Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Year Of Dangerously Living

If you are reading this, it means I've made it through another year without health insurance. I think this makes an even dozen years that I have paid retail for medical services and, knock wood, nothing major has happened, except this stomach trouble from worrying about not having any coverage. I'm on the barter system with my doctors now because the insurance companies treat me like an Untouchable in India or a leper on Molokai. For those fortunate enough to be insured who are puzzled by this situation, I'll repeat; I can not buy health insurance anywhere, for any price. And after a year of watching the health care debate while avoiding doctor visits as much as possible, it doesn't look as if I'm any closer to acquiring it any time soon. Thank goodness I avoid doing strenuous things.

I understand the president's reasons for allowing Congress to write the health care reform bill. He went to school on the Hillary-Care fiasco and didn't want to make the same mistake by presenting a finished product that no one but a bunch of policy wonks understood. I'm certain, however, that Rocky never expected the entire opposition party to turn their backs to him en masse. Time and again he has reached his hand out to the Republicans, and they continue to beat him about the head and shoulders in response. Obama has run out of cheeks to turn. Yet like the boy who wakes up Christmas morning to a stocking filled with horse manure and shouts, "There must be a pony," I keep looking for the angle in Obama's continued attempts at bi-partisanship. I know that Barack and Rahm Emmanuel are smart guys and clever politicians, and the election proved that they are great strategians, so there's got to be some Machiavellian strategy in there somewhere concerning their persistent courting of Republican support for health care reform, but for the life of me, I can't see it. Maybe the pony ran away.

This Thursday, a massive, male-bonding, bi-partisan, drum circle will take place at the White House where, again, Obama will try to reach accord with his political opponents. They will submit their predictable ideas; tort reform, buying insurance across state lines,  protection for insurance company profits,  privatizing Medicare; and their preferences will be duly noted and most included in any bill. But it doesn't matter. Senate Republicans have already shown they are prepared to vote against the very same bills that they originally sponsored in order to deprive this president of a political victory, even if it's good for the country. Never in modern history has the entirety of a political party's elected representatives turned into a mass collection of refuseniks. Bi-partisanship might have existed in some dreamy memory of the New Frontier, but it's been over since the election of Bill Clinton.

Yet the GOP continues to insist that they just want this country returned to the original vision of the Founders. First, the Founders were slaveholders who believed the only people entitled to vote were rich, white, male landowners. Secondly, men like Jefferson and Madison were towering intellects with vast knowledge in a broad range of subjects. Hardly men who would enjoy exchanging ideas with John "ManTan" Boehner or Mitch McConnell, much less having a beer with them. But the Republicans are currently winning the message wars, Obama's popularity is dropping, and the Teabaggers are definitely motivated to return the country to a wrecking-ball style government. After all, there are still a few institutions left standing. The conservatives made their motivations clear at last week's CPAC conclave in Washington. Barely a year into the Obama presidency, and they're trying to Jimmy Carterize this man. The convention's surprise guest, Dick "The Bruiser" Cheney, predicted to his delirious audience that Barack Obama would be a one-term president. Also, I know Obama was trying to show political resolve when he told Diane Sawyer, "I'd rather be a good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president," but he only emboldened his enemies.

If that's how Rocky feels, however, he may as well go down swinging. There is renewed Senate interest in the public option the House has already passed and Speaker Reid has agreed to bring the issue to the Senate floor. The right will demonize it as a "Government takeover of healthcare," when actually it's just a government-run health insurance plan to compete with the profiteers of sickness and death. Now that the Democrats have lost their formerly useless sixty vote majority, they are freed from having to negotiate with bad actors whose major concern is not the health and welfare of the citizenry, but who acquires the most power in the next election. The Dems can now go by the rules of reconciliation, which the Bush crowd nearly put their brand on, which only requires 51 votes to pass legislation. This eliminates the further need to smooch the derrieres of the Senate Republicans and the corporate-owned Democrats too. Either that, or make them fulfill their threat to filibuster. Call their bluff. We've all seen Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It will be great entertainment and a magnificent civics lesson. So, bring in the cots, shut the doors, turn on the C-Span cameras, and let's hear and see the same people who are trying to kill health care reform read from the Scriptures.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Palin the Pernicious

I understood what the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville was all about as soon as I heard that sound. It was in the audience's response to former Colorado congressman and professional xenophobe Tom Tancredo's wistful reminiscences about literacy tests at the polls, after which he said, "People who could not spell the word vote, or say it in English, put a committed Socialist ideologue in the White House named Barack Hussein Obama." In one phrase, Tancredo managed to insult blacks, Hispanics, and the majority of U.S. voters, and the crowd's reaction was startling yet familiar. Tancredo had harnessed the mob's basest instincts and their reflexive response was manifested in a high-pitched, shrill, Banshee wail that I recognized immediately as the "Rebel Yell." There's nothing quite as chilling as being outnumbered in a clamor of Southern yahoos and good old boys when someone lets loose with the Rebel Yell. I've heard it all my life, and it means "I've got my blood up, by God," and suddenly the air becomes electric with the potential for real violence and "outsiders" find themselves in danger. During last week's Kleagle gathering in Nashville, the Tea Baggers did everything but burn a cross.

And that was before the headliner ever showed up. Sarah Palin gave the mob their money's worth while demonstrating that she could star in the sequel to "Mean Girls." As I listened to her mocking tone, her empty, bumper-sticker platitudes, and her irrational personal attacks on the president, accompanied by the howls of her receptive audience, I remembered where I had seen all this before. Even Palin's grim visage and set-jaw behind the Loretta Lynn hair-do was reminiscent of her true mentor, George Corley Wallace. And the Tea Party crowd is the re-assembled Wallace coalition of 1968 that gathered just enough votes to put Richard Nixon in the White House. Their message was the same then as now; Stop the Socialists and their ideas about Medicaid and Medicare, crush dissenters, oppose the Federal gub'ment in favor of  "state's rights," and return the Negro to his proper place in society. But even the old sege Wallace, in his declining years, saw the immorality of his lifelong convictions and spent his final days visiting black churches in Alabama, begging for forgiveness. Sarah Palin is just getting warmed up.

The former half-governor was a red-meat cornucopia to the angry and fearful, but it doesn't take Carl Jung to figure out what's at work here. Palin has a chip on her shoulder like a 2x4, and there is a mean-spiritedness that underlies her entire message. She suffers from the inferiority complex of the ruthlessly ambitious but otherwise average in a world of the gifted. She is in open rebellion against those whom she sees as the "elites," as opposed to "hard-working Americans," like herself. Palin had previously stated that she never attended an exclusive Eastern University, but worked her way through a series of community colleges, even that one in Hawaii, before earning her journalism degree. She got a gig on local news; she wanted to be a sportscaster; she took music lessons; she entered beauty pageants; all the attributes of someone who wants to be in front of the camera. But when all her efforts came a cropper, she, Todd, and God, found politics. And when Miss Wasilla became the mayor of Wasilla, the cross-eyed girl became a swan. If Palin couldn't be a media star, she discovered that, like a one-eyed man in the world of the blind, a mildly attractive person could be a star in the realm of the ugly. There just aren't that many pretty politicians and the Republican party is always looking for the next Dan Quayle.

Disguising hate speech in folksy colloquialisms is Palin's forte, but even she surpassed the gag threshold by asking Obama supporters, "How's that hopey, changey thing workin' out for ya'?" I know she's in Nashville, but who writes her material; Billy Ray Cyrus? Next, they'll be line dancing to her speeches. The mob went wild when she said that we needed a commander in chief and not a "law professor speaking at a lectern." Didn't the Republicans say the same thing about fellow Nobel Laureate Woodrow Wilson, whose dream of a League of Nations was torpedoed by the protectionist spectre of internationalism. Although Palin was likely referring to Obama's professorial "elitism," judging from the Rebel Yell, her Southern audience probably took it in another way. See, down here, we don't like it when our nigras go off to study law and start believing they know everything. Remember, "They call me Mister Tibbs?" But Sarah mindlessly continued to stoke the resentments of her paid-up, all-white audience, and they responded like a crowd at a monster truck rally. They despise the haughty "intellectuals" of the Obama administration as not being sufficiently American, and pine for bombastic leaders like "Dancin'" Tom DeLay and Trent Lott.

The degree of racial animus varies from place to place throughout the South, but nothing much has changed in the way of visceral attitudes. In Memphis, where there is racial parity, public jibes are now couched in prosaic phrases because it's not acceptable any longer to be openly racist, unless you're former mayor W.W. Herenton who makes up his own societal rules. In Nashville, however, they have no such restraint. I have never witnessed more blatant racism anywhere, than in my decade of living in the Music City. So it was appropriate that the Tea Party Convention was held at Opryland. The conventioneers, dressed in red, white, and blue and $500 lighter in the pocket after the ticket prices, have convinced themselves that they are the "real" Americans, and the true "patriots" upon whose shoulders falls the duty of purging the government of subversive elements. So did the Dixiecrats in the forties, the McCarthyites in the fifties, and the Wallace devotees of the sixties. The only difference now is that the reactionaries have a pretty face to follow straight to hell. After a season of slander, ongoing Hitler imagery, accusations of Marxism and worse, this bunch has revealed its true nature, and just like Johnny Nash, "I can see clearly now." But don't attempt to disguise yourselves as "fiscal conservatives," or "small-government libertarians," when you're nothing more than another in a line of misinformed lynch mobs. If knowledge is power, then knowledge of history is the power to avert bullshit when you see it coming down the path. There's an enormous mudslide on the way.

Thanks to Bill Day for the generous use of his editorial cartoon.

Monday, February 01, 2010

GaGa Over Grammy

I recognized another certain sign of aging tonight; the Grammy Awards no longer piss me off. When I was a worshipper at the altar of pop music, the annual music awards show was always my opportunity to vent at the establishment. Every time they gave another award to Henry Mancini instead of, say, the Kinks, I had the chance to rage against the machine. But the machine has shifted gears and the world of popular music is in an upheaval for which the industry is still groping for answers. I stopped following the pop charts with the advent of the arena, hair-bands of the seventies who tarred and paved the road for corporate rock. Coincidentally, cassette tapes came on the market at the same time, so my soundtrack has pretty much remained unchanged for the past 30 years. But I still keep an eye on it, and this years' awards were perfectly satisfactory, some talented people won, and when the awards ended, my heart was filled with like.

I mean, how can you not like Lady GaGa? Not only is she outrageous and provocative, but she's also seriously good. She opened the show in a futuristic, tight-fitting costume that gave new meaning to the term "cleavage." Strutting in front of the now obligatory flying wedge of dancers that Michael Jackson hath wrought, GaGa was flung into a fiery kettle and emerged face to face with Elton John, with whom she performed a stunning duo on twin pianos covered in what appeared to be severed arms from the "Thriller" video. For some unknown reason, they were both covered in soot and wearing outlandish sunglasses. I don't know what the effect was supposed to be, but between Lady GaGa's outfit and Sir Elton's latest fright wig, they both looked like they just stepped out of the cast of "Cats." The performance set up the evening's theme of incongruous duets.

As scintillating as was the GaGa-John partnership, the pairing of America's Sweetheart, Taylor Swift, with America's ex-girlfriend, Stevie Nicks, was nearly excruciating, and that was just the singing. It looked like "take your daughter to work" day at the Grammys. The same disconnect occurred in the Leon Russell/Zac Brown Band collaboration, with the emphasis on "bore." Russell looked like he was auditioning for a role in the next Tarantino movie, and had his lips not been moving, someone would have covered him with a sheet. Wouldn't the logical production decision to have been for Leon Russell to sing with the Kings of Leon, or is that too much irony? Mary J. Blige, who has a nice voice, and Andrea Bocelli sang an operatic version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," for Haitian relief, which inspired me to write a short poem:
Mary J. Blige might be Queen of the Scene,
But she's no Mavis Staples, if you know what I mean.
And who is Silverberg? They kept singing, "Sail on Silverberg." I liked the Sugarland girl who sang with Bon Jovi, but I never got them either. Bon Jovi, not Sugarland. Just when my attention was beginning to lag, they gave the Song of the Year award to Beyonce and when she made her acceptance speech, I thought I was watching the Golden Globes. I was really hoping that Taylor Swift would storm the stage and grab the microphone, but that's so last year.

The tribute to Michael Jackson proves that you can grow tired of anything after a while. The 3-D video may have looked nice in the Staples Center, but in my living room it just caused retinal burn. And, the kids are adorable, but enough already. I'll still probably buy the damned film though. Also, I know Maxwell is supposed to be the next big thing, but singing "Where Is the Love" with Roberta Flack will invariably draw comparisons to Donnie Hathaway; not a great idea. Flack, who was either drunk or done, was just awful, which is heartbreaking to a man who once wept through an entire, early-seventies Roberta Flack concert at the Mid-South Coliseum. I understand how hard it is to sing live, but somebody ought to tell her.

The level of musicianship seems to have been raised among the performers, signalling the portent that punk is dead and professionalism has returned. Jeff Beck's tribute to Les Paul was an example of stellar artistry, but he played nothing from his own Grammy winning CD, "Live at Ronnie Scott's," which featured his electrifying young bassist, Tal Wilkenfeld, and, by the way, was the sole award winning album I purchased this year. Dave Matthews is another artist that can grow wearisome, but there's no arguing that he, also, is seriously good. The evening's longest performance belonged to Recording Academy president Neil Portnoy Portnow, who bragged about the association's good deeds and solicited donations for Haitian earthquake relief before the screed turned into "Portnoy's Portnow's Complaint," where he scolded the listening public over illegal downloading and file sharing. It's fun to watch the "industry" so hapless and lost after their decades-long stranglehold on the entirety of the muzic bidness. It was also nice that Jim Dickinson and Willie Mitchell were recognized in memoriam.

I don't care how many hit movies Quentin Tarantino makes, he's still a dork. During his introduction of the Rap portion of the show, he suddenly went all Ebonic on us and his fingers began twitching as if he were playing air-turntable. In the words of Speaker Harry Reid, he was using a "Negro dialect," unrecognizable this side of the 1950s. I never much cared for rap, mainly because I don't like people shouting at me, but I don't criticize it lest someone assume I'm a "hater." Every time Lil' Wayne opened his mouth, however, the network censors leaped to hit the "delete" button. In the process, they wiped out two-thirds of the song. They wouldn't let him curse, but he was allowed to show his ass above his droopy drawers. Eminem, however, looked like he got the message and discovered a new thing; the belt. Also, Eminem wasn't bleeped, and his rap sounded like a jazz, scat-singer. His creativity seemingly places him at a different level than the rest of his colleagues in the genre. Is that a racist thing to say?

Either CBS or WREG Channel 3 seriously screwed up the ending of the show. I suspect I know which. After showing a series of local commercials and no-snow closings, the station had a "Heidi" moment and blew the entire presentation for Album of the Year. They returned to Taylor Swift's thank yous already in progress and eliminated at least four minutes of network feed. It was like reading a mammoth novel and finding the final chapter had been torn out, or listening to a CD that's missing a few tracks. Do they get their engineers straight out of high school over there, or is there some remedial training required? Aside from the mutilated ending, this year's Grammys were, pleasant. It was justifiable that "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" won best song of the year for Beyonce, and Swift won Album of the Year. I'm concerned that if I hear that "You Belong With Me" song one more time, I will plunge a knitting needle into my ear canal. Also, after seeing Lil' Wayne's performance, it's obvious that the real song of the year was submitted far too late for consideration. But everyone knows it's got to be "Pants On the Ground."