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The Critical Mass

A good week for civility and treason

We wrapped up two of this country’s institutions this week, the World Series and an election. The series is the far-more American experience.

The San Francisco Giants won with great pitching, which is what always carries the event. In particular, the long-haired, dope-smoking Tim Lincecum, whose propensity for dropping the F-bomb during post-game interviews is really not that big of a deal, parents, because your kids shouldn’t be up that late, anyway. Lincecum spent his last off season getting busted for pot possession, not necessarily viewed as a character flaw for someone who works in San Francisco. In fact, it inspired a cottage industry of “Let Tim Smoke” T-shirts. When the smoke had cleared with the Giants’ four games to one series win over the Texas Rangers, Lincecum had twice beaten the Rangers’ ace, the rifle-totin’ southern man Cliff Lee. It seemed like a civil clash of cultures, and I was relieved when George W. Bush came out to throw out the first pitch before one of the games and was greeted by only scattered jeers. Despite my extraordinarily negative feelings about the last president, a baseball game isn’t the place to express it.

No, the voting booth is that place. On Tuesday, the anticipated backlash against Democrats did arrive, driven by fear and the manipulation of what political strategists call many of you behind your backs, “low-information voters.” For those of you who voted for Republicans and Tea Party-supported candidates because they told you government is too big, and the national debt must be cut, consider this: Did any of these candidates tell you what programs they would cut? I mean, besides de-funding National Public Radio?

Sanity prevailed in the rejection of unworthy candidates such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and Joe Miller. But for those of you who selected the likes of Rand Paul as your new leaders, good luck with that. They won’t be embracing America as a diverse country where pot smokers and deer hunters can play baseball together in peace. They’ll insist that you must conform to their vision of America.

Late Tuesday night, John Boehner, who is expected to become the new Speaker of the House, said that he hoped Obama would “respect the will of the people.” That’s an extraordinarily dense comment from a man who did not respect the will of the people following the 2008 election. In fact, from Day One of the Obama administration, Boehner was a co-conspirator in a vast right-wing conspiracy to undermine the president. It was an effort, I don’t hesitate to say, that crossed the line into treason.

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.”

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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