Saturday, February 28, 2009

Five star final

"I don't care what the papers write about me; my constituents can't read," William "Boss" Tweed is supposed to have said. "But they can see those damn drawings." He was talking about the work of Thomas Nast, among others, depicting him and his associates as a cabal of bloated crooks. Strange how potent line drawings can be.

Even now, when literacy is common, there's nothing like an editorial cartoon to touch off anger and violence, as when a Danish newspaper committed the cultural faux pas of publishing drawings of the Prophet Muhammad. The presence of a Muslim or two on the paper's staff could have prevented a lot of trouble -- all it needed was for someone to say (in Danish), "What the hell are you doing?"

I have no idea how many black people work in the editorial department at the New York Post, but apparently none of them saw the infamous chimp cartoon before it went to press. As everyone knows by now, it portrayed a dead chimp labeled "stimulus bill," inspired (if that's the word) by an occurrence the previous day in Connecticut, when police had to shoot a 200-pound chimpanzee which had mauled a woman. A black journalist, or even a culturally sensitive white one, could have pointed out that this drawing would be seen as racist, given the long history of slandering black people by calling them apes and monkeys. A sensitive journalist would have explained, patiently, that even though George W. Bush was frequently compared to a primate (there may still be a website called Smirking Chimp), it was a comment on his facial expression and overall intelligence, not his race. If the Post's editor and publisher didn't get it (and apparently they don't), the journalist still could have warned of the inevitable firestorm from New York's favorite political arsonist, Al Sharpton.

For the record, I thought the cartoon was dumb and insensitive, but probably not racist in intent. It took a momentary topic of public interest -- worth maybe forty-five seconds on Leno or Letterman -- and tried to use it to express a political viewpoint. That's what cartoonists do (classic example: David Levine's drawing of LBJ displaying a surgical scar in the shape of Vietnam). It would have worked just as well, I suppose, if the police in Connecticut had shot a rabid dog or a rampaging bear. The Post's crime lay in not being able to see the cartoon as an African-American might well see it, as a racist slur on Barack Obama. Of course, thanks to Rev. Sharpton, the whole Western world had now seen it, in addition to the paper's relatively tiny fan base. And he had help from people who should know better, like Julian Bond and Spike Lee.

All this self-serving outrage could not have come at a worse time. Yesterday the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition after a century and a half, leaving Denver with only the Post. San Francisco is on the brink of losing its only daily, the Chronicle. The Minneapolis Star Tribune is on its deathbed, too, and many cities and towns have no newspapers at all, leaving them at the mercy of USA Today, which has the substance (and the appearance) of a Howard Johnson menu. Even the New York Times, the self-styled "newspaper of record," is visibly shrinking. The era of the dead-trees newspaper seems to be hastening to its end after roughly three hundred years. Even if some of them survive as online ghosts, they will never be the same. It's not as if we don't need newspapers, but they aren't profitable, or profitable enough.

We at the Sky believe, along with the men who wrote and ratified the First Amendment first, that a free press is more important than all that other stuff -- habeas corpus, personal arsenals, not having troops quartered in your house. We don't believe you can have a functioning democracy if citizens are dependent upon radio and television stations which are on their way to being owned by six people; on the Internet (sorry) where just anybody can write an opinion and call it fact, much as I'm doing now, yeah, I smell the irony; on a handful of papers where once there were hundreds. We believe a bad newspaper like the New York Post is better than no newspaper at all. And we were just about to call upon the Obama Administration to save our press.

Billions for banks, insurance companies, auto makers and Wall Street bastards, but not a penny for newspapers? They are as essential to this country as water, energy and schools. They are disappearing because of the rising cost of everything from ink to transport, not the gross mismanagement characteristic of those other industries. They employ thousands. They are a lifeline for people who, incredibly, still don't have computers. They print letters from the known, the unknown, and the quite mad. They can drive you crazy and turn your fingers gray, but they still bring you a snapshot of the world at the moment the press-run began, a time capsule that isn't updated every five minutes when it doesn't disappear altogether. If they're nothing else, they're the daily crossword. An old, yellow clipping that falls out of a forgotten book can recall the past better than a Proustian madeleine. Go ahead, do that with a dead website.

I love the Internet. It contains multitudes undreamed of by Walt Whitman. That's the trouble. Its very freedom (which I will die defending) makes it a treacherous source of information. We need many newspapers written and edited by serious professionals if we are to make sense of a hopelessly tangled world. If money is the only thing making them disappear, give them the money. Even USA Today is worthier of salvation than the companies that made Hummers and Sierras, or the banks that gave mortgages to the unemployed. For better or worse, a nation's newspapers are its memory and its soul.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thanks, Garrison

You tell me
It's the birthday of Emily Dickinson
Victor Hugo Philip Larkin
Langston Hughes W.H. Auden

I'm all ears

And then you read a poem
By some guy named Bob
About drinking coffee in a kitchen
While frost dulls the windowpane
And a cat sleeps upstairs

A poem so twee
It's barely alive

Day after day
I wonder if some publisher
Whose books sell in the hundreds
Sends you cash
(or sacks of coffee)
To read this stuff

Day after day
I dream of Yeats

And I get Bob
The adjunct professor
With his kitchen table poem
And his cat

Maybe I'll see
What else
Is on
The radio


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Chalice half-full

Look on the bright side: At least Bishop Richard Williamson is unlikely to compare legal abortion to the Holocaust, a rhetorical device much loved by Christian clergy, because according to him, there was no Holocaust. The Nazis killed 600,000 Jews, tops, and they probably had it coming because the Jews are bent on world domination, according to the bishop, recently welcomed back into the Church by ex-Hitlerjugend Joseph Ratzinger, a/k/a Pope Benedictineandbrandy XVI. Oh, and the Vatican is controlled by Satan anyway, says the bishop. Well...

All this has caused quite a tempest, and for the usual reason: money. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has called on the Pope to explain his actions. Here's something I didn't know: when Germans file their tax returns, they can check a box for a portion of the payment to go to the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, or any other recognized religion -- like the checkoff for public funding of presidential campaigns on US tax returns. (Why the American religion industry hasn't demanded something like this, I don't know.) Since denying the Holocaust is a crime in Germany punishable by imprisonment, there is talk in the Bundestag of cutting off this lucrative source of church money. Of course, Williamson doesn't live in Germany -- he runs a seminary in Argentina, you'll be surprised to hear -- and the Vatican's position is that he can say whatever he wants about the twentieth century as long as he doesn't violate Church doctrines prescribed in the preceding nineteen.

The timing is curious. This year on Good Friday, by papal decree Catholics will once again pray for "the conversion of the Jews," an insulting bit of liturgy that was dropped some years ago. In apocalyptic Christianity, this conversion is a necessary step in bringing about the Final Days. We already have a pretty good idea what this pope thinks of Islam, so why is he planning a trip to Jerusalem this year? Having angered all the Jews in Italy, is he looking for more people to piss off? Or are his intentions more sinister? At the very least, ecumenism is dead and it's every believer for himself.

For two thousand years, Christians have been expecting the end of time. They have been consistently disappointed, but that's why it's called faith. Now for the first time, they are capable of self-fulfilling prophecy. The days ahead will be terrible -- we seem to be in for a global depression, ecological catastrophe, and more hideous violence as in Darfur, Rwanda, Gaza, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, a dozen other places. True believers of every stripe will be tempted to utter a despairing "Fuck it!" and detonate whatever they have lying around. The last thing they will need is encouragement.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

The usual suspects

The bloom is off the rose, the shine is off the apple, the honeymoon is over. All the millions who stood in the cold to watch Barack Obama's inauguration, and the millions more who voted for him, are through. They elected him conditional on Tom Daschle becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services, and they feel disillusioned, used, empty. They will never hope again.

I know because the Experts said so. The pundits, the insiders, the receivers and dispensers of wisdom: Chris, Pat, Sean, Michelle, other Chris, George, David, Glenn, Joe, Bill, Dick, Jeff, Bob, Greta, the whole choir of political brainpower. Curious thing: One year ago, all of them assured me that Hillary Clinton had the nomination all sewed up; the only question was whether she would run against Mitt Romney or Rudolph Giuliani.

Another curious thing: Millions of Americans who had jobs in February 2008, and who did them diligently and competently, don't have them now. The Experts, however, continue to cash large paychecks despite being consistently, spectacularly, hilariously wrong. There has never been an Expert recall, or an Expert layoff, or even a cut in Expert hours. It's the safest job this side of pope.

Even more curious: Some people still pay attention to them.


Monday, February 02, 2009

Hitting the fan

There is so much insane crud flying around, I hardly have time to notice it all, much less compose sentences as I was taught long ago, in the days of something called public education. It's what these virtual watercoolers are for, isn't it? Shooting the breeze, checking in, dodging work, wondering if other people are noticing it, too?

A mother of six in California had herself implanted with eight embryos (for some reason) and proceeded to incubate eight precious little miracles. She'll be hitting the media circuit any day. She will not be repaying the hospital for the enormous cost of seeding her, mining them from her uterus, warming them up, giving them oxygen and fitting them with anti-theft devices. Cully-fornia is so broke, the governor is sending out IOUs in lieu of tax refunds, but who's counting? They're just so darling. Aren't they? At around the same time, a man who lost his job at another Kaiser Permanente hospital went home and shot his wife, their five children, and himself. Circle of life.

Rod Blagojevich is now the former Embattled Governor of Illinois, having been removed from office by the state senate 51-0. The conclusion was foregone on the day of Patrick Fitzgerald's bleep-filled press conference, but the "trial" gave all the senators a chance to appear on television and perform their arias of outrage and indignation. (I especially enjoyed the downstate Republican who declared that never before had Illinois suffered such a disgrace, perhaps forgetting that the previous governor is still in prison.) Then Blago brought the show to a climax with a Liebestod that lacked poetry -- literally, no more Oxford Book of English Verse -- but combined bathos, self-pity, veiled threats, sentimental evocations of his immigrant parents, bitterness, defiance, and a plea for campaign finance reform. I felt he missed an opportunity to link himself with the hapless Cubs or the Haymarket Martyrs, but maybe he's saving some material for the inevitable autobiography.

I watched the first NFL Championship Game as a child of fourteen. There was a football game. No Roman numerals. The Green Bay Packers won, as they often did in those days, when Vince Lombardi dwelt among us. Today, the Superbowl is a national barbecue/sideshow/extravaganza with a football game tucked somewhere inside, the carnival before Carnival. It was actually a good game this year, if you could get past the quarterback hagiographies and the armies of commentators. John Madden looks more and more like a stone creature come to life in a crummy Italian Hercules movie. He and Bob Costas know their football, period. Everyone else should please go away.

As usual, I was left speechless, but laughing, by the sheer excess. Gen. David Petraeus took time off from his job as head of Central Command to flip a coin. Faith Hill and Bruce Springsteen (who shocked America by not singing "Born In the USA") provided the entertainment. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the hero airplane pilot of the moment, looked much younger than he does in photographs. The only thing missing was Octuplet Mama. Maybe next year.

The Republican National Committee elected its first black chairman, Michael Steele. What? You don't keep up with lieutenant governors of Maryland? All day I tried not to think of Dave Chappelle's character Clayton Bigsby, the blind Klansman who doesn't know he's black. Steele knows -- it's what got him the job, after all -- but he thinks being anti-choice cancels it out. Not for David Duke, an actual Klansman, who is disgusted with the GOP and threatening to take his followers elsewhere. Will the party change its symbol from an elephant to an Oreo? Is this the end of the forty-year Southern Strategy? Who do they think they're fooling? People who still think "they all look alike," I guess.

But who's really in charge here? Will the Party of Lincoln (Savings & Loan) be led off the cliff by Steele, Palin, Limbaugh, McConnell, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, or some other rough beast whose hour has not yet come round? Can it possibly move farther to the right without falling off the edge of the earth? (Read your Bible!) A surprising number of its members, including the new chairman, seem to think the problem is a failure to "get the message out," that if you can just package shit to look like Shalimar, people will not only buy it, they'll spray it all over themselves. The resounding rejection of the McBush/Dingbat ticket less than three months ago made no impression on them. I shouldn't enjoy their delusional ravings as much as I do, but I'm not a nice person. I lack Family Values, faith, patriotism (although not as much as I used to) and a love of consumerism. I've been wearing these shoes for five years, and when they fall apart I'll buy another pair. And they won't be Prada. So you see, I'm no help.

Where was I?

Michael Phelps was photographed taking a bong hit at a party. To paraphrase S.J. Perelman, America was immediately divided into two camps, in the larger and drowsier of which I find myself. What shall we tell the children? How about I can't believe this is still illegal? Jeez. Cannabis is a huge cash crop in California, which spends billions of dollars every year to make sure nobody grows more than six plants for personal use. And the state is broke. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Is anybody in Sacramento thinking at all? Bitte?

Why is President Obama being so nice to the Republicans, putting them in his Cabinet, visiting them on Capitol Hill and even -- ugh -- eating with them? Sure, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but never forget they are your enemies. It might also help to recall that you won. By a lot. "In victory, magnanimity," said Churchill, even as he lobbied to shoot the German leadership without legal niceties. "With malice toward none, with charity for all, " said Lincoln, just before he took a bullet to the head. Enough with the charity, says Buttermilk Sky. It's time to kick asses and take names, and you already know their names.


Tutti frutti, oh Rudy

"It does have a reverse effect on the economy, if you somehow take that bonus out of the economy. It really will create unemployment." That was Rudolph Dubya Giuliani defending the mind-boggling bonuses paid, come hell or high water, to Wall Street traders and executives as a reward for pissing away billions of dollars of other people's money and helping to wreck the planetary economy. It's one of those statements that appears to be English, but refuses to parse. Considering the state of the Wall Street balance sheet, "that bonus" turns out to be money from the US Treasury, since checks written by the banks and brokerage houses would bounce without it. So we, the increasingly unemployed American people, should pay their bonuses because -- what? -- it will "create unemployment" if we don't? The Masters of the Universe must have been spending their millions at BestBuy, Macys, Walgreen and Home Depot. That would explain it.

John A. Thain, the CEO of Merrill Lynch, has an even loopier rationale: If you don't pay bonuses to "your best people," they will go elsewhere. First, as Jon Stewart has pointed out, Merrill doesn't have best people, only idiots who lost billions of investors' dollars. Second, where will they go? Bear Stearns? Goldman Sachs? Lehman Brothers? They should have to put on little vests and say "Welcome to Walmart" all day, but even Walmart is not hiring, and these clowns couldn't pass the stringent drug tests. A quick survey suggests that the only place their financial expertise is wanted right now is Zimbabwe. A few weeks ago Zimbabwe issued a billion-dollar banknote, so Zimbabweans could buy a stamp to send a letter to a friend asking if there are any jobs in Capetown or Nairobi. Last week the new finance minister dropped all pretense of having a viable currency, demonstrating more common sense than John Thain, Rudolph Giuliani, and the entire Republican Party hot-glued together and deposited in Death Valley in July. Sorry, that's a fantasy of mine, please disregard.

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