Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Duke of Oil

Rahm Emanuel said that it looks like BP CEO Tony Hayward finally got his life back. There are millions of people who live along the Gulf Coast that wish they could say the same. Before Hayward's appearance in front of Congress, no one had said, "I don't remember" that many times since Alberto Gonzalez. It bought him his ticket back to England, however, and the torch was passed to another corporate shill. However, was it necessary for him to go directly to a yacht race? BP gave the job of Face Man, to Bob Dudley, a Mississippi boy. At least he can speak Southern and he did a good job as director of the Liberty Bowl. And Hayward was forgiven and absolved of his sins by Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who personally apologised for the "shakedown" by the White House that holds BP accountable for the disaster. Simultaneously, the twin conservative calender girls, Palin and Bachmann, came to BP's defense. Bachmann, who needs to be in the witless protection program, claimed the escrow account was "extortion," while the original "Drill Baby Drill" gal said on Fox "News," that BP was being "demonized." All this, while oil continues to gush into the Gulf and BP and their affiliates have been caught in a pattern of deliberate lies.

A book was published in 1958 called "The Ugly American," by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. It was actually an espionage novel that was made into a movie starring Marlon Brando, and the title referred to the arrogant American diplomats serving in Indochina. But it has since come to represent the loud and obnoxious American tourist abroad, oblivious to the sensitivities and customs of their hosts. Tony Hayward was the flip side of that coin. Every time he made another public statement, the victims of this outrage grew angrier and more frustrated with the state of BP's clean-up effort. All except the region's fish and wildlife, the true victims of this atrocity, who have no voice to express their rage and become collateral damage to the oil industry and their congressional lackeys like Barton. When you add the remarks of Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, a vocal double for Arnold Schwarzenegger, that BP cares "about the small people," to the grossly inappropriate, "I want my life back," from Haywood, you've got a couple of clueless, wild-and-crazy-guys who just can't quite seem to master that corporate sincerity thing. Even  Hayward saying he was "deeply sorry," only served to remind that BP does everything deeply.

The latest outrage comes from British retirees who are heavily invested in BP. The June 17 headline of London's' Daily Mail read: "Obama Bullies BP Into Fund for Oil Spill Victims, but British Pensioners will Pick Up the Bill." I wonder who could be stoking these anti-Obama passions in Great Britain. Could it be..."SATAN?" No, it's his brother, Rupert Murdoch, who owns the paper. So, allow me to say to the elderly English investors who got their dividends postponed, with all due respect, "Shut the fuck up." This isn't about you. If Exxon or DuPont came over and bespoiled the white cliffs of Dover, your reaction would be much the same. This is about a heartless international conglomerate that has been gouging the earth for over a hundred years and leaving wreckage in their global wake, that happens to be named British Petroleum. Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot they changed the name to Beyond Principles or Bloated Profits, or whatever the hell it is now. A tarball by any other name would smell as foul. The good people of the UK are up in arms with Obama and the Congress over what they perceive to be a growing anti-British sentiment. There's no greater Anglophile than me, but if we wanted to be upset with you, it would have been over Tony Blair's enabling of Dubya to wage war. We eagerly look to your current inquiry into the Iraqi war to produce justice, just as our inquiry into the Gulf disaster should do the same.

The problems with BP are legion; from their cozy relations with government, massive violations and fines, the 2005 explosion at a Texas City, TX refinery that killed fifteen people, and for which BP was charged with criminal environmental violations. The list is easily researched. But let's go back and pick up a golden oldie, all the way from 1953, when the Korean War was in a stalemate, a commie scare had infected Congress, and Ike was on the golf course. The Iranian people had democratically elected a president named Mohammad Mosaddeq, who took a look around at the British owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which had been extracting Iranian oil since 1908, and decided to nationalize the oil fields. The CIA, with assistance from their British counterparts, began a smear campaign, calling Mosaddeq a Communist, and organized a military coup that toppled the president and replaced him with Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose U.S. trained secret police, SAVAK, terrorized the populace for the next 25 years. Mosadeqq spent the rest of his life under house arrest. The next year, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, fresh oil leases in hand, changed their name to British Petroleum. Consequently, in a circular way, BP shares responsibility for the Iranian Revolution.

We're currently getting fishing boats trying to lift oil from the surface of the water when what we really need is a Marshall Plan for the Gulf. Where are all these massive oil skimmers that BP keeps referring to, and now that a homeboy is the spokesman, can he see the ecological tragedy that has been unleashed by his corporate masters? And still, Governor Bobby Jindal and his GOP "free marketeers" protest a moratorium on further drilling until this case can be investigated. The latest conservative talking point is that this disaster is the fault of the effete environmentalists whose limitations on shallow water drilling forced the oil companies to go deeper. They went where no man has gone before because that's where the damn oil is, bubba. The only thing as atrocious as this continuing oil hell has been the Republicans defense of the industry. In order to try and damage Obama, they are willing to put our very habitat at risk for political power. It has been widely reported that Joe Barton would become head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee should the GOP magically regain a legislative majority in the forthcoming election, so it would be wise to remember the words of early American financier Simon Cameron: "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."

A Haspel hat tip to Bill Day.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Ugly Audience

For as long as I can remember, I've been reading music reviews in Memphis' various newspapers. Perhaps it's time for someone to review the audience. I pick and choose my concerts carefully ever since I realized that people don't know how to act in public anymore. I stopped going to Tunica when a Santana concert turned into a drunken frat party and some button-downed buzz-cut sloshed a beer down my back. I no longer go to Mud Island concerts for the same reason. I passed up tickets for Steely Dan because the show was on Mud Island. Afterwards, a friend told me tales of shouting drunks, screaming their conversations over the band's music, and wanting to fight when asked to keep it down. Where we once went to concerts to get high and listen to the music, now it's to get drunk and party. You can do that to the stereo. For me to attend a show these days, the artist has to be unique and I need a reserved seat and an unobstructed view of the stage.

When I bought tickets to see Nancy Wilson with Arturo Sandoval, I expected an older, more sophisticated crowd to attend. I imagined that the rarely seen Ms. Wilson would surely draw a more musically knowledgeable audience that showed up to appreciate the two jazz legends. Not a chance. The event quickly descended into another Memphis embarrassment, complete with heckling, crowd misconduct, and admonishments from the promoter. Ms. Wilson was booked for a similar engagement two years ago but had to cancel because of family concerns. The promoter was forced to refund a near sell-out show, and in the fickle concert business, this performance drew only a half-filled house. Yet still the people came late. I mean, thirty and forty minutes into the concert, ushers with flashlights were still making rows of people stand to accommodate the tardy arrivals who seemed oblivious to their distractions. Maybe some of the attendees thought they were going to see one of those guitar-playing sisters in the band, Heart. At some point, "fashionably late" becomes unreasonably rude. After all, this was Nancy Wilson at the Cannon Center, not Meat Loaf at the Coliseum.

The opening act was world-class Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. The Grammy-winning artist and his quartet had played four polished jazz instrumentals when some boorish lout yelled, "We want Nancy." Sandoval replied, "I want her too, and she'll be here soon," but after the next song, the shouts rang out again. The now aggravated Sandoval said, "We're contracted to play here for a certain period of time," before his words were drowned out by applause from the supportive crowd. An uneasiness fell over the room as the flustered musician continued, "I've never had anybody shout out at me like this before. I hope this won't be our special memory of Memphis." Voices of protest and encouragement and a smattering of applause erupted in the darkness. The Latin jazz virtuoso added, "In fifty years, no one has ever shouted at me like this." I wanted to sink down in my seat and cover my head while the injured Sandoval played a blistering trumpet solo, seemingly to spite his detractors, and then stalked off stage, pausing only momentarily to acknowledge the standing crowd.

After intermission, the concert promoter and head of Cultural Arts For Everyone (CAFE), Rebecca Edwards, interrupted her welcoming remarks and the announcement of the non-profit organization's tenth anniversary to assist some patrons in locating their seats. A passionate, one woman company, Ms. Edwards scolded the crowd that Arturo Sandoval would return to the stage later and was deserving of a standing ovation. When the house lights dimmed and Nancy Wilson appeared in a stunning red dress and a boot on her broken ankle, little white rectangles began to light up all over the hall. It's no longer sufficient to merely attend and enjoy a concert anymore. Now, everyone has to record it on their cell phone and maybe get some hits on YouTube later. Ms. Wilson responded positively to the obligatory audience shouts of, "We love you," until one woman began a personal dialogue with the artist about how much the songs meant to her and her husband. During a dramatic pause at the end of the showcase song, "Guess Who I Saw Today," a man yelled something unintelligible. Before the return of Sandoval and the unspontaneous love-fest that was to come, Melody and I left the building wondering exactly when decorum died.

I've seen recent concerts in Nashville, including Van Morrison at the Ryman Auditorium and Steely Dan at Starwood Amphitheatre, that were memorable. Maybe because Nashville has so many residents that are musicians or friends of musicians, they show a little more reverence for the music. But obnoxious audiences spring up in every part of Memphis, in all types of venues. This is why I haven't performed in a club in five years. I finally grew weary of being background noise for diners and drunks and I thought there must be something else I can do. That's why you're reading me instead of hearing me. We don't need to personally interact this way, and I can read your comments at my leisure. I admire the persistence of Rebecca Edwards in her continuing quest to bring cultural experiences to Memphis. I would have thrown up my hands long ago since I subscribe to the adage, "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think." After an endless caravan of yesterday's country stars and geriatric rock bands, perhaps jaded Memphis audiences take live music too much for granted. I believe, however, that an artist with the stature of Nancy Wilson deserves better. And at these ticket prices, so do I.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Reagan Delusion

"As Democracy is perfected, the office (of president) represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."  HL Mencken, 1920

Former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford once referred to Ronald Reagan as an "amiable dunce," but Reagan's not the "downright moron" I was referring to. At least Reagan had principles. But there is a direct line leading from Ronald Reagan, to George W. Bush, to Sarah Palin. His "Trickle Down" economic theory was mocked by his then political rival and future Vice President. G.H.W. Bush, as "Voodoo Economics." But his most glaring error, the "Big Lie," was his pronouncement that, "Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem." Thus began the era of public distrust of government to solve problems, and the embryonic stages of what is now the Tea Party movement.

I was astonished that Reagan was ever elected in the first place. After a career in "B" movies and a stint as a shill for General Electric and Chesterfield cigarettes, he was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild, where his impact was felt during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts of the fifties. Appearing before the committee, Reagan blamed labor unions for "Communist infiltration of Hollywood," and this was when he was still a Democrat. He switched parties in 1962, arguing that the "Democrats had left him." Conveniently, this was in the heart of the Civil Rights era and Reagan had political ambitions to follow his fellow "hoofer" and Republican, George Murphy, into the California Governor's office. Having never held political office before, Reagan won the Governor's race on a "Law and Order" platform in 1966, just in time to preside over the worst period of social unrest since the Civil War.

Reagan assumed state office with all the paternalistic and patronizing attitudes of the "War and Whiskey Generation" concerning the impertinent hippie protesters. After an anti-war demonstration at Berkeley where police used deadly force to suppress the protesters, Reagan said this about restoring order on California college campuses: "If it takes a blood bath, let's get it over with now."  He later attempted to explain that he was only using a "figure of speech," but consider that Reagan's daughter, Patti, was an anti-war activist and quasi-hippie. Would he wish for a "blood bath" if it included his own child? As a Vietnam War objector, I was revulsed by the blind ignorance that prevented the rabid right from understanding that these young people protesting in the street were not "Communist agitators," but their own children. Reagan parlayed his bellicosity into a commodity and was marketed and sold by the GOP as the old cold-warrior who could restore our tough guy image in the world after the impotent Jimmy Carter refused to turn Iran into a nuclear, glassine sandbox.

It was no accident that Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the location of one of the civil rights era's most gruesome and murderous crimes. It sent a message about which side of the racial divide he was on and further capitalized on Nixon's "Southern strategy" of 1968, where the GOP actively courted white southerners disaffected by the civil rights legislation of the Johnson years. It was a foreshadowing of the heartless budget cuts the Reagan administration would make in social programs, and the mindless, unlimited cash machine they would offer to the military. "Government is the problem" is a good campaign slogan if you intend to be a reformer, but Reagan ran up the highest deficits in history, ramped up the arms race, and secretly sold weapons to the very regime that had held our diplomats hostage, in order to arm anti-government rebels in Nicaragua. Does that sound like less government to you?

Even Reagan's "aw shucks" speeches for which he was best known were a construction to burnish his uber-patriot image. The "Shining city on a hill," and "It's morning in America," weren't Reagan's words, they were Peggy Noonan's. Yet despite the sunny rhetoric, there were consequences to the abandonment of the poor and helpless. It was during Reagan's term that the rise of inner-city and ghetto gang membership exploded and began to establish franchises in other major cities. Reagan's term saw the creation of violent rap music and the spread of gun violence. And it was in Reagan's term, during his "Just Say No" campaign against drug use, that crack cocaine first hit the streets of California and spread into a nationwide scourge. There is now no question that the CIA planes that delivered arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, returned home filled with cocaine. The San Jose Mercury newspaper first reported that crack cocaine was invented, manufactured and distributed in urban areas by the CIA, but they were forced to print a retraction when their sources recanted.

The conservative "Just Say No" policy on drugs during the Reagan era is their same policy on nearly everything today, especially when it comes to "family values."  In fact, Reagan was the first to recruit right-wing activist Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell as presidential advisers, a post previously held exclusively by Billy Graham. And the eternal Republican talking point that Reagan "ended the cold war" is like crediting Pat Boone with the invention of Rock n' Roll. He deserves credit for his consistent anti-Communist stance, as do Lech Walesa, and Vlaclav Havel, and many others, but since the Wall fell on his watch, he gets bragging rights. He also deserves credit for being a much better actor than I thought. He nearly fooled all of the people all of the time, and left it to his successor to accept the consequences for raising taxes. Nonetheless, he succeeded in convincing an entire generation of the false notion that government is an intrinsic evil that must be restricted. The result is the GOP of today. They want smaller government and less governmental intrusion until a BP oil rig blows up in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, all the former proponents of "small government" find themselves standing on a metaphorical rooftop, holding on to a big sign that says, "Help Us!"