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The Critical Mass

It is a less-Rich world today

Just as the world’s news outlets are expending all of their resources in documenting the Charlie Sheen story, word has arrived that Frank Rich is leaving The New York Times.

This is devastating news. Rich is abandoning the Greatest Newspaper In The World, the Last Hope For Thoughtful Daily Media, to write for New York magazine, which isn’t even the best magazine coming out of New York City.

A former theater critic, Rich was the perfect lens to turn on the Bush Administration’s clumsy, eight-year march. To paraphrase from my memory, Rich’s take on events such as the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier hoax was, “I know bad theater when I see it.”

He continued to pan the bad theater of politics, particularly the increasingly anti-human antics of the conservatives, even after Bush’s departure from the scene. And I’m sure he will continue to do so. But he will no longer arrive at my doorstep every Sunday morning, busting the hypocrisy of the world. And we will be a less-Rich world for it. There are just damn few writers out there these days whose words I can’t wait to read.

Perhaps I expect too much of Rich. A man of his singular talents has a right to move on, explore other possibilities. The news these days is full of material for some creative mind to step up and mine. My own blog, particularly the series I began over a year ago, “I read the Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to,” has relied on Rich’s words. I would frequently save his column for the last thing I read in the Times that day. Like dessert.  I’ve been out of town the last few weekends, and my travel schedule suggests I’ll be missing the next three Sunday Times readings as well. And when I do resume, Rich won’t be there. It’ll be like a meal that’s missing one final, exquisite course.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Feb. 6

My worst fears have crept into my Sunday-morning routine. Even the Times has conceded that no one’s paying attention to anything on this day except the Super Bowl. I thought the Times was above this fray. But it has surrendered. There’s little of interest on the front page, consumed by uncertain reporting from the unresolved revolt in Egypt. And a story about the unnatural interest in the upcoming Spider-Man Broadway play, interest generated in part by the fact that four performers have been injured during rehearsals. Alas, the story fails to describe the actors’ fates. Guess I’ll have to Google that.

1, The revolt in Egypt had many fathers, and a story inside the first section suggests Facebook may have been a major one. A Facebook page devoted the the beating death of an Egyptian man at the hands of Egyptian police quickly spread outrage through the Internet, and helped lead to what appears to be the revolution toppling of the Mubarak regime. Maybe.

2, The Week in Review section includes a note that Sudanese protests against that country’s police-state president were fueled by appeals on Facebook. Maybe.

3, Columnist Frank Rich, on the other hand, dismisses this as a “media-fueled cliche.” Rich writes, “the Egyptian government pulled the plug on on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger.” Some half-term Alaska governor can keep her name in the news with Twitter and Facebook postings. But in challenging the myth of how “American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses,” Rich points out “even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.” Rich further notes that, as major news organizations cut back on their coverage of foreign countries, we really know less about what’s going on around the world than you’d expect in such an information-sharing world. Noting that we’re coming up on the eighth anniversary of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and “Shock and Awe,” Rich compares that event to our consumption of the news from Egypt.  “Those bombardments too were spectacular to watch from a distance – no Iraqi faces, voices or bodies cluttered up the shots. We lulled ourselves into believing that democracy and other good things were soon to come. It took months, even years, for us to learn the hard way that in truth we really had no idea what was going on.”

4, Sunday Business, looking at all of the smart phones, text messaging and social media at our disposal, turns to Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. She says that with all of this technology crossing paths, “home has invaded work and work has invaded home and the boundary is never likely to be restored.”

5, As Climate Change moves in on our world, the greatest danger we face, according to Mark Hertsgaard in his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, is drought. “Floods kill thousands, drought can kill millions,” says one expert.

6, “The Arctic is the lead player in climate change,” Sara Wheeler writes in yet another new book, The Magnetic North: Notes From the Arctic Circle. Western civilization, which includes the U.S. and the Russians, has been at war with the region for a couple of centuries now, destroying the culture and converting it into a radioactive dump. Wheeler was in Greenland in 1993 when scientists began pulling ice cores from ice sheets two miles deep, tests that first demonstrated how quickly the planet’s weather was changing. “The canary in the coal mine,” writes reviewer Holly Morris, “died ages ago.”

7, In Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart, writer Stefan Kanfer says there will never be another Bogart by pointing to the 20 top-grossing films of all time: Each, from Avatar to Finding Nemo, is targeted for a junior audience. Even aging big stars such as Jack Nicholson deal in “characters in whom an inability to commit and a bewilderment at the state of their own lives are meant to be endearing,” writes reviewer Megan Buskey. There was much to be admired in Bogart the man, whatever you think of his comment that “The whole world is about three drinks behind.” As Buskey notes, “Bogart’s appeal was and remains completely adult – so adult that it’s hard to believe he was ever young. If men who take responsibility are hard to come by in films these days, it’s because they’re hard to come by, period, in an era when being a kid for life is the ultimate achievement, and ‘adult’ as it pertains to film is just an euphemism for pornography.”

8, And finally, back to where we started, and social networking. This edition of the Times was evidently put out by that newsroom’s wonkiest thinkers while everyone else was preparing artichoke dip for the Big Game. In The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, writer Eugeny Morozov sees the Internet as a machine of both personal and sociological repression. Reviewer Lee Siegel points to Morozov’s descriptions of 2009 street protests in Tehran, during which political blogger Andrew Sullivan proclaimed, “the revolution will be Twittered.” And, Siegel adds,  “Clay Shirky, the media’s favorite quotable expert on all things Internet-related, effused: ‘This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.’ ” That revolution ended badly for the nerds after the old-fashioned tanks rolled in.

The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 31

This morning’s coffee was imported from Mexico, which you may interpret as a statement on immigration policy if you wish. First music of the day, the Debussy opera Pelleas et Melisande. It’s in French. The dog is chewing on a rawhide bone from Brazil.

1, In a front page dominated by analysis of the upcoming election on Tuesday (same stuff you’ve been reading for weeks), Page 1 shares a little space with this story: The first sign of Alzheimer’s disease is often “Unexplained Debt and Creditors’ Calls,” resulting from “an inability to understand money and credit, contracts and agreements.”  Remember that, as well, when casting your vote on Tuesday.

2, After the discovery of what appears to be two bombs on planes from Yemen, and bound for the United States, “White House officials do not want to look as if they are seizing on a potential catastrophe to win votes,” The Times writes. “But at the same time, they remember when President Obama was criticized when he said nothing publicly in the three days after an attempt to blow up an airliner on Dec. 25.” You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

3, I do not own a cell phone. It’s endorsing mediocre technology and communication. In the magazine this week, in a piece called “Funeral For a Friend,” Virginia Heffernan voices what we’ve lost as and lines dwindle.  “Your phone voice was distinctive; your phone manner was distinctive. You thought a great deal about people who rhythmically and mysteriously inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke while they talked, or left long silences or didn’t hang up immediately after saying good-bye.”

4, An elementary school in Los Angeles, which Michael Jackson briefly attended, has removed the plywood obscuring the name on Michael Jackson Auditorium. The support to reveal the sign, covered up seven years ago after Jackson’s arrest on child-abuse charges, was nearly unanimous in the community. One dissenting voice has come from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Already it’s extraordinarily hard for sexually violated kids to come forward,” said the network’s director. “When we honor accused pedophiles, especially one as high profile as Michael Jackson, it risks intimidating even more victims.”

5, The Sunday Styles section, in a story headlined “The Great Unwashed,” describes a movement whose devotees do not shower or wash their hair daily, and do not use deodorant.  “We don’t need to wash the way we did when we were farmers,” says Katherine Ashenberg, author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History. According to The Times, “Retention of the skin’s natural oils and water conservation are two reasons.” Researchers may be coming around to this idea as well, noting the skin holds many beneficial germs.”

6, The Week in Review ponders why, as millions of dollars from Wall Street, corporate America and special interests  pour into Republican campaigns, President Obama – raised by a single mom who sometimes had to resort to food stamps to feed her family – is portrayed as an elitist. “The elitism argument is kind of a false one because the president talks about people’s economic interests and middle-class families,” The Times quotes Democratic strategist Anita Dunn, who apparently advises Obama (It’s been my experience, in watching Obama during this campaign, does do exactly that). “And those that are supporting Republican candidates right now – because they think they’ll look out for their interests – are going to be very surprised when they find out what the corporate sponsorship of that party is buying.”

7, On that note, in an editorial, The Times notes that nearly $4 billion is likely to be spent on the midterm elections. By contrast, it’s estimated that $2.85 billion was spent n the 2006 midterms.  “Much of this is a direct creation,” The Times writes, “of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., which has cut away nearly all campaign finance restrictions.”

8, In another editorial, “It is past time to pull the plug on the ‘virtual fence’ that the federal government has been trying to erect on the border with Mexico,” The Times writes. A $7.6 billion project that began with the Bush administration, it’s an overwhelmed piece of non-functioning technology that mistakes tumbleweed for illegal immigrants. “So long as there is a demand for cheap labor, a hunger for better jobs here, and almost no legal way to get in,” The Times writes, “people will keep finding ways around any fence, virtual or not.”

9, Columnist Frank Rich, quoting many old-line Republicans, notes that Tea Party candidates who win on Tuesday will quickly be incorporated into the Republican Party. The greatest service that the Tea Party is providing, Rich writes, it allowing Republican candidates to hide from the massive failures of the Bush administration. By the time the next presidential election rolls around, “the equally disillusioned right and left may have a showdown that makes this election year look as benign as Woodstock.”

10, Thomas L. Friedman notes that while India is thriving in the new economic environment that was launched by American innovations such as what was happening in Silicon Valley more than two decades ago, the U.S. is standing still, and poised to go in reverse. “The U.S. seems sadly unprepared to take advantage of the revolution it has spawned,” he says one Indian editor writes in Businessworld magazine. “The country’s worn-out infrastructure, failing education system and lack of political consensus have prevented it from riding a new wave to prosperity.”

11, It is astonishing the degree to which we are distanced from the events of the world. Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, a fine book about Civil War re-enactors, notes that Nov. 6 will be the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, Horwitz writes, 75 percent of eligible southern men served in the military, more than 60 percent of northern men did so. One out of three southern men died in the war. The public saw gruesome testimony of the war through battlefield photos of the dead brought to them by this new invention, photography. “We’re spared this discomfort today,” Horwitz writes, “with the American dead from two ground wars air brushed from public view.”

12, The Pee-wee Herman comeback is real. The Pee-wee Herman Show opens Nov. 11 on Broadway, and advance sales are reported to be “solid.”

13, In a review of Grant Wood: A Life, Deborah Solomon describes Wood’s most-famous work as “a pale, homely farming pair posed in front of their white house, looking as if their dog had just died.” That’s as fine a summary of “American Gothic” as I’ve ever read. R. Tripp Evans’ summary of Woods’ life seems equally interesting. A strange, taciturn, incoherent man who lived with his widowed mother, always misplacing his keys and wallet, addicted to sugar to the point that he’d sprinkle it on lettuce. The painter’s brief marriage, described as “calamitous,” to a light-opera singer 10 years older that he prompts Evans to postulate that Wood was a repressed homosexual, but the evidence suggests merely a repressed human.

14, I was puzzled by Lee Siegel’s “Beat Generations” Oct. 10 essay in the Book Review, which suggested that Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and Tea Party chanteuse Sarah Palin had more in common than is immediately evident. In a letter to the editor, Seton Hall professor of English Jeffrey Gray found what troubled me. “Presenting the Tea Party as hip bohemia obscures the fact that what the Beats ushered in, in the 1950s, was the beginning of the end from a Tea Party standpoint,” he wrote. “Rejection of capitalism; flight from jobs and family in pursuit of mystical or sexual ecstasy; fascination with ethnic others; experimentation with illegal substances; and general descent into hell in a handbasket.”

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