Saturday, May 31, 2014

Lost Weekend

A couple new books extolling the virtues of Ronald Reagan, but Reagan at Reykjavik caught my eye.  The author, Ken Adelman, was part of Reagan's administration at the time so he provides what would seem a valuable insider's account of the long weekend, which in many ways ended up being a lost weekend.  It seems that Reagan's precious SDI was so important to him that he would rather keep it than entertain Gorbacev's call for complete nuclear disarmament.

Of course, the Reagan administration was skeptical of the package deal that Gorby offered, and had reason to be, but if the premier was willing to give up his nuclear arsenal then what reason was there for a Strategic Defense Initiative?  After all, the whole reason behind "Star Wars" was to shoot Soviet nuclear warheads out of the sky.

Still, Adelman finds a way to turn the weekend summit into a victory for Reagan and America, perpetuating the myth that Reagan's arms build-up is what broke the Soviet Union in the waning years of the 80s.  David Hoffman noted in his review of the book that  the Soviet Union was crumbling from within and it was only a matter of time before it fell apart.

For some reason, the collapse of the Berlin Wall still caught Americans off guard even if the writing was on the wall.  The Solidarity movement, which the Reagan administration supported, should have been the first sign that something was up behind the Iron Curtain and there was no turning back.

Maybe Gorbacev sensed this and he was looking to hold onto the Soviet Union by offering a deal he felt the Americans couldn't refuse.  Gorbacev had no intention of dismantling the state.  His books called for an openness and reconciliation that he hoped would bring the Soviet republics closer together, not drive them further apart.  But, he had unleashed a Pandora's box of emotions.  In actual fact, the United States helped Gorbacev suppress these rebellious states by providing Moscow badly needed aid packages.  It was easier to deal with a singular entity than it was 13 separate independent republics.

It seems that neither the Reagan nor Bush administration was ready to see the map rewritten just yet.  After all, Pere Bush had an unruly Iraq to contend with and didn't pay much attention to events going on in Lithuania, which had actually declared its independence in the Spring of 1990, not the winter of 1991.   It's Sajudis movement went back to 1989, inspired by events in neighboring Poland.  Other Soviet republics similarly sought to secede from the USSR, but found little support for their independence efforts.  Even after the Lithuanians stood down the Soviet tanks in January 1991, it wasn't until September that the US recognized the country's independence, long after other countries had done so.

But, this doesn't fit the Reagan myth, so Adelman presents this crucial weekend in October 1986 as an example of Reagan's resolve and his ability to see beyond Gorbacev's tempting offer.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Guns do kill people

UC-Santa Barbara Wall of Remembrance

When MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) pushed for stricter drunk driving laws, raising the minimum age of drinking and stricter alcohol policies back in the 1980s, there was some protest but most states followed suit.  The federal government even went so far as to hold back transportation funding to states which didn't raise the drinking age to 21.  One can argue if the decline in teens driving deaths is the direct result of these efforts or not, but obviously most Americans felt something had to be done and something was done to curb the number of deaths each year.

Here we are at another crossroads.  Mass killers typically target schools, yet we don't see the same kind of action taking place in regard to high-powered hand guns and rifles, which are the weapons of choice for these mass killers.  Instead, we see the same hand-wringing from politicians who don't won't to upset their pro-gun constituencies who see any imposition on gun ownership as an infringement on their second amendment rights.  "Joe the Plumber" went so far as to say "your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights."

Joe's callous dismissal was in response to Richard Martinez, the most outspoken of parents who lost their children in the latest shooting spree.  Martinez has demanded politicians quit posturing and take action.  It seems to be working because the normally inert House of Representatives approved more funding for background checks (roughly $20 million) in the wake of this latest tragedy.  A sign that politicians are beginning to worry about the fallout of these mass shootings.

Still gun rights activists point to psychotropic drugs and other factors as the prime motivating reasons behind these shootings, unwilling to accept that ease of access to such high-powered weapons as a Glock 34 and Sig Sauer P226 is what gave Elliot Rodger the sense of "empowerment" he needed to pull of his "Day of Retribution." It's enough to make any parent mad as hell over the out of control "gun culture" we have created in America, except for  someone like "Joe" Wurzelbacher, who believes he has the "responsibility" to protect his family by any means necessary.

What's interesting is that less than half of Americans claim to have a gun in their house, yet the sale of guns has risen sharply in recent years.  Either families are keeping their guns secret or individual arsenals are growing dramatically.  It seems to be the latter.  Currently, there are over 300 million guns in distribution in the United States, many of them unregistered, as only the initial transaction needs to be recorded.

There probably wasn't anyway to stop Elliot Rodger from buying his pistols under current laws.  He did so legally, accumulating his arsenal over a substantial period of time so as not to call attention to himself.  Glocks and Sigs don't come cheap, nor did the 400 rounds of ammunition.  Laws only go so far in curbing violence like this.   What has to stop is all this incendiary rhetoric that ignites passions when it comes to gun ownership.

Owning a gun is a privilege not a right.  At one time the NRA promoted responsible gun ownership, encouraging registration, background checks and proper firearm training.  However, in the past three decades it has swung sharply in the opposite direction, spending a great amount of money and energy lobbying against what it regards as anti-gun legislation, and has even managed to gain the ear of the US Supreme Court, which evoked the second amendment to strike down DC gun control laws in 2008.  A decision that has had far reaching consequences.

The odds are now stacked against parents who would like to see tougher gun control legislation.  It seems that in our self-induced state of paranoia (mostly out of fear of post-apocalyptic zombies) we have created a gun culture which has swung wildly out of control with the number of mass shootings having risen three-fold in recent years.  At least 12 such incidents took place in 2013.  Open gun and Stand-Your-Ground laws have turned disputes into homicides.  There are an estimated 30,000 gun-related deaths per year, roughly the same number as automobile-related deaths.  Homicides account for at least one-third of these gun-related deaths.

Yet, gun rights groups would still like people to believe that guns are the innocent bystander here, not the victims of these crimes.  Guns do kill people!  Far more efficiently than do any other weapons, which Elliot Rodger noted in his manifesto.

John Coltrane Live in Seattle

There are moments when the world seems to turn in a new direction, and that was the case in 1965 when jazz music appeared headed in an all new direction.  John Coltrane wasn't the first musican to explore free jazz (Ornette Coleman had already made it into an art form), but his bold steps in this direction that year turned the jazz world on its ear.

I suppose that was because listeners had become comfortable with his lush ballads like those on My Favorite Things. However,  A Love Supreme, recorded in late 1964, signaled he was ready to move on.  Widely regarded as his best album, it evoked a deeper, more meditative chord than any of his previous works, opening the door to a greater range of sounds and expressions as if he had unlocked some hidden gate with the chant that appears throughout the four parts of this singular work.

But, critics were taken aback when he went completely atonal in 1965.  It was under such a cloud of controversy that Coltrane came to Seattle in October of that year for a concert at a small club in Pioneer Square.  In addition to his well-known rhythm section, Pharoah Sanders joined him on tenor sax  and Donald Garrett added an additional double bass.

Jan Kurtis didn't know what to expect so he brought everything he had in the way of recording equipment to the show that night.  The result is a live recording that stands out as one of Coltrane's best -- Live in Seattle.  There's some unwanted background noise in parts, but that is hard to avoid.  Coltrane was apparently so impressed with what he heard the next day that he asked Kurtis to record an album in his Camelot Studio -- Om.  The MP3 recordings don't do the music justice, but at least they give you a feel.

It is easy to split Trane at this stage of his career.  There were those who preferred to hold onto the old melodic Coltrane, and there were those who chose to embrace the brash new Coltrane.  But, it wasn't like it was a great leap.  The process had evolved from the late 50s with his first exploration into Hindu and Muslim music on Giant Steps.  It was one of the reasons he left Miles Davis.  You can still sense the Blues rhythms in his later works, but they have been bent and reshaped by his greater awareness of music as a whole.

Hard to think of this music as history, especially as it sounds much more contemporary than much of what we hear today, but this was nearly 50 years ago.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

And Still I Rise

One of the rare times I can say I was there when Maya Angelou addressed a huge congregation at a Dallas Baptist Church in 1994.  I had come with my sister and we stood in the rear of the church as Ms. Angelou addressed a multitude of adoring fans.  She read her poem "Phenomenal Woman," which had loosely served as the inspiration for a movie, Poetic Justice, the year before.  Needless to say, she was much more convincing than Janet Jackson.

Ms. Angelou spoke with a deep, resonate voice that immediately seized your attention. She was an inspiration to a great many people because of her unwavering moral compass.  Whether in her poems or her stories or her searing memoirs, notably I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing, you always knew which way was North.

She not only endured the awful struggle of Jim Crow South, but she embraced the civil rights movements in Africa, marrying Vusumzi Make in Cairo in 1960.  He was once chairman of the Pan-African Congress, which was banned in his native country of South Africa.  Their marriage didn't last long (3 years), but Ms. Angelou stayed on in Africa with her son, Titise, teaching in Ghana, where she also continued her writing.

Her stature grew in the 70s and 80s when she returned to the United States and published a series of memoirs beginning with Caged Bird.  She split her energies in so many directions you would think it impossible to keep up with them all, but somehow she did.  Mostly, she sought to reach children, visiting Sesame Street among many other places.  Her signature book was made into a movie in 1979, starring Diahann Carrol, who had played a single working mother in the popular television show Julia.

In 1993, Ms. Angelou recited an original poem at the inauguration of Bill Clinton entitled On the Pulse of Morning.  She was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2010.

She remained tirelessly active throughout her life but sadly at 86, the years finally caught up to her.  Still, it is very hard to let her go.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

All's fair in politics and war

One of the most annoying things about Memorial Day (and Veterans Day) is how politicians use the holiday as a bully pulpit.  This is particularly true of conservatives who continually love to remind us that "freedom isn't free," forever extolling the virtues of the armed services in defending our beloved democracy.  So, when this VA scandal hit the fan, you could bet conservatives would jump all over it, as has Pat Buchanan.  Of course, dear Pat uses the occasion to decry the Obama administration for everything from illegal immigration to the ballooning federal debt, as he tips his hat to the annual "Rolling Thunder" tribute.

Operation Rolling Thunder is not something you really want to commemorate.  It was the sustained bombing campaign carried out over North Vietnam for 8 months (February-October 1968) in an effort to demoralize the Vietcong, who were gaining the upper hand in the Vietnam War.  This essentially became LBJ's last stand, as the mission was a total failure with more than 900 U.S. aircraft lost at a price tag of $900 million (roughly $6 billion in today's terms).

Bob Dylan used the term to describe his tour in 1975, but wouldn't say if it was in reference to the bombing campaign, claiming instead he was inspired by a thunderstorm that rolled in one afternoon.  However, the motorcycle group Pat salutes makes no effort to hide the reference, founded by Vietnam vets who had a bone to pick with the federal government, descending on the Washington Mall each year since 1987.

Maybe the vets who inspired the initial rally meant it ironically, as I imagine many men were lost during that ill-advised bombing campaign.  It is hard to say, but conservatives appear to have co-opted the event for political purposes, especially in the wake of the VA scandal that they blame entirely on the Obama administration.  Ben Carson called the scandal a "Gift from God," thinking it will give Republicans a much needed political boost in the midterm elections.  These pundits ignore the Senate vote on the VA bill in February.

Pat more or less echoes the sentiments of the good doctor in using the scandal to highlight what he regards as a failed presidential administration.  But, the Rolling Thunder motorcycle club first made its descent on Washington during Reagan's administration, calling attention to what these Vietnam vets saw as a failure to properly address the POW/MIA situation  This had been popularized in the second Rambo movie in 1985.  It was at the center of The Deer Hunter, a much better film from several years before.  Eventually, Rolling Thunder got the attention of the US Senate, which launched the most thorough investigations during the years 1991-93, ultimately leading to a normalization of relationships with Vietnam.  For many vets, the issue is still not closed.

It seems over time, events have a way of being conflated for political purposes and their initial meaning is lost.  This certainly is the case with "Rolling Thunder."  It shouldn't have been used as a rock anthem, motorcycle club or anything else, as it represents a very ugly chapter in American military history.  Maybe it is time we quit using the military for political purposes all together.  If you remember, Sarah Palin tried to hijack the event three years ago by riding backseat on one of the Harleys.   Now here's Pat Buchanan and other conservative pundits trying to use the rally as an attack on this administration.  Enough is enough!

One day grandma went for a walk

I've long wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.  I did do a couple small sections in Virginia years ago, but nothing like Grandma Gatewood.  It is nice to see an inspiring story like this one. She should get a stamp of her own, but she did make it into the August 15, 1955 edition of Sports Illustrated for her incredible journey.  One of many, as it turned out, in calling attention to the Appalachian Trail that now attracts hikers from all over the world.  She also has a commemorate plaque on the trail, but it is a book like this that will give persons a greater sense of her personal odyssey.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dumb and Dumber

Virtually all of the bottom ten states in terms of education are red states.  Only Nevada voted for Obama in 2012, but it has a Republican governor.  The criteria is based on SAT scores, median household incomes and percentage of bachelor's degrees, which are pretty easy to come by these days with the plethora of expanded junior college programs.  It really makes you wonder how certain states can be so dumb, but then most of these states also rank at the bottom of traditional measures of education, such as high school graduation rates, education budgets and pre-school enrollment, completing a vicious cycle.

Mississippi was the last state to make schooling compulsory in 1917.  Massachusetts, which ranks at the top in most education lists, was the first state to have compulsory schooling in 1852.  Unfortunately, states have been allowed to adopt their own standards, rather than establish a national criteria.  Even the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act explicitly forbade the establishment of a national curriculum.  As a result, these standards vary considerably from one state the next.

Common Core is a recent attempt to bridge the gap by presenting a national core curriculum, which 44 states adopted in 2009.  However, there has been a concerted effort by right wing groups to push red states to drop Common Core, so it would seem that there are those in these states who prefer remaining dumb.  Bobby Jindal appears to be caving into this pressure, after having agreed to the Common Core initiative 5 years ago.

The problem is that ignorance is so endemic in many of these states that it will take decades to remedy it.  There is no tradition of excellence except at individual schools.  The majority of the schools in these states are mired in petty local and state politics, unable to move beyond parochial constraints.  Many of these kids go on to get vocational education and do well for themselves but their horizons are limited, and these limitations are passed onto the next generation.

Eagle Stadium, Allen, Texas
If states devoted as much attention to education as they do sports, maybe we would see a rise in education.  The amount of money being spent on high school sports programs these days is staggering, like the $60 million football field in Allen, Texas.  The allure of athletic company contracts like in college athletics is too irresistible to pass up.  One could only hope that private companies would take the same interest in funding math and science programs, where American students typically struggle the most.

Instead, the dumb get dumber while the smart get smarter, as the gap between states in terms of education continues to grow.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Martyrs of the Race Course

Memorial Day means different things to different people, but it is odd that the official U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website makes no mention of the first Decoration Day held in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.  Instead, the VA lists the typical story of Waterloo, New York, which was officially commemorated by President Andrew Johnson in 1866.

David Blight offers an excellent chapter in Race and Reunion on the first Decoration Day, describing how the 21st US Colored Infantry marched into Charleston in late spring of 1865, accepted the formal surrender of the city and gave the Union dead found in a mass grave of a makeshift prison camp a proper burial.  They also cleaned up the former horse racetrack, designating it as a cemetery for the "Martyrs of the Race Course."

This event was celebrated by some 10,000 people, including white Charlestonians, with a parade, military drills, a children's choir singing "We'll Rally Around the Flag," and a huge picnic afterward. Fortunately, a correspondent's record survived in the archives of the New York Tribune.

In the chapter, Blight went onto note how the memorial became co-opted by other towns and cities around the country and eventually came to be a national holiday, but it seems these black infantry soldiers never got their due.  Not surprising since it wasn't until 1948 that Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces with Executive Order 9981.  It didn't matter that blacks had fought along side whites in the Civil War and in two world wars, they were still considered separate and not quite equal.  What should have been a reconciliation back in 1865 was deferred 73 years, much like the Civil Rights movement itself.

Meanwhile in the South, Memorial Day ceremonies revolved around the fallen Confederacy, marked on days that honored the final surrender of General Joseph Johnston and the birthdays of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, ranging from April 26 to June 3.  Charleston kept its initial celebration quietly under the rug.

Memorial Day has grown to commemorate all American war dead and was officially designated a national holiday in 1971.  The military aspect of it has receded a bit.  There are not the big parades like there used to be, but still many people go to cemeteries to honor fallen soldiers.  A somber ceremony is carried out each year at Arlington National Cemetery as the dead has grown considerably since 1865.

But, it seems to me that not only are events like that in Charleston in 1865 lost to the collective imagination, but the brutality of war itself, as we seem to keep getting ourselves mired in wars that serve little purpose and leave deaths and casualties far beyond the official tally of fallen American soldiers.  Moments like these should give us pause, like it did those soldiers of the 21st US Colored Infantry.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Politics of Ignorance

Andy Borowitz probably has the best approach in dealing with Marco Rubio's pronouncement that human activity isn't affecting climate change, but then the Florida Senator and Presidential hopeful went one step further, calling Democrats hypocritical for questioning his view when they support abortion since "it's a proven fact life begins at conception."

Republicans still promote the same old issues, seemingly out of feigned ignorance, because it is hard to believe that university graduates could be so stupid.  Yet, here was Florida State Representative Chuck Van Zant saying that "Common Core" promoted homosexuality, part of what appears to be an orchestrated campaign against the new curriculum that was endorsed by the National Governors Association, and is in effect in 44 states including Florida.

So why all these blatant displays of ignorance?  Do Republican politicians actually believe their electorate is so stupid as to actually believe these statements.  Seems like the answer is yes as populist legislators continually get re-elected like Louie Gohmert, who will pitch almost any screwball idea no matter how far out it is, like comparing LGBT activists to Nazis.

In fact, the Nazi comparison comes up quite often in GOP rhetorical flourishes. Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield had to walk back his crass comparison of new Obamacare enrollees to the prison camps in Nazi Germany, after the backlash he generated.  But, this is nothing new.  The GOP has long been pitching the notion that the Affordable Care Act would have "death panels" to determine who was worthy of health care after a certain age.

While the most overt accusations tend to be dismissed, even within the GOP, these broadsides continue to circulate in the conservative blogosphere, resurfacing at key moments.  These talking points seem to be a way to divert attention away from pressing legislation like the immigration reform bill, which House Republicans can't quite bring themselves to vote on, largely out of fear of angering the base of their party, which has swung wildly to the right since 2010.

Harley and Walt telling it like it is
What began as a so-called Tea Party movement has morphed into insurgency campaigns, largely anarchic in nature, intent to push conflicting Biblical notions of America on the broader public.  One of the most audacious examples this election cycle was the Idaho governors debate, which Stephen Colbert had great fun with.  Bruce Otter managed to survive the GOP primary, but the debate went viral and you figure Harley Brown and Walt Bayes will have reality show offers.

You also have Ben Sasse, who won the GOP nomination for US Senator from Nebraska.  He firmly believes that Biblical law trumps federal law, and has been very outspoken in this regard.  You might think he was the graduate of some evangelical college, but Sasse is an Ivy Leaguer, just like Ted Cruz.  In his 2004 Yale Ph.D dissertation, he wrote an exhaustive attack on the "Secular Left," principally in the form of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an outspoken atheist from the 70s, who had long since fallen into obscurity thanks to the rise of Reagan's America.

Sasse appears to have been weaned on  Jerry Falwell 1970s movement, "Moral Majority," which helped propel Ronald Reagan into the White House.  The Southern preacher was inspired to politicize his beliefs after the fateful Roe v. Wade decision, which made abortion a political issue.  He became one of Reagan's "spiritual advisers," and an outspoken religious conservative.

While the Tea Party doesn't seem to be fairing so well this election cycle, it has served its purpose in driving the GOP further to the right on virtually every issue, including those the GOP actively promoted before 2010, such as Common Core, which grew out of a "Standards and Accountability Movement" promoted by conservative governors in the 1990s.  But, it seems that once it was adopted by the Obama administration it became "Obamacore" and subject to derision.

It would seem that at the root of all this real and feigned ignorance is the lack of any standard educational background.  What we have are competing "visions," Biblical and secular, being played out on a national stage at a time when we desperately need to get beyond these archaic religious notions.  The United States ranks near the bottom among OECD nations in education, which means that this ignorance will be perpetuated for years to come if we don't do anything about it.

But, it seems many on the Far Right consider Common Core just one more federal imposition.  A guy like Walt Bayes just wants to home school his kids in the principles of the Bible, which is still being encouraged in many states with minimal standards to guide parents.  While someone like Ken Ham would like his followers to believe that everything you need know is in the Bible, including the basis for scientific inquiry, which he so often likes to "challenge."  This will not keep us abreast of OECD nations in education.

Maybe a reading of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed might help, as way back in the 12th century the Sephardic rabbi cautioned those from reading the Bible literally.  Faith and reason can coexist.  There is no reason to put them at odds to each other.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Brave New World

NASA fired back at Russia's threat to defund the International Space Station by 2020 if the US and Europe go through with sanctions.  In the missive, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that the ISS is bigger than any one country and that it will do just fine without Russia should it choose to bail.  At the moment the US and other space station countries are relying on Russia to transport scientists to the satellite, but Boldon said that private companies will be able to ferry scientists to the ISS by 2017, rendering Soviet space craft obsolete.  The US ended its space shuttle program in 2011 after a 30 year run.

Meanwhile, Russia has entered into negotiations with China to launch a new joint mission after 2020.  China is currently banned from participating in the ISS program, and has been rapidly developing its own space program to rival that of the US and its intergalactic allies.  It built this program largely on Soviet technology, which Russia still uses for the most part.  This partnership won't represent a great leap forward.

It seems the bigger leap will come from the private sector, which is taking a much more active role in space technology as a result of the US government shrinking the NASA budget considerably since the glory days of the 1960s.  At that time, the US was spurred by the rapid development of the Soviet space program, which put the first man in space in April 1961.

You might recall Moonbase Newt during the 2012 primaries calling for greater federal spending on NASA and colonization of the moon, just like Moonbase Alpha in Space 1999.  He was derided by his Republican opponents.  Seems they didn't share the same vision or nostalgia (depending on your viewpoint) as the moon would offer us little benefit in long range space exploration.  Interstellar spacecrafts like Voyager have been far more beneficial in collecting data than were any of the Apollo missions, and ultimately the Space Shuttle program proved too costly for its relatively limited use.

Still, the dream of man in space lingers on, largely due to science fiction movies.  The problem is that man is ill-equipped to handle space travel, especially intergalactic space travel like in Star Trek.   I suppose scientists can create robots in man's image, as in Blade Runner and Alien, but more likely scientists will opt for more mechanical versions that can do the exploration work on distant planets.  Mars rovers are giving us ever greater insights into this not so distant planet, which has long played on the imagination.

Whatever the case, space exploration is no longer solely the imperative of the United States and Russia.  Many other countries are involved.  Even Lithuania had a nanosatellite launched from the ISS using a unique Japanese technology.  Japan is one of the members of the ISS.

It's a Brave New World.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Nudging toward Washington

Is the Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton for President a done deal?  To read the press reports these days, you would think it is.  Focus now is on who Hillary would pick for Veep.  Many suggest Elizabeth Warren, although the energetic young San Antonio mayor Julian Castro has also been mentioned, as has senator-elect Cory Booker.  But, what is to stop any of these persons from running for President her or himself?

Back in 2006, Hillary was well ahead of her potential challengers for the 2008 nomination.  Obama had only recently appeared on the radar screen.  Edwards, Gore and Kerry were the more likely challengers.  This year, she enjoys a much bigger, some would say insurmountable, lead over her potential challengers, but the primaries are still a year and a half away.

Her stint as Secretary of State seems to have helped her considerably.  It boosted her foreign policy credentials tenfold, even if she made a number of gaffes while serving the Obama administration.  When it came to negotiating with Russia, Obama tended to do so directly.  I suppose he wanted to use his "nudge" approach, as Hillary is a noted Cold Warrrior, who has spoken out against Russia any number of times.  Most likely, this will add to her appeal given Russia's recent actions in Ukraine, but I think Obama had the right approach.  It's just that Putin is proving harder to "nudge" than was Medvedev.

This Nudge Theory was put forward in a book in 2008 that showed how "nudging" more often yields the results you want than do more forceful approaches, such as "bullying."  People are more likely to respond to little nudges than they are being pushed around, largely because they don't feel like they are being coerced into making a decision.  So, how are Democrats going to respond to Hillary being presented as the obvious nominee?

So far so good, it seems, largely because Hillary has chosen to keep a low profile.  After stepping down as Secretary of State, she has been relatively quiet, not forcing herself on anyone.  It seems a little bit of this "Nudge Theory" has rubbed off on her, and she is content to have the media nudge her along, rather than show any interest in the nomination herself.

The media has not been very subtle about it, which may hurt her later.  Democrats currently feel delighted by the prospect, largely because Republicans appear so distraught by it.  Many feel the Benghazi House select committee is nothing more than an attempt to derail her presidential aspirations by dragging her through the proverbial mud one more time.

More amusing was Karl Rove's recent attempt to psychoanalyze Hillary, which appears to have blown up in his face.   Jon Stewart hilariously dubbed it "Brainghazi."  Catch it at the 4-minute mark of the attached video.  Rove seems to think Hillary is suffering from mental illness brought on by a fall she took late in 2012.  He blew up many of the particulars, like the amount of time she spent in a hospital, and commented on her glasses, which in his addled mind was a tell tale sign of some hidden dementia.  Stewart had a field day with Dr. StrangeRove, who seems to think Hillary's age and health is an issue.

I don't recall him being similarly dismissive of John McCain, who was 71 and not looking so spry in 2008.  But, I guess since the "lamestream" media raised the issue of age then, Rove feels compelled to do so now in what was intended to be a "whisper campaign," but went viral on the Internet.

It's kind of hard to "nudge" in the current media age.  Twiitter has changed the dynamics considerably.  Just ask Donald Sterling, who was trying to "nudge" his girlfriend not to sit with black guys (especially Magic Johnson) at Clippers games.  Now, Sterling is banned from all NBA games.

One wishes this would be the case with Karl Rove, but most likely Fox News will let him keep his seat, as they did after his infamous Ohio meltdown on Election Night 2012 when he insisted there were still plenty of Republican votes out there to turn the state in the Romney column.  As it turned out, Obama didn't even need Ohio, as he won by 126 electoral votes.

Rove had similarly been off base in 2008, when his electoral maps had Hillary as a stronger Democratic nominee than Obama against McCain.   The conservative media had tried to "nudge" Republicans to cross over and vote for Hillary in the open primary in Ohio, which Hillary won by 10 per cent.  There were cases of this in other states as well.  Maybe it was just an attempt to throw off Obama's momentum, but there were conservative talking heads who considered Hillary a better candidate than John McCain, and said they would vote for her if she was the nominee.

All this is actually good for Hillary, because it takes attention away from what was her lackluster record in the Senate and her relatively inconsequential stint as Secretary of State.  She is largely riding on "brand" appeal at the moment, being the most recognizable Democrat among potential nominees.  We will probably have to wait until 2015 to see if any other Democrat is willing to challenge her.  At the moment, she is running like an incumbent President for the White House.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Supply Side Education

If you remember a few years back, Michelle Rhee was going to reinvent the Washington, DC, school system with a series of standardized tests to determine school performance.  This fit in with Bush's No Child Left Behind Program, which his administration instituted at a national level, after its purported "success" when governor of Texas.  If school didn't preform well, it face "erasure," making room for charter schools, which were all the rage.

Charter schools were the brain child of Milton Friedman many years before.  He felt a "free market" model should be used in education, a kind of "supply side" education with parents given the freedom to choose.  This voucher system became a favorite model for conservatives in the 90s, which Rhee also supported.  She broke with fellow Democrats, espousing the neo-conservative positions as the only way to rescue school systems across the country.

It didn't matter that Diane Ravitch debunked these brash new educational models, Cory Booker and Chris Christie saw them as the answer to Newark's chronic educational crisis, which was costing the state over a billion dollars.  The state had taken over the school district in 1995.  The charismatic Booker got Mark Zucherberg to sign onto his reform plan and offer $200 million on an episode of Oprah, which made the country believe Booker could pull off the Herculean task of saving Newark.

Booker and Zuckerberg
Booker is a Democratic darling, who gave a rousing speech at the 2012 Democratic convention.  He is also a pal of Christie dating back to his time on the Newark City Council.  To read Dale Russakoff's lengthy article in the New Yorker, he also has plenty of wealthy Republican friends from his time at Yale Law School, and knew how to play them to help match Zuckerberg very generous offer.

The energetic mayor of Newark launched his school reform plan in 2010, essentially adopting Michelle Rhee's model in DC, despite it not having yielded any great results.  Cory brought in a similar tough-minded woman, Cami Anderson, to oversee the program, who seemed to understand the complexity of the challenge at first, but like Rhee opted for autocratic measures to subvert the teachers' unions, which they both saw as the culprits keeping the children behind.

Zuckerberg offered a number of his slogans along with his money, including "Done Is Better Than Perfect," as in I want to see results.  After 3 years there haven't been very many positive results.  Rather, a whole lot of backlash just like in DC.

As can be expected, the unions fired back, led by disgruntled administrators like Ras Baraka (son of Amiri), who voiced the collective anger over this hostile takeover of the Newark school district.  He likened it to colonization, as local school officials had little or no say in the decisions being made at the top.  Cami Anderson's job became demonstrably more difficult, especially with Christie and Booker engaged in election campaigns.  The money had evaporated and it seems Newark is pretty much back where it was 3 years ago with Cami desperately trying to hold on, while Cory is now sitting in the US Senate, thanks to his buddy Chris, who seemed to hold a special election expressly for him.

Despite report after report after report noting the failures of charter schools and vouchers to alleviate the education crisis, the view persists that these are the answers, thanks to documentaries like Waiting for Superman, which extols charter schools at the expense of public schools.

You would think at some point, state and federal officials would work with local officials and teachers unions to seek agreeable solutions, but these "new reformers" have formed a pretty tight-knit circle and have gained many politicians' ears, notably Barack Obama, who made Arne Duncan Secretary of Education based on the perceived successes in Chicago.  Duncan is a big supporter of testing, charter schools and vouchers.

It seems all you have to do is create the aura of success to move up in the political world, judging by the meteoric rise of Booker and Duncan, both under 50.  Neither made any tangible improvements in the school districts they oversaw.  Meanwhile, the same administrators and teachers who have been serving these school districts for decades are left to pick up the pieces and explain to the parents why their children remain left behind.

Maybe Ras Baraka can clean up the mess left behind by Cory Booker now that he has been elected mayor of Newark.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mr. O'Malley Flies Again

I'm a big fan of comics, but I hadn't realized that Crockett Johnson had a comic strip back in the 1940s. Of course, it was a little before my time, but I had thought Harold and the Purple Crayon and his subsequent adventures were his only work.  Turns out it was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Johnson's Barnaby ran between 1942 and 1952, but failed to find a significant audience, despite praise from Dorothy Parker and other writers of the time.  He found himself overshadowed by the far more successful Blondie.  Barnaby eventually took off with the release of bound volumes of cartoons by Henry Holt (pictured above).   Johnson would have a big influence on Maurice Sendak, and inspire Charles Schulz and Bil Keane, whose Peanuts and Family Circus became international institutions.

Fantagraphiics books has collected the first two years of Barnaby in a beautiful volume, and plans to release further volumes in the near future.  I think much of the renewed interest in Johnson was the result of the successful reprinting of Harold and the Purple Crayon,  A shame that Johnson couldn't enjoy this new interest in his work.  He passed away in 1975.  These books are a real treasure.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Let the Circus Begin

It strikes me as a no-brainer that the Democrats should boycott this faux select committee on Benghazi since it is so obviously a political stunt.  Yet, there were 7 conservative Democrats who voted for the committee and others who expressed interest in being on it, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, so one can expect the Republicans will find 5 Dems to fill the remaining seats.  The Republicans would like everyone to think the panel is fair and balanced, borrowing the tagline from Fox News

Why the Democrats continue to play these Republican games is beyond me.  Virtually the whole country knows this panel is a joke, headed by a South Carolina fire-eater, Trey Gowdy, who thinks expert testimony is unnecessary.  Other arch-conservatives fill the 7 Republican seats, insuring a majority vote in whatever decision the select panel reaches on the administration's role in the Great Benghazi Cover-Up the GOP has been pitching since 2012.

It doesn't matter that we have already had 4 hearings, numerous investigations, scores of expert testimony and wasted countless reams of paper on this grand inquisition that failed to yield any serious wrong-doing by the administration.  But, the Republicans need an issue this election cycle and so here we go all over again.

Candy Crowley had Michelle Bachmann and Debbie Wasserman Schultz engage in a pre-committee debate, which rehashed all the talking points.  When confronted by the polls that Americans don't give a shit about Benghazi, Bachmann mumbled something about Americans being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  I assume she was referring to Americans' ability to address more than one issue at one time.  If that is the case, why are House Republicans so fixated on this issue when Americans are apparently far more concerned with jobs and health care?  It seems the GOP can't walk and chew gum at the same time.

It feels like the Republlicans have resurrected the commie witch hunts of the 50s with Gowdy as a latter-day "Tail Gunner Joe" McCarthy.  This kind of grandstanding is exactly why Americans have such a low opinion of Congress and if the Democrats had any sense they would stay as far away from this political circus as they can.  Let the Republicans have their "seven horsemen," and explain this incredible waste of effort to the public.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Let's Ride the West Once Again

Believe it or not, this is the 40th anniversary of Blazing Saddles!  Mel Brooks considered it his best comedy and I was happy to see it has held up reasonably well over time, although many of the sight gags are obviously dated.  I hadn't realized Brooks had tackled the race issue in such bald-faced terms.  He notes in his article that Richard Pryor had been his first choice for Black Bart, but Warner Brothers wanted a more proven actor.  Pryor recommended Cleavon Little.

If you don't remember the story, Black Bart found himself sheriff of an all-white Western town through which a ruthless developer (Harvey Korman) wanted to drive a railroad.  He figured the idea of a black sheriff would send the town into such a disarray that it would be easy pickings by a gang led by Slim Pickens.  But, Sheriff Bart proved more than a match for the developer in this madcap adventure tale.

There really wasn't anything like it before or since.  Mel Brooks said a movie like this would be impossible to make today because of the unbridled racism and sexism on display, but Brooks felt that only by showing it so blatantly could you draw attention to it, and boy did he.  The film stirred a lot of controversy, which no doubt helped it at the box office, becoming only the tenth film in history to surpass the $100 million mark.

I found myself placing political figures in the roles.  Obama was the obvious choice as Black Bart and Joe Biden as the Waco Kid.  Dick Cheney would have suited the developer Hedley Lamarr just fine.  Maybe Sarah Palin as the sultry chanteuse Lili von Schtupp?  You can have a lot of fun recasting this film, especially in the wake of the Cliven Bundy fiasco.  Sadly, much of the racism that pervades this film still exists today.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Jingle all the way

Peak oil
The White House's dire warning on climate change was overshadowed by Monica Lewinsky's first interview in 10 years, telling us that she and Bill were both consenting adults and knew what they were getting into, as if it should matter at this point.  However, the Republicans would rather dredge up the "soiled dress" than address an energy bill, which was shelved long ago for lack of any bipartisan support.

You might remember how important it was to the GOP back in 2008 and again in 2012 to open up federal land for more oil drilling, as it seemed we weren't fully tapping our resources.  Since then we have seen a great increase in fracking, deep-water drilling, and other controversial methods of oil and gas extraction to meet energy needs.  No matter how hard scientists and engineers try, conservatives just can't seem to wrap their minds around wind and solar energy, despite numerous state initiatives which have yielded positive results.  The GOP policy remains Drill, Baby, Drill!  Here's Sarah telling us about energy security.

At some point you would think conservatives would wake up to the reality that oil is not the answer to all our energy needs.  It seems they still view the world in these 1964 terms, when the reality today is a diversity of energy sources suited for different situations to reduce our dependency on oil.  We have the technology, we just seem unwilling to put it to use.  Maybe we need a new Six Million Dollar Man to make the pitch.

It seems that only on such simplistic terms can one address these issues.  Citing figures and presenting charts has little impact, unless you use a voodoo stick.  Democrats need to come up with catchy ways to get their message across, as Republicans and independent businessmen have done.  The Dems need to tap into the great reservoir of American television and pull out some catchy tunes from the past, like My Mother the Car, and adapt it to electric cars.  Instead of a 1928 Porter, one can use this 19th century Lohner-Porsche, which was the first manufactured electric car, to illustrate that this technology is nothing new and just as easy to relate to.  Here's a sleeker American electric car from the 1920's, which makes that 1928 Porter look like a car your grandmother would have driven.

Yep, one has to think in terms of jingles these days, which reduce complicated ideas down to tunes or phrases that linger in the head, often defying attempts to shake them out.  Jingle advertisement was the staple of American television for decades, and still works today, judging by all the recurring memes one sees on facebook. Democrats need to come up with appealing jingles with links to broader messages that might draw interested parties.

If the White House is going to issue a dire warning, set it to the music of Barry McGuire's Eve of Destruction.  You are going to be accused of demagoguery anyway, so give Americans something they can relate to, not some new report no one will ever read.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Kelly Girl

Advertisements are a reflection of our society.  This Kelly Girl dates to 1971, but Kelly Services still has many of the same policies in place 40+ years later according to this ProPublica article on the phenomenal growth in temp hiring since the crisis of 2007-08.  Today, corporations farm out their labor the same way they do their products, with an estimated 2.7 million temporary employees in the national workforce.

The majority of these workers are women, finding them subject to tremendous amounts of stress as they have to pitch up as much as two hours early to see if they have work for the day.  Michael Grabell follows Rosa Ramirez, a modern-day "Rosie the Riveter," who at one point was making air filters for the Navy.  None of these temp jobs led to permanent work.  She's been working for a temp agency for 12 years, with virtually no benefits and little in the way of savings to show for it.

Initially, temp companies like Kelly Services were designed almost exclusively for women looking for "pin money."  Today, fewer companies wanting to pay workers' compensation, health care or provide pension plans, temp agencies have flourished, subjecting their workers to unacceptable conditions, especially in the blue collar sector.  The situation is most sever in inner cities, where it looks like we have drifted back to the late 19th and early 20th century, with a preponderance of immigrant workers, who accept these conditions because of limited opportunities.

This echoes the Lowell mill girls of the 1830s, who were easy to control and for the most part were saving toward dowries.  It wasn't long before textile mills exploited the situation, especially with the flood of immigrant workers from the mid 19th century onward.

Unions haven't make much effort to organize temporary workers, partly because of the constant flux of labor.  Unions are more concerned with maintaining permanent jobs.  Attempts at keeping temp workers from crossing picket lines were struck down by the Federal Trade Commission.  In 2004 the National Labor Relations Board barred temp workers from joining permanent workers for collective bargaining unless their temp agency agreed.  Fat chance, especially when many of these temp agencies pride themselves on being anti-union.

The use of sub-contractors allows companies like Walmart to absolve themselves of any blame in the crude practices rampant in the packaging industry, just as these retailers shield themselves from their overseas subcontractors who make many of the products on the shelves.  Naomi Klein explored the international garment industry in No Logo, which has become standard operating procedure in most industries.

While Kelly Services no longer opts for the sexist ads, it still offers many of the same perks to corporations, allowing them to tap into a vast reservoir of cheap labor without having to assume any of the burden of full time employees.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

There you go again ...

If all else fails, bring up Benghazi once again.  The Republicans really seem to have done themselves in economically.  First came the jolting news that Obamacare surpassed its target of 7 million subscribers and has been adding new subscribers since.  Then came the April figures that showed new employment far exceeding expectations and that 2014 might actually be the bumper year it was initially forecasted to be.  So, the midterm strategy appears to be drag up Benghazi once again even after the issue failed to gain traction in the 2012 campaign.

The most amazing thing is that the House Oversight Committee headed by Darrell Issa has subpoenaed John Kerry to testify on the incident, even though he wasn't Secretary of State at the time.  The political grandstanding doesn't stop there.  The Senate dynamic duo of John McCain and Lindsey Graham have demanded the president reveal his whereabouts the night of the attack.

This latest round of insults is in response to a declassified e-mail that Issa got his hands on, which according to Jay Carney had nothing to do with Benghazi.  That didn't stop the GOP bulldog, who jumped all over the memo.  Issa's oversight committee has been a disaster, ever in search of the "soiled dress" that will bring the Obama administration down.

What gets me is that Mackie and Lindsey should know better, but Lindsey finds himself having to shrug off Tea Party challengers in the South Carolina GOP primary and desperately needs an issue to hold the rabid dogs at bay.  Mackie of course would like America to know that he is still relevant in politics despite being reviled as much within his own Republican Party as he is among the general public.

Both had tried to make an issue out of Ukraine, claiming that the President hasn't gone far enough in dealing with Russia.  This is similar to their hawkish stance on Syria over the past two years.  But, Americans simply aren't that interested in these two distant countries.  The loss of Americans in Benghazi strikes closer to home.

Benghazi is not the only faux issue being resurrected in this election cycle.  The Keystone pipeline is once again being promoted by Republicans as a "job creator."  Just like the new health care plans GOP candidates have been trotting out as their "alternatives" to Obamacare, Republicans desperately need something to show Americans they are thinking about jobs, which they seem to have thought very little of these past four years.

Keystone was a joke from the beginning with no more than 9000 jobs promised for a pipeline that the Federal government would have had to fork out $7 billion.  That's about $780,000 per job.  The pipeline would bring TransCanada oil to market in New Orleans, but there is little to indicate it would have any tangible benefits for Americans.  It seems trucks and trains aren't enough to transport this crude to refineries in the Gulf states.  We apparently "need" a pipeline as long as the Mississippi River to make this oil more available.  It strikes me that Canada is having the US fork out a large part of the bill for bringing their oil to the world, much like Russia extorts Europe to bring its gas to market.

Canada has even raised the issue at G7 meetings, considering it a matter of "energy security."  Much of the delay concerns environmental regulations in Nebraska, which the federal government felt were ignored when the red state approved the pipeline route.  According to Mr. Rickford, the Canadian Natural Resources Minister, this would allow Canada to bring oil to Eastern Europe, helping to cut its dependence on Russian oil.  How magnanimous of Canada!

Not surprisingly, you can find the Koch Brothers behind this venture.  They have been the ones funding Tea Party groups to actively promote the pipeline and put pressure on Republican legislators and on the White House in turn.  It just so happens that they sit on over one million acres through which the pipeline would run.  A decision has been deferred for two election cycles now.  Many think Obama will wait until the outcome of the midterms to decide one way or the other, despite the ever growing chorus against the pipeline.

I would like to think voters have had enough of this grandstanding, but since the midterms are about state elections, the aim is to rally the base of your political party, not reach for a middle ground, so you can expect hyperbolic rhetoric in the coming months as GOP candidates try to snatch Southern Senate seats in hopes of overturning the Democratic majority.  As good ol' Ronnie would say, "there you go again."

Friday, May 2, 2014

Electric Dylan

Dylan at Newport, 1965
It is hard to put a value on such penciled lyrics and margin notes, but Dylan's working draft of Like a Rolling Stone is expected to fetch well in excess of a million dollars at a Sotheby's auction next month.  Dylan himself won't enjoy the proceeds of the sale.  The unidentified seller apparently bought the four sheets of paper from Dylan directly in a "non-rock context," and one assumes Dylan himself verified the authenticity of the document.

The song made a huge impact when it was released in 1965, as it signaled Dylan's electric phase when he joined forces with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.  It first appeared on Highway 61 Revisited before being released as a single with Gates of Eden on the flipside.  It represented a significant departure from his earlier folk-based albums, greatly angering folk fans at Newport in 1965 but inspiring a new legion of fans.  Among them, a young Bruce Springsteen, who saw it as a clarion call for a new style of rock and roll music.

As is often the case with a revolutionary new approach, the album fell flat and the single had limp sales.  This was fortunate for Frank Zappa as he didn't have to quit his gig.  He thought the song so earth shattering that at first he didn't see any reason to continue.  Since then, the song has been covered by countless artists, including the Rolling Stones.   Not surprisingly, Rolling Stone magazine placed it atop its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

But, one has to ask if these are nothing more than very expensive liner notes.  Can the value of these lyrics be traced back to four pages of hotel stationery he apparently took with him from the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington, DC?  The strength of the original song lies as much in the musical arrangement by Bloomfield and Kooper as it does Dylan's lyrics.

Dylan with Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield
Mike Bloomfield is one of those unsung heroes of rock and roll who is all but forgotten except to the most hard core fan.  His musicianship was valued greatly by other musicians at the time, particularly Dylan who briefly lured him away from the Paul Butterfield Band to help give the album the full body of sound he imagined.  An instrumental version of the song appears on this newly released box set of Bloomfield.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Odd man out

Racism rears its ugly head again.  After Donald Sterling's outlandish statements in a recorded telephone conversation with his girlfriend, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has been excommunicated from the NBA.  The only thing left is for the owners to agree on a forced sale of the ball club to rid him from the basketball league all together.  It should be a big payday for the Don, who bought the team for $12.5 million back in 1981, as NBA teams are worth upward of $500 million, but one assumes it is the prestige of owning one of these teams that attracts buyers.

Despite the almost universal outcry against Sterling, there are those who defend him, notably another Donald, who feels the billionaire slumlord was set up by his girlfriend, who apparently had been sitting with Magic Johnson court side in recent games.  Conservative pundits have jumped on what they regard as a hostile takeover attempt of the Clippers by a black consortium led by Johnson, adding even more fuel to the fire.  Stephen Colbert has fun with the latest Conservative poster boy.

It apparently doesn't matter that Sterling has long been out of favor with the NBA, only recently making any kind of investment in the team after 30 years of ownership.  The Clippers were a perennial doormat until the team signed Blake Griffin in 2009, and have since built a formidable team around the All Star center.  Last year, Sterling dished out big money to lure Doc Rivers away from Boston, with one assumes the intent of challenging for the NBA title.

So, why all this angst against Blacks?  Sterling has a track record of discrimination with the most recent lawsuit being one settled in 2009 for denying Hispanics and Blacks access to his apartment rentals.  I guess he thought Koreans better met their monthly payments.

He is also known for making grandiose pitches, like a $50 million Donald T. Sterling Homeless Center in downtown LA, that never get built.  He sits on the relatively cheap real estate for awhile and then builds something more profitable in its place.  Nevertheless, he attracted the attention of the NAACP, which was about to bestow a lifetime achievement award on the developer before his racist pillow talk was aired.

The NBA is global, attracting viewers on all continents, and has players from many countries.  It is a multi-billion dollar sports industry that has an image to protect given its multi-racial team rosters.  Sterling is an anachronism.  A guy who bought a miserable team for a song, sat on it for three decades, and only under pressure from the NBA began to make an effort to build it into a ball club.

You would think the Clippers' recent success would allow Sterling to put all the past behind him, but in an unexpected moment of outrage over who his girlfriend takes to ball games, it all came undone.  I doubt Sterling will be crying over this spilled milk, but one hopes that this will put pressure on other team owners like Orlando Magic owner Rich De Vos to clean up his act or get out.