White House abound in this television series, right down to the mysterious death of Vince Foster, which was played out in the first season in the death of Peter Russo.  With Francis having wormed his way into the oval office, Claire is no longer content to play second fiddle, demanding the position of US Ambassador to the United Nations, echoing to some degree Hillary's rise to Secretary of State.  Things didn't turn out too well for Claire, much as was the case with Hillary, who still has the cloud of Benghazi hanging over her.  But, Claire was able to find solace, and seems to have decided that honesty is the best policy so we think that Hillary too is a changed woman and will pursue the Presidency with noble minded intentions.

Our society has become a two-way mirror of reality and artifice, each reflecting the other in the form of television.  This is where we see fact and fiction played out, often seamlessly woven into each other so that it becomes increasingly harder to separate the two.  You have the all too obvious Fox News, but the other leading television news channels aren't much better, which is why many of us turned to The Colbert Report and The Daily Show for our "news."  Best to have it filtered through the screen of satirical television where at least we can enjoy a good laugh.

House of Cards is of course fiction, based on a British television show from the immediate post-Thatcher era by the same name.  During the first two seasons, the Netflix series pretty much followed the same script, but given its success found it had to expand on the story and so we see a more philosophical Francis Underwood trying to make something good out of the office he gained by every hook and crook imaginable.  He's become a Machiavellian Mr. Smith, holding his fractured personality together by a force of will only Kevin Spacey can pull off.  Claire is still the ice queen but if there is any good to come out of this tangled web of deceit it is through her, not Francis.

That was much the way I felt about Bill and Hillary, which I guess is why I find myself hoping that Hillary has learned something from all these years in Washington that puts her in a position to do something positive the next four years that none of the other candidates, including the venerable Bernie Sanders, could never hope to achieve.  The only problem is that her past may come back to haunt her during the campaign, as she will be under much more scrutiny than she ever was before.

Washington is a cynical world and if you want to get anything done you have to be willing to horse trade, engage in parlor tricks and make some unsavory compromises you will most definitely later regret.  No one is above it, not even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, which the liberal wing of the Democratic Party now views as its patron saints.

Hillary will never achieve this kind of sainthood, because her past has been dredged up over and over again.  The best she can hope for is a political form of absolution in which her electorate is willing to forgive her and will see her as the only one available who can actually carry out the reforms it so badly wants in Washington.  It's going to be a long road, but if Hillary is any bit like Claire she will find a way to make it.



Sunday, May 10, 2015

Give me that old time religion




I have to wonder about a candidate that keeps calling the President a psychopath.  In this case a psychopathic liar.  I hate to break it to the good doctor but the official unemployment rate is 5.5 per cent.  Now, you can argue about the metrics and claim that the real unemployment rate is much higher since so many persons are no longer counted.  But, this is the same measuring stick used for decades.  The same standard existed under the previous President, so was George W. Bush also "lying like a psychopath" when he pointed to a low unemployment rate during much of his administration?

It is odd, to say the least, to find someone with so much scorn for the President.  Even Joe Wilson didn't go this far, when he shouted "You Lie" during Obama's health care speech back in 2009.  Rep. Wilson even apologized afterward.  However, you won't hear Ben Carson apologizing.

The closest Dr. Ben comes is to admit he has an anger management problem.  Maybe Barack Obama reminds him of that classmate he stabbed back in a Detroit high school, bringing out the worst emotions in him, which he has struggled so hard to contain on his rise to the top of the medical profession.  Now retired, and running for the Republican nominee for President, Carson no longer seems to feel he has to check those emotions, free to say whatever he feels on the campaign trail, or at lunch with CNBC correspondent John Harwood.

However, the Republican Party as a whole seems to have an anger management problem today, unable to check its emotions at the door, easily subject to tirades when members don't get what they want.  Case in point, Tom Cotton's recent temper-tantrum over being shut down over an amendment he tried to introduce to the controversial Senate bill regarding the ongoing Iran negotiations.  Marco Rubio wasn't happy either, because his amendment to make Iran recognize Israel was also scuttled.

But, Ben Carson is free of all these nasty insider politics.  He's a man truly from the outside of the establishment.  What does he have to be so angry about?

This is a man who was not only feted by President Bush, but was invited to a national prayer breakfast by President Obama.  As it turned out, this proved to be the good doctor's watershed moment, as he attacked the President straight to his face, much to the delight of religious conservatives who were anxious to have someone stand up for their values.  He has been the Tea Party favorite ever since.  It doesn't matter that virtually all the other candidates have echoed the same sentiments, but coming from a highly regarded neurosurgeon, and dare I say Black man, these attacks obviously carry much more weight among the religious right wing of the GOP.

You really have to wonder how Dr. Ben Carson plans to bring the country together if he is essentially condemning half the population for being out of step with Christian values he promotes at every turn.  To him, just like many others on the Religious Right, our country wasn't established on Enlightenment principles, but rather on religious values.   These right wing ideologues hark back to the early days of the Puritians and John Winthrop's much overused "City upon a Hill" speech back in 1630.  Winthrop was referring to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but Republicans view it as the nation as a whole.  For guys like Dr. Ben it is like the Enlightenment never took place.



Maybe all this hate stems back to that time as well, as these early Christian soldiers weren't very forgiving, imposing a Biblical set of laws in 1641 that were severe, to say the least.  The dogma and utter viciousness of these fundamentalists eventually led to the revocation of its royal charter.  No matter, the colony no longer recognized the authority of the King anyway.

Today, we see a large group of religious hotheads similarly refusing to recognize the authority of the President, and even the Supreme Court if it doesn't rule in its favor.  Many of these fundamentalists retreat into the hills of Georgia or mountains of Idaho, building their survivalist communities, as they believe firmly that the End Times are upon us.  Others, like Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee, tap into these rebellious sentiments with the hope that it will carry them through the Republican primaries.  They simply refuse to accept the pluralist society we live in, and for some they would like to impose these religious values on the nation.

Dr. Ben Carson should know better, but it seems he is so steeped in his faith that he can no longer see beyond it, reverting to the same dogma that eventually did the Massachusetts Bay Colony in.  For him, President Obama represents everything that is wrong in the world, and so he directs all this deep-seated hatred at him every chance he gets.  He will probably never get another opportunity to say these things to his face, but will use every opportunity to repeat them, as he considers himself a "Christian soldier."

When you hear guys like Huckabee equating abortions with the Holocaust, or Carson calling "Obamacare" the worst thing since slavery, you really have to wonder what direction they plan on taking this country?  Do they really want to take us back to the early 17th century to that "Shining City Upon a Hill?"

Friday, May 8, 2015

Best Years of Our Lives




This being V-E Day, I thought it would be nice to remember our troops from World War II through one of the best movies made in their honor, The Best Years of Our Lives.  Unlike the many other war films of the era, William Wyler chose to deal with the aftermath of the war and how difficult it was for many of these former soldiers to readjust to civilian life.

As Bosley Crowther wrote in a review from 1946, the film "honestly and sensitively images the terrible loneliness of the man who has been hurt -- hurt not only physically but in the deep recesses of his self-esteem."  Most veterans got past these anxieties and adjusted to everyday life, but many fell through the cracks of society, as we have seen with each war.  Just as importantly, the film deals with the women in these former GIs' lives.

As we look at a united Europe today, we can say that the soldiers and the many, many civilians who died during this brutal war did not do so in vain.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Operation Red Dawn




Leave it to Texas to turn a seemingly simple military training exercise into a coup attempt.  Greg "Wheels" Abbott is not even six months on the job and he panicked, going with a story broke by Alex Jones on Infowars to call on the state militia to protect the Great State of Texas against presumed invaders from the North -- the U.S. Army.  One can understand Alex getting his panties in a wad, but as governor you would think Greg Abbott wouldn't fall for such paranoid nonsense.

Instead, we see Operation Red Dawn, a massive mobilization of state militia groups, only loosely affiliated with Texas.  These are private armies under the cover of the second amendment, which as a Texan I think you would be far more worried about than the U.S. Army, which is actually answerable to someone.  Of course, in this case it is the President, which is what got conservative Texans all lathered up, thinking Obama was overthrowing their state government and imposing a military junta.

It wasn't just Texas.  The US Army released a map in which it showed the locations of its training sites in the Southwest, showing Texas and Utah as "hostile" territories.  Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria had to brief residents in Bastrop, Texas, to insure them this was not a military coup.  However, Sen. Ted Cruz put in a call to the Pentagon just to make sure everything was on the up and up.

One of the lone conservative voices of reason in the State of Texas was former Governor Rick Perry, who told his fellow Texans to "stop being insane."  I imagine he had a few harsh words for his buddy "Wheels" for acting the way he did. but maybe Greg was just helping out his former boss, giving him the opportunity to look "Presidential."  After all, Rick is trailing pretty far behind in the GOP presidential straw polls.

Another possibility is that "Wheels" may have just been checking the preparedness of his state militia forces.  Apparently, they have been under the supervision of Chuck Norris, Texas Ranger, who was ready to mobilize his units at a moment's notice.

Of course, these groups are itching for any opportunity to brandish their weapons.  Just last year, the Oathkeepers were out in full force to protect Brother Cliven Bundy when the Bureau of Land Management had the audacity to confiscate his cattle after he had refused to pay grazing fees for 21 years.  Old Cliven claimed the BLM had no jurisdiction in Nevada.  That wasn't how the state courts saw it, but no matter, the BLM was forced to stand down, endearing Bundy and the Oathkeepers to conservatives across the nation.

You can never be too vigilant.  No matter how much we love our troops, until they are honorably discharged they still serve the federal government and are subject to the caprices of a socialist President who would love nothing more than to impose his will on the nation.  At least that is the way Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz see it.  Cruz even went so far to say that President Obama is responsible for this unrest, accusing the White House of not being "trustworthy" and that this kind of paranoia is "the natural consequence."

It will certainly make for a good movie script.  Red Dawn was remade in 2012, this time with a North Korean invasion in the Pacific Northwest, but I don't think many persons remember it.  What Americans seem to fear most is the enemy within.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

I ♥ Huckabee




Back in 2008, when Huck first ran for President, I kind of liked him.  He had a sense of humor, which was sorely lacking in McCain, Romney and Giuliani, and seemed to be a decent guy underneath his evangelical message.  The former Arkansas governor seized on the "moral majority" vote that had made Pat Robertson a serious contender in the 1988 election.  Huckabee carried 8 states and won over 4 million votes in the Republican primaries, undercutting Mitt's challenge to Mackie by half.

For some odd reason Huck sat out 2012, opening the field to a slough of Bible thumpers, who pretty much canceled each other out.  It looks like it is going to be the same thing again in 2016 as Huck finds himself among a crowded field all vying for the evangelical vote that makes up about 60 per cent of the Republican electorate.  His biggest challenge will probably be Dr. Ben Carson, who is a favorite among the religious right wing, although utterly humorless.

Can Huck find that same magic he found in 2008?  He has been busily promoting his new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, on the talk show circuit, including The Daily Show, where he continued to show off some of his trademark humor.  However, he no longer is as tolerant as he appeared to be 8 years ago, sounding off on what he regards to be the promiscuous nature of contemporary women, worst personified in Beyonce.

Huck can essentially kiss the women's vote goodbye, as he also attacked the women of Fox news for not being ladylike.  If this is his strategy, it isn't a very sound one, as the redneck vote in the Republican Party isn't going to carry you very far beyond the southern states.

It seems Huck has some other reason to be running for President than to win.  He was a relative nobody in 2008, who managed to tap into the religious conservative base of the party, parlaying that into a spot on Fox News, numerous appearances on other networks and conservative gatherings, and books.  He has no less than ten titles to his credit listed on amazon, including two on the conservative meaning of Christmas, one aimed at children.  They've all been greatly discounted, some titles for as little as a penny in case you are interested.  Not bad for a boy from Hope, Arkansas.  This is how he lives now.

Huck doesn't have to use any of his money to run.  He has a Super PAC called Pursuing America's Greatness, which he launched on Fox News.  Rather, his supporters launched it and he just spoke about it, as he is supposed to be unaffiliated with it.  It's a clever ruse, which Stephen Colbert parodied last time around with his own Super PAC.  It allows a candidate to have an unlimited amount of contributions to be raised in his name with little or no scrutiny.  The political action committee doesn't even have to disclose who the contributors are.

For the next two years, Huck can go around the country charming the religious conservative electorate with his stories about BB guns, and how it is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible, to paraphrase George Washington.  Win or lose, Huck gets all this wonderful exposure on someone else's nickel.  I don't know why more persons don't run for President. It's an effective publicity tool.  At the end of the campaign, he can parlay it into his own television network, I ♥ Huckabee, and give Glenn Beck a run for his money.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jeb and the Fatman



Jeb "the Caveman" Bush and Chris "the Fatman" Christie seem content to bide their time while others declare their candidacies.  No real hurry I guess, especially since both have Super PACs raising bucket loads of cash, with fetching titles like The Right to Rise and American Leads.  Jeb has made the unprecedented move of turning over key campaign functions to his Super PAC, freeing him up to present himself on the campaign trail rather constantly worry about raising funds.  The bulk of his financing is expected to come through the Super PAC.  Governor Christie will probably follow suit.

The two are hoping that as governors they will draw on the widespread dissatisfaction with "Inside the Beltway" politics. They also represent relatively moderate views within the GOP, unlike former Governor Huck, expected to declare himself this week, who is planning to go after the religious conservative heart of the Republican Party.

Jeb is polling pretty well at this stage.  Christie lags far behind, but if the last election cycle is any indication, polling numbers will fluctuate wildly in the coming  months.   Maybe Christie should opt for the Caveman diet that Jeb has embarked on to get rid of that "doughboy" look.

He barely lost the 1994 governor's race in Florida to Lawton Chiles, touting his school vouchers, otherwise he might have been running for President in 2000 and not his brother George, who surprisingly upstaged Ann Richards in Texas the same year.  Jeb won in 1998 but it would have been unseemly for a governor less than two years into his first term to run for President, so the GOP establishment went with George.

Chris Christie is testing the waters with social security reform, promoting a leaner meaner system that would purportedly leave more money for the next generation.  If he is so worried about everyone paying and getting his or her fair share, he would raise the maximum taxable income limit on FICA, which currently sits at $118,500, but that would be a tax hike and we can't have that.

Their ideas sit well with establishment Republicans, so they will both be well funded on the campaign trail, but first Christie has to get himself out from under this Washington Bridge scandal that has haunted him since his re-election in 2013.

Jeb is sufficiently far removed from the mess he created in Florida with his voucher system, which failed to improve the school system.  It's Rick Scott's mess now. That doesn't stop Jeb from dabbling in education though, even going so far as to join hands with President Obama on common core and other reform measures.  The big reason for the plummeting state ranking in Florida is because the education budget was essentially gutted during Bush's terms in office.  Florida has one of the lowest per capita rates in state funding.  Rick Scott's property tax cuts didn't help matters any.

Unfortunately, both Jeb and Christie get away with a lot thanks to the friendly media, which repeatedly lets them both off the hook.  They offer contrasting styles, much like the old television show, but their motives are the same.  They want to defund the national government just like they have their state governments, putting domestic programs deep into the red and subject to spending cuts.

Their answer is to privatize education with charter schools, which failed to be the magic elixir many imaged, including Arne Duncan, who heads up Obama's education cabinet.  Christie joined then mayor Cory Booker on a similar charter school scheme in Newark. which hasn't worked out very well either.  Do you really want to trust these guys with your children?

For now, they are running shadow presidential campaigns, with their Super PACs promoting their names. They have another governor to contend with in Scott Walker, but he has a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth, so my guess is they won't have to worry too much about him.  The only question is do these two cancel each other out?  If so, will they join forces to battle the GOP presidential field as Jeb and the Fatman?






Monday, May 4, 2015

Weekend with Bernie



Looks like the Bernie for President campaign might not be a joke after all.  His campaign reported it raised $1.5 million in the 24 hours after his announcement, outpacing Republican hopefuls on their first day of campaigning.  Hillary didn't disclose her first day contributions.   Bernie is running a grass roots campaign much like Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown ran in 1984 and 1992 respectively.  Being a vehement critic of big money in the campaign, there will be no Bernie Super PAC raising money for him on the fringes.  As a result, he will find himself at a distinct disadvantage financially versus Hillary.  That might actually work for him, like it did Jackson and Brown, who scored big primary victories in their campaigns, although they were eventually routed by Walter Mondale and Bill Clinton.

Bernie comes across as Howard Beale from the movie Network.  Glaring at the camera with his disheveled hair, Bernie looks angry most of the time, but every once in a while a smile comes across his lips as though he has driven his point home.  He wants a political revolution against the billionaire oligarchs he feels are controlling the election process.  No argument there, but is Hillary really a part of that "class?"  If so, he threatens to mount a Tea Party-like campaign within the Democratic Party.

Twenty-plus years ago I would have been attracted to Bernie, but today there is too much on the line to play around with insurgent candidates.  I would hate to see the Democratic primaries turned into a three-ring circus, which appears to be the case with the GOP primaries now that Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have announced their candidacies.

Not that the Democratic Party doesn't need a little shaking up.  It has grown stagnant in the last eight years, failing to generate any viable candidate for President other than Hillary Clinton, which has left many rank and file Democrats feeling they have been shortchanged.  Can Bernie tap into this dissatisfied mass?

Hillary has already adopted much the same message, aiming her campaign at a disgruntled middle class that doesn't feel its wages have kept up with the increased cost of living.  But, Hillary does come from the moneyed class, so you have to wonder how far she would go with reforms.  She certainly isn't going to exclude Super PACs from her campaign.  Ready for Hillary may look like a grass roots movement but it is a well-funded Super PAC.

Bernie estimates he will need $150 to $200 million to mount a serious challenge.  Even with this kind of money, he will be well short of the political juggernauts Hillary and Jeb Bush are assembling.  However, if he turns out to be the only one running against Hillary in the Democratic primaries, he should generate a lot of free publicity in the news, which he has already done.

Mostly, I think he is there to keep Hillary honest, as I don't think he feels he has a real chance here.  At 73, he represents the graying ideals of the Democratic Party.  Hillary isn't exactly a spring chicken, but she is more in step with the current nature of the electorate.  It would have been nice to see a younger candidate, say Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, who gave the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but he like many others chose to stand aside for Hillary.  Not Bernie.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Queen's Suite




Queen Elizabeth is coming ever closer to Queen Victoria's 63 years on the throne.  She was crowned back in June, 1953, and among many of the tributes to her in the years that followed was this suite composed by Duke Ellington, which first premiered in 1958 and he recorded in 1959 and sent her a copy.  He meant it as a gift to her and never released it in his lifetime.  Some wonder if the Queen herself ever listened to it.  But, the suite was revived in honor of her Diamond Jubilee.  My favorite piece is "The Single Petal of a Rose," the fifth part of the suite.

Duke Ellington had long been known for his masterful arrangements.  Black, Brown and Beige was his signature suite, with Mahalia Jackson lending her voice to this truly magisterial jazz symphony, released in 1958.  It had first premiered in 1943, and he had reshaped it with the help of Billy Strayhorn in the time between.  He had also given perhaps his most memorable performance at Newport in 1956, and followed it up with another rousing performance in 1958.  Here was Ellington at the pinnacle of his career being presented to the Queen at a private reception for the Leeds Festival that year.

It's a shame the suite doesn't get more attention, if for no other reason than the social importance of this historic meeting.  It would be three years later that John F. Kennedy named Ellington to lead a delegation to Ceylon as part of a goodwill tour.  This experience would serve as his inspiration for the beautiful Far East Suite, released in 1967.  Here is Mount Harissa.   Ellington was eventually honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, by Richard Nixon.


Royal envy




It was round the clock baby coverage yesterday as a new royal baby was born.  It seems we just can't get enough of this ongoing soap opera, with everyone speculating what the name of the new princess will be, whether Alice or Charlotte or some other name evoking the royal lineage like Victoria.  The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, better known as William and Kate, have decided to keep their adoring public in suspense.

What I find most amusing is that Americans are over 200 years removed from our secession from the British empire, yet still hinge on royal events the same way member countries of the Commonwealth do.  Obviously, we still have a latent desire for this long lost royalty, especially when we see such fetching princesses as Diana and Kate, who have stolen much of the glamour from the royal family, even the royal Corgies.

Since it doesn't seem Queen Elizabeth II is going to pass away any time soon, there is talk she might step down to let Charles enjoy the royal throne.  He has to be one of the longest Princes in waiting at age 66.  However, much of the public would prefer to see him step aside for William and Kate, who garner the lion's share of royal publicity.



We've had our "royal families" in the past.  When John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy and their young family were in the White House, it was seen as Camelot, but tragically this moment was all too brief.  The Obamas similarly brought a young great looking family into the White House but haven't enjoyed that same royal stature.  I guess you need a pedigree like the Kennedies, whose wealth was enormous.  So much so that JFK donated his presidential salary to charity.

Despite Republican complaints that the Obamas are scrooges when it comes to charity, tax reports show that they donate about 15 per cent of their annual income to charity, or approximately $250,000.  In presidential salary terms that is about 60 per cent.

But, royalty isn't something earned.  It is something bestowed, even during times of chaos when Victoria ascended to the thrown in 1837.  She was the daughter of Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III, who had lost America, and wasn't given much chance of gaining the throne.  However, all three sons died ahead of Edward, and he had previously died as well, leaving her as the sole legitimate heir to the throne.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal brood

This began a 63-year reign known as the Victorian Era, in which the United States grew rapidly and by the end of the 19th century was virtually on par economically with Great Britain.  A great accumulation of wealth took place during this time with Newport, Rhode Island, a veritable who's who of America's industrial elite. The glitter of the mansions along the coastline were designed to rival the royal estates in the United Kingdom.  This became the location of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in which virtually anyone could amass a fortune, build a fabulous mansion and consider himself royalty.  However, best not to take someone else's wife or you may end up face down in your swimming pool.

The Kennedies sprung up during this era.  Papa Joe made his initial money as a bootlegger, before starting a political dynasty in Massachusetts that lasted well over a century.  The ascension of John F. Kennedy to the White House gave the family a royal bearing unlike any other political dynasty in America, and tragically made them targets as well.

We hear a lot of talk of political dynasties today.  The Bush political dynasty is probably the closest thing the Republican party has to the Kennedy dynasty, dating back to the 1950s when Prescott Bush parlayed his banking career into a Senate seat in Congress.  But, there has never been much excitement in the Bushes.



This is different from a husband and wife power couple like the Clintons, which we have seen several times before politically.  For instance, Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith, wielded considerable power in the White House, especially toward the end of her husband's second term when he was too infirmed to be in control of his administration.  But, none of these executive spouses chose to run for the oval office herself, which is what makes Hillary Clinton unique and a target as well.

The US could have chosen to stay within the empire and be a commonwealth nation like Canada, but we just couldn't accept paying taxes without due representation in the British parliament.  The Stamp Act was the last straw as far as many colonialists were concerned.  It seems Americans feel the same way about Washington these days, determined to keep their money at the state level where they feel they have better representation, or at least representation closer to their political bent.

But, that doesn't stop us from fawning over the royal family the same way the Brits do, seeming to wish we had one of our own.  You could turn the channel anywhere you wanted yesterday, and you would have still seen coverage of Kate's long anticipated delivery and her coming out with the new princess in her arms with charming Prince William at her side.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Travels with Tocqueville




I saw Richard Reeves latest title, Infamy, and thought it an odd subject for a historian who made himself famous by his profiles of Presidents.  I decided to peruse his other titles and landed on American Journey, in which he traces the path of Tocqueville around the country from 1831-32 looking for the essence of our Democracy.  Reviews were mixed, but for a pence from amazon.co.uk who can resist.

As Robert Nisbet notes in his review that Tocqueville is also an odd choice for Reeves, as Alexis was "a profoundly conservative young aristocrat interested in the United States as a sociobiologist is interested in a community of birds or animals."  Reeves is every bit the American liberal but he has tackled conservative figures like Nixon and Reagan in his biographies, so it seems that his reading of Tocqueville had an influence on him.

I had read Democracy in America after being goaded by Goliard in the old NY Times book forum, as he saw this as a seminal book in American politics.  Tocqueville assessed the fallout from the Andrew Jackson landslide electoral victory and came to the conclusion that the young country was run by a "tyranny of the majority."  He offers some profound insights into the nature of the US Constitution and how it differs from the state constitutions in terms of the individual vs. the community, but throughout we sense the young aristocrat's distaste for Jackson, who he sees as nothing more than a populist figure who managed to hoodwink the country with the false illusion of democracy.  I could see how a book like this would appeal to conservatives like Goliard, but wondered why it was continually cited by liberals as well.  It will be interesting to read Reeves' take on Tocqueville.

For others, especially a young Walt Whitman, Jackson represented a seismic shift in American politics.  His election in 1828 brought to an end the last remnants of the Federalist era in John Quincy Adams, who had scored a narrow electoral victory over Jackson in 1824.  Jackson refused to renew the charter on the National Bank, and wanted to decentralize the national government, which the Federalists had worked so hard to achieve.  Jackson cited Jefferson as his inspiration, but Jefferson had upheld much of the Federalist structure, as had Madison and Monroe and J.Q. Adams.

By contrast, Tocqueville saw the Founding Fathers as iconic figures and couldn't understand why Americans would turn their backs on them.  Americans hadn't.  They just saw them in a completely different light than did Tocqueville, Jefferson especially.

From today's stand point, Jackson would be seen as a Teabagger, but in the 1940s he was seen as the founding inspiration of the Democratic Party, and revered by historians like Arthur Schlesinger, who praised him in The Age of Jackson.   It's odd considering that Jackson was the very antithesis of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who Schlesinger also praised, but the young historian made a very convincing case for Jacksonian Democracy just the same.

I don't know how much of these dichotomies Reeves pursued in his 1982 travels with Tocqueville, but there is no doubting the influence Tocqueville has had on historians and politicians over the last two centuries.  Goliard was right about that.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Ugly American




I suppose being the youngest member of the Senate is a bit like being the youngest child, you feel the need to shout to be heard, and boy has Tom Cotton been doing a lot of shouting these days.  His latest twitter rant did attract the attention of the Iranian foreign minister, but probably not in the way he wanted.  Javad Zarif isn't wasting much of his time with Young Mr. Cotton, who seems to think he is the real voice of American foreign policy, challenging Zarif to a "debate."

It wouldn't be so bad if senior GOP statesmen like John McCain or Lindsey Graham would take shouting Tom out to the wood shed and give him a good caning, which he richly deserves.  Instead, they coddle him like a spoiled child.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that Tom is a former soldier, apparently in an effort to prove his manhood.  He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 4-year stint in between his law and political career, and we all know how much America has fallen in love with its men and women in uniform.  The second is that he unseated a long standing Democratic Senator from Arkansas, Mark Pryor, thanks to his Tea Party friends.  This apparently gives Young Tom clout in Washington.

However, it doesn't give him the right to try to undercut American foreign policy with his open letters and twitter rants, which only serve as a great embarrassment to himself and the Republican Party.  To think the GOP once prided itself on foreign policy, but now allows young upstarts like Tom Cotton to dictate its policy positions.

His little publicity stunt certainly didn't endear him to the military.  Major General Paul D. Eaton fired back at the open letter Cotton wrote the Iranian foreign ministry, which included the signatures of 46 fellow GOP senators.  General Eaton called the letter mutinous, further stating that it was "a gross breach of discipline, and especially as a veteran of the Army, he should know better."

Unlike former Army Lieutenant Tom Cotton, the US military still respects the President and abides by his decisions.  In this case, most military advisers fully support his decision to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran.   Yet, the conservative right wing continues to claim that this deal only serves to embolden Iran and puts allies like Israel in peril.  Oddly enough,  Mossad supports the negotiations as well.  Its military chief criticized Israeli PM Netanyahu and the US Republicans for trying to sabotage these efforts to broker a nuclear deal.  

The Republicans refuse to heed any of this unsolicited advice and proceed to find ways to undermine the President's authority.  A few Republicans stress caution, notably Bob Corker, who first introduced the bill that would give the Senate the right of refusal on the Iran nuclear agreement the President is pursuing.  Corker apparently still wants to give the President some discretion on the matter, toning down the original harsh language.  He felt he was on the verge of a veto-proof bill, thanks to widespread Democratic support, notably future minority leader Chuck Schumer.  However, an amendment co-sponsored by Marco Rubio and Cotton insists that Iran recognize Israel, which of course would kill any deal.  But, that's the whole point, isn't it?

Cotton's twitter rant is further proof that the Republicans don't want any part of a deal with Iran.  They would prefer to see the country remain a pariah state despite the fact that Iranian military forces are helping Iraqi military forces rein in ISIL.  But, Young Tom doesn't give a rat's ass.  For him and many other Republicans, Iran will forever remain a part of the axis of evil.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

We Will Not Obey!




So say Christian leaders, who among other things are asking Justices Ginsburg and Kagan to recuse themselves from the final vote on the case to legalize same-sex marriage across the country.  Of course, such brashness has come to be expected from the religious right, who created this situation by pressing for these State Restoration of Religious Freedom Acts across the country.

The funny part is that these religious conservatives regard Justice Ginsburg as biased because she spoke out on the case.  Has Justice Scalia been any less outspoken?  Should he recuse himself as well?

It has been a very raucous proceeding, with most of the justices speaking out at one point or another.  It is pretty clear that Justices Scalia, Alito and Thomas have made up their minds, just as have Kagan and Ginsburg.  This leaves the balance in the hands of Sotomayor, Beyer, Roberts and Kennedy.  I'm guessing the vote abolishing gay marriage bans goes 6-3 with the religious right clamoring for the recall of Roberts and Kennedy.

Sadly, it is the ugly battle we have come to expect on civil rights issues.   Our nation remains as deeply divided as ever.  It has always struggled to accept change, especially what it regards to be religious moral values.  You'd be hard pressed to find any direct reference to homosexuality in the Bible.  One diligent reader managed to find eight references in the Old Testament, most of them oblique, but none in the New Testament.  For many on the religious right, the Old Testament trumps the New Testament. True of the Vatican as well, which hasn't brought itself to see homosexuality as appropriate sexual behavior.  However, Pope Francis famously said, "Who am I to judge them?" forcing religious conservatives to do a lot of hand wringing.

The religious right would have us believe that by accepting gay marriage we will bring God's wrath down upon us, as he did Sodom and Gomorrah.  They see themselves as the messengers of God, who were sexually assaulted by the evil men of Sodom, not stopping to think that they are the ones doing all the bullying here.

This is what Pope Francis emphatically spoke out against.  Not like hard-line Catholics Scalia and Alito are paying any attention.  They have effectively used the Supreme Court as a bully pulpit for expressing their own religious convictions.  Scalia was particularly upset when the Supreme Court voted not to delay same-sex marriage in Alabama over state protests.  He joined Clarence Thomas in a blistering dissent of this ruling.

Whether state pastors, politicians and pizza vendors choose to abide by the decision or not, states will no longer be able to explicitly ban gay marriage or discriminate against same-sex married couples.  After all, the US Constitution, which these Supreme Court justices swore to uphold, is about individual rights, not what some regard to be the word of God.