Thursday, May 25, 2006

On Worshipping False Idols

The other evening my wife and I were dinner guests at the home of friends. After dinner we were asked to join them in watching the grand finale of "American Idol "- a two hour affair in which more Americans allegedly voted for their favorite pop singer candidate than had ever voted in a national Presidential election. As I watched the show, I found myself trapped in the middle of a noisy electroinc jukebox filled with weeping and cheering entertainers. The finalists were an extremely pretty girl (my personal favorite) with a secure but ordinary pop voice, and a young Southerner who looked like one of the chunky Tarlton twins Scarlett married and lost early to the Civil War in "Gone With The Wind." He had a reasonably able voice and a lot of fancy moves but to paraphrase the late Senator Bentson, "I have seen Elvis, sir, and you are no Elvis."

I am intrigued by pop culture and I had previously made an effort to watch this phenom of a show but with no success. In the past I was turned off by the head honcho, a man named Simon, a professionally nasty Englishman who exhibited none of his countrymen's fabled wit, and whose prissy, self congratulating manner, full of sneers and raised eyebrows, took aim at the hapless non talents who were paraded before him as an opportunity to exhibit his fabled lack of charity and his feeble gift for insult. I rather liked Paula Abdul, a genuine performer who had been in the trenches herself, and she appeared to have a kind heart and a capacity for tearful good will. Of course I suspected that here we were witnessing the good cop bad cop scenario of my favorite police dramas. Of the others I have less recollection. I do recall the host, Ryan Seacrist, a feckless Ken doll, with a mouth full of fancy Hollywood dentistry and a Howdy Doody puppet charm. There was a heavy set African American panelist who seemed knowledgeable and forthright, but after my first effort to watch the show both me and my TV were turned off the Fox Network until that final show.

On the evening of the grand finale my wife and I left our friend's home early and returned to ours to watch our local PBS station which had a program devoted to the life of the great blues man Muddy Waters. Not a very nice man, Mr. Waters, but what a life - starting with his rural poverty - and focusing on his great artistry which was brought to the world not by television moguls, but by Alan Lomax of the Smithsonian and a small record company, Chess Records, providing an artist whose work has enriched all of us who love American music.

Now I will no doubt be accused of elitism for claiming that I prefer the blues of a sharecropper's son to the confections of a megahit TV show. This word elitist has been thrown about a lot lately and it has more than once landed on my doorstep. The first time I ever heard the word was as a kid listening to a comedy show, "Duffy's Tavern" whose jocular motto for the seedy saloon which served as the setting was "where the elite meet to eat." In today's America the real elite (those who are privilaged and not accountable for their actions) are usually the people like a Rush Limbaugh who throw the word elite around as if it was a synonym for bird flu. It has become the insult de jour of those who oppose a humane immigration policy, or who view the Dems as being out of step with the three G's of the Republican party, Guns, God, and Gotcha. The New York Times devotes its Sunday magazine section to dire warnings to the Dems that they will lose again if they listen to their party elite and wander too far from the dead middle in politics towards a lefty elitism. The trouble is nobody seems to know where the middle is these days, and one man's elitism is another man's humanity. It seems clear that Americans are looking for an old truth - starting with something as simple as "love they neighbor," not the old lies about trickle down economy which against all the laws of gravity keeps trickling ever upwards. Nor do they want to hear the new lies of being protected by our leaders - leaders who have demonstrated a greater capacity for sheltering their incomes than sheltering refugees from a storm, and whose talent for protecting the country is outmatched by their talent for protecting their mistakes from public view.

The New York Times continues to fascinate me in these troubled times. During the Clinton years the slightest ripple about Whitewater would land on the front page. But in today's Times an important story about Dick Cheney who may be called to testify under oath at the Libby trial is buried in the back of the paper. They also have a story about American Idol in the back pages. Both deserve to make it to the front page because both tell us truths about America today. Packaged entertainment like packaged food may not kill us, but it makes us fat and dull and lazy, it is a Roman circus which distracts us from the failings of the Emporer. When the Times protects its journalistic behind by placing important stories about the administration in the rear, that may be politic, but is not worthy of our paper of record. We will probably watch the story creep forward towards the front pages reluctantly as events unfold. But if you want some relief these days from the elitist lies of the right wing pundits or the elitist cowardice of our paper of record, play a Muddy Waters record - and see how pain and love can be turned into an art that speaks the truth about the human condition.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


We all recall fondly the Saturday Night Live sketch "The Coneheads." In that brilliant sketch, the conical headed extra-terestrials replied to any queries about their pointy heads by saying "We're French." That cover story allowed them to live among us earthlings with ease. Claiming Frenchiness covered all their peculiarities. As I listened to President Bush offer his program for dealing with the illegal aliens last night, I could not help but think of the coneheads again. What if all the aliens coming across our borders illegally spoke French instead of Spanish? Would they then constitute such a problem to American nativists? I think not. So the thing to do is to get all the Mexicans who wish to work and settle in this country to learn French as soon as possible, indeed, make it a requirement before allowing them to sneak into our country. Set up emergency Berlitz launguage centers at our borders and begin the drill at once, from abaisser (to bring down) to zizanie (stir up ill feeling). Since both French and Spanish are romance languages sharing a common origin, it might be easier than building high fences, arming borders with electronic devices, and deploying the overworked, overstretched, National Guard to our borders. Think of the happy consequences.

As French speaking aliens, they cannot help but bring with them a whole new set of attitudes. Gone will be the hard working Mexican work ethic that troubles so many here. The warm smile is to be replaced by the superior sneer. No longer will these aliens be willing to work for sub-standard wages under dreadful conditions. Now, as French speaking Latins, they will demand higher pay, much shorter working hours, a month off in August, benefits up the kazoo, and if denied all this, go on strike and shut down our agro-business. Not for them to accept short term labor - they will demand lifetime job security - or riots in the streets. They, the noveau Hispano-French, will only accept a guest worker program that treats them like real guests - four hundred thread bed sheets- a spa - and a Godiva chocolate on the pillow at night. Failing to recieve such hospitality, they will return to their homes in Mexico and never darken our borders again.

Alas, this is not likely to happen. But there is a much simpler and less costly solution than any proposed by the President. Raising the minimum wage. Odd, how native Americans will flock to jobs that allow them to support their children and live decent lives. And some of this can be accomplished by raising that miniminum wage which now keeps so many Americans at the poverty level. Since the minium wage can only attract the most desperate workers from south of our border, raising it might manage to fill those service and agricultural jobs with American citizens. And while we are at it, a conversation with President Fox of Mexico should include more than reassurances that we are not trying to militarize our common border. It should include, "Vincente, how about working towards getting a living wage for your own people so they don't have to break our laws and live as outlaws north of the border."

The one area that Bush failed to address that hovered over his speech last night was the benefits that illegal workers provide for the agro-magnates and the Wallmart billionaires. It is not enough for Bush to exempt them from inheritance taxes and diminish their income taxes but he must provide them with cheap labor. This is his real financial base, those who support his party with enormous donations. They need the cheap undocumented labor, so everything else that Bush proposes is window dressing. That gets us back to the French. They are experts at dressing windows. Bush's proposals won't work because he doesn't want them to work, he simply makes them to appease his conservative nativist base, and only a conehead would fail to understand that.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


I don't have to tell anyone who has lived in New York City that it is a great place to spend a day or a life. As a boy growing up in this city in the forties and early fifties under the shadow of the elevated train on Third Avenue, I was fascinated by its diversity - not just the people - the mix of races and classes - but the old brownstone buildings, the shops; Rappaport's Toys, Greenburg's bakery, Madam Bonte's patisserie, the Hungarian hardware stores that sold the best paprika and porcelaine bread boxes, the Odyssey Bookstore, the shop on Lex that sold little painted lead Hessian soldiers, the German shops in Yorkville that sold marzipan delights at Christmas, and beyond that the O'Henry like millions - dare I use his famous description "Baghdad on the Hudson"? - when Baghdad meant Arabian Nights romance, not Bushworld misadventures. There was a rich mix of people, each with their own extraordinary tale to tell of immigration and integration, their struggle, their triumphs, and their failures. New York was a city of small villages, each with its discreet neighborhood and local vendors who knew most of their customers well. You were not alone in that city. Enough with the nostalgia.

Something has happened to my city lately that is changing all of that. And not for the good. Trust me this isn't Uncle Sherman's fuddy duddy talk. It's every New Yorker's reality. Banks - Saving Banks - Commercial Banks - Private Banks - are swallowing the city I love. There is hardly a block that has not one or two new banks on it, just open for business, promising us the best CD rate (*check the asterisk for the truth) and offering free coffee, magazines, and a gift umbrella when you open a checking account. Their blank, plate glass facades are a visual blight and a social disaster. Who can enjoy a stroll in one's neighborhood checking out CD rates? In the last years it was Starbucks that had sprung up mushroom like over the city. Before that it was the egregiously signed Duane Reade Drugstores. But the banks have been the worst offenders. Why has this invasion of finance taken place recently? It is, I suppose, because money matters more than ever in America.

In this Bush world, the merchant banker, the hedge-fund manager, and the mortgage peddler are king, and these banks are the temples in which we are all invited to worship. The banks speak to our current obsession with earning money by making nothing but money. It is the result of outsourcing, the decline of manufacture, and the loss of decent middle class wage earning jobs. And the banks by their willingness to pay exhorbitant rentals have driven out the toyshops, the newsstands, the small bookstores, the independent clothing stores, the antique shops, the artists and artisans, all of which give a city color, charm, variety, balance, and visual delight. I spoke with a banker recently, and he assured me that half of these banks will consolodate and some branches will close in a year or so - there is simply not enough money - even in New York City to support so much financial real estate. But in the meantime, they are troubling to both the visual senses and to our common sense. They don't offer me the security that my old classic Manufacturer's trust gave me. As a boy I went into that hushed greek temple and added a buck from my allowance into my passbook account until Christmas when I spent it all on gifts for my parents and my sister. The bankers knew me then and carefully stamped the new balance in my book. As a young adult I found that there was a connection between the bank tellers and the customers. That connection is long gone - except in the case of "preferred customers." I'm not asking for George Bailey to return from "It's A Wonderful Life" to some fantasy world of kindly village bankers. I just want to see fewer banks, and those I do see should have the courtesy to dress up like a proper bank in marble columns - not do their porno peep show down the avenue wearing nothing but plate glass that exposes their ugly innards. The ghost of Enron hovers over these banks - the sense that nothing of value is being sold to anybody - that there is a great trick behind it all that will soon be discovered. We will all soon learn that the Wizard in our Oz is the fake patent medicine salesman. The banks seem to have one positive social use, however. The glassed in ATM areas serve as shelters for the homeless. From tax shelters to homeless shelters in the course of a day. We have lived from George Bailey to George Bush - and the change has not been pretty.

When the late Jane Jacobs wrote her classic book to save the small buildings and human scale of the city from the mega-developers, it was not just about saving the old brownstones and other architectural treasures as buildings. She was not advocating a museum city for charming old edifices. It was about the people who lived in those buildings, the mix of humanity necessary to have a real city life.

So it is necessary to speak about the change in the people of my neighborhood. It was once (in the sixties and seventies) a place where schoolteachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, writers, artists, clerks, psychologists and city employees lived and raised their families. Now, the merchant bankers have bought the old apartments and brownstones, the soaring price of real estate has driven out the middle class, and only a few stubborn hangers on like me and my wife - unwilling to sell out for a profit and settle in a place where we have no roots - remain from that original mix of humanity. My own grown children can't afford to live in this city, and I know few young people who can - unless they pile in with roomates - using their apartments as crash pads as they make their way up the economic ladder. And what young couple, other than your hedge fund manager, can afford to raise a family in this city?

Much of this reflects upon George Bush's agenda. His America is a place where a growing economy means the rising profits and luxurious lifestyles of the very rich - and where mostly everyone else shares real fears about their ecomonic future. I suspect that what has happened to New York on a grand scale has happened all over America. We are now a nation of winners and losers, and most of us are losers by the standards of Bush & Co. America is now a vast gambling casino. Place your bet on the right school, the right job, the right life - and you win. A wrong toss of the dice and you lose. What few recognize is that Bush and Co. declared economic warfare on the middle class of America when they came to power. Their weapons were tax cuts for the rich, the erosion of the inheritance taxes, outsourcing manufacturing, all of which has placed a grievous burden on the middle class. Most of all they were able to play with the hopes of the middle class that they too could share in the great rewards that the super rich enjoyed - just by making the right moves. The appeal to greed is often a winner, and Bush has used it well. Bush's great success has been his revocation of the New Deal, his erosion of the social safety net, his breaking of the social contract between our government and its people, not only destroying the progress made under FDR but under Teddy Roosevelt - the trust buster. Bush's America is the mirror image of Soviet Communism, with its attempt to revoke the rights of the individual. Instead of giving all wealth to the state as in Communism, the transfer of wealth has gone to a few CEO's with their mega salaries, stock options, and luxury perks in this strange new capitalism that fails to reward hard work among the many and prefers to make its banks the symbol of the new America, an American that is a playground of the few.

So I find my walks down the Upper East Side of New York an unsettling reminder of what has happened to my city and to this country in the last five years. It will take a great deal of work to restore the balance in the economy in this country. It can be done. And it must be done. It's not just immoral. It's downright ugly. Just look at those blankety banks.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Odds and Ends - Some random thoughts

1. Tim Russert needs all the help he can get these days. Little Russ looks like a Kennedy cousin; one of those jolly miscreants cleared of criminal charges through the intercession of powerful friends, a man who took a pledge to annoy the innocent and grovel before the guilty on "Meet the Press." He can grill a Nancy Pelosi as if she was Eva Braun, while pussy footing with some Republican blowhard Senator. Speaking of Ms. Pelosi - I'm sure she's a nice woman - she has to be because she is so ineffective - which is often the property of niceness. Someone should tell the Democrats that being politic is no longer good politics. Where did they ever learn that statesmanship is being bland and boring? We need more Churchill and less Church Lady these days. There must be a school for losers that Democrats attend where they learn to hone and polish their concession speeches. Passion is good politics.

2. What do we have to do to get Tom Cruise out of the news and the news back into the news? Is there no rich emerite willing to offer him safe refuge like Dubai was for Michael Jackson? I would gladly let them run our ports in exchange for getting him safely out of this country and his films out of the cineplex. The world is simply too serious for this kind of foolish, self indulgent circus master - another demented, hard smiling egomaniac with a Mission Impossible - appearing human.

3. And what shall we do about poor Laura Bush? Is there no organization for the protection of former librarians married to pathological liars? However did a good girl like Laura ever get mixed up with that rough Bush crowd? Was it all a musical like "Grease" or a melodrama like "Reefer Madness?" Or are we all decieved? Could she be the Lady Macbush behind this bloody throne? What is it about Texas that can create a Laura Bush (America's favorite white gloved gun-moll) and her polar opposite, a plain spoken, truth telling Ann Richards. Now there's a great lady who deserves everyone's good wishes these days.

4. What can we make of David Brooks, The New York Times house conservative? Like a house wine he is acceptably bland, moderately priced, and he doesn't spoil the meal but he hardly adds any zest to it. He now bemoans the mean spiritedness of the Democrats as their fortunes appear to rise. Where was his voice of moderation and reason when Limbaugh and Coulter (those daffy, darling, defamers) were throwing their poisend brickbats and mud-pies at the (dare I say it)Li-li-li-liberal Democrats?

5. And will somebody tell our Katie to do something about that multi-million dollar grin before reading the evening news on CBS? Practise your frown. Botox be damned. We don't need perky these days, we need Ed Murrow and all his furrows to get us through the next thousand days of Bush & Co. - tragic days for this country.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bush and the grassy knoll

I've never been a big fan of conspiracy theories. As a child I learned that there were few secrets that could be kept by friends or family; when given a choice between silence (particularly sworn silence) and loose talk - people will always choose the loose talk. It is the business of the world to know everyone else's business, and common knowledge is the enemy of conspiracy. How then could groups of adults get together to conspire to perform dark deeds and keep it secret? Sure, there were the classical examples; Brutus & Co. in their Ides of March stabbing spree on Julius Caesar for one, but that was Ancient Rome when everyone was made of white Carrara marble, wore laurel wreaths and spoke an oratorical Latin - a language made for secrets - at least it was for me when I struggled and failed to master it in the sixth grade.

Most alleged conspiracies like the Protocols of Zion prove to be ugly forgeries planted by professional haters, or, as in The DaVinici Code with its crazed Albino monk and sinister Opus Dei, fictions about the Catholic Church. Trust me, if Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a baby as alleged in that book, somebody would have told somebody and that somebody ad infinitum and it would have been on Page 6 in 2 AD. Brad and Angelina from the get go.

Having lived through Pearl Harbor, I heard all the stories about Roosevelt conspiring to bring us into the war by setting up our navy to be hit by a Japanese sneak attack in Hawaii. It seemed bunkum then, and bunkum now. Having lived through the Kennedy assassination and heard all the theories and speculations - the other shooter in the grassy knoll - the man with the umbrella who sprayed immobilizing darts into Kennedy's neck, the Mafia hit for the Kennedy investigations of organized crime, Castro striking back for the Bay of Pigs, I came to the firm conclusion (for which I have absolutely no evidence but my experience of life) that it was Oswald alone, crazy, embittered, failed Oswald, with a love for guns and a hatred for the President who assassinated John F. Kennedy. Some people are crazy, and they do evil crazy things by themselves all the time - unassisted by Mafia hit men or guys with dart spraying umbrellas. They don't need orders from others to act, their own deranged minds issue all the orders they need. As far as 9/11 goes, it was an act of Islamic fascists to wound America, but it was not so secret that the Bush administration was not warned - and as Ms. Rice testified - chose to ignore the warning. When Hillary Clinton spoke of a vast right wing conspiracy to bring down her husband's Presidency it seemed to me that a lot of like minded conservatives disliked Bill Clinton and didn't need to conspire together to ruin him - they simply acted together openly on their common dislike - and Clinton himself seemed a part of that conspiracy through his ruinous behavior

So, having said all that, why am I so willing to believe in a Bush conspiracy to destroy democracy in America? Many years ago the Nobel Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis warned us that when fascism came to America it would not arrive wearing a swaztika and marching a goose-step in jack boots. It would arrive looking like a good ole boy, speaking with a twang and smiling a friendly down home smile. He meant Huey Long. His warning could apply to George W. Bush. Such a man would stop at nothing to gain power, and having gained it, do everything to consolodate his power.

First, let me state that I now believe that there was a conspiracy to steal the election in 2000 and in 2004, and it was successfully carried out by Bush and Rove and Cheney and their Republican brethren. I believe that there was a conspiracy to keep Democratic and minority voters away from the polls, lose their names in voter registries, and in the last election, lose whole blocks of Democratic votes in Ohio and elsewhere. Some of these activities were felonies, and I suspect that if convicted these felons will be sent to a polictical rehab center like Rush Limbaugh with his drug rehab - in other words, getting away with it. And I believe that there was a conspiracy of silence on the part of the American press to let it go - to keep from seriously examining these elections and their results - a conspiracy based on the fear of seeming partisan, kooky, and buying into lefty conspiracy theories. Most of all the press wanted to believe that the election was fairly won, the alternative was too threatening and thus inconcievable, and they did not want to encourage more accusations of liberal bias. To accept the fact that the elections were rigged would mean that the election was stolen by ruthless men and women who were ready to destroy the American democratic experiement for their own purposes - profit and power - much too scary for most of the press and the public to acknowledge.

I believe that the Democrats will lose the next election in much the same way for much the same reason - now compounded by the proliferation of electronic voting machines and lack of a paper ballott and exit polls. Some of this belief I owe to the work of writer Mark Crispin Miller and his excellent recent book "Fooled Again." That book managed to overcome some of my congenital anti-conspiracy bias. And some of my new conspiracy acceptance was based on my observation that the American people are by nature moderate and not sympathetic to the right wing fanatics who now govern them, and that they did not vote them into power. While I am conspiracy hunting, let me add that I do believe that Dick Cheney conspired with big Oil in secret meeting to craft our energy policy to create huge profits for Mobile and Exxon. Doesn't take a genius to get that one. It's a no brainer. You can give me all the theories about demand for oil exceeding supply and China using so much of it, blah, blah blah, as a reason for the King Kong prices at the pumps - and I will still say Dick Cheney. God doesn't give you that evil smirk if he didn't plan to make a villain out of you. Having said all this - how did these conspirators get away with it? Easy. They do not regard themselves as conspirators. They are so imbedded in the culture of greed and power that they regard their conspiracies as good public policy, normal behavior, a fulfillment of the American way of life, the final full expression of free enterprise unleashed. The country club golf course is their grassy knoll, and they have used it as a place to take aim at our democracy.

Despite the pollster's claims that the Republicans are in deep trouble in the coming elections, they will win again if attention is not paid to the way they conduct their election business. It is business to them - power means profits - and profits buy more power. It will take an aroused and enlightened electorate to make certain that the past is not prelude to the future. As a recent convert to the notion of a conspiracy, I pass on this warning in my best conspiratorial manner. Watch out! And look under every rock. The bad guys are determined to win again, and they will if the people do not understand the danger our democracy faces from them. Psst! Trust me on this.