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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: Aug. 15

The coffee this morning comes from an island off  Sumatra. “You get a geography lesson with every cup,” said my coffee guy, Java Joe, as he filled my usual order for a pound of whatever beans he was roasting that day, and pulled a globe from the shelf to point to the spot, north of Australia.

1, “Is Weather  Chaos Linked to Warming? Probably,” reads one of the lead stories on a very lead-story morning. Citing heat waves and floods, The Times quotes Jay Lawrimore, chief of climate analysis at the National Climatic  Data Center in Asheville, N.C. “The climate is changing. Extreme events are occurring with greater frequency, and in many cases with greater intensity.”

2, The U.S. war on terrorism is far more covert under Obama than Bush. In a long,  exhaustively considered piece, the administration is backing away from Bush’s grand and costly adventures – the hammer approach – in favor of what it calls  “surgical” response.  A shadow war. “For its part,” The Times writes, “the Pentagon is becoming more like the CIA.” Civilian casualties are on the rise, as is a reliance on allies with sketchy motives. Evidence exists, as well, that terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda are using these actions as recruiting tools, just as they used Bush’s invasions, and Guantanamo. “And, as American counter-terrorism operations spread beyond war zones into territory hostile to the military,” The Times writes, “private contractors have taken on a prominent role, raising concerns that the United States had outsourced some of its most important missions to a sometimes unaccountable private army.”

3, Japan, which has long been home to many of the world’s  oldest people, is now checking on whether those folks are actually alive, after the body of  a man who was once listed as one of its oldest citizens, at 111 years old, was found mummified in his bed. Police said his 81-year-old daughter hid the death in order to collect his pension. Other cases are emerging, with differing motives. “Living until 150 years old is impossible in the natural world,” said the director of an elderly services office in Japan. “But it is not impossible in the world of Japanese public administration.”

4, “Despite Flurry of Achievement, No Reveling for Democrats” is the headline on a story in which Senator Christopher Dodd muses that “Democrats don’t know how to celebrate.” Unwilling to put up their own “Mission Accomplished” banner, Democrats have nevertheless instituted a historic amount of legislation, The Times writes, in the first two years of Obama’s term: “the $787 billion stimulus package, an anti-age discrimination law, long-sought tobacco regulation, expanded community service, credit card consumer protection, the landmark health care law, Pentagon contracting changes, Wall Street regulation, tax cuts, credits and more.” According to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Obama “said what he was going to do, and he did it.” Even Republicans, The Times writes,  “grudgingly concede that Democrats compiled a record perhaps unrivaled since the Great Society programs of President Lydon B. Johnson,” or perhaps FDR’s New Deal. Yet, no one seems to have noticed. Republicans are controlling the narrative through a media driven by reporting conflict. And today’s chatter is all about: Anchor babies.

5, Sunday Business opens with a spectacular photo of a landscape ruined by the mining practice called “mountaintop removal.”In that state,  Coal River Mountain is about to be destroyed, never to be replaced, in the hunt for fossil fuels, and opponents want to replace that project with a wind farm. But the mountain is privately owned, and its demise appears inevitable. Which raises an interesting question for me: Just because you “own” something, like a mountain or the rights to mine a vast reservoir of oil beneath the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, does that give you the right to take actions that will change that part of the planet forever? Particularly in a demonstrably provable negative way?

6, A study shows that 80  percent of illegal-immigrant mothers in this country were here for more than a year before they had their child, which The Times calls “a statistic that seemed at odds with a recent assertion by Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, that many illegal immigrants ‘come here to drop a child’ and immediately leave.”  Perhaps Senator Graham should focus less on his concern about “anchor babies” as a gateway to Mexicans gaining U.S. citizenship through their newborns (which isn’t nearly as easy as Graham and his cohorts would have you believe), and dwell more on the dangers presented by children whose procreation was inspired by the romantic life of parents living on the run as illegal aliens.

7, Columnist Frank Rich lauds  “Angels  in America” who worked against the spread of AIDS in the 1980s, a legacy that may now be pushing out the last vestiges of discrimination against gay people with the overturning of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage. He pauses for a moment on assertions that  the ruling judge in the issue may be gay. “By this standard,” Rich writes, “the only qualified judge to rule on marital rights would be a eunuch.” Warning that gay rights is not a done deal, Rich also points out that, “Even if it were, that would be scant consolation to the latest minority groups to enter the pantheon of American scapegoats, Hispanic immigrants and Muslims.”

8, In the magazine, Martha Woodruff takes a moment to seek out the West Virginia filling station where Hank Williams was discovered dead in the back seat of his car in 1957. It”s gone. His music is not. As she writes, “Hank Williams did not write songs for hillbillies; he wrote songs for anybody interested in facing life with a modicum of openness and honesty.”

9, The book shelves are roaring with alternative histories. I’ve been reading Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States, which opens with an excruciating indictment of Christopher Columbus as a slavery-driven exploiter of the New World. The fact that Columbus’ reputation is flayed by his own written words, Zinn points out, shows how historians often overlook troubling facts when casting judgment in favor of a greater good. Even when genocide is involved. In today’s Book Review, Johann Hari, a columnist for London’s The Independent newspaper, examines Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made. Hari opens with his own anecdote: “George W. Bush left a big growling bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with Churchill’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It’s not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.” The portrait of Church that emerges – through Churchill’s own words, mind you – is one of a genocidal, racist empire builder who as a young man who took part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.”  He’s clearly for exterminating any non-whites who get in Britain’s way. Yet Richard Toye’s new biography also notes that, in dealing with Hitler, Hari writes, Churchill “may have been a thug, but knew a greater thug when he saw one.”  Churchill wrote beautifully of freedom – a basic human right that he extended only to the white race. But now the grandson of a man that Churchill’s regime once imprisoned is the most-powerful man in the world. And while Churchill once wrote, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” the emerging India superpower  is racing beyond its old colony master even as, Hari writes, “Britain’s imperial conquests use his own hope-songs of freedom against him.”

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.”

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