The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: March 4

I’m in a rut. For the third Sunday in a row, today’s coffee is Guatemalan. It’s a good rut. And I’m listening to The Monkees.

1, This tune sounds familiar. A Middle Eastern country is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. We must stop them, we are frantically warned, before it is too late. But this time it is not Iraq, but Iran. Many forces are lobbying on behalf of harsh sanctions against Iran, and perhaps an air strike to destroy… what? Just vague suggestions that bombs will take care of the problem. “While defenders of Israel rally every year at the meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,” The Times writes, “this year’s gathering has been supercharged by a convergence of election-year politics, a deepening nuclear showdown and the often-fraught relationship between the president and the Israeli prime minister.”  Three of the candidates chasing the Republican nomination for president – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich – will address the AIAPC meeting on Tuesday via huge video screen, like some scene out of 1984. But there are some forces urging measured, thoughtful and responsible action. Barack Obama, who favors a blend of sanctions and negotiation; negotiations he does not want to see blown up before they begin. Also on Obama’s side in this fight, the war-weary American people. As The Times notes, “while close to 50 percent of Americans say in several polls that they would support Israel, a slightly larger number say they would stay neutral. In some surveys, there is strong support for continuing diplomacy.” Cooler heads also prevail among some pro-Israeli groups. “We are saying there needs to be time for enhanced sanctions and diplomacy to work,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami of the pro-Jewish lobbying group J Street. “We’re trying to calm down the drumbeat of war.”

2, This idea seems wonderfully quaint: In a California warehouse, a man who runs Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that stores web pages (they’re up to 150 billion) has turned his attention to storing printed books, as The Times says, “in case of digital disaster…. As society embraces all forms of digital entertainment, this latter-day Noah is looking the other way.” Twenty thousand books arrive each week at Brewster Kahle’s warehouse, sometimes from libraries, sometimes from personal collections. While the probability of catastrophic failure of the Internet is unlikely, experts don’t entirely rule it out, either. The repository stands at half a million books now, with a goal of 10 million, including romance novels. “You can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of culture,” Kahle says. And he has agreed to start accepting films. Citizen Kane is probably well taken care of at this point. But Penn State University is dumping its catalog of 5,411 films, all 16mm epics. “Otherwise they probably would have ended up in a landfill,” says one school official. The collection includes 1964’s Introducing the Mentally Retarded, 1973’s We Have an Addict in the House and the 1951 classic Ovulation and Egg Transport in the Rat.

3, Joe Thompson, a fiddler who played Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and folk festivals and helped keep alive the North Carolina black string band tradition, has died at age 93. These “Negro jigs” influenced the bluegrass, country and hillbilly music to follow. Thompson also influenced three young African-American musicians who would come to watch him play in 2005, and then formed their own band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, was a tribute to Thompson, and won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.

4, Erwin Frankel, a New York City radio host and concert promoter who “broadened the American cultural palette by introducing audiences to Andean pan flute music, the whirling dervishes of Turkey and the notion of belly dancing as an art form fit for Carnegie Hall,” has died at age 73. “If profit were permitted to become the be-all of radio broadcasting, he testified at a hearing of the Federal Communications Commission in 1959,” The Times writes, “only purveyors of blandness and snake oil would survive, and jazz, the original American art form, would be heard only by those wiling to ‘buy a short-wave set and pick up overseas relays from the Voice of America.’ ”

5, According to DNA studies, one out of every 200 men on the planet is related to one individual. “The likeliest candidate is Genghis Khan, a warlord who raped and pillaged one town after another, killing all the men and impregnating the women, sowing his seed from China to Eastern Europe,” writes Diane Ackerman in the Sunday Review. She says her mother “always said I must be part Mongolian because of my lotus-pale complexion and squid-ink black hair.”

6, Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, is released on Tuesday, and Times critics Jon Parales and Jon Caramanica go back-and-forth on it, with Parales more approving than Caramanica. Caramanica seems to be arguing that Springsteen’s songs for the common man are blunted by his own success, and opens the door to criticisms of smugness. “It’s not as if Springsteen has been some pampered, out-of-touch rock star who was totaling up his sponsorship deals when he noticed Occupy Wall Street in his giant, flat-screen TV last year,” Parales counters. “This has been his main mission at least since Born to Run.”

7, I tried reading the Style magazine. It bores me. I found a short interview with Willem Dafoe, an actor I really like, tucked among the ads for expensive watches and shoes. Dafoe and his interviewer discuss whether he is ugly or handsome. “Botox repels me,” Dafoe says. “You need something you can identify as the hand you’ve been dealt.” And with that, most readers of Style cringed.

8, Jacon Heilbrunn reviews The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine. Heilbrunn argues that authors David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt and a handful of employees from Brock’s liberal watchdog web site, Media Matters, award too much significance to clowns such as Glenn Beck. “The truth is that Beck, who has departed from Fox, will in the future probably be remembered as part of the freak show – the birthers, the allegations of Kenyan socialism in the White House, and so on – that accompanied Obama’s presidency,” Heilbrunn writes. What The Fox Effect gets right, Heilbrunn says, is the relative ineffectiveness of this cable network fueled by the rage of aging white men: “Not only was Fox unable to prevent Obama’s election, but it failed to stymie his health care plan. Its record against his re-election campaign of 2012 may well be no better, especially if the economy continues to recover. Yes, Republican stars like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich are, or have been, on the Fox payroll. But it is Mitt Romney – a Massachusetts moderate who, no matter how much he denies it, laid out the lineament of Obama’s health care plan  – who will quite possibly secure the Republican nomination. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is running out of steam.”

9, In the magazine, we learn that a study at the University of Oregon suggests that students there drink more when the football team wins than when it loses.

%d bloggers like this: