Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I bought the Rabbit Angstrom a few years back but still haven't gotten around to reading it.  I have mixed feelings about Updike after reading In the Beauty of the Lilies and Gertrude and Claudius.  I liked his prequel to Hamlet better.  Rich in language and story telling, it was what enticed me to buy Rabbit omnibus, which he is best known for.

Adam Begley is the latest to tackle Updike.  There are few writers who have left such an indelible print on American literature, but reviews have been mixed.  Harold Bloom called him "a minor writer with a major style," and other critics have bemoaned Updike's obsession with sex and its consequences.   Begley apparently steers away from literary criticism and focuses on the writer himself, giving us a lavish biography replete with many anecdotes like a dinner conversation with Philip Roth that went sour over the Vietnam War.

Updike tended to shun politics but found himself a tool of the US State department, which sent him off on a 6-week tour of the USSR to promote American culture in 1964.  Johnson also had a soft spot for Updike, inviting him to the White House in 1965.  Mary Updike dragged him along on a March on Boston, where Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech later that year.  Like it or not, Updike soon found himself part of the events swirling around him, and became a target for critics who felt his books didn't reflect these events in any meaningful way.

According to Begley, Updike was most at home when he was writing about himself.  His books appeared to be more about technique than substance, which I guess was what infuriated critics who were expecting something more from American literature.  But, in an odd way Updike probably best summed up the contemporary American experience with his narcissistic characters who often seemed oblivious to the world around them until it was too late.

That isn't to say that Updike didn't delve into politics.  Christopher Hitchens offers this review of Terrorist (2006), with references back to the earlier The Coup (1978).  Hitch was none too pleased with the later effort, hurling the book across the room at one point.  He was disgusted with the numerous cliches and wrong notes that in his mind made this book a real clunker.  It seems that Updike never escaped his Puritan roots, struggling desperately to make sense of an alien culture.

However, Updike has a rich bibliography that amply overcomes such misguided efforts.  He ended with a return to Eastwick in a much better praised novel that seemed the appropriate note on which to sign off.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Mouse that Roared

It would seem that the boys at Fox have thin skin.  First, Bill O'Reilly apparently told Gabriel Sherman to "drop dead, man!" at a little soire held by the Hollywood Reporter at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, leading Sherman to offer his account of the evening.  Of course, it goes a long to plugging his own book on Roger Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, which seems to have set Big Bill and everyone else at Fox off.  O'Reilly hulked over the diminutive Sherman to the point the young writer thought Bill might take him out.

But, this is nothing compared to the verbal fist-a-cuffs we have seen between O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert in recent weeks, as "Papa Bear" got notably upset over Colbert mocking the auction of his notes from the Super Bowl interview with President Obama.  Then came an unflattering segment on Bill's tough stance opposing equal pay for women.  

Colbert has long adopted a conservative persona that he has said is modeled on the O'Reilly Factor, which he holds up as the paragon of conservative values.  This endless mocking seems to have taken its toll on Papa Bear, who got visibly snippy with Colbert and vented his rage when he heard Colbert had been tapped to fill David Letterman's seat on the Late Show.  O'Reilly vowed to lead a boycott against Colbert when his "protege" takes over the Late Show.

All this would be highly amusing if Fox News didn't take itself so seriously, but apparently it still regards itself as "fair and balanced," even after the Cliven Bundy fiasco. Its pundits, notably Sean Hannity, were forced to tone down their support of the Nevada cattle baron.  Jon Stewart had a field day with this brazen partisanship, taking the pious Fox pundit to task for his effusive support of Bundy.  Hannity got very upset and devoted a segment of his own to Jon Stewart, only to be taken down again the following day.

For most of us, we only watch Fox News via Comedy Central, but this network has a sizable viewing audience, albeit a rather elder one, and still appears to be highly influential in the Republican Party. This was the subject of Sherman's book, noting how Ailes worked his way up through the Republican ranks and then hatched the idea of a propaganda news arm of the GOP to Rupert Murdoch, who provided $200 million in seed money back in the mid 90s.

In its nearly 20 years on the screen it has never steered very far away from the conservative fold, although it has lured a few liberal types like Juan Williams and Bob Beckel over to the dark side to create the illusion of being non-partisan.  

Stephen and Jon plotting their strategy
You would think that with all this clout, Fox and its pundits would shrug off the endless jibing from Comedy Central faux news programs, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  However, O'Reilly and Hannity view Stewart and Colbert as part of a young liberal conspiracy designed to undermine their programs, and the thought that Colbert is now moving up to CBS has O'Reilly literally squirming in his seat.

All this reminds me of that wonderful Peter Sellers' movie, The Mouse That Roared, where a tiny country threatens the hegemony of the United States.  It seems that Comedy Central is now a network to be reckoned with.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Fix

"Shoeless Joe" Jackson in 1919 World Series
It never ceases to amaze me how films garner a certain dignity over time.  It was 25 years ago when Field of Dreams came out.  Kevin Costner was America's golden boy fresh off the highly successful film, Bull Durham, a much better baseball movie.  But, it was this "shaggy doggerel" of a story which was nominated for Best Picture of 1989.  Fortunately, it didn't win, but Costner found his mark the following year in Dances with Wolves, in which he traded the corn fields of Iowa for the Dakota plains.

I guess everyone loves a redemption story.  In this case, Ray Kinsella (Costner) has a dream in which he is compelled to build a baseball field for the infamous Chicago "Black Sox" who threw the 1919 World Series.  Of course, everyone thinks Kinsella is crazy but his wife sticks by him as he plows over the corn field and starts building his ball park, all because the voice in his head told him, "if you build it, they will come." Sure enough they do, if only in his fevered imagination with the White Sox given a chance to win back the series from the Cincinnati Reds.

The movie was based on a novel by W.P. Kinsella a few years earlier, who no doubt had read Eliot Asinof's classic account, Eight Men Out, which told the history of the World Series scandal.  But neither Kinsella nor the filmmakers deal much in the particulars of the case, but rather some cornball metaphysical tale in which these guys get the chance to replay the World Series.

The White Sox were a sure bet to win the series, which is why the Chicago mob decided to get to the players, and swing the series to the Cincinnati Reds with the much higher betting odds.  Asinof illustrates that it didn't take much to throw a game.  A missed catch here, a miffed swing there made all the difference in the world, and the mob and players involved considered the slights undetectable.  However, Ring Lardner, who covered the Sox, smelled something was amiss.  "The Fix" was eventually ratted out. Eight players stood accused of throwing the series, including "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, who many felt wasn't involved.  He became the central player in Kinsella's novel, and played by Ray Liotta in the movie.

All the players involved were banned from baseball for life, but that didn't mean they couldn't redeem themselves after death.  The quasi-religious theme sat better with the audience than did John Sayles' independent movie, Eight Men Out, the year before.  This film seems to be mostly remembered by baseball fans, despite a great cast that included John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd and David Strathairn.

Don't Fence Me In

I'm reminded of the line, "Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don't fence me in," as Greg Abbott tries to carry the stick of Cliven Bundy over a faux battle for 140 acres of land along the Oklahoma-Texas border.

Apparently, Wendy is gaining some ground in the Texas governor's race, although she is still 12 points behind.  I guess this is too close for "Wheels."  Why else would Abbott make hay over what could best be described as silt and cottonwood trees along the Red River?  Of course, the conservative hell hounds at Breitbart Texas have blown the "land grab" up to 90,000 acres along a 116 mile stretch of the river, evoking the cattle call of Bundy.

The dispute goes back to 1986 but the bad guys are "Obama's BLM," because naturally everything that is bad in this world can be directly linked to our current POTUS.  Abbott is hoping that he can rally Texans around the Gonzales flag of 1835.  I guess he needed something to counteract the success of Obamacare, as Southern Republicans now find themselves on the defensive in their assault on the Affordable Care Act.

However, as Peter Weber notes in his article in The Week, this isn't a smart move.  The Lone Star State hasn't exactly been kind to private land owners over the years.  Abbott was involved in the eviction of a fundamentalist branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints still practicing polygamy in West Texas.  The state claimed the 1700-acre ranch after the leader was convicted of pedophile charges.  Abbott has also used eminent domain to help secure land for oil companies, and taken landowners to court who refused to yield to these greater Texas interests.

Instead of sounding like a tough guy, Abbott sounds more like a whining coyote looking to deflect attention away from a notorious track record that Wendy Davis has been airing out on the campaign trail.  With 6 months left to stump, there is plenty of time to turn 12 per cent of the vote around, especially since many are still undecided with Abbott barely edging over 50 per cent of the polling.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A new banner

I was thinking of a banner that would better reflect this blog and came up with The Independent American Reader.  Initially I was thinking of something mineralogical as I sometimes like to think of myself more as an armchair geologist than historian, picking away at the layers of news media with the hope of uncovering some interesting vein, or negotiating the rough currents like my favorite geologist John Wesley Powell.  But, I thought that was getting a little too metaphorical and went with a more straightforward title.  The American Reader had already been taken.

This blog was originally intended as a reading group for American history, but I post more and more on contemporary news stories, films, music and other items to hopefully draw more persons into this blog.  I greatly appreciate all those who do check it out, but would love to see more feedback.  The posts are open for comments.  If you are not a Blogger subscriber, your comments will appear as anonymous, so you can still retain your privacy if you like.

The Reading Group remains an integral part of this blog, although we haven't done one in awhile.  Please feel free to post your suggestions.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The New Gilded Age

I guess if we needed any further proof that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer, Capital by Thomas Picketty is it.  Judging by the reactions to the book, Picketty offers a very sober and disturbing portrait of wealth and democracy.

As Paul Krugman and other economists have long argued, we have drifted into a new "Gilded Age," where the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few exceeds economic growth therefor leading to a greater consolidation of wealth, which only further stagnates the economy.  Picketty, a French economist, provides a method of research to bolster this argument, charting the distribution of wealth back to the late 18th century, with particular focus on early 20th century Britain and America, which Krugman refers to.

Picketty offers hard numbers which are hard to refute, but what critics do dispute is Picketty's belief that the only way to restore balance is to institute a Global Wealth Tax, especially given that a staggering $21 trillion is hidden offshore, out of reach of any individual country.  This sum is greater than the combined GDP of the United States and Japan.

It makes you think of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged where the world's wealth was silently disappearing, as wealthy industrialists essentially opted out of the New Deal, creating their hidden society in the Rocky Mountains.  It may have seemed like fantasy then, but appears to be very much the reality today, only much of this money is socked away in secretive accounts in exotic places like the Cayman Islands.

Little wonder Ayn Rand is being quoted so often these days, and her book held in high regard by many conservative economists including the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.  But, Picketty argues against the idea of an unrestrained "free market" as it has only served to widen the gap between rich and poor, not created a competitive and fair market place.

The irony is that the very persons we would expect to address this issue have aided and abetted the wealthy elite by furthering the globalization of the economy.  Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were major advocates of globalization and pushed the US and Great Britain in this direction during their long tenures.  Granted, the foundations had been set by their more conservative predecessors, Reagan and Thatcher, but they offered virtually no resistance by easing financial regulations across the board, and offering copious tax cuts to "spur" their respective economies.

Since 1963, when Kennedy first introduced tax cuts as part of a stimulus bill, which Johnson later pushed through Congress, we have seen a steady reduction in federal taxes and an ever increasing national debt as a result, with the government still carrying many of the New Deal "burdens" conservative critics love to bemoan.

Clinton was going to end welfare as we know it, falling in line with the Republican "Contract with America" which called for greater domestic cuts to balance the tax cuts.  But, he failed to address the spiraling costs of Medicare and other federal programs that now haunt the Obama administration.  The Democrats attempted to address these skyrocketing health care costs with the Affordable Care Act, which in itself is a conservative response to health care costs, although you would never know it by the fierce rhetoric of the Republicans.

Meanwhile, we see only superficial cuts in military spending, which accounts for no less than 20 per cent of the annual budget.  Add in other "security" related expenditures and that percentage is close to 40% of the annual budget.  Yet, we see few conservative politicians asking for the kind of draconian cuts we have seen in social programs.  Instead, they clamor over themselves in support of the military, extolling the troops in battle when in actuality it is the defense contracts they badly want back in their states.

I find this deeply unsettling as we seem to be drifting toward a corporate fascist state, with the military serving as Teddy Roosevelt's metaphorical "Big Stick," which John McCain recently alluded to.  We appear to have completely turned our backs on the "Great Society" Johnson envisioned in the 60s with increased spending on housing, education and welfare to end poverty as we know it.  Or, for that matter TR imagined back in the Gilded Age, only to be thwarted at every turn by wealthy industrialists (Ayn Rand's Titans).

I guess Bill Clinton and Tony Blair decided that if you can't beat them, join them, and as a result they greatly accelerated the process with their embrace of "Globalization."  The income gap didn't seem so pronounced back in the 90s with a rapidly growing GDP, but as Thomas Picketty notes, once growth peters out, wealth inequality becomes much more visible.  Unable to get any meaningful financial reform passed in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, and further adding to the national debt with renewed tax cuts, the Obama administration has been unable to address the wealth imbalance in any appreciable way, which is why we see such a disgruntled American public.  Unfortunately, getting any tax increase through Congress seems as distant a notion as it was back in the 90s, let alone a "Global Wealth Tax."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Post-Racial Blues

Do we live in a post-racial society?  Matt Bai seems to think so, writing a  long piece (at least by Yahoo! standards) on why the Democrats are making too much about race.  He tries to break the country down demographically, lumping Americans into three "cohorts," or generations, with the baby boomers being the most racially sensitive. Therefor, we can excuse Eric Holder, Nancy Pelosi and Steve Israel for speaking out on racism.

Matt falls into the Gen X group, which in his view remains "a minefield of racial tensions to be explored and negotiated."  A group that more or less rallied around Obama hoping that his election would usher in a post-racial society only to be left somewhat chagrined that things are more or less still the same.

The third group is Gen Y, or the Millennials as they have recently been dubbed, who according to Matt seem to think race is no big deal and have accepted things more or less as they are.

That's all well and good except that racism cuts across these generations and is not so easily categorized.   Steve Israel believes that much of the opposition to bills in Congress is racially motivated and largely directed at the President.  The ACA being a classic case in point.  It was a bill drawn up by the previously Democratic House (2007-2011) before Obama became President, but as the bill moved toward ratification in the Senate, after he assumed office, it became derogatorily identified with his presidency and harshly used against him ever since.

To Obama's credit, he has assiduously avoided bringing up race, knowing full well the repercussions.  This is a public which for the most part considers itself living in a post-racial society and doesn't want to be reminded of the Civil Rights struggle.  When Eric Holder questioned the motivations behind what he regards as unprecedented attacks against this administration, there were those who felt he was playing the "race card," a taboo in today's society.

Holder has long irked Republicans, who have gone after him tooth and nail from day one.  The most recent broadside is a bill put forward by Texas US Representative Blake Farenthold that would prohibit federal employees found in contempt of Congress from receiving paychecks. This bill is expressly aimed at Holder, who they personally hold accountable for the botched "Fast and Furious" gunwalking scandal, among other grievances.

Matt is quick to point out that such attacks are nothing new and that the Clinton administration faced similar scrutiny.  He seems to think the GOP has "profound and principled disagreements" with the Obama administration which are not in any way racially motivated.

Ms. Pelosi takes exception to this view point in regard to immigration. Past Republican administrations did pass immigration reform bills along similar lines, but for whatever reason the current Republican House refuses to budge on the issue, even though a bipartisan bill passed the Senate.  It seems that once again the so-called "amnesty bill" has become attached to Obama, who would find his paycheck being withheld if representatives like Blake had their way.

Farenthold is an interesting character, as he managed to edge out the former representative from District 27, Solomon Ortiz, in the pivotal 2010 midterms, after which the district was significantly redrawn to have much fewer Latino voters.  He easily won re-election in 2012.  Yet, we are to believe that the House Republicans' stance against immigration is not racially motivated.

It is because of all this gerrymandering that took place after 2010 that the House of Representatives appears to be rock solid Republican and a constant irritant to the White House.  Many of the new Representatives are Teabaggers, and have taken a hard line on every contentious issue from immigration to gay marriage, resulting in what Steve Israel feels is a Republican base "animated by racism."

New York Rep. Israel may be part of an older generation who is more sensitive to race, but Blake belongs to the same generation.  It seems that Blake learned nothing from the Civil Rights movement, as is the case with many of his Republican colleagues in the House.  They seem to be "Goldwaterites" (to use Jackie Robinson's term) who view civil rights legislation as an imposition and that everything was just fine before 1964.

If this is a post-racial society then we haven't moved very far forward.  We seem to be fighting many of the same battles.  Our communities are still racially subdivided for the most part, and as a result so are schools.  Kids grow up largely in racially defined communities with many of the same prejudices, fears and hatreds as did previous generations.  What they learn is largely through the Internet and what ever books their school districts deem appropriate.  The only difference is that the barriers are less visible than they were in the 60s.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Sagebrush Rebellion

Bundy's cattle
Nevada ranchers are proclaiming they "Won the West," after the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service backed down in a malingering dispute with local ranchers over grazing rights on federal lands.

Back in 1989 the desert tortoise was put on the endangered species list, and in order to accommodate this indigenous animal of the region the BLM and NPS restricted grazing lands, which greatly reduced the amount of land Cliven Bundy  could graze his cattle on.  The tortoise is a symbol of Nevada and is protected by the state as well.

Since 1993, Cliven has brazenly refused to heed the new grazing restrictions and also refused to pay his monthly fees, approximately $1.35 per head of cattle per month.  As a result he now owes over $1 million in back fees, penalties, fines and interest.  It seems Cliven had no problem paying his fees before then, which is significantly cheaper than providing hay for his herd.

Snipers provided cover for protesters
The dispute was dragged into court in 1998, and after numerous legal battles and appeals Cliven was asked to pay up or lose his cattle.  This was two years ago.  The BLM and NPS apparently gave Bundy one last chance to pay up, but he still refused.  As a result officials began rounding up his cattle, resulting in a classic Western standoff where armed ranchers along with unarmed protesters from the Oath Keepers and other militia groups pitched up at the BLM stock pens to demand the Feds give Cliven's cattle back.

Conservatives being Conservatives have since manufactured all sorts of memes, spreading them on facebook and other social networks in a concerted effort to get poor Cliven's story out to the broader public.  This is how I came across this dispute.  However, it is not enough to have this be simply a case of the a poor rancher butting heads with the federal government.  Conspiracy theories have emerged, notably Harry Reid having a stake in some Chinese solar company which wanted to set up a solar farm on the disputed land.  This piece of claptrap first appeared in Alex Jones' infamous blog Infowars, and was spread by Fox News.

Morning Joe almost spit out his coffee over the incident, agreeing with Katty Kay that this is a case of anarchy, not libertarianism as Teabaggers claim, and cautioned Conservatives not to circle wagons with Cliven Bundy.  But, it's too late.  Right-wing gun nuts have seized on it as another example of why the second amendment is so important to them, even though the Founding Fathers never imagined an armed insurrection against their own government.

Pyrrhic victory?
Matt Ford better explains why this standoff is unconstitutional.  Bundy actually believes Nevada law trumps federal law in his case, even when Nevada law sides with the federal government.  He has also pleaded that his ancestral Mormon claim to the disputed land predates the creation of the Bureau of Land Management so therefor he is not subject to its jurisdiction.  This claim was thrown out of court.  Still, Cliven believes he is not subject to federal law, refusing to honor the federal court decisions.

This appears to be the case with many of those supporting his position.  We have seen drives in several states, most recently Missouri, to nullify federal gun laws, while at the same time holding up the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution in their defense of the right to bear arms, even against the federal government if necessary.

Yes, Joe Scarborough, this is anarchy and should not be condoned in any way, shape or form.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Party of Susan B. Anthony

The Republican Party isn't sexist.  It's the "Party of Susan B. Anthony" according to Marsha Blackburn, who noted that the first woman to vote was a Republican.  Try to vote, anyway, as Anthony was subsequently indicted by an all-male grand jury and ultimately found guilty of the infraction and forced to pay a fine for illegally voting in the 1872 Presidential election, presumably casting her vote for U.S. Grant.

Ms. Blackburn doesn't mention any names.  She sufficiently blurs the edges of her references, like singling out that the first female member of Congress was a Republican (Jeanette Rankin} who actually served before universal women's suffrage, as Montana allowed women to vote and represent the state prior to 1919.  I guess for Marsha, it is only firsts that matter.

The Push for the 19th amendment
After the Nineteenth amendment was passed during Wilson's administration, which she conveniently doesn't reference, the first 8 out of 10 female governors were Democrats, as the Democratic Party had essentially adopted the progressive agenda after the Republican Party had turned its back on Progressivism.

In fact, the grass roots level of this ideology can be traced to William Jennings Bryan, who delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention.  He strongly supported Women's Suffrage.  Bryan won the Democratic nomination only to lose to McKinley in the general election.

This was a theme Teddy Roosevelt ran with in his 1904 re-election bid, much to the chagrin of the Grand Old Party, which had become a Party of Plutocrats.  But, even TR couldn't deliver on universal suffrage.  In fact, he didn't fully endorse women's suffrage until 1912, when he made a second bid for the White House as a Progressive candidate, much to the chagrin of the GOP, who felt he split the Republican vote and gave the election to the Democrats.  Taft was their man.

Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act, 1963
Ms. Blackburn doesn't expect her listeners to delve too deeply into any of this.  She just wants her listeners to note the R by the name of prominent early women's suffrage leaders, so that it is understood that Republicans long supported equal rights.  If that is the case then why is it so difficult for contemporary Republicans to embrace an Equal Pay Bill?  After all, they voted overwhelmingly for the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Passing the hot potato

It's sad when the Republicans take Kathleen Sebelius' resignation as a "victory."  From what I understand the Secretary of Health and Human Services was ready to leave at the end of the first term but stayed for the launch of the insurance exchanges.  As a result, she became the prime target for the Republican "oversight committee," which held her personally accountable for the "failed" launch of the exchanges.  To Sebelius' credit, she gutted out the launch, but was given a less than heroic endorsement for her efforts to resolve the website debacle.  It seemed the Obama administration had already tendered her resignation behind closed doors.

"Obamacare" has been a work in progress from day one, withstanding blistering attacks from all sides.  The Republican House voted no less than 50 times to repeal the historic act, and has voted to defund it in all the budgets it has presented.  Four years later, there appears to be no sign the Republicans will relent in their assault.  They have chosen to make it the centerpiece of the midterm elections, as they did in 2010.  Only problem now is that Americans have come to accept the ACA to a much larger degree.

The Republicans have had to rethink their strategy given that the exchanges yielded over 7 million enrollees.  It wasn't the unmitigated disaster they had imagined.  The program reached its revised goal after the poor roll out.  Medicaid expansion further added to the final enrollment count, reducing the total number of uninsured Americans to its lowest level since 2009.  Now, the GOP'ers are busily trying to cobble together an alternative health insurance program, which they can present to voters.

Their front man appears to be Bobby Jindal, who unveiled his plan after the close of the exchanges.  It seems to build on that proposed earlier by Republican Congressmen, who more or less cherry-picked from the ACA, taking those parts which they regarded as the least offensive, and added a few sour cherries of their own.  The only problem is that the ACA has been held up in the Supreme Court and is the law of the land, so unless the Republicans can turn over the Senate there is not much chance they will be able to enact their new health care vision. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which would mean they would have to win virtually every seat, a Promethean task to say the least.

In the meantime, the Republicans will try to block the administration's nominee, Sylvia Matthews Burwell, to replace Sebelius as HHS Secretary.  I assume the "nuclear option" is still in effect and all the Democrats need is a straight up vote on her nomination.  But, I'm sure the Republicans will use the opportunity to vent their ire for voter consumption.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Black Eye of the Month Club

You would think book banning was a thing of the past, but unfortunately there are an alarming number of books that are "challenged" each year.  The latest is Sherman Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Apparently, Alexie had the temerity to reference sex and masturbation in a book that chronicles the life of a 14-year old native American growing up on the Spokane reservation in eastern Washington and his subsequent transfer to a public school where he is the only Indian other than the mascot.  Alexie is a wonderful comic, as witnessed in his book Smoke Signals, which was made into a movie in 1998.  But, it seems kids in Meridian Idaho school district will no longer have easy access to this particular book.

Students tried to appeal the decision by presenting a petition with 350 signatures but the school board voted 2-1 to hold up the decision after numerous parental complaints.  The book has since been in great demand in Meridian, undercutting the school board's attempt to banish it.  Downloads are pretty easy to get, which is probably a bit of a downer for Alexie, although I imagine he has done well off the book since its release in 2007.  Hopefully, this incident will call attention to his other works.

It's funny to see books like Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird still being challenged today.  You really have to wonder how myopic these school boards are, especially in a time when it is so easy to gain access to pretty much anything on the Internet.  It is like they still think they can screen kids from the perils of this world when books like Alexie's semi-autobiography probably do more to help kids make sense of their lives, much like Catcher in the Rye did for troubled teens since it was first published in 1951.  The title is still banned in many school libraries around the country.

Hank Aaron Speaks Out!

Hank Aaron certainly doesn't shy away from controversy, comparing the continued assault on Obama by Republicans to the KKK raiding parties.  The only difference in his mind is "now they have neckties and starched shirts."  Probably wore them under their capes as well.  The "true home run king" went onto say that he has kept the many ugly letters he received when he broke Babe Ruth's record 40 years ago, and that we have a long way to go to improve race relations in this country.

As an example, Jim DeMint apparently believes the federal government had little role in the emancipation of slaves.  He does credit Lincoln for playing a part in it, although holds up the "Great Emancipator" as the first Republican president, as if to say these are values the GOP stands by today.  He seems to forget that the amendments abolishing slavery and expanding voting rights were added after the Civil War, not before.  He also downplays Southern plantation owners who used the Bible to defend slavery, just as Northern abolitionists used the Bible to condemn this "peculiar institution."  Also, no allusion to the decades of Jim Crow laws, which were in direct defiance to the Constitution, keeping black baseball players out of Major League Baseball, resulting in a separate Negro League.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier back in 1947, when he was acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Kansas City Monarchs.  He appeared torn emotionally, as one can read in this excerpt from his autobiography, I Never Had It Made.  After retiring from the MLB in 1956, he actively campaigned for Nixon in the 1960 election.  Robinson came to regret that decision.  He supported Nelson Rockefeller in 1962, who promoted civil rights, but was overrun by "Golderwaterites" in his bid for President in 1964.  Robinson still believed in the Party of Lincoln, but became an LBJ supporter in the aftermath of the GOP convention.  Goldwater went on to be routed by Johnson in the election.

Like Robinson before him, Aaron started out in the Negro League.  He played for the Indianapolis Clowns before being picked up by the Milwaukee Braves for $10,000 and promoted to the MLB in 1954.  The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.

I'm glad to hear Aaron speak out, especially after the Atlanta Braves game honoring his historic milestone.   It is hard to equate the GOP today with the Party of Lincoln.  It seems more like the Party of Denial.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Practice of the Wild

from Whispered Lineage
It was nice to read that Gary Snyder is still alive and well in American Smoke.  Ian Sinclair tracked him down at his 100-acre woods in Northern California, Kitkitdizze, which he originally bought with Alan Ginsberg and Dick Baker.  The name was derived from the Miwok word for bear clover, found in abundance in that part of the woods.  The retreat serves as a sanctuary for writers, poets, naturalists and other sympathetic souls who share Snyder's love for nature.

He never really considered himself one of the beats, even if Kerouac immortalized him as Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums.  Snyder considers this a piece of "fabulilsm" as the climb up the "Matterhorn" was real but Kerouac turned into something larger than it actually was.  It is probably my favorite of Kerouac's books, beginning in the foothills behind Berkley, where Snyder was teaching at the time, and extending inland to the higher peaks.

He was also great friends with Ginsberg but their poetry seemed to reach at opposite ends of the spectrum.  They purchased the property together back in the 60s, after Snyder had returned from Japan in the engine room of an oil tanker.  The wooded site became their sanctuary.

Sinclair mentions a documentary, Practice of the Wild, which was done in 2010.  Snyder is interviewed by Jim Harrison, also known for his rugged outdoor approach to life, personified in his books Sundog and Wolf.  Harrison is also known for his poetry.  The title comes from a collection of essays Snyder published that year.

Snyder received the Pulitzer prize for his collection of poems, Turtle Island, published in 1975, which begins with a piece on the Anasazi, or ancient ones, who inhabited the Four Corners Region of the Southwest.  He branches out from this starting point to take in a broad range of impressions.  I particularly like "The Bath," which he describes he and his wife giving their son Kai a bath in a sauna.

Really have been enjoying American Smoke as Ian Sinclair gives marvelous insights into a wide range of poets and writers who traversed the American continent, picking up their trails at various points.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Shakespeare in America

There was a time when Shakespeare was standard reading.  When I was clearing out my grandmother's storage bin a few years back I came across an 8-volume leather-bound edition of Shakespeare's complete plays for actors.  It dated from 1895.  Recently, I had the volumes restored, as a couple of the backs were broken.  An heirloom I can pass along if only my kids took as much interest in Shakespeare as I did.  Maybe in the future they will develop an appreciation for the bard.

Library of America has released its latest anthology, Shakespeare in America, which is loaded with anecdotes like Longstreet commenting on U.S. Grant's portrayal of Desdemona, while the troops were biding time during the Mexican War.  It seemed everyone was doing Shakespeare, as William Grimes notes in his NY Times review of the book.

Shakespeare had a profound influence on writers like Melville, who apparently rewrote Moby-Dick after reading Shakespeare for the first time, recasting his characters and giving it a much more fatalistic air.

Even in this day and age you can find Shakespeare reproductions on both the stage and movie screen, and the bard continues to be taught in schools, influencing a whole new generation whether they like it or not.  The language can be a bit daunting in this modern age, which is why you see so many adaptations that try to give this themes greater relevancy for today's youth by setting his plays in modern times.

Probably one of the most compelling adaptations I read as a kid was Frank Herbert's Dune, which reset MacBeth in the distant future on a dry desolate planet called Arrakis.  You might call it "Shakespeare in Space."

Monday, April 7, 2014

The GOP Nuclear Option

We saw the Senate "nuclear option" last year when Harry Reid wiped out Republicans' continued attempts to filibuster presidential nominations, which had held up an estimated 600 appointees over the last five years.  However, the GOP has long had its ace in the hole in Chief Justice Roberts, who joined his conservative justices in striking down the limit on campaign contributions, paving the way for money to once again flow freely in elections.

It's not like it really held back conservative campaign contributors.  Sheldon Adelson pumped an estimated $93 million into Republican campaigns in 2012, $30 million into Mitt Romney's campaign alone.  And, we all know about the tentacle reaches of the Koch Bros, who use PAC's like Americans for Prosperity to funnel money to a wide variety of campaigns, including their ongoing assault of "Obamacare."

The McCutcheon decision is particularly unsettling, as some states have had more stringent campaign finance rules in place, but now they have been null and voided.  The decision seems to go against all grass roots efforts, left and right.  It will also hurt the Tea Party, as the TP now finds itself outside the GOP loop, making it harder for it to run insurgency campaigns against establishment Republicans in the primaries, which they have been doing these past four years.

This all points to the bleak reality of Capital being consolidated in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many.  This is the subject of a new book by French economist Thomas Piketty, who sees this as the unfortunate consequence of a Democratic society that doesn't have the checks and balances in place to insure a relatively fair distribution of wealth.  He points to the period 1930-1975 as a time in which social-minded governments tried to manage capital.  However, since Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl in the 80s, we have seen a profound shift to the right, that has affected Europe as much as it has the United States.

At one time, prominent Republicans as well as Democrats recognized the need to control the amount of money flowing into political campaigns and issued sweeping campaign finance reforms, notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.  There were loopholes, to be sure, as big money still managed to creep into state and national elections, ballooning to a staggering $2 billion raised on the Presidential election alone in 2012, with virtually all of it spent.

This was also Big Money's first serious attempt in many decades to put a Big Money candidate in the White House, as Romney himself was worth a quarter billion dollars, if not more.  Kennedy was the last President to come from an extremely wealthy background.

It seems voters generally tend to be repelled by such candidates, which is why Big Money often looks for a populist candidate to make its pitch.  Newt Gingrich was their man in the primaries in 2012, drawing big contributions from Sheldon Adelson, which briefly vaulted him to front runner status before his campaign imploded.  Not surprising that Newt supports this USSC decision.  He was a direct beneficiary of the 2010 Citizens United decision, which first opened the flood gates in 2012.  The amusing part is his claiming that it somehow "equalizes" the Middle Class and Rich.

I suppose this is because Obama effectively proved in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns that you can amass a sizable "war chest" from small contributions if you can appeal to the people.  The Tea Party has also proven very effective in this regard.  It seems the GOP's only way to counteract these grass roots efforts is to remove the cap on campaign contributions, once again relying on the Supreme Court to bail them out.

Here is Justice Stephen Beyer's "blistering dissent" to the McCutcheon decision.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Unknown Known

It seems that George Bush has graduated from dogs to portraits of world leaders.  I have to admit his painting of Vladimir Putin is pretty good, but not sure whether he is quite ready to take his one-man show on the road.  You can view it at his Presidential Library in Dallas.

Meanwhile Donald Rumsfeld has been given the Errol Morris treatment, a full length documentary in which I assume Morris was hoping to get out of Rummy what he got out of McNamara some years back in Fog of War. Instead, it sounds like a very unapologetic Rumsfeld offering up his explanation of The Unknown Known.   You do get the sense that Rumsfeld has studied The Art of War and has a pretty good head for this sort of thing, but for him it is largely about tactics, and he sized up Morris pretty quickly and never let his interlocutor get the better of him.

If Rumsfeld wasn't comfortable with George Bush as President he never showed it.  By this stage in his political career he seemed to accept his role as one of the men behind the curtain, despite having once had presidential ambitions of his own.  He often provided the most engaging sound bites during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Bush deferring to the elder statesman on the logistics of the two wars.

You get the sense that Bush's passion for painting started in the White House, as it seemed he all too often deferred to Rumsfeld and Cheney, and later Condoleeza Rice on pressing issues.  He gives no date in this WP blog other than to say he was inspired by Winston Churchill and hired an instructor to bring the "Rembrandt" out of him.

Whenever it started, it has kept Bush occupied, who purportedly spends up to four hours a day painting.  He has kept a surprisingly low profile these past five years, never once to my recollection criticizing Obama.  It seems Laura and Michelle have a genuinely friendly relationship.  While the two couples were touring Africa on separate itineraries, they met at a memorial service in Tanzania, which again implied a cordial relationship between the two couples.

This is in sharp contrast to Rumsfeld, who has been very critical of the President.  Most recently Rumsfeld questioned the President's leadership in foreign policy, saying a "trained ape" would have better management skills than Obama.  Beyond the obvious racist implications of such a statement is the bitter reminder that it is the Obama administration drawing down the two wars he orchestrated while Secretary of Defense under Bush.

If nothing else the documentary gives us a very lucid reminder of the pompous ass that Rumsfeld was during his years as Secretary of Defense, which ended in a rather ignominious resignation early into Bush's second term because of his mismanagement of the two wars.  I would think that Robert Gates would be a good subject for Morris' next documentary, as I'm sure Gates would have a few choice things to say about Rummy's competence.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for Bush's Presidential Cabinet cycle to see how he paints Rummy.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The New Millennials

When you type in Millennial these days it is no longer a religious fundamentalist who believes the End Times are upon is, but also the generation born after 1980, who has essentially grown up in the new Millennium.  It seems they shed their previous moniker Generation Y.

This must be a demographic nightmare as so many of these religious fundamentalists identify themselves as Millennials or Millenialists.  The media picked up on the former term in reference to the Gen Y'ers, which "Obamacare" so desperately needed to support its health insurance exchanges.  I suppose you can be both, but according to statistics, the New Millennials don't identify themselves very strongly with religion.

It seems the only thing these two demographic groups have in common is a shared passion for The Walking Dead.  There are no end of interpretations for the meaning of the zombies in this highly popular television series that imagines a post-apocalyptic future in which human beings are forced to band together or be eaten.

Teenage wasteland
Unlike Gen X before it, Gen Y tends to lean left and be much more politically active.  This was clearly the target audience of Obama and healthcare.gov in the closing months of the health insurance exchanges, convincing these young adults that government-sponsored health insurance was in their best interest, a kind of Zombie Survival Guide if you like.

Of course, the religious Millennialists were having none of it, convinced that "Obamacare" is yet another sign of the End Times and that we all better hunker down in our doomsday bunkers with our prayer books and hope that the Lord takes us up to the Heavens in the Rapture.

This all seemed like harmless fun at one time.  Few took these doomsday sayers seriously, but now that we see Millennialists in government actively influencing decision making, a Zombie Apocalypse no longer seems like such a far-fetched idea.  At times, it appeared George W. Bush was actively promoting a Millennialist agenda during his tenure in office, which has been carried forward by the Tea Party.  I suppose these folks got tired of waiting for the Second Coming and are determined to make it happen by stirring up unrest in the Middle East, where they feel the apocalypse will erupt, as prophesied in Revelations.

The Coming Horsemen
Of course, it is little wonder that John of Patmos (aka John the Revelator) chose the Middle East, as that is where he lived at the time he wrote the final book of the New Testament.  Most scholars believe it was written about 60 years after the death of Jesus, making it around 95 AD.  I guess there were those who desperately longed for their savior's return and imagined all sorts of dark events surrounding it.  Scholars generally tend to view Revelations as allegorical of the imagined End Times of the Roman Empire, not the world as a whole, but John sure made it sound like the world would erupt in a conflagration of Biblical proportions.

This kind of apocalyptic thinking makes great fodder for Hollywood movies.  Somehow we managed to get past 2012, but that doesn't mean there aren't more ominous signs out there.  All one has to do is look around the Internet to find any number of websites and facebook pages devoted to the Apocalypse.  Even National Geographic has picked up on theme, offering a number of "scientific" hypotheses as to cataclysmic events that can lead to the end of the world.

It's almost like we are trying to will this to happen, not satisfied by the sedentary lives we find ourselves in.  These vicarious thrill rides serve as good coffee and cigarette break fodder at the office, but it doesn't look like like the young Millennials are having any part of it, preferring instead to see the world unfolding before them.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

King Barry has his day

After all the hemming and hawing we heard these past 6 months, "Obamacare" delivers on its goal of 7 million subscribers putting conservatives in their biggest tizzy fit since Obama was re-elected in 2012.  "How can that be?"  many ask, refusing to accept the numbers, or babbling that less than half of those who signed up will pay the premiums, even though initial reports show 85 per cent of subscribers meeting their initial payments.

The scariest thing for Republicans is that the federally sponsored health insurance program might actually work.  It has a sufficient "pool" to keep rates down.  Obama's big push to lure young Americans not covered on their parents' plan (the age was increased to 26) seems to have yielded a great number of new subscribers.  His appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis was priceless.  His popularity among the youngest demographic of voters remains high, and this was the ideal medium to reach them, showing off his sense of humor.  Something Republicans seem to completely lack these days.

Still, many remain skeptical, and even the mainstream media continues to fidget, generating a faux scandal over the "dissing" of Kathleen Sebelius?  Congressional Republicans wanted her head back in October when the launch of healthcare.gov got off to such a rough start, but she more than held her own in the faux Congressional hearings that followed, and has been actively working behind the scenes ever since to keep this program moving forward.

So, what does this say about the midterms?  Polls show support of the Affordable Care Act is trending upward, reaching a high of 49 per cent this week.  The Republicans may want to rethink their strategy, as they will really be taking a fall if approval continues to grow in the wake of the success of the health insurance exchanges.  

I'm sure the good doctor will be making a great number of house calls to continue to denigrate "Obamacare."  But, he will look even more the lone wolf, as the AMA has long supported the ACA, offering advise on how to navigate the website and get the best coverage.

It seems the GOP still can't get over King Barry slipping this health care bill by them in Congress.  It's not like they didn't put up a big temper-tantrum, just as they did in 1993.  However, they didn't count on the Democrats sticking together on this one and pulling Arlen Specter from their ranks to get the 60th vote they needed to carry the Senate.  This was why they were so excited about Scott Brown winning the Massachusetts Senate special election in early 2010, chanting "41," only to be outflanked once again when Obama was able to get House Democrats to accept the revised Senate Bill in full, not having to submit the bill to a second vote in the Senate.  Ted Kennedy must have smiled in his grave.