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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Jan. 23

It’s snowing. Again. First music of the day, Baha Marimba Band. Just to be a contrarian to what I see on the other side of the window.

1, As the Times says, this story is somewhere between “a Graham Greene novel and Mad Magazine‘s “Spy vs. Spy.” A former CIA operative, Duane R. Clarridge, has spent the last two years operating a private spy network in Afghanistan and Pakistan, gathering information and gossip about militants and political figures. So now, not only does the U.S. government use contractors such as Xe (formerly known as Blackwater) to conduct dirty business abroad, private American citizens are doing it as well. The findings of Clarridge’s agents are turned over to the American government and Fox News figures such as the eternally creepy Oliver North. The 78-year-old Clarridge has had plenty of experience in these matters, his resume showing a long history on clandestine operations with the CIA, including heading the Reagan administration’s covert wars in South America. He was indicted in 1991 on charges that he lied before Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. Now, his secret operation is funded by like-minded conservative interests. In Afghanistan, Clarridge’s interest in destroying the Karzai government works at cross purposes with the Bush and Obama administration attempts to keep it afloat. “Sometimes, unfortunately, things have to be changed in a very ugly way,” Clarridge says in a documentary that appears on YouTube. “We’ll intervene whenever we decide its in our national security interests to intervene…. Get used to it, world. We’re not going to put up with nonsense.”

2, The establishment of a new African-American history museum as a part of the Smithsonian Institution leads to an interesting question: Who tells history, and what story do they tell? “The Air and Space Museum, for example,” the Times writes, “repeatedly ran into controversy over exhibits on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Meanwhile, the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, has been criticized as being overly reverential and lacking in historical perspective, because it presents its story primarily from an American Indian point of view.”

3, The job title “Barroom Bard” seems to be becoming a thing of the past. In the New York section, the life of Newsday columnist Ed Lowe, who died last week, is celebrated. “Ed’s office was the bars of Long Island,” says one pub owner, “and he spent long hours in the office, if you get what I mean.” According to another acquaintance, “Ed called himself a ‘professional saloonst.’ He listened to your story, jazzed it up and cleaned it up, and wrote it so it was understandable to everyone.”

4, In Week in Review, a word from Conan O’Brien: “The new Republican controlled House voted on whether to repeal the health-care bill. If that goes well, they’re going to see what they can do about this whole women voting business.”

5, Those who place union demands at the root of  the troubles faced by American workers, take note: Only 11.9 percent of the U.S. work force belongs to a union. That’s the lowest percentage in 70 years.

6, Amazing how this bit of news on the attempt to construct a “virtual fence” along the 2,000-mile U.S. southern border escaped attention last week: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano “announced that the virtual fence was history,” columnist Linda Greenhouse writes. “She said her department had concluded, after spending $1 billion on the first 53 miles, that the project failed to meet ‘current standards for viability and cost effectiveness.’ ” However, as Greenhouse points out, the 2005 Federal act that allowed the director of homeland security to “set aside ‘all legal requirements’ that he might regard as standing in the way of building the fence” remains in place. The homeland security chief of the time, Michael Chertoff, used that act to steamroll through any objections against what we’ve now seen was a very bad idea. We could have used the help of a few of these anti-government, pro-states’ rights advocates on this one. And maybe saved $1 billion.

7, Get ready for the next revival act: 73-year-old Wanda Jackson, the rockabilly queen known for hits such as “Let’s Have a Party” is releasing a new album, backed by the White Stripes’ Jack White. “She’s influential to every modern female singer, whether they know about her or not,” White says.

8, Interesting essay in the magazine by Rebecca Traister, who suggests American cowgirls such as Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane embody the American ideal of female strength. That’s what gives rise to Sarah Palin. Traister closes her essay in the hospital room of the seriously wounded Gabrielle Giffords, watched over by fellow lawmakers Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Kirsten Gillibrand. Four women with a wide range of political views (Gillibrand and Giffords were elected as pro-gun), squeezing Giffords’ hand and witnessing her opening her eyes for the first time. It’s women as the healers. Traister writes, “the fact that it is now possible for three female congressional colleagues to cheer a fourth through a miraculous recuperative step demonstrates that it is high time we expand our vision of how women might, and do, embody America’s spirit.”

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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