Monthly Archives: January 2014

Justin Bieber

There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life.  And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident.  Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music.  It was the only thing this coma patient could hear.  And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player.  Justin Bieber saved my life!”

I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos.  I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon.  I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin.  I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies.  From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls.  There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music.  They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.

Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives.  But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ’em right,’ we think.  ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens.  She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law.  A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known.  But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.

Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call.  Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.

But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.

When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931’s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”.  I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:

If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age.  But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping.  And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things.  Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value.  What we actually, really, love.

If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value.  They quantify value.  We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak.  But we don’t.  We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.

Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic.  You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher.  You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does.  But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people.  We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us.  We have dollar figures as proof.

By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense.  Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing.  Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.

David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV.  He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible.  I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.

Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important.  But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value.  TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia.  But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money.  Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber.  But we do care, we care a great deal.  We can prove how much we care.  We can put a price on it.








State of the Union

I wasn’t able to watch President Obama’s State of the Union Address last night–I’m in rehearsal.  So I DVRed it, and watched it this afternoon–just finished, in fact.  I also did not watch the Republican response to the SOTU, because, geez, there were five of them and life’s too short.

A few initial impressions: Washington must be getting hammered by the flu right now.  Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to it, coming off a recent flu bug myself, but every break in the speech, you heard coughing and hacking and wheezing. I imagine the calculation going on in some peoples’ heads, ‘I’m sick as a dog, and want to stay home and guzzle down the Nyquil.  On the other hand, how will it look if I blow off the State of the Union?’  I wondered about John Boehner, in fact–early in the speech, the poor man sure seemed to fighting off something–a cough or a sneeze or something.  But he’s Speaker of the House; he’s gotta go.

And there were the usual theatrics; the wildly enthusiastic applause for almost everything, the multiple standing O’s.  The phony jubilation when the Prez mentioned something you believed in, and the brush-it-off perfunctory applause when he said something you disagreed with.  The President seemed confident and relaxed; he’s done this before, obviously. They had the usual ‘ordinary Americans’ used as stage props–no one seemed to mind much.  And far and away the most moving moment of the night was the extended applause given to Army Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, a terribly wounded soldier who the President mentioned as an example of American grit and determination.  Lovely, and well deserved, Sgt.

Otherwise I thought it was sort of a shaming exercise type speech.  It was clearly addressed to Congress, to a new Congress, and a Congress that is aware that the last Congress really was a fail.  The President’s approval ratings aren’t high right now, but Congress’ approval ratings really could not be lower; they’re around 13 percent, worse than colonoscopies, traffic jams, head lice, used car salesmen and cockroaches.  I wouldn’t say the President exactly scolded them, but he did twit them a bit.  The tone was light, but the message was clear–it’s time for you guys to do your jobs.

So every section of the speech followed a pattern.  The President would mention an issue–low wages, for example.  He would point to the problem.  He would then list some things some businesses and private citizens are doing about it.  He would describe some things that he could and would do, within the limited scope of the executive branch.  And then he’d ‘invite Congress to join him’ in passing federal regulation on the issue.

So, after pointing to a CEO of a pizza chain that had given all his employees raises to 10 bucks an hour, the President mentioned that he would do the same for any private contractors who wanted federal contracts; require that they pay $10.10 an hour.  And then he pointed to two Congresspeople who had a bill they were trying to pass to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10.  So. . .  how ’bout it, guys?

Over and over, the pattern was repeated: here’s something that needs doing, here’s what private citizens are doing, here’s what I’m doing about it; your turn, step up, pass a bill, take action.  “Let’s make progress together,” he’d say.  “Let’s take action together.”

On some issues, the President frankly sounded like a Republican.  My brother (a businessman who is about the most moderate Republican you’ll ever meet, and a sensible and intelligent man if ever there was one), noticed this too: Obama calling for lower corporate taxes, a simpler tax code, a new kind of IRA, simpler business regulations.  He sounds like a Republican on those issues.  Tactically, that’s smart, I think–these are areas where he might be able to get some cooperation with House Republicans.  And normally, that might be sort of true.  But with this bunch of House Republicans?  I’m pretty skeptical.  Still, the President’s right to look for any opportunity for genuine bi-partisan cooperation.

Not for the first time, the President mentioned what he calls hi-tech manufacturing hubs.  The idea seems to be that companies that want to start hi-tech plants go to local community colleges, and help develop degree programs that will give people the skills to work for them.  It’s worked in North Carolina and Ohio, and he wants to set up six more similar hubs.  If Congress would fund it, he thinks this could happen all over the country.  Seems like an idea worth trying.  Anyway, this happened over and over in the speech: ‘business is doing X, I’m planning to do X plus a little Y, time for Congress to fully fund X, try Y, and begin implementing Z.’

On my Facebook, there was a lot of enthusiasm for this line:

Today, women make up about half our workforce.  But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.  That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment. A woman deserves equal pay for equal work.  She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job.  A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too.  It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode.

The simple fact is that women work at low paying, minimum wage jobs much more often than men do, and often have child care concerns as well.  Other countries handle this much better than we do in the US.  For all our rhetoric about ‘Family Values’ in this country, we’re not leaders, internationally, in implementing family friendly employment policies.  The President is right to call attention to it.  You may scoff at the idea of mandating that McDonald’s, say, give paid maternity leave to a 28 year old single mom who works the counter or in the kitchen.  In fact, though, that kind of situation is precisely where federal regulation is most needed.

I want to read more about his MyRA proposal.  He called it, a new kind of savings bond, and described it as having no risk, and offering a decent return.  I’m skeptical about any no-risk investment promising a ‘decent return.’  But let’s see some details.

My favorite moment in the speech, though, was his mention of Obamacare.  First, he described the real-life situation of a woman who bought health coverage on the exchanges, then had a heart condition requiring surgery two days later.  Previous to Obamacare, she would have been impoverished–medical bankruptcy would have been her only option.  As it is, she’ll recover, and without destroying her family financially.  Then the President said this:

Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law.  But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles.  So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice – tell America what you’d do differently.  Let’s see if the numbers add up.  But let’s not have another forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.  The first forty were plenty.  We got it.  We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.

Well done, Mr. President. In fact, we’re seeing the political battles of 2014 already shaping up.  And the Obamacare rollout was bad, no question about it, and gave Republicans an issue that they seemed almost giddy to be running on.  But the law is working much much better now.  Already, 9 million Americans have coverage that didn’t have it before.  That’s going to increase, by a lot.  And it’s fair to say ‘if you oppose this, what do you propose that will accomplish what the ACA accomplishes?  What is your alternative?’  So far, we haven’t seen one.

Overall, I thought it was a feisty speech, but not an overly partisan one.  It’s easy to be cynical, and when it comes to Congress, I am very very cynical indeed.  This was a speech that laid out a progressive agenda, which is very unlikely to lead to Congressional action.  But who knows? If Congress can pass a budget (even a lousy one), maybe a minimum wage increase isn’t entirely impossible.  Or even some of the other proposals mentioned by the President.




The Grammy Awards

Last night, my wife and I and our daughters had a deeply weird experience, watching, for the first time ever, the CBS broadcast of the Grammy Awards.  I essentially never watch awards shows on TV, except for the Oscars, which I watch every year.  And I freely and fully admit that I’m sort of an old fuddy-dud.  But I’m not remotely hostile to popular music, nor to contemporary music. One of my daughters is a huge Katy Perry fan, and I rather like some of her music.  I waited with great anticipation the arrival of the new Arcade Fire album, have listened to it many times, and think it’s terrific.  Nor am I remotely hostile to rap, or hip-hop.  I like Macklemore, for example.  My wife and I discovered Pentatonix this year, and think they’re amazing.  Naively, I assumed that Reflektor (the Arcade Fire release), would be up for Album of the Year, and that Pentatonix would be under consideration for Best New Artist.

And I’m not bitter that neither Arcade Fire nor Pentatonix were mentioned, either of them, ever, at any time.  To me, they were the two musical highlights of the year, but that’s not what the Grammies are about, apparently.   The music honored at the Grammies is, I suppose Top Forty, if that meant anything anymore.  It’s “Music that you would hear on the radio, if anyone listened to the radio, which no one does anymore.”  It’s so strangely anachronistic, this talk of ‘albums’ and ‘records’ in an age where music is almost entirely delivered via digital downloads.

Still, watching the Grammies, what I did not anticipate is how bad the musical performances would be.  I was actually sort of hoping I would hear music by people I didn’t know, and that I would like some of it, and want to buy it.  This did not happen.  For the most part, the musicians who performed were utterly dreadful.  A whole bunch of awards were given out, in obscure and infinitesimally differentiated categories.  Meanwhile, a bewildering array of performers both ancient and modern, or often enough, both together, would perform, either indifferently or catastrophically. And the ubiquitous and sinister presence of Jay-Z reigned over the proceedings, rather like Michael Corleone presiding over his father’s funeral.

Without question, the nadir of the evening’s performances involved the music of Chicago, as butchered by the untalented, smarmy and smirking Robin Thicke.  Chicago sounded terrific. That great horn section had its usual precision and polish, and Robert Lamm’s voice is as strong as ever.  They began “Does anybody really know what time it is?” with Lamm singing, and sounded, well, like Chicago, as good as ever.  Then Thicke put an execrable gloss on the vocal.  It was all downhill from there.  Thicke butchered two more Chicago songs, to complete the medley, and then that great horn section was somehow induced to provide backing for Thicke’s performance of his own loathsome hit, “Blurred Lines.”  I still shudder at the recollection.

This sort of thing kept happening. Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams (unaccountably wearing a hat he stole from Smokey the Bear), joined something called Daft Punk, a French duo who wear helmets, making them look like Boba Fett’s Eurotrash nephews, resulting in an utterly forgettable dance groove.  All the mystery of Imagine Dragons’ terrific song “Radioactive” was wiped clean by a frenetic, baffling and incomprehensible rap intrusion by someone I hope never to hear about again in any context whatsoever named Kendrick Lamar.

It also seemed to be a night for burying hatchets.  Next month, CBS will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut, and so both Paul and Ringo were there, and performed.  Ringo sang his one hit from his one album: I thought “Photograph” held up nicely.  Then he played drums for Paul (and was I the only one wondering if this would be the last time?), as Paul performed his new single (!), “Queenie Eye.”  Paul’s voice is shot, but the man’s past 70, and there’s still that charisma.  And Ringo’s got to be 73, and doesn’t look a day past 60.  But, sitting right there on the same row, about four people down, there she was: Yoko Ono, with I think Julian Lennon as her date.  And in a tribute to the “outlaws of country,” Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson sang “Highwaymen” really badly, then were joined by Merle Haggard for “Okie From Muskogee,” a song which in 1969 was a direct rebuke to country outlaws (and hippies) and to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson specifically.  (Boy was it weird hearing Willie Nelson sing “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”).   But time wounds all heals, and the old guys seemed to enjoy their time on-stage together.  They were joined by Blake Shelton, who’s too young to have any historical ties to the others, but who seemed to be up there so there’d be one person on stage who can still sing and play the guitar.

There were some nice moments. Sara Bareilles and Carole King sat at pianos and sang two songs together, one by each of them: “Brave” and “Beautiful,” and the result was both brave and beautiful.  They represent different generations of women who do the same thing–singer/songwriters.  And they were both clearly thrilled to be up there, and the songs were great.  John Legend was similarly terrific; just sat at the piano and sang a good song really well.  Simple and great. A young country artist named Kacey Musgraves, who I’ve never heard of, sang her new hit, “Follow your arrow,” and I liked it and her some, though I’m not sure who told her that turning her Mom’s Christmas sweater into a short, short skirt was a good idea. But they were wrong.

Lorde won for “Royals,” a terrific song that I like a lot better in Pentatonix’ cover version.  Lorde, channelling Morticia Adams, also performed it, in a twitchy, odd, tuneless performance that made her look nuts. Katy Perry wore a witch costume, all the better to writhe on what seemed to be a hemlock stripper pole; a unifying theme of the evening seemed to be ‘tribute to bad musical theatre choreography’. Whenever things lagged, bring on the smoke effects and pyrotechnics!

I learned some things.  I did not know, for example, that Pink had been working out with the Cirque du Soleil choreographers.  But she has, and either lip-synced or sang while doing acrobatics.  Sadly, she was joined by a completely forgettable band named, if memory serves, Fun; not an inspired pairing.  I discovered that Metallica can still rock, and were memorably joined by the pianist Lang Lang–the result was a cacophonous mess.  I learned that Taylor Swift can fling her head around while singing, but not while singing well, apparently; the overall performance was embarrassing.  And I learned that Keith Urban sang play him some blues guitar; his duet with Gary Clark Jr. was okay.

Meanwhile, the Jay-Z thing just got weirder and weirder.  Beyonce’s opening number was tuneless and ugly.  Jay-Z joined her at the end, and the place went wild, but it rather felt like a soccer stadium in North Korea going wild when Kim Jung Un ‘scores’ a ‘goal.’  At one point, Jamie Foxx went up to present a winner in some category, and made some sort of comment along the lines of ‘gosh, Beyonce is sure pretty.’ An act of lèse majesté; apparently: he back-tracked frantically, babbling incoherently, then racing through his list of nominees.  There was absolutely this whole ‘Jay-Z can and will have you killed if you displease him’ sort of vibe.  Even the CBS producers caught it; the camera kept cutting to Jay-Z after each performance, as though looking for The Godfather’s blessing.

These award shows, like everything else in pop culture, are meant to build to a climax, and last night was no exception.  The climax last night was supposed to be a kind of marriage equality affirmation, in which Reverend Queen Latifah married 33 couples, some gay, some straight, while Macklemore rapped his “Same love” anthem, and Madonna, dressed like Colonel Sanders, blessed the proceedings.  In fact, that was why I was watching; my wife and I know one of the couples getting hitched. Trust CBS to blow it.  We hardly got to see the marrying couples at all; the camera was much more interested in what had been the point of focus the whole night, the spectacle of celebrities applauding celebrities.  (But for what are some of these people celebrated?)  We did not see the couple we’d watched the whole night to see.  What we saw instead was lots of Pharrell Williams’ silly hat and Jay-Z’s baleful glare.  And Taylor Swift dancing to everything.

I imagine that, for the marrying couples, having the whole thing nationally televised was probably kind of fun.  Having Queen Latifah preside was probably pretty cool. Macklemore’s song probably seemed appropriate.  Still, the CBS broadcast turned what genuinely is an important and sacred moment into something star-infested and tacky.  And they didn’t need to.  Let the camera linger. Actually show the couples.  Show them crying, embracing, kissing.  Show something human, for heaven’s sake.

So, yeah, the Grammy Awards of 2014 were kind of a bust.  They honored some mediocre songs and performances, as well as a couple of good ones.  The performances were mostly bad, but not uniformly.  Still, it’s three and a half hours of my life I’ll never get back.  Won’t be watching next year, no matter who gets married.

Rachel Maddow and MSNBC

Chris Christie recently referred to MSNBC as a ‘partisan network that has been openly hostile’ to his administration, and ‘almost gleeful’ in their efforts to bring him down.  I’ve also noticed my conservative friends attacking MSNBC, including a few people who linked to this national review piece, which describes MSNBC as an alternate universe, where ‘the political center of gravity and all things Good are defined by the preferences of the faculty at Berkeley and the comments section of the Daily Kos and in which anyone who dissents from this position is believed to possess two heads, a black heart, and a pocket copy of Mein Kampf.’  The Christie administration has also suggested that MSNBC is entirely under the malevolent control of Rachel Maddow.  Shudder.

It makes sense.  Since Fox News is the preferred network for conservatives, it makes sense that conservatives would accuse MSNBC of being a liberal (or ‘ultra-liberal’) alternative.  In some ways, it’s as though American journalism has moved towards a European/British model, in which papers (and TV talk shows) openly display political bias, and voters are defined by the news sources we favor.  Since we’re presumably seeing everything through a partisan lens, it makes sense that media bias would be celebrated.  Traditionally, the idea was that news networks would try to stay as scrupulously unbiased as possible.  People trusted Walter Cronkite because they didn’t know, or even suspect what his biases and prejudices might have been.  He was just reporting the news.

I don’t think that anyone nowadays believes that objectivity is possible.  We’re defined by our life experiences, by our culture, by our backgrounds and family ties and religious beliefs and political experiences. The question isn’t whether or not objectivity is possible; it’s whether or not objectivity is desirable.  Is this something we should be striving for?  Let’s suppose that you’re a journalist, and you are also an admirer of President Obama. And you learn something that you believe to be true, but that reflects badly on his administration.  Should you report it?  I think the obvious answer is ‘yes.’  Of course you should.  Journalism is about telling the truth (to the limited extent that it’s discernible) about people in power.

The National Review attack on MSNBC points to the damning ‘fact’ that 85% of the network’s schedule is given over to commentary, and only 15% to news.  Fox, on the other hand, is more balanced; ‘55% opinion, and 45% news.’

I watch both networks, though, and there are clear differences between them. First of all, let’s admit this: both networks try to cover big stories more or less the same.  Hurricane Sandy, or the Boston bombings, or a Presidential election–those kinds of big, all hands on board stories get full coverage on both networks.

But the rest of the time, when there’s not that One Big Story, Fox has some real journalists on their network, and they do straight news shows, but they inject commentary and opinion into, essentially, everything.  When it comes to opinion shows, like Bill O’Reilly’s show or Sean Hannity’s show or now Megyn Kelly’s show, the model is basically that of talk radio.  This is not a put-down.  Talk radio is really really hard to do.  But the bullying tactics of O’Reilly when he has a guest on that he disagrees with, that’s all straight from conservative talk radio.  I think that may be why Megyn Kelly’s show doesn’t work; her inexperience in long-form chatting shows.  She’s an agreeable camera presence, and she’s not as confrontational in her interviews as some of her colleagues have been, but let’s not pretend her show is better than it is–she’s got a long way to go.

Because whatever you may think of their politics, if you listen to Rush Limbaugh or any of his radio colleagues, what they do is astonishing.  David Foster Wallace once explained it; try sitting down at your kitchen table, and just talking on any subject you want to for an extended period of time.  Say twenty minutes.  You have to speak, ex tempore, on any subject at all, for twenty minutes, without repeating yourself, without babbling or pausing or stopping, and you have to make cogent, reasoned arguments, and you have to make sense, and, also, it has to be entertaining enough for thousand/hundreds of thousands/millions of people to want to listen to it.  It’s incredibly difficult.

I did it for awhile.  I did radio for years, and I had a sports call-in talk show.  My gosh was it hard.  I listen to someone like Jim Rome, who does sports talk for a living, and I’m kind of in awe.  He’s projecting personality and attitude, while also getting his facts right, and he does for hours every day, and it’s never boring and it’s never less than riveting.  Amazing.

For some reason, though, political talk radio is almost entirely dominated by conservatives.  I don’t know why that is; it might be that the conservative heroes/villains narrative is easier to construct and maintain than the liberal heroes/villains narrative, for whatever reason.  But Fox News is the beneficiary. Rush Limbaugh, it turns out, doesn’t wear well on television, nor does Dr. Laura or a lot of other radio personalities, but some do very well indeed, including Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.  Megyn Kelly doesn’t have that background, and it shows.

But the only person on MSNBC with a radio background is Rachel Maddow.  And it shows on her too.  For one thing, she repeats herself.  This is a useful rhetorical skill on radio, but it can be a little grating on TV.  She’ll say,”the one person, the only person, the single person most responsible for . . . .”  It’s used for emphasis, yes, but also a helpful habit to keep radio listeners, who are probably driving somewhere in their cars, posted on what’s going on.

But the other MSNBC news/opinion shows are really not very good.  Martin Bashir comes across as pompous and arrogant, all the things that make conservatives hate liberals.  Lawrence O’Donnell can be astonishingly self-righteous and especially intolerant of religious people.  Poor old Reverend Al Sharpton just seems sort of out of it a lot of the time.  Chris Hayes was pretty good, and I think Steve Kornacki’s new show has some promise.  But for the most part, Rachel Maddow is the main reason to watch MSNBC at all.

And she’s terrific, mostly because what she does ISN’T really commentary, it’s journalism.  Here’s why I say that:

She always acknowledges her news sources.  She’s great about it; saying ‘most of the story comes from reporting by the (local newspaper).’  She wants to get the story right.  If she has a guest on, she’ll say ‘you’ve seen our coverage about this story.  You know more about it than I do. How have we done? Did we get anything wrong, and if so, what?’  She documents everything; every allegation.  If she doesn’t know something,she’ll say so. And when she does offer her opinion, it’s pretty modestly stated.  She’ll say ‘now, this is just my conjecture. . . .’

It is true that she’s really gone after Governor Christie’s administration a lot lately.  And she can come across a bit gleeful.  But she’s not anti-Christie, except in the same sense in which Woodward and Bernstein were anti-Nixon.  She’s got a whale of a story in her sights, and like any good journalist, she’s going to pursue it.  And for months, she’s been the only mainstream journalist interested in ‘Bridgegate.’  Small wonder that she’s excited about how that story seems to be unwinding.

She wrote a terrific book last year, about the military and above all our nuclear arsenal.  It was a superbly researched book of sheer journalism.  She’s really a good journalist more than anything.

There certainly is some sense in which Fox is the cable network for conservatives and MSNBC is the cable network for liberals.  But there’s some solid journalism being done on MSNBC. Where both networks are deficient is in the area of policy analysis. With Ezra Klein leaving the Washington Post, abandoning the immensely valuable Wonkblog, there’s a real opportunity for a non-partisan, policy driven, wonkish TV show that just looks at the facts of various policy proposals out there.  Does raising the minimum wage cost jobs, for example?  Ezra Klein was great at just running the numbers for us, on Wonkblog.  There’s talk that he will be given a show to do just that on MSNBC.  That’s where he belongs, honestly.



Seeing the other side

I like sports.  I like pop culture.  I also like blogging, and blogging culture. And that helps explain why I’m a big fan of The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.  I’ve read his column for years, on, and now, on

Which is why a recent Grantland column, casually and unreflectively outing a transgender woman, was so painful.  Clearly it hurt the woman in question, and may have contributed to her suicide. A writer I admire was complicit in an action that has to be regarded as contemptible.  And he knows it.

Simmons’ approach from the beginning has been what the Brits call ‘laddish.’  He’s a guy who likes sports, and for years he wrote from that outsiders’ perspective; not the perspective of a sports writer with locker room access and friendships in the industry, but the perspective of a fan, a guy in the stands. In recent years, he’s become more of an insider.  He’s on TV now, with his best buddy Jalen Rose and with Magic and Shaq–he knows famous people.  It hasn’t really changed him much, I don’t think. His voice has always been that of a barely-grown-up adolescent: casually sexist, juvenile, self-mocking, and really really funny. Every few weeks, he has a ‘mailbag’ column, in which he interacts with his readers–it’s jokey and crude and can be hilarious. Amidst the yucks and the ‘tournaments’ and the endless pop culture references was some really solid analysis, especially of basketball, the sport Simmons knows the best and writes about the most insightfully.  His Book of Basketball is a terrific history of the NBA, a solid book, but marred with dick jokes and movie references and all sorts of guy humor.

A couple of years ago, he started the Grantland website.  The idea was to find really good bloggers on sports and pop culture, and provide them with a forum.  And a paycheck–he wanted to pay good writers to write.  Simmons would serve as editor-in-chief, but he’d treat the website like a good magazine, with standards and integrity, a home for good writing, a fun site to visit.  I like it. I check it out a couple of times a week, especially on Fridays, when Simmons own column usually appears.

So last Wednesday, Grantland posted this story by a writer named Caleb Hannan, about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or ‘Dr. V,’ who had invented a magical putter. That is to say, the truest, finest putter ever seen on a golf course.  Hannan became as interested in ‘Dr. V’ as he was in her putter.  His phone interviews with her were bizarre, as were her stipulations regarding those interviews.  He bought one of her putters, and it worked as well as advertised.  He kept digging.  And he learned that ‘Dr. V’ had once been a man named Stephen Krol, that she had not received a degree from MIT as she claimed, but, as Krol, had worked as a mechanic.

Hannan’s phone conversations with Dr. V became increasingly worrisome.  At one point, she said that if he published his article, it would be tantamount to committing a hate crime. In one final, email, suicide note, Dr. V wrote this:

“To whom this may concern, I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”

And, on October 13 2013, Dr. V. committed suicide.

Last Wednesday, Grantland went ahead and ran Hannan’s story about Dr. V and the magical putter.  On Monday, Bill Simmons wrote this column.  It’s a remarkable mea culpa.  He carefully describes the Grantland editorial process, and then admits that the final decision to publish was his.

Here’s the gist of his apology:

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. And it’s what happened to Caleb, and everyone on my staff, and everyone who read/praised/shared that piece during that 56-hour stretch from Wednesday to Friday.

So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.

Probably the most prominent trans-gender sports writer currently working in the field is Christina Kahrl.  She’s a founding editor for Baseball Prospectus, a site that provides the most in-depth and thoughtful baseball analysis found anywhere.  I say that unequivocally; BP is the best.  Of all the BP writers, I liked her work the best; a lot of BP writers are stat nerds who don’t write very well–she’s a stat nerd who writes brilliantly. So Bill Simmons contacted Kahrl, and asked her, basically, to tell everyone what he’d done wrong.  Here’s her piece on the issue.  Here’s her conclusion:

I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. We’re talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we’re talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn’t usually know and may never know anyone who’s trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that’s confirmation bias of the worst sort. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.

Obviously, Hannan went into the story with the best of intentions, and Simmons published it without meaning to do harm. The tone of Simmons’ letter from the editor shows he chastened he feels by the entire incident.  I’m sure Hannan feels even worse about it.  But damage was done, and done without consideration or even the most basic human kindness.  Christina Kahrl is right to be furious, and Bill Simmons was right to give her anger a prominent forum on his website.

But we all do this at times; write in ignorance, repent at leisure.  I didn’t know much about transgender issues until I saw Matthew Ivan Bennet’s extraordinary play, Eric(a), on the subject.  I was so grateful to Matt for opening my eyes on this important subject.  I can be a laddish boor at times.  I want to do better.  I hope that this whole sad affair can help all of us feel more compassion and kindness and love and acceptance to all our transgender brothers and sisters. I would hate to think that Dr. V’s sad death doesn’t accomplish anything, that we can’t learn from it, and grow.  That’s why we’re here, after all.


Why were the Beatles the Beatles?

Nerd fun: get a book at the library, read it, buy it, read it again, buy a copy for your son, then have long phone conversations with him about it. The book, in this case, is Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years.  961 pages.  This is part one of Lewisohn’s proposed three volume (!) history of the Beatles.  The extraneous colons in the title can be explained by the fact that the entire series is going to be called The Beatles: All These Years.  Anyway, you’re either the kind of person for whom the first 961 page volume of a proposed three volume history of the Beatles is the most entrancing thing on the planet, or you’re baffled by the whole prospect; suffice it to say that I am the first kind of person, and so is my son.  And it’s as good as I hoped.  Lewisohn is an indefatigable researcher, thorough to the point of obsession, and he writes with precision, style, and humor.  My only quibble with him is that his book ends in 1962, and now I’m going to have to wait who knows how long before the next one appears.  Darn him.

I don’t plan to review it, though, not here, not now.  I mean, you’ve already decided, haven’t you?  You’re already either going to buy it, like, today, and take it straight home and let the laundry and dishes pile up while you get it read, or you’re not.  No, I want to talk about another issue entirely.  I’m going to talk about Malcolm Gladwell.

In 2008, Gladwell published Outliers, a terrific book about why some people are successful and others aren’t.  I love Gladwell too, and liked that book.  In it, he talks about the Beatles, and asks this: why were the Beatles the Beatles?  Why, in other words, that group of guys, coming out of the unpromising environment of Liverpool–why did John, Paul, George and Ringo get to change the world.  Why not some other foursome?  Of the hundreds of thousands late-50’s/early 60’s groups of teenage friends who wanted to start a garage band, why the Beatles?

The traditional answer is simple: they were geniuses.  They were just more talented than other kids.  Gladwell doesn’t think so.  His answer, though, is equally simple (even simplistic); they were great because of Hamburg.  Starting in August 1960, the Beatles were booked for a long gig in Hamburg, Germany.  They actually had four separate stints in Hamburg, from 1960 to 1962.  That was the period where John, Paul and George developed their style, figured out what they were doing. Their schedule in Hamburg was grueling: seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day.  Gladwell points to research that shows that it takes around 10,000 hours for someone, however talented, to perfect a skill.  Well, Hamburg is where the Beatles put in the time.

I would refine this theory a bit.  The Beatles’ line-up in Hamburg is very different from what it became.  Their bass player was John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe; their drummer was Pete Best.  Sutcliffe was no musician, though he did become an adequate bass player in time. When the Beatles landed the Hamburg gig, they didn’t have a drummer.  They brought Pete Best because he was their one friend in Liverpool who a) owned his own drum kit and b) could get away for four months. But he was never better than mediocre.

Rock and roll is built off the interaction between the bass player and the drummer.  Rock is about rhythm; it’s about a driving bass line and a strong, powerful beat.  For the Beatles to succeed in Hamburg, the other three guys had to compensate for Sutcliffe and Best’s inadequacies.  One way they did it was to stomp.  They became known for stomping their way through their songs–compensating for Pete Best’s lack of rhythm by (eventually) destroying the Kaiserkeller’s flimsy wooden stage.  When Stuart Sutcliffe left the band (to marry Astrid Kirchherr, the fashionable German girl he met there, who left her mark by suggesting the Beatles’ haircut), Paul (reluctantly) agreed to become their bass player.  (Sadly, Sutcliffe never did marry Astrid; he died in 1962 of a brain aneurism).  When they later fired Pete and replaced him with Ringo, they suddenly went from a band without strong bass or drums to a band with a phenomenal bass player and one of the best drummers ever.  But they’d had to learn to compensate for poor bass/drums support, which may in turn have forced John and George to tighten up their guitar work, and John, Paul and George, their vocals.

Okay, so if Hamburg was so important, why did the Beatles succeed while other British bands (even Liverpool bands) playing in Germany did not succeed?  Specifically, why did the Beatles make it big, instead of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes?

Listen to this song.  Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was an exciting band, more experienced than the Beatles, with a more charismatic lead singer.  They got the better Hamburg gig, and played there longer.  They had a better drummer than Pete Best–specifically, Ringo Starr, who was their drummer in Hamburg. I listen to that recording, and I like it a lot.  It sounds to me like an early Elvis Costello song.  There’s a DIY early punk vibe to it that’s really pretty cool. It’s also one of their three recordings ever.

So I don’t doubt that Hamburg was important to the Beatles success.  But they got fantastically lucky in some other ways.  First of all, they got lucky when Brian Epstein agreed to manage them.  I think casual Beatles fans think of Epstein as this ‘gay guy with a huge crush on John.’  No.  I mean, sure, he was gay, but there’s no evidence he ever had a crush on John. More to the point, Brian Epstein was  a very successful businessman, one of the most successful in Liverpool.  He ran a department store, and was a pioneer in design, display, marketing.  He had a job he was very very good at, one that made him a fortune, and one that he’d become bored with.  He wanted a new challenge, and when he heard the Beatles perform in the Cavern, he thought promoting them might be exactly what he wanted to do.

The Beatles had been managed by, essentially, high school friends.  Suddenly, they had a guy who knew how to market, knew how to write a contract, knew and was known by the business community.  His department store sold records (indeed, it was one of their biggest money-makers), so he had professional contacts in the music business.  But Epstein also was new to the management game. He was imaginative and innovative–he was willing to try new approaches.  It’s not possible to imagine a better manager.

And he was able to connect them with George Martin.  Only the single most creative and visionary music producer in the entire British music industry.  One story among many; it was Martin who heard them sing “Please Please Me” and say ‘it’s not a ballad.  Play it twice as fast.  It’s a rock and roll song.’  And the rest is history.

So why were the Beatles the Beatles?  There’s one more factor, one I hesitate to mention.  Because I’m a Dad.

Go back to 1960, or earlier, ’58, ’59.  Imagine yourself in the position of Jim McCartney.  Your son, Paul, your brilliant, talented son, isn’t doing what he’s so capable of doing.  He could ace his A and O levels. He’s easily bright enough to become anything–a doctor, a lawyer, an architect maybe.  He’s got the ability to surpass the genteel poverty of lower-class Liverpool, and what does he do? Blow off school every chance he can.  Waste all his time with that thuggish greaser juvenile delinquent John Lennon.  Waste all that time with that worthless rock-and-roll trashy music.

And here’s the thing: Jim McCartney loved music.  He owned a piano, and played it well.  He’d had a band for years, playing local events; weddings, parties, dances.  He paid money (when money was very tight indeed) for Paul to take music lessons.  Which Paul mostly blew off as well.

You could say the same thing about all the Beatles.  John’s beloved Aunt Mimi wanted nothing more than for her wonderful, smart, talented nephew John to make a success of his life. She got him into art school, basically cajoled school officials until they reluctantly let him in.  She knew he could excel academically.  He couldn’t be bothered.  Same story for George; he actually had an apprenticeship, the pathway to middle-class success.  Quit to be a Beatle.

To become a success, you do have to practice, long and hard, 10,000 hours of pure hard work.  And it helps if you’re really really really really talented.  And, boy, is luck ever important.  Meeting exactly the right people at exactly the right point in your life; man, that’s so crucial, and it’s infuriating because it’s something you can’t control.

But you also have to rebel.  You have to want it so badly that nothing else matters.  You have to reject the well-meaning advice of loving parents.  You have to do things that make no sense.  Like leave Liverpool for four months to play in a bar in Hamburg Germany when you’re seventeen years old (that’s how old George was; Paul was a year older).  Quit your apprenticeship, throw over your entire future, to go to a crappy bar in the worst part of Hamburg, to play six hours a night, except for weekends, when it was ten.

As a parent, as a father, I find this horrifying.  I find it terrifying.  I want my kids to be successful.  I want them to excel.  I want them, above all else, to be happy.  And I . . . did the smart thing.  I didn’t get on a motorcycle and go to New York or LA to make it as an actor or writer or director.  I got a degree, from a good college.  I got a PhD. I was sensible, and I’ve had a career I’m happy with.  I have no regrets for the choices I made.  None.  Really.

But the Beatles had to rebel.  They had to reject well-meaning parental advice.  They had to want it so much that nothing else matters.  And they did.  And they became the Beatles.

And so did Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  And they didn’t get lucky and the Beatles did.  And in 1972, Rory Storm (or rather Alan Caldwell), took an overdose of sleeping pills, his music career having completely disappeared.

That’s what haunts me about this discussion.  So many kids, so many dreams, so few of them fulfilled.  And luck, pure dumb luck intervening way way too seldom. Dangerous thing, ambition.  Great, glorious, exciting.  And terrifying.




Nebraska: Movie Review

Alexander Payne’s lovely Nebraska is a bitter-sweet comedy about aging, and senescence, and the decline of small-town America.  Above all, though, it’s a film about family, and how we hang together, mostly, even when we want to strangle each other, and it’s about family secrets, and low family meanness.  And marriages, and families of habit and convenience.  But yes also love.

Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a grumpy, alcoholic and uncommunicative old codger living in Billings, Montana, a long way away from his extended family in a small town, Hawthorne, in Nebraska.  Woody gets one of those promotional mailers saying ‘you have won a million dollars!’  Not really; you’ve won if you have the winning sweepstakes number or something–they’re selling magazine subscriptions.  In other words, he actually hasn’t won a nickel, and his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and his sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and David (Will Forte) aren’t fooled for a second.  But Woody can’t get his new-found fortune out of his head, and keeps running away, gimping determinedly down the highway, intent on walking from Billings to Omaha to claim his prize.  He never gets more than a few hundred feet down the road, but he also won’t quit doing it-escaping, heading off.  He can’t drive anymore, and he can barely walk, and so David resigns himself to taking a few days off work (he works at an electronics store, selling speakers), and driving his Dad to Omaha. But Dad leaves their motel room to find some booze, hurts himself, and David decides they should lay up for a weekend in Hawthorne.  The bulk of the movie is about that visit, a kind of impromptu family reunion.

The larger Grant clan is a quietly bovine bunch, with a multitude of sofas and easy chairs aligned so as best to communally view the television.  The only two who seem interested in talking are David’s two cousins, Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), whose only conversation seems to involve mocking David’s driving.  But the entire down of Hawthorne knows about Woody, and this ‘fortune’ he’s inherited, especially self-styled leading citizen Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who thinks he’s entitled to some of it.  In fact, Hawthorne’s vultures start circling around that million bucks, including Bart and Cole and other family members.

Although the movie scored a 91 on, many of the critics I read focused on this, the low greediness of family and friends, as evidence of Payne’s supposed misanthropy.  I don’t see it.  The fading and seedy town of Hawthorne isn’t uniformly grasping or greedy, or mocking and cruel either.  The local newspaper’s proprietor, Peg Nagy (a splendid Angela McEwan), who David learns to his shock was once his father’s girlfriend, proves herself both kind and sensible, a woman who thinks well of her former romantic rival, Kate, and is nothing but grateful for the way her own life turned out.  Other family members are similarly supportive and gracious, and the film doesn’t even knock a group of elderly farmers gathered to sing karaoke; some of them have surprisingly good voices. Keach’s Pegram is a jerk, to be sure, but he’s just one jerk, though he does gather a bit of a following.  He also gets his comeuppance, and that’s a sweet moment in the film.

These people aren’t saints and they aren’t evil. But it’s a small town; everyone knows everyone, for good and ill. There’s a lovely scene in a local cemetery, where Kate walks among the tombstones and offers short, two sentence commentaries on the deceased.  Kate’s eye is as sharp as her tongue, and she doesn’t mince words about anyone, but she’s happy enough to praise those few of her former neighbors who she thinks deserves it.  It’s a funny scene, but it’s not mean-spirited.  Just honest.  One gravestone is treated thus: “she was killed at nineteen in a car wreck.  My goodness, she was a whore.  Worst slut in town.”  But of another family, she says “nothing bad to say about them.  Salt of the earth.”

June Squibb is amazing in this film.  I’ve heard talk that Bruce Dern may be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and I can see it–he’s tremendously good in this film.  But if he is nominated, June Squibb should be nominated for Supporting Actress.  In scene after scene, her exasperation over her sadly deluded husband spills over, and she can be acidly frank in dissecting his short-comings. But when his family starts demanding a cut of his (non-existent) fortune, she defends Woody like a lioness, and when he lays, near death, in a hospital bed, her brief but tender kiss is a benediction.  It’s a superbly written role, and Squibb fills it out to perfection.

I loved Phedon Pappamichael’s richly evocative black and white cinematography, and the spare beauty of Mark Orton’s score; mostly solo acoustic guitar with some soft percussion, the occasional woodwinds or horns.  I shouldn’t forget Forte and Odenkirk’s performances as Woody’s sons, especially Forte, who is plausibly gentle and supportive of a father who we aren’t entirely sure deserves it.  I saw the movie with a friend, in maybe four other people in the house, but i laughed a lot out loud, and heard other laughs as well.  It’s a beautiful little film.  Go see it.

Chris Christie and a bridge

In 1776, General George Washington ordered his men to build a bridge on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, as part of the defense of New York City.  The fort was first known as Fort Constitution, but the name was changed to Fort Lee, to honor General Charles Lee, who had just won an important victory in South Carolina. Lee had been a British officer before the war, but joined the rebellion, and fancied himself the logical choice to head up the American army instead of that Washington dude. The fort renaming was intended as a conciliatory gesture by General Washington, but it didn’t work; Lee’s jealousy of Washington never really abated. After Lee ordered a retreat following the battle of Monmouth in 1778, Washington had him court-martialed, claiming Lee had disobeyed orders.  Lee’s defense was that he was out-numbered, and his retreat was strategically justified. While this was almost certainly true, the court-martial stood.  Lee’s bitterness over it led to a duel between him and John Laurens (one of my favorite Revolutionary figures), in which neither man was harmed.  Lee retired to Philadelphia, and died in 1782.  He was very fond of dogs, and owned several at a time.  He’s also a major character in Assassin’s Creed III, the video game.  See the cool stuff you can learn from Wikipedia?

Anyway, Fort Lee New Jersey is now a town of about 35, 000 people.  Basically, it’s the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. At the other end of the bridge is New York City.  Which means the George Washington Bridge is one of the busiest bridges in the world.

On September 9, 2013, the three dedicated toll lanes for the Fort Lee entrance to the upper level of the bridge were reduced to one, initially without explanation. When an explanation was finally given (a traffic study), it turned out to be bogus. Those lanes remained closed until September 13.  The result was a horrific traffic jam that spread into the town of Fort Lee, leaving school children stranded on buses, making commuters late to work, and hampering emergency response teams in the town.  That traffic jam, we know from emails that were released a few days ago, was ordered by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and implemented by David Wildstein, an old friend of Christie’s who had been appointed a top executive for the New Jersey Port Authority, which runs the bridge.  Jon Stewart gives the story the slightly R-rated funny treatment. Rachel Maddow’s show has had the story from the beginning; check out the Jan. 8 episode.

To the very limited extent that anyone could possibly prognosticate meaningfully a Presidential election that’s over two years away, Chris Christie would have to have been regarded as one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination in 2016.  I think it’s going to be difficult for Governor Christie to recover, though, from the revelations of this week.  It’s true that Christie held an effective press conference on Thursday, and it’s true that he’s showed what looks like genuine contrition over the whole affair.  But there remain so many unanswered questions.

The smoking gun email exchange between Kelly and Wildstein was very terse.  “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Bridget Kelly.  “Got it,” responded David Wildstein. Wildstein was even more terse when he testified before the New Jersey State Assembly: he pled the Fifth Amendment on basically every question asked of him, including questions about things like his job history.  What everyone would like to know is; who knew what when?  That email exchange wouldn’t make sense if there weren’t a plan in place already that Kelly and Wildstein were both aware of.  There had to have been meetings, other memos, other emails.  And the texts and emails sent over to the relevant Assembly committee were heavily redacted.  By who?  Why?  What’s going on?

Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show has covered this story since September.  Rachel Maddow could see the traffic jam back then from her apartment window.  She was ridiculed a bit for keeping after it.  Now she looks incredibly on top of things, and she’s done a bit of a victory dance about it the last few nights.  Entirely justified; who can blame her?  Her show has done some first-rate journalism here. She also has a plausible theory as to why Governor Christie’s administration suddenly decided it was time to hammer Fort Lee.

But here’s why this is so damaging to Christie.  It’s not just that his story–that he had no idea his deputy chief of staff was doing this, and still doesn’t, because he fired her without so much as asking her about it–doesn’t make sense.  If he’s genuinely concerned about rooting out this kind of politicization of his office, wouldn’t he have to have asked her about it?  Why didn’t he order an investigation back when it first became a national story four months ago?  Why did he mock and ridicule the story in December, instead of, you know, asking some people in his office some serious questions?  Those are genuinely important issues that need to be dealt with.  But here’s why this is so damaging.

It’s a traffic jam.

I live in Provo, Utah, and work a lot in Salt Lake City. There is a very large mountain between Provo and Salt Lake.  I-15 is the main freeway artery between the two cities, and it certainly has been repeatedly widened and improved in recent years, but it’s still a nasty rush hour commute.  Traffic jams are an annoying fact of life in my area, and my guess is that traffic jams are a pain where you live too.  In bad weather, that forty-five minute commute can take up to three hours.  That, in fact, happened to me back in December.  Opening night for a play of mine, and the traffic was awful, and the snowstorm unrelenting, and it took my wife and daughter and I three hours to make the drive, and we barely made it in time, and boy was that aggravating. But really, it’s also the kind of thing you can be pretty Zen about. It’s just one of those things, like potholes and head colds and electrical outages.  Facts of life.

But if it came out that someone, some jerk in the governor’s office had created that traffic jam on purpose, I would be furious. I would be livid.  Egypt probably had plagues of frogs–but when it turned out that Moses guy was causing them, that’s when Pharoah really got ticked.  Traffic jams are annoying facts of life, but we get that they’re random, just one of those things.  But if we discovered that this incredibly frustrating experience had been caused by someone?!?!?  Oh my heck.

And it’s dangerous.  EMTs in Fort Lee were delayed; emergency services thereby compromised.  Generally, EMTs in Fort Lee take 3,4 minutes to respond to a call.  In September, during the traffic jam, those same calls took 10 minutes.  A 91 year-old woman died.  As a result?  Who knows?  But if you’re an EMT, you would certainly feel responsible, and you’d be furious to learn that because someone in the Governor’s office caused those traffic problems on purpose.

We’re also, of course, incredibly spoiled, we Americans.  I don’t know what emergency response times are in my home town of Provo, but I bet they’re not 3 minutes.  But there are lots of countries in the world that don’t even have emergency services.  Or that require the payment of some kind of bribe before they let you in the ambulance.  We take it for granted, that if you call 9-1-1 and report, say, chest pains, trained medical staff will show up quickly and work efficiently and professionally.  We take for granted good doctors, well appointed emergency rooms, competent personnel.  People like to complain about the inefficiency and incompetence of government.  But we forget how incredibly efficient and competent most government actually is, most of the time, in our country.

I do feel a little bad for Chris Christie.  I’m not a Republican, but I do love my country, and would love it if the Republican candidate for President in 2016 were someone pragmatic and sensible and not-particularly-ideological.  Also, he’s a big guy, and I like the non-sizeist implications of his potential candidacy.  Mostly, I think it’s bad for the country when one of the parties nominates a loon. And in 2016, loons will be running.  Chris Christie is the most prominent plausible non-loon out there. And honestly, I give him no more than 50-50 odds of surviving this.  To heck with the Presidency–he may not get to stay governor of New Jersey.

But if you’re in public office, you don’t get to do this.  You don’t get to punish a city with traffic jams for political retribution.  And kudos to good journalists getting the story right.





American Hustle: A Review

David O. Russell’s American Hustle is a rush, a jolt of raw energy, a fast moving, over-the-top blast of a movie.  It’s a caper movie, really, about con men getting away with a scam, but it owes a lot of late 70s political corruption movies too, to All the Presidents Men and Serpico and even later Scorsese movies, Casino and Goodfellas.  It’s set in the late 70s/early 80s, and rather loosely (and gleefully) deals with Abscam, a famous FBI sting operation that ended the careers of six Congressmen and one US Senator.  It’s an actors’ movie if ever there was one, with juicy, rich performances from Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner and Louis CK and Jennifer Lawrence, and an astonishing one from Amy Adams, for which she will, if there’s any justice in Hollywood, win the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

Adams plays Sydney Prosser, a street-smart, dirt poor girl from Albuquerque who shows up in New York City desperate to do essentially anything to make it in the big city.  She meets Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a low-life small businessmen, who runs a few dry cleaning businesses, and pulls off small scams on the side.  Bale plays Rosenfeld with a whole lot of belly and not much hair–the movie begins with him elaborately gluing clumps of fake hair on his scalp, and then covering them up with a comb-over.  He doesn’t ever seem terribly bright, but he is shrewd, and once he meets Sydney, their cons become ever more elaborate and successful.  She affects an inconsistent British accent (a fabulous character touch, BTW, the way the accent comes and goes), and poses as Lady Edith Greenleigh, pulling in customers with a promise of access to the British banking industry–he then fleeces the clients with promises of low-interest loans, which mysteriously then fail to materialize. They’re a team, Sydney/Edith and Irving, in and out of bed.  Though he also insists that he can never leave his wife, Rosalyn, for the sake of their child, a boy. Can’t leave her, or doesn’t want to?  We ask, because Rosalyn is played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Rosalyn’s a comparatively small part, and not terribly central to the movie’s main plot.  But Lawrence is amazing in it, filling out this brassy, ballsy, woman with her usual emotional directness and charisma, only in this case, using it for comedy.  Rosalyn’s maybe not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but she’s also never at fault for anything–there’s always a good reason for that house fire or smashed car.  There’s a scene late in the movie where Rosalyn and Sydney meet in a lady’s room, Irving’s wife and mistress in the same confined space, two women who despise each other, and clearly would love to rip each other to shreds.  And I’m not kidding when I say that Amy Adams gives the performance of a lifetime in this movie.  She’s brilliant throughout–playing a sexy, powerful, intelligent, vulnerable survivor–pure toughness, barely hanging on.  And in that lady’s room scene, she seems almost pallid, such is Lawrence’s sheer camera presence.

Okay, so the FBI, in the person of Cooper’s Agent DiMaso, finally catches Sydney and Irving, and works out a deal–they’ll help the Feds catch other con artists, in exchange for immunity.  And then the investigation takes a sharp turn, as they start investigating a New Jersey Mayor, Carmine Polito (Renner), who’s trying to bring gambling to Atlantic City.  Through Polito, they begin bribing Congressmen, and they also work to bring down a Miami Mafioso, Victor Tellegio, played by, who else? Robert Di Niro.

And Sydney and Agent DiMaso begin a loveless, steamy-but-sexless affair. And she and Irving begin trying to see if there’s a way they can scam their way out of this mess.

Abscam, in real life, was also about New Jersey politics, but it brought in Philadelphia and Georgetown and DC as well.  The movie is hardly historically accurate, and doesn’t claim to be; it begins with the warning ‘some of this actually happened.’  But the movie captures the era perfectly; the open shirts, the gold dangling in chest hairs, the horrible hair and, OMG, the women’s outfits.  Amy Adams wears a succession of open-to-the-midriff shirts, bra-less throughout, yet even her barely-concealed nipples are overshadowed by Christian Bale’s spectacular comb-over. And the music is never shy of being completely apropos.  I came home from the movie, and went straight to I-tunes to buy the soundtrack.

It’s a brilliant, cynical movie, in which everyone’s seeking an edge, and nobody can quite be trusted, least of all those closest to us. But it’s also somehow old-fashioned.  Even these low-life crooks have some sense of honor.  These brutal, damaged people are also desperate for love, and they have odd vulnerabilities that are touchingly human.  That’s why Amy Adams performance lingers in the mind when the movie is over.  She’s so terribly, tragically alone.  Not sure who she is, not sure how to deal with love offered so tenuously by either Cooper or Bale’s characters. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and also deeply moving, and it features some of America’s finest actors giving astounding performances.  For that alone, it’s worth seeing.


It’s expensive to be poor

Some recent experiences have caused me to reflect on this sad paradox; it’s expensive to be poor.  It’s not just difficult, frustrating, a grinding slog.  It’s really expensive.  It costs a ton of money to be a poor person in America.

It’s two in the morning, and your kid has a fever.  She’s miserable, and can’t sleep, barely has the energy to cry.  Until very very recently, you had two alternatives, both of them entirely irresponsible.  One is, you hope for the best, use wet washcloths on her forehead, hope the fever goes down.  Pray it’s not meningitis, something really serious.  Or second, you take her to the hospital, rack up a bill you have no way of paying. Both choices are wrong; both could leave you with serious negative consequences.  Obamacare helps, unless you’re unlucky enough to live in a red state, a state that has refused the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.  Then you may still find yourself in the bad ol’ days when an emergency room was your only alternative.  But if you’re lucky enough to live in a blue state, you can get Medicaid. Or buy insurance on the exchanges.  There are some alternatives.

If you’re poor, you can’t afford a nice car.  You probably drive a clunker.  Probably it gets bad gas mileage (an expense).  Probably it breaks down more often (repeated body blows of expenses).  If a cop sees you, you might get pulled over and given a fix-it ticket.  Fix the car (an expense), and take time off work (an expense) to go to the police station to show that you’ve fixed it, or pay the ticket, pay a fine.  And you have to have a car to get to work, because most places in the US, public transportation is minimal.

If you’re poor, you don’t eat as well.  For one thing, you’re probably working more than one job, so going home to cook a nice meal is one more exhausting task at the end of an exhausting day.  Fast food’s easier, but not as good for you, and frankly, kind of expensive.

You probably have crappy housing, if you’re poor.  Right now, it’s really cold out–if you’re poor, you’re more likely to need to keep water flowing (an expense) through the pipes at night so they don’t freeze up and crack (big expense).  Your house probably doesn’t have good insulation, so your heating bills go up.  Appliances break; more expenses.

And you likely live in a crappy neighborhood.  And maybe your neighbor’s a drunk.  Maybe he’s a criminal, an ex-con.  So maybe your wife (or girlfriend) comes home, and your drunken ex-con neighbor starts hassling her.  You intervene, and he threatens you and her, then starts throwing punches.  You fight back, and maybe he’s injured.  The emergency room reports it to the cops, and you find yourself criminally charged.  Oh my gosh, the costs start mounting.

An attorney’s fees. Bail. If you’re in jail, you can’t work; no income.  Phone calls from the jail are collect only, at like 25 bucks a minute.  Especially if you’re black or Hispanic, the presumption of innocence goes right out the window.  You’re assumed to be the aggressor. You’ll find the criminal justice system entirely against you, every step.

Specifically: the cops can arrest you without charging you with anything, and hold you for 72 hours without charging you. That’s 72 business hours–Saturdays and Sundays don’t count towards it.  So that’s up to 5 days work you miss, and you probably lose your job.  Then, instead of filing charges, the DA can just ‘open a file’ and hold you for another 72, three more lost days of work.  Bail is usually a thousand dollars, if you can get it bonded; who has that kind of money lying around?

Okay, so, where do you get the money?  Car breaks down, or water heater, something essential, and you suddenly need to come up with a thousand bucks–where can you get it?  Or bail, or attorney’s fees.  What do you do?  Payday loans, title loans?  It’s possible to borrow quite a bit of money with no credit or with lousy credit, if you don’t mind paying usurious interest rates.  Say 500% APR?  So you get sucked into that whole money grubbing racket.  And yet . . . those places, scummy though they are, are the last resort for poor people who need a lot of money fast.

Government agencies can help, and do.  The Earned Income Credit is one incredibly helpful program intended to help poor families, which really does. Food stamps; incredibly helpful.  Unemployment insurance; a badly needed pittance.

I’m only scratching the surface, I think.  But being poor in America doesn’t just mean not having money or resources.  It’s expensive. The mythology is that America is a land of opportunity, a nation where poor people can bootstrap it up to success and prosperity.  Mostly nowadays, though, what we have are barriers.  You get slammed down, every time you struggle your way even a little bit up. And it doesn’t have to be that way.  We could make it easier, less expensive, more hopeful, to be poor.