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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Oct. 24

This morning’s coffee is an excellent Mexican. First music of the day, a continued obsession with the jazz saxophonist Ben Webster. Other pertinent noise: The dog sprawled on the couch next to me, snoring heavily. I’m smoking salmon this morning, a whopper caught in Lake Ontario by my friend Doreen. She’s allergic to salmon, and can’t eat it.

1, The first page of The Times is heavy with bad news, including an election nine days away in which the results will be determined not by issues, but by money; a report that Iran is paying, in cash, millions of dollars to a top aid to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai; and an expose revealing the “Wild West chaos” brought to Iraq and Afghanistan by the private security companies hired by the U.S.

2, In that last story, “Iraq Archive: Private Gunmen Fed Turmoil,” The Times writes of “a critical change in the way America wages war.” It is “the era of the private contractor, wearing no uniform but fighting and dying in battle, gathering and disseminating intelligence and killing presumed insurgents.” These “presumed insurgents” are far too often innocent people, and the details of the abuses by American-hired security thugs are sickening and shameful. To avoid “messy disciplinary action,” The Times writes, after indiscriminately shooting up some civilian vehicles in one incident, one group of contractors “handed out cash to Iraqi civilians, and left.”

4, It’s complicated. The report on contractors gone wild is based on a new leak of 300,000 military documents released by WikiLeaks, the Internet whistleblowing group run by the Australian computer wizard Julian Assange. WikiLeaks was initially hailed for bringing to light many scandals, and Assange still has his admirers, including Daniel Ellsberg, who in the 1970s was both celebrated and reviled after he released The Pentagon Papers, the secret 1,000-page report on the Vietnam War. But The Times presents a portrait of Assange as a man who’s on the run, frequently changing his look, criticized both by governments and now even his former supporters, who accuse him of reveling in his new-found celebrity, evolving into an unfeeling demagogue whose release of secret documents was done without removing the names of informants who could pay with their lives.

5, Cable news’ role in the elections has reached previously unimagined levels, now becoming major players in aiding fund raising. Florida Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio declared his economic policy must be correct because “Rachel Maddow thinks it’s wrong.” Maddow, the liberal MSNBC cable host, laments “For those of us who work at MSNBC, one of the most surreal things about this particular election year has been conservative politicians’ efforts to make us part of the elections.”

6, Is this a reality that I can’t accept? “The best possible result for Obama politically is for the Republicans to gain control of both houses,” says Democratic pollster and strategist Douglas E. Schoen. Why? “The reality of presidential politics is it helps to have an enemy,” Peter Baker writes in the Week in Review section. “With Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, they shoulder responsibility for the country’s troubles. No amount of venting about George W. Bush or the filibuster rule has convinced the public otherwise. But if Republicans capture Congress, Mr. Obama will finally have a foil heading toward his own re-election battle in 2012.”

7, Sports becomes a Week in Review issue. “Is it morally defensible to watch a sport whose level of violence is demonstrably destructive?” writes Michael Sokolove. After watching one of the particularly brutal hits during last weekend’s NFL games, he says, “I immediately thought: This is how a man dies on a football field.”

8, Delaware Republican candidate for the Senate Christine O’Donnell’s utter confusion over the Constitution last week put the pollsters to work. “On the question of church-state separation, at least, a majority of Americans do seem to get the gist,” The Times writes. “The First Amendment Center poll showed that 66 percent of Americans agree with the statement that the First Amendment requires it, wherever the concept may be found. Oddly enough, however, the poll also showed that 53 percent of Americans agree with this statement: the Constitution “establishes a Christian nation.”

9, Our misinformed public is driven by deliberate deception. “Republican candidates and deep-pocketed special interests are spreading so many distortions and outright lies about health care reform that it is little wonder if voters are anxious and confused,” The Times writes in an editorial. “Voters need to know that health care reform will give all Americans real security.”

10, “President Obama, the Rodney Dangerfield of 2010, gets no respect for averting another Great Depression, for saving 3.3 million jobs with stimulus spending, or for salvaging GM and Chrysler from the junk yard,” writes columnist Frank Rich. “For Obama, the ultimate indignity is the Times/CBS poll News poll in September showing that only 8 percent of Americans know that he gave 95 of American taxpayers a tax cut.” For most Americans there has been no Change They Can Believe In. This is because, Rich writes, those who disemboweled this country economically got away with, and they’re about to go to work again.  Should the corporate-fueled Republicans regain some control in the mid-term elections, “an America that still hasn’t remotely recovered from the worst hard times in 70 years will end up handing over even more power to those who greased the skids.”

11, Harvey Phillips, “a Titan of the Tuba” has died. It was largely through the efforts of Phillips, an accomplished musician, that the tuba emerged from its reputation as an “orchestral clown,” as The Times puts it. Phillips commissioned or was the motivator behind more than 200 compositions written for the tuba, and once said, “I’m determined that no great composer is ever going to live out his life without composing a major work for tuba.” He paid one such composer a case of Beefeater gin for his work. Phillips would practice his own tuba playing in the back seat of the car while his wife drove, their children watching the road in order to warn, “Daddy, bump!”

12, In a Travel section story headlined “The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat,” Rob Goldstone (5 feet, 7 inches, 285 pounds) reports that in China, children would run up to him and rub his belly because they thought he was “The Happy Buddha.”

13, In the Book Review, Stephanie Zucharek in general pans My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man’s Journey Deep Into the Heart of Cinematic Failure. I haven’t read the book, but I do agree with the critic’s premise. “There’s been lots of ink and oceans of pixels spilled on the question of whether the Internet has killed film criticism, but the very short answer is that serious (if unpaid) criticism has thrived on the web. The problem is that it’s all too serious.” But I find too many bumper-sticker philosophies disguised as thinking on the Web. Author Nathan Rabin’s words “probably worked beautifully in their original form, as smart on-line bonbons,” Zucharek writes. “But Rabin is better at being funny than he is at cutting to the heart of why bad movies affect us so deeply.”

14, In this political season, the Book Review devotes an astonishing amount of space to a serious overview by the fairly conservative writer Christopher Caldwell of conservative books and the somewhat liberal writer Jonathan Alter of liberal books. My conclusion? These books don’t change anyone’s mind. Whatever your political belief, you can find a book to match it, read it, and go on without having learned something you already didn’t know.

15, I used to be a sportswriter. In a review of Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry’s Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity, reviewer Marc Tracy comments, “sports sections run absurd, character-buttressing portraits of antisocial man-children.” Indeed. That’s one reason I gave up the habit.

16, This week’s magazine is “The Women’s Empowerment Issue.” “Telling women they have reached parity,” Lisa Belkin writes of whether they feel they are equal to men in society, “is like telling an unemployed worker the recession is over. It isn’t true until it feels true.”

17, In “The Rocker’s Emasculation Issue,” Keith Richards’ new autobiography, Life, is evidently an exciting read. But one thing I didn’t expect to learn was that Mick Jagger suffers from, in Richards’ opinion, and as The Times re-phrases it, “uncertain sexual identity.”

The Critical Mass

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

First music of the day, the smoky saxophone of Ben Webster. He also worked well Saturday afternoon on the deck, as I wound down a beautiful day with a cigar and a glass of whiskey, while a pork shoulder relaxed in its smoker surrounded by a cloud of apple wood.

1, The saga of the 33 Chilean miners trapped below ground since Aug. 5 is 2,050 feet closer to what will be the most-beautiful story of the year, if all goes as planned. But the most-perilous part remains. On Saturday, a larger drill broke through to the chamber where the men are trapped. Monday, the rescue begins as, one by one, they’ll be hauled to the surface in a specially designed chamber. The hole they’ll emerge from isn’t straight, The Times reports, and is a tight fit, with a risk of the rescue chamber getting stuck during its nearly mile-long journey to the surface. The miners have been kept alive by supplies lowered through the smaller hole that was initially drilled. With ideas from around the world coming together in the Chilean desert, from the cylinder-shaped pies sent down to the men to NASA advising on the construction of the rescue chamber, it’s been an international effort to get these guys out. Sometimes, the world can work together for the good of everyone.

2, And now, on to the rest of the news from this dangerous, cynical planet. The new villain is China. In  campaign attack ads, “Democrats and Republicans are blaming one another for allowing the export of American jobs to its emerging economic rival,” The Times writes.

3, Machines are taking over. Soon humans, their bones gone soft, their reproductive organs dwindling, unused, will lie like piles of laundry in front of their massive entertainment centers. The latest design in this road to ruin is coming from Google, which is working on a car that uses artificial-intelligence software to drive itself.

4, Two fringe screamers are each treated to large profiles today in The Times. Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs web site publishes irresponsible falsehoods about the Muslim world (and doctored photos, like one of new Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in a Nazi helmet).  Republican philosopher Newt Gingrich has borrowed some of her phrases in his own comments on Islam. And there’s the self-described prophet of God’s wrath, 80-year-old Fred Phelps of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, the group whose case is now before the Supreme Court; they’re the pleasant folks who stand outside of the funerals for soldiers killed in action, holding signs like “Thank God For Dead Soldiers,” which they believe is God’s retribution for accepting  homosexuality. Most chilling is the photo of a 15-year-old member of the Phelps family actually helping to make such signs. Is it all free speech, or intolerant bullying? As one blogger says, “when people like Pam Geller are the loudest voices out there talking about it, it drowns out everything else and makes everyone look crazy.”

5, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman opens with these lines: “I still find it amazing that with all of the climate, security, health and financial interests America has in reducing our dependence on oil, our Congress could not work out an energy bill over the last two years – especially when China, Japan and the European Union are all hurdling ahead on clean tech.”

6, Right next door to Friedman, Frank Rich mocks political candidates who use social networking, and the people who buy it. Pointing to the bizarre Republican candidate for the Senate, he writes Christine O’Donnell was “a Delaware primary triumph of a mystery candidate with a falsified resume, no job and apparently no campaign operation beyond out-of-state donors and out-of-state fans like Palin ‘writing’ her Twitter endorsements.” He calls it “a brave new world where candidates need only exist in virtual reality.”

7, Converse, Red Bull, Mountain Dew, Nike, Levi’s and Bacardi Rum are all establishing labels for rock bands, nurturing their own acts as a further way to infiltrate the culture. “Artists are finding the only way to achieve any financial safety is to become a lapdog of the great corporations,” says writer and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, “just like the great painters did in the Renaissance, when it became impossible to sustain oneself as an artist without a patron.”

8, Humphrey Bogart enthusiasts such as myself revel in his classic films, the ones everyone’s familiar with. A review of a new box set of 24 of his films ($99.98, why don’t you guys just take another two cents and call it what it is?), points out that lesser movies such as Action in the North Atlantic show “he was not only a late bloomer, but an intermittent one.”

9, In the Moscow subway system, stations celebrate Russian culture, including one station decorated with mosaics depicting scenes from Dostoyevsky novels. “One piece shows the main character from Crime and Punishment, the mentally unstable Raskolnikov, wielding an axe over a cringing woman,” The Times reports. I’d  love to see the U.S. celebrate its culture in public spaces. And not just Huck Finn, we’ve got plenty of safe stuff. How about a scene from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, with the guys sharing a joint and listening to some Coltrane?

10, Fans of graphic novels are probably unfamiliar with Lynd Ward. But between 1929 and 1937, he published six novels that were completely wordless, relying on his own dark, German Expressionism-influenced wood cuts to tell the story in illustrations, which seem to reflect this difficult era of Depression America. The entire collection has now been reprinted in a two-set volume called Six Novels in Woodcuts. It’s art, really, as reviewer Steven Heller notes that the only comic Lynd is know to have read was Prince Valiant.

11, Lee Siegel’s essay in the back of the Book Review suggests my beloved Beats such as Kerouac and Ginsberg may have had a lot in common with today’s loutish Tea Partiers. Both groups were against government control of our lives, with the Tea Party people seeming to want to turn over control to their religion, Siegel writes. I guess the Beats, for their part, wanted to turn over control to jazz musicians. Noting Ginsberg’s “Dionysian” poetry readings, “Some might say the difference between Allan Ginsberg and Glenn Beck is the difference between psychedelic and psychopathic,” Siegel writes, “but Beck might well envy Ginsberg’s attempt, in 1967, to help Abbie Hoffman and a band of anti-war protesters levitate the Pentagon by means of tantric chanting, though Beck would no doubt concentrate his telepathic efforts on the IRS.”

10, The Magazine this week is the Food Issue. I love this idea, as proposed in a story called “The 36-Hour Dinner Party,” although it’s also breakfast and lunch: “Here’s the concept: Build a single wood fire and, over the course of 30-plus hours, use it to roast, braise, bake simmer and grill as many different dishes as possible.” A goat is the star attraction, as the cooks use as much as possible for a variety of dishes, including making stock from its head, organs and bones.

The Critical Mass

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

Good morning. It’s raining, and that means the first music of the day will be Bill Frisell’s Good Dog Happy Man.

1, The narrative adopted for a year now by the news media has insisted that incumbents, and Democrats, are in trouble in these upcoming mid-term elections. Not so fast, says The Times, writing, “enough contests remain in flux that both parties head into the final four weeks of the campaign with the ability to change the dynamic before Election Day.” The story notes that “even as the spending from outside groups is threatening to swamp many Democratic candidates, Republican strategists estimated that only half of the 39 seats they need to win control of the House were definitely in hand. Many Democratic incumbents remain vulnerable, but their positions have stabilized in the last month as they have begun running negative advertisements to raise questions about their Republican challengers and shift the focus away from contentious national issues like health care, bailouts and President Obama’s performance.”

2, In Afghanistan, 40 female Marines have “skirted” – an inadvertent pun, I’m sure – “Pentagon rules restricting women in combat,” and are fighting alongside their male counterparts. They were originally moved into the units in order to work with rural Afghan women, who are culturally banned from associating with outside men. The tough resistance being met by the Marines has meant the women are getting shot at, and are shooting back.  None have been killed or injured yet.

3, We’ve grown overly accustomed to Osama bin Laden’s rants against the United States. But we never hear many other bin Laden tapes. The most recent urges aid for the flood victims of Pakistan, blaming global warming. He has commented on many worldwide issues, and apparently has a reading list the includes the leftist writer Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter’s recent book on the Palestinians. But as noted by Lawrence Wright, who wrote a book on bin Laden, “It’s a little galling to hear bin Laden lecturing on flood relief when Al Qaeda has never done any socially constructive work, but has only sowed chaos.”

4, In the New York section, a beautiful Sunday Routine Q&A with 91-year-old folk legend Pete Seeger, who offers advice on cooking omelets, making salads (“almost a religious experience”), chopping wood (“It’s in our DNA to go ‘whack’ “) and how “It’s very important to learn to talk to people you disagree with.”

5, In Sunday Styles we meet the actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the starched ad salesman Peter Campbell in the AMC show Mad Men. Kartheiser is quite the interesting fellow, living in LA without a car. He uses public transportation. “They’ve done a study and they’ve found that people under 30 no longer view cars as status symbols or even positive things,” he says. “They look at them as pollutants.”

6, The wrong version of the most-talked about novel of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, was accidentally released in Britain last week. Apparently, an early draft of the book was used, rather than the acclaimed finished product that much of America has been reading.

7, Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who over the years has won my trust with some prescient observations, predicts that a serious third-party presidential candidate, backed by a serious third party, will emerge in 2012, He’s not talking Tea Party. “I know of at least two serious groups,” he writes, “one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, developing ‘third parties’ to challenge our stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.” This revolution is not from the left or the right, but from what he calls “the radical center.”

8, Columnist Frank Rich is laughing along with the rest of us at the Republican candidate for the Senate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, “a bottomless trove of baldfaced lies, radical views and sheer wackiness.” But, he warns, this may be obscuring more-dangerous truths that need to be understood as the next election nears. Namely, who are all of these unnamed benefactors contributing millions of dollars, each, to conservative reactionaries like the Tea Party? O’Donnell, he writes, “just may be the final ingredient needed to camouflage a billionaire’s coupe as a populist surge.”

9, On facing pages, the Book Review asks the same question of two presidential biographies: Do we need another book on these guys? The answer is yes, because Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life are so well written. The common thread between these two legendary presidents, and these biographies, is how these men reacted to their times. Lincoln, who initially had no interest in freeing slaves, and saw blacks as inferior, was molded by his times to see otherwise on both counts. George Washington “didn’t just learn from events; he shaped them to his own purposes.”

10, Interesting profile of Glenn Beck on the cover of The Times magazine. The conservative mouthpiece comes off as an opportunist, shifting with the broadcasting winds as he leverages the best route to his next goal. His ideas do not seem particularly notable; they’re just bumper-sticker opinions and conspiracy theories cut from different sources and pasted together in an incomprehensible collage. Jon Stewart is quoted, a comment he made about Beck, back when Beck was still on CNN, and that evaluation still stands. “Finally,” Stewart said, “a guy who says what people who aren’t thinking are thinking.”  The story also notes that Beck rarely gives interviews. That must be a fairly recent development. In the last five years, I’ve turned down two offers to interview Beck, back when he was touring auditoriums with kind of a “Support the Troops, Liberals Aren’t Americans” style of show.  I told Beck’s publicist both times, anyone who calls the widows of 9/11 victims “tragedy whores” would have to draw his crowds without my support.

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