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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 5

This morning’s coffee is from the island of Java. I’ve loaded the five-CD changer with all John Coltrane.

1, Page One at a glance: Democrats are calculating which of their candidates are hopeless causes in the November election and will abandon them financially in the hope of protecting candidates more likely to win in November, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Sept. 14 with the goal of bringing peace to the Middle East, airline ticket prices are soaring, Asian-Americans are the new stars of fashion design and robots are being used like rolling teleconference units to put people like doctors in hospital rooms even when they’re miles away. The scary headline on that last story: “The Boss is Robotic, and Rolling Up Behind You.” The fear is that of one of these things, which look like space-age upright vacuum cleaners, could put an end to the discreet workplace tradition of surfing the Internet for porn.

2, That story about Democrats weighing who may not get financial support also reports that Democrats are urging their candidates to get tough on their Republican opponents. In one ad, New Jersey Democratic Representative John Adler accused his challenger “of buying a donkey so he could call his house a farm and get a tax break.” Shouldn’t the Republican have purchased an elephant?

3, You thought bank bailouts are a thing of the past? We’re currently bailing out Afghanistan’s largest bank, Kabul Bank, in the midst of fears of an oncoming Afghan financial crisis.

4, While Republicans are trying to create a war over the building of a Muslim community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory (doesn’t that count as enhancing the community?), the actual site of the 9/11 attacks is coming together with astonishing speed after eight years of delay. When completed over the next couple of years, it will include shimmering new skyscrapers, a performing arts center, a museum, thousands of trees and two memorial pools in the actual footprints of the two collapsed Twin Towers.  For those who truly are offended by a Muslim presence two blocks from the site (but who also apparently are not offended by the presence of seedy sex shops even closer), the positive response to the community center/mosque should be to point with pride to what’s finally happening at ground zero.

5, A new phenomena is emerging, as citizens are being billed for emergency equipment sent to the scene of an accident in which they are involved. Your insurance company will sometimes pay this bill. But sometimes not. And it doesn’t matter if you are not at fault: Might determination of fault mean sending a bill to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda after 9/11, I wonder? This is apparently happening in 36 states, although 10 states have put at least some restrictions on the practice. As services such as police and fire departments are generally paid for by your taxes – maybe socialism isn’t such a bad thing, eh? – opponents of this practice of billing people for them argue that they are, in effect, being double taxed. As one group fighting the idea has noted, “The role of police and fire departments should be to serve and protect, not serve and collect.

6, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman discusses The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era, by Michael Mandelbaum. Basically, the U.S. must re-think all of its foreign policies, because we can’t afford the old ones. For example, bullying wars of choice are out. We must re-build our economy, Mandelbaum argues, establish priorities (How important is winning in Afghanistan, anyway?) and “shore up our balance sheet and weaken that of our enemies,” as Friedman summarizes for us, “and the best way to do that in one move is with a much higher gasoline tax.” You can imagine how that last idea would go over with the voting public, and how it would be exploited by politicians. But it’s suddenly a very different world, isn’t it?

7, Frank Rich further explores the idea when he writes, “We can’t afford to forget now that the single biggest legacy of the Iraq war at home was to codify the illusion that Americans can have it all at no cost.”

8, Rich quotes Andrew J. Bacevich’s views on war bankrupting America; Bacevich’s new Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War is examined in the Book Review. In reporting on the book’s viewpoint that the belief in the U.S. military’s need to dominate our thinking is too easily accepted, reviewer Gary J. Bass, a Princeton professor, writes, “Those who step outside this monolithic view, like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, are quickly dismissed as crackpots, Bacevich says. This leaves no serious checks or balances against the over-weening national security state.” Bass concludes with, “As foreign policy debates in the run-up to the November elections degenerate into Muslim-bashing bombast, the country is lucly to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich.”

9, The sports section takes a moment to remember that 40 years ago, the Pirates’ Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter, later claiming he had been on LSD at the time. “We’re led to believe that there’s no overlap between drug culture and sports culture, but why not?” says Donnell Alexander, who conducted one of the last interviews with Ellis before he died in 2008 of liver failure. “I think there’s a rooting interest in LSD among a certain part of our culture.” The story interviews Todd Snider, a whimsical folk-rocker who wrote a song about the event, “America’s Favorite Pastime.” I know of at least one other song written about Ellis’ LSD no-hitter, Barbara Manning’s “Dock Ellis.” As a fairly serious baseball fan, I have both in my CD collection.

10, “Victoria Beckham: Is She For Real?” asked the Sunday Styles headline. Former Spice Girl and “pneumatic Barbie of the hinterlands,” current husband of soccer star David Beckham, and now a fashion designer, the story takes note of Beckham’s “improbably lusty chest.” Is this a polite journalistic way to say “implants?”

11, In Arts & Leisure, “Hey Dad, Get With the (3-D) Program” predicts this youthful 3-D generation’s disinterest in the TV shows of the last few years, just as the color-saturated generation that previously came along showed little interest in the black and white shows of their parents’ era. Neil Genzlinger writes that “television technology is poised for another sea change, and when that happens, a curtain drops between generations, thick and impenetrable.” I guess that means Seinfeld goes to the same crypt as F Troop.

12, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is a new documentary that sheds light on one of the most-intriguing musicians of the 20th Century. Most of us know the Canadian pianist as “the Howard Hughes of classical music,” as Larry Rohter writes. “A pill-popping hypochondriac who wore gloves, a scarf, overcoat and flat cap even at the height of summer, and who was so adverse to physical contact that ordinarily he wouldn’t even shake hands.” The new film attempts to de-mystify Gould, noting he had girlfriends. And he liked the music of Petulia Clark.

13, Robert Plant will have a new album out on Sept. 14, Band of Joy. Like his last release, the collaboration with bluegrass diva Alison Krauss, it explores American roots music, but in a different way. Newer, with songs by Los Lobos, and Richard Thompson (not American, but he know us), Townes Van Zandt and the Minnesota indie band Low. “I don’t come from the land of ice and snow,” he tells The Times, quoting a line from Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” after expressing a great affection for the sounds of the American South. “But I do feel I come from overseas, and I feel like a strange cousin from across the water. I’m still a voyeur in America, and after all these years I still haven’t dug in beneath the epidermis.”

14, We’re spending a lot of time in Arts & Leisure today. The cover story is on Harvey Pekar, whose long-running graphic novel American Splendor and its “compulsive chronicling of Cleveland’s commonplace lives, including, most frequently, his own,” made him a “Bohemian celebrity.”  “A major influence in the underground world but never a big seller,” The Times writes, “he was always waiting for his cult fame to recede each time it unexpectedly crested. ” The story also delves into the battle over his legacy since his death this summer at age 70. Pekar’s stories were illustrated by other people, and Pekar’s wife doesn’t like one of his later collaborators, refusing to allow publication of any of that material, which appeared on a web site. Even without that, it appears there will be plenty of Pekar’s rasping, cynical observations of life for years to come.

15, Very funny story on actor William Shatner in the magazine. Shatner’s greatest roles are playing himself, both on TV and in real life. He also insisted on ordering writer Pat Jordan’s meals for him when they’re in restaurants: “The waiter asked if I wanted coleslaw or fries. Shatner answered, ‘He’ll have the fries.’ I said I wanted the coleslaw. Shatner said: ‘I. Want. The. Fries.’ ”

16, In noting the huge catalog of Bob Dylan books already in print, reviewer Bruce Handy writes this dandy line: “If you have been toying with the idea of writing  a book that ‘itemizes Bob Dylan’s copyright registrations and copyright-related documents,’ I’m afraid to report it’s been done.” Nevertheless, Handy appears generally happy with yet another new Dylan book, Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 25

First music of the Day: The Flaming Lips’ re-interpretation of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, in its entirety.

1, Scholars who have analyzed the Supreme Court of Chief Justice John Roberts, now in its fifth year, say it is the most conservative in living memory. “If the Roberts court continues on the course suggested by the first five years,” The Times writes, “it is likely to allow a greater role for religion in public life, to permit more participation by unions and corporations in elections and to elaborate further on the scope of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Abortion rights are likely to be curtailed, as are affirmative action and protections for people accused of crimes.”

2, As the mid-term elections approach, the big issue is likely to be the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Democrats want to allow them to expire at the end of the year. Republicans will fight for them.

3, This super-heated summer has 2010 on track to overtake 2005 as the hottest year ever recorded on the planet. California refuses to go along with this trend. There, the average temperature is 2.4 degrees below normal.

4, In a column bearing the headline “We’re Gonna Be Sorry,” Thomas L. Friedman laments the decision on Thursday by Senate Democrats to drop the energy and climate bill. “We’ve basically decided to keep pumping greenhouse gasses into Mother Nature’s operating system,” Friedman writes, “and take our chances that the results will be benign – even though the vast majority of scientists warn that this will not be so.” Friedman also quotes an energy company CEO who suggests that developing new green energy technology will result in 50,000 new jobs. We need jobs in this country, right?  But the lies of fossil fuel companies have won the day. Money, and the business sense of the people who pursue it, exposes this lie, and Friedman ends his column with a letter to investors from hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham: “Conspiracy theorists claim to believe that global warming is a carefully constructed hoax driven by scientists desperate for… what? Being needled by nonscientific newspaper reports, by blogs and right-wing politicians and think tanks?”

5, By now, we all have heard how Shirley Sherrod, who worked for the USDA in Georgia, was scandalously slandered by a right-wing blogger, whose criminally altered video “proof” of her racism – despite his history of such deceptions – was accepted without question by everyone from Fox News to the White House. Columnist Frank Rich skewers the usual suspects in this awful episode, including the media, race flamethrowers such as Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich, a Republican Party that refuses to acknowledge the racism of  its Tea Party subsidiary, and an administration that “capitulated to a mob.” But Rich does what so few people, even those who belatedly rushed to Sherrod’s defense, have failed to do. He tells her story in its entirety, including how her father was murdered when she was 17 and, despite the testimony of three witnesses to the killing, a white suspect was never indicted. And how she married a man, Charles Sherrod, “a minister and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” Rich writes, “whose heroic efforts to advance desegregation, including his imprisonment, can be found in any standard history of the civil rights movement.” Sherrod could have fled from any of these parts of the story, as so many members of the media and political figures did last week, But she stayed in Georgia, hoping to make a difference. And she did. It is clear that people like Sherrod are hope that we can believe in.

6, Columnist Maureen Dowd gets the Sherrod story right as well, including the painful conclusion that our first black president is so bending over backwards to show he’s not favoring black people that he’s actually failing us on healing the divide of race.  Despite the right-wing claims that Obama is all about advancing black agendas, Dowd notes that the president was “raised in the Hawaiian hood and Indonesia,” while top adviser Valerie Jarrett “spent he early  years in Iran.” That’s the extent of the black presence in the inner offices of the White House. According to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the House delegate from Washington, D.C., “The president needs some advisers or friends who have a greater sense of the pulse of the African-American community.”

7, The final word on Sherrod in The Week in Review  comes from Van Jones, the Obama administration official who a year ago was hounded out of his job by the same conservative pack. Jones admits his guilt – he was quoted as saying Republicans are rednecks, although that hardly seems a firing offense in a world where conservatives feel free to call the president a racist. In retrospect, we see that Jones was a victim of the same “combination of speed chess and Mortal Kombat,” as he describes the political landscape today. “The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as our national immune system, zapping scandal mongers and quashing wild rumors,” he writes. “As a step toward further democratizing America, we shrunk those old gatekeepers – and ended up weakening democracy’s defenses. Rapidly developing communication technologies did the rest.”

8, Perhaps the assault on reality that we saw in last week’s Sherrod episode can all be blamed on Lady Gaga. In an Arts & Leisure profile of the world’s biggest female pop star, Jon Caramanica writes, “No one in recent pop memory has been a greater enemy to the authentic than Lady Gaga…. Lady Gaga has become successful by adhering to the belief that there’s no inner truth to be advertised, or salvaged: all one can do is invent anew.”

9, Sunday night’s new season of Mad Men, set in the advertising world of the early ’60s, has been highlighted in several Times stories in the past few weeks, including today in Frank Rich’s column and the magazine. The show’s attention to detail, both in sets, costumes and language, is the legend of TV bloggers.  “No show in American television history, it is safe to say, has ever put so much effort into maintaining historically appropriate ways of speaking – and no show has attracted so much scrutiny for its efforts,” The Times writes.

10, In a magazine story called “The End of Forgetting,” the subtitle tells all. “Legal scholars, technologists and cyberthinkers are wrestling with the first great existential crisis of the digital age: the impossibility of erasing your posted past, starting over, moving on.” I’m sure we all have sent an e-mail that we now regret, except for my friend Dick, who does not use e-mail. Perhaps we need a legal statute of limitations on personal materials, such as adolescent postings or embarrassing pictures taken at parties, it is suggested. Apparently some research is under way that would allow specific electronic data to self destruct after a designated period of time.

11, Two new histories of yoga, The Subtle Body and The Great Oom, describe how Americans have confused yoga’s mind-enhancing aspects with Marilyn Monroe’s legs and an improved sex life. “This conflation of yoga with the Kama Sutra – India’s most-important exports to the west prior to information technology,” reviewer Pankaj Mishra writes, “would have startled not only its Brahman practitioners in the Himalayas or along the Ganges but also the sages of Walden and Concord who first embraced Indian ideas of non-dualism, the indivisibility of  mind and matter, and the essential oneness of the universe.”

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: July 18

It is 7 a.m., and already two beef-broth injected brisket are on the smoker. First music of the day: The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Between Nothingness & Eternity. The coffee is Costa Rican. It is a beautiful morning on the deck.

1, Today’s lead story, “The Corrosive Legacy of Oil Spills,” confirms what you probably already know, or suspect: Every oil spill is different, but each leaves an ecological legacy that lasts for decades, even when it’s not readily visible. In 1969, a barge that hit the rocks off of West Falmouth, Mass., spilled 189,000 gallons of oil into Buzzards Bay. Yet even today, “the fiddler crabs at nearby Wild Harbor still act drunk, moving erratically and reacting slowly to predators,” The Times writes.

2, A few pages later, on Page 9, is another one of those overly earnest full-page ads by BP, saluting the company’s clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

3, Facebook is facing the inevitable: Death. The death of your Facebook friends. “Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in the machine,” The Times reports, “but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.”

4, I often wonder if Sarah Palin deserves all of the attention that she draws from the media, given the Tea Party’s well-documented tendency to exaggerate the size of the crowds at its rallies. Palin’s political action committee filed its quarterly financial report last week, claiming it raised $866,000 and donated $87,500 to Republican candidates, many supported by the Tea Party. The numbers, The Times notes, are “hardly exceptional for a prospective presidential candidate.”

5, Guatemala’s largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, is under attack. The region, the size of New Jersey, is home to what may be the world’s largest ancient pyramid. “Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest,” The Times writes, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilizations, are being razed by cattle-ranching drug barons.” Cattle-ranching drug barons. There’s a new global villain for you.

6, Columnist Matt Bai has a perceptive analysis of last week’s tiff between the Tea Party and the NAACP, which urged the group to face its racist aspects; and you’d have to be anesthetized to have not picked up on the Tea Party’s racism. But as Bai notes, “we tend to not recognize the generational divide that underlies it.” A poll finds that three-quarters of Tea Party supporters are older than 45, 29 percent are older than 64. In short, the Tea Party is fueled by people who grew up in a time and place where racism was more commonly practiced, or silently accepted as a part of the American landscape.

7, “Garbo couldn’t exist in the 21st Century,” writes Ben Brantley in the Sunday Styles section. “I mean Garbo the lady of mystery, not the rather dull, stingy woman who is reported to have resided behind the persona.” He goes on to add, “Today’s democracy of technology would, of course, conspire to put a fast and brutal end  to the tantalizing demi-invisibility that a Garbo sustained so well.”

8, While the cable entertainment shows are giggling and expressing their lightweight shock over Mel Gibson’s racist rants, before moving on to the Lindsay Lohan matter, columnist Frank Rich sees what the whole Gibson episode really means. Recalling his anti-Semitic rant captured on tape following a DUI arrest in 2006, Gibson “is the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard that he is today,” Rich writes. “But his fall says a lot about the changes in the country over the last six years.” Rich reminds us of what was happening in this country in 2004, when American “values” were being defined as shock over Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl costume and Newt Gingrich warning against the war on Christmas. Where are we today? The Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are gone, as are Jerry Falwell and James Dobson and, “What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades.” Rich points out how today’s conservative groups, such as the Tea Party, have had no comment on last month’s Massachusetts court order nullifying the anti-gay “Defense of Marriage Act,” or last week’s overturning of the FCC indecency rules put in place after Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The virtue police of 2004 are withering away. Rich quotes New York Post conservative columnist Kyle Smith: “The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade.”

9, The comedy of Climate Change deniers is coming to a boil, writes Nicholas D. Kristof after this, the hottest six months on the planet since such  data started being kept in 1880. Kristof cites the famed mountain climber David Brashears, who compared photos of Himalayan glaciers that he has taken with those taken by climbers from decades ago. “Time and again,” Kristof writes, “the same glaciers have shrunk drastically in every direction, often losing hundreds of feet in height.” How can we ignore this? Kristof cites research that suggests human brains evolved to understand imminent dangers, such as saber-toothed tigers, but not slowly encroaching trouble such as climate change.

10, In the magazine, “When Funny Goes Viral” tries to argue that we should be taking seriously all of these Internet postings of fat cats, Hitler screaming about pop-culture issues and sites like Chuck Norris Facts. For those of us who wonder daily where the Internet is going, and express dismay at what it has done to the thinking process, this seems useful. But the best the story can do is pose the same question as where it started: “Like, what, exactly, am I laughing at?”

11, The Book Review cuts into Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and People Who Cook, judging it as “half cooked.” Bourdain is the former chef and now world traveler who advocates against mediocrity (Rachel Ray) and for cultural authenticity (Vietnamese street food). Reviewer Christine Muhlke, a Times food editor, types with one hand that Bourdain may be too marinated in his own shtick, then with the other hand writes that Bourdain himself is all-too aware that his cynicism risks turning him into “Andy Rooney in a leather jacket.” I, for one, am not offended by a writer who “begins with a Lou Reed quotation and slides into a Graham-Green-meets-Tom-Waits reverie in Hanoi.” Bourdain remains one of the 10 guests I would invite to a fictional dinner party.

12, In The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, writer Peter Watson gives us the rundown of how, by 1900, Germans were dominating philosophy, music, science, engineering. And yes, war. As reviewer Brian Ladd points out, while celebrating all that Germany gave the world, it’s a little shortsighted to shrug your shoulders at  the Nazis.

13, William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, fought at D-Day, but was afraid of spiders.

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