Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Reviews-Game of Thrones, Hit Me Fred, The Big Book of Pulps

A Game of Thrones
By George RR Martin
I finished this book, thankfully before the HBO series completed. Some people have compared it to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (LOTR). I enjoyed LOTR. However Tolkien minimized the ability of lust and greed to motivate people.

For example, when Aragorn arrives to claim his kingdom, the last King had been missing for about ONE THOUSAND YEARS.  At the story's end the Steward eagerly hands over rulership. While such unwavering duty, honor and loyalty was indeed the ideal of the Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, Celtic and Norse myths that inspired Tolkien, real life events were messier.  Were Tolkien more realistic, the Stewards would have declared themselves Kings ages ago. If Aragorn showed up, the current King would have arranged a very quick execution for Aragorn and his supporters.

The noted sci-fi/fantasy author Michael Moorcock once referred to LOTR as "Epic Pooh". I think that is too harsh but lust is not mentioned in LOTR. By contrast, the concept as lust as one of the deadliest sins is central to Malory's "King Arthur". Arthur is of course conceived by rape and later is tricked into impregnating his half-sister, who raises a son, Mordred, who will kill his father. How's that for family values? In LOTR Aragorn is away from his betrothed for decades and never seems to seek out feminine companionship. Right....

A Game of Thrones leans towards the Moorcock/Malory side of fantasy. Unlike LOTR, in which women are offstage or unattainable goddesses (exception of Eowyn), the women in A Game of Thrones are central to the story line. Whether they exert power themselves, through male relatives, or via the most traditional of methods, they're people who can't be underestimated. What makes A Game of Thrones enjoyable is that, just like real life, the "right thing to do" is not always clear.

Do you tell your best friend that his wife is unfaithful, knowing that he believes in capital punishment?  Did the Bolsheviks make the right decision executing all the Romanovs-including the children- reasoning that if the line wasn't eliminated, then eventually there would just be another royalist led war? What does a "good" person do if he or she discovers that like it or not, "evil" is usually a more effective tool?  Martin explores these questions.

In this book, magic and fantastic elements are in the background. Most people scoff at them. There are no non-human races. The story starts in the far North of the World. There, a noble family of legendary rectitude and martial spirit, the Starks, is presided over by their leader Eddard Stark (Ned) and his wife Catelyn (nee Tully).

Ned is a somewhat puritanical man who fiercely loves his family but demands responsibility from everyone regardless of age or gender. The Starks are the first line of defense against supposed evil creatures that exist North of the Wall. Years ago, Ned helped lead a revolt against the former King Targaryen ,a mad and murderous man who raped and murdered Ned's sister. This revolt ended with Ned's friend and would be brother-in-law Robert Barratheon taking the throne. Ned returned to the North to be left alone with his loved ones-his wife, their children and Ned's illegitimate son whom he has raised as equal to his other children.

But storm clouds gather. The King's wife, Queen Cersei Lannister, is an ambitious woman. Her family was closely allied to the previous regime but switched sides. The deposed King's remaining children have escaped across the sea where they seek to raise a foreign army to retake the land. King Robert's 2nd in command died under suspicious circumstances and now Robert asks -commands- Ned to take his place. Ned, a rigidly righteous man, will find that his King has disturbingly more pragmatic ideas about right and wrong now that he wears the crown. And while Ned is skilled beyond measure on a battlefield, he discovers that his bluntly honest style does not work in palace intrigues. Catelyn gets news that some of her relatives have met with untimely accidents.

This is a VERY adult book and I don't mean just for the sex or violence-of which there is plenty. I mean that these characters-with few exceptions- are not superheroes nor are most of them archetypes for good or evil. Most of them are various shades of gray.  Even the most "evil" people are still recognizable as human. In real life we have had leaders who murdered or slept their way to the top. We have had leaders who have had odd sexual tastes/practices. The history of kings and queens is pretty bloody and perverse. Martin turns this up to 11 in some aspects. However, again, in real life, there was an English Queen Isabella, called the the She-Wolf of France. She didn't get that nickname by having tea with her enemies, of that you can be sure.
One of the best written characters is Ned's and Catelyn's tomboyish daughter Arya, who seems to take after her father in terms of believing in right and wrong and after her mother in standing up for herself. This book will appeal to women as well as men. All the noble Families have words they are supposed to live by. The Stark words are Winter is Coming. This is not only a reminder to themselves to constantly prepare for hard times ahead but also doubles nicely as a bada$$ boast and battle cry.

""And I am Daenerys Stormborn, Daenerys of House Targaryen, of the blood of Aegon the Conqueror and Maegor the Cruel and old Valyria before them. I am the dragon's daughter, and I swear to you, these men will die screaming."

Now that is a boast.

Hit Me Fred: Recollections of a Sideman
by Fred Wesley
This book was written by legendary trombonist Fred Wesley. Wesley played with such stars as Ike and Tina Turner, Hank Ballard, Count Basie, Bootsy and the Rubber Band, George Clinton &Parliament-Funkadelic, EWF, Curtis Mayfield but of course is most famous for his work with James Brown on such tunes as "Doing it to Death", "Hot Pants", "Say it Loud(I'm Black and I'm Proud)" and many many others. Wesley also was Brown's primary arranger and musical director as well as co-writer on a few songs.

Wesley states that he does not hate James Brown but didn't always like being around him. There's definitely some score settling here as Wesley pulls back the curtain and shares information of both a personal and musical nature that may make some look at Brown in a different light.

Wesley also points out that for better or worse Brown was like a musical father and made Wesley a better person, despite the fact that Wesley did not then and does not now agree with Brown's methods. Wesley also admits that whatever it had to take to be a star Brown had it while Wesley didn't- despite Wesley's musical knowledge. And Wesley is as hard on himself as he is on Brown and other people with whom he did not always get along.

This is really a fun read and gives a tour of the rock-and-roll, soul and funk scenes from the fifties thru the eighties. It was published a few years before Brown's passing.

"James Brown's organ playing was just good enough to fool the casual listener and just horrible enough to make a real musician sick"...Fred Wesley.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps
Listen up dames and palookas this here book is the real deal. It's got dozens of stories written by Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Harlan Ellison, Paul Cain and lesser known writers set in a bygone time when men were men, women were women and there was nothing that couldn't be settled with either hot lead or a cold drink.

So don't be hinky about what I'm telling you. Run over to your local bookseller and get your mitts on it. It's about twice the size of the telephone book so it'll take you a while to get through it. For the slow readers there's even a comic about a detective twist named "Sally the Sleuth", that seems to get herself in all kinds of trouble.
And like I said, it's often entertaining writing. I'm on the square. I'm not just stringing you along for a sucker. So don't be a weak sister on this. Wise up and make sure that if you like old school crime stories you check this out. If you don't, I'll get sore. Savvy???

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like and Equal are not the same thing at all!

Let's say that Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Duane Allman, Eddie Hazel or BB King,after picking up a guitar and passing through an arduous 10,000 hours or more of constant practice, repetition and study which put them on the verge of greatness, had then been told that they needed to forget about their music dreams and go drive a truck because there weren't enough women that were interested in playing the guitar. Assume this was backed up by law.
That sounds ridiculous yes?
That is the state of college athletics today.  It is one thing to do outreach to people, remove barriers and confront stereotypes, or from time to time give a nod to someone who is equally qualified but underrepresented in a given field. I support that. I support affirmative action and expanding the field of applicants.

But to rule as a matter of law that everyone must be doing the same thing in the same proportion is something I don't support. In fact I think it's insanely misguided. This is current policy thanks to Title IX.

The recent NYT article on Title IX implementation made it clear that many colleges are having to cook the books to meet the requirements.
Ever since Congress passed the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX, universities have opened their gyms and athletic fields to millions of women who previously did not have chances to play. But as women have surged into a majority on campus in recent years, many institutions have resorted to subterfuge to make it look as if they are offering more spots to women.

At the University of South Florida, more than half of the 71 women on the cross-country roster failed to run a race in 2009. Asked about it, a few laughed and said they did not know they were on the team.

At Marshall University, the women’s tennis coach recently invited three freshmen onto the team even though he knew they were not good enough to practice against his scholarship athletes, let alone compete. They could come to practice whenever they liked, he told them, and would not have to travel with the team.
At Cornell, only when the 34 fencers on the women’s team take off their protective masks at practice does it become clear that 15 of them are men. Texas A&M and Duke are among the elite women’s basketball teams that also take advantage of a federal loophole that allows them to report male practice players as female participants.

This law and its proportionality based interpretation and enforcement are based on both faulty assumptions about men and women and increasingly just good old fashioned bigotry.
If a female athlete can show that she or other young women suffer from unequal training facilities or discrimination in making a team or staying on a team then she may have a case that she should pursue to the fullest extent of the law. I would completely support her in doing so.

But what Title IX means in practice is that because only X number of women is interested in collegiate sports, then only X number of men can be interested in sports. This is unfair. Men and women (on average) have different interests. We can argue for decades about the extent to which this is biological or environmental but trying to pretend that it doesn't exist is downright silly. In order to pretend that young men and women have the same interest in sports we are preventing young men from playing sports and then congratulating ourselves on our ability to be sober and fairminded.

The flip side of this is that the supporters of Title IX virtually never seem to be interested in "fixing" those areas of endeavor where women outnumber men. The news that women now outnumber men in colleges and earn more degrees invites cheers from this crowd, not reflection. Hmmm..
No one is seriously arguing that college English, Art History, Women's' Studies or Sociology Departments must turn away qualified interested young women students in favor of attracting less qualified barely interested young men. Imagine if a qualified female nurse were told "I'm sorry you can't study/work here because the male/female nurse ratio is not where the government thinks it should be".

Now many colleges need federal funding. No one wants to get sued. So colleges have gamely tried to square the circle. But if female athletes are so few and far between compared to the number of males that colleges are double counting women or mislabelling men , one would hope folks would realize things have gone DRASTICALLY wrong with this law.

Again, men and women are not identical. They do not necessarily share (on average) proportionate interest in the same hobbies or professions.  And that's okay!!! This is so egregious in college athletics because you are literally stopping people with a strong interest from unpaid participation in their chosen activity while trying to shanghai people with less interest to participate. How is that logical, fair or efficient?

The time is long past due for a fair, intelligent common sense approach. Just because more males than females are interested in a given activity doesn't automatically indicate discrimination or mean that the state needs to intervene.
I grew up playing fantasy role playing games and collecting a vast number of fantasy/sci-fi books. Most (not all) of the people I knew who were doing the same thing were also males. I guess to make things "equal" someone should have prevented us from enjoying our hobbies.

On this issue feminists are like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. Like him they will fail.
The big problem with Title IX is that having tasted "success" in the field of college sports, some of its partisans see no reason not to extend it onwards to college and high school academics  Not surprisingly they are interested in any field where young men dominate (engineering, computer sci, physics, economics ) the usual suspects. It's the camel's nose in the tent or as Peter Clemenza said in The Godfather, "You gotta stop them at the beginning".

Eventually this will lead EXACTLY to what Kurt Vonnegut described over 40 years ago. Of course Vonnegut was a noted liberal and radical. Today Vonnegut's story of Harrison Bergeron reads like hyperconservative fear mongering. Go figure. I read this story back in eighth grade but never thought I'd see us slouching along that path.

Why is this law (Title IX) constitutional?
What does "gender equity in sports" mean to you?
Is it really fair or prudent to create a zero-sum game between male and female college athletes?
Does equal mean equal opportunity or equal results?
Do you think Title IX should also apply to academics?
Do you recognize the book that this post's title is drawn from?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Music Reviews-Burnt Sugar, Eddie Harris, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Louis Prima

Burnt Sugar
Burnt Sugar is a musical collective, predominantly but not exclusively made up of African-American players, that creates uncategorizable music. The nominal "leader" is Greg Tate, our book of the month author . Sometimes the band follows Tate's conduction; sometimes there is collective improvisation. Burnt Sugar owes debts to Sun Ra and P-Funk among others. But Burnt Sugar's closest parallel (and its seminal influence) was the Miles Davis' band of the late sixties and early seventies. Miles was becoming more fascinated by the rhythmic and melodic musical steps forward by such people as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Stockhausen, Sly Stone as well as the hardcore blues of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. He may have also been trying to reconnect with younger audiences. The addition of electric instruments and the adoption of funkier and LOUDER basslines outraged many jazz purists some of whom (Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch) still haven't forgiven Miles to this day, long dead though he is.
Burnt Sugar features many women as full band members, not just singers but instrumentalists and writers, which makes it rather unusual, even today. 
So if you can appreciate a band that can  flow through avant-garde jazz, bebop, Chicago blues, jump blues, formless chaos, heavy metal, soul, reggae, modern R&B, dance, trance, soul jazz, hard rock, funk, funk-rock, Western Classical, Calypso, blues-rock, Indian drones, Middle eastern inspired rhythms, Eastern European chants, West African polyrhythms and many many more styles and still sound good, this might be the band for you.  Check out their versions of James Brown's "Bring it Up" and Max Roach's "Driva Man".

Eddie Harris and Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Eddie Harris
Unfortunately these men are almost as well known for their "gimmicks" as they are for their deep musicianship.
Eddie Harris was one of the first jazz musicians to use electronic amplification and tone modifiers such as the echoplex, distortion and wah-wah pedals. He also invented a mouth reed that would allow trumpeters to avoid damaging their lips. Eddie Harris is probably best known for the works "Exodus", "Freedom Jazz Dance" "Listen Here" and "Compared to What", but he had a VERY LONG career and played all sorts of music. His sixties work was mostly straight-ahead bop, soul-jazz or blues while much of his seventies work was funk or semi-disco but he would always drop a straight-ahead blues or jazz album between the more commercial ones. By the eighties he had returned to jazz permanently.

Cold Duck Time 
Listen Here
Compared to What  I'm Tired of Driving
Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Rahsaan Roland Kirk (he said his first name came to him in a dream) was a blind musician of frightening talent and immense cultural and individual pride. He led sit-ins on TV shows that didn't hire black musicians as studio band members. Among other talents Kirk was able to play separate melodies on three or more reed instruments at once while also humming or whistling, and playing percussion which when you think about it, is mentally equivalent to reading two different books with each eye while painting a portrait and holding a conversation. Kirk also was a practitioner of circular breathing which allowed him to add extended drone sounds to his music, sounds which went far beyond those available to most tenor players. He was an excellent flautist who became upset at what he believed was Jethro Tull's frontman Ian Anderson's ripoffs of his style. Anderson never denied being influenced by Kirk. Unfortunately for music fans, Kirk's rightful distrust and paranoia around ripoffs and white appropriation of his style also caused him to decline to make an album with Duane Allman, who was a big admirer of Kirk. Kirk did deign to let Hendrix sit in a few times. Kirk took his music very seriously indeed.

Petite Fleur    I say a little prayer
Harris and Kirk matured musically before music had ossified into the rigid categories we have today. Both men came up at a time when the competition for session work, live gigs and band spots was cutthroat. A successful musician had to be able to play almost anything.
And they did. Although Kirk leaned slightly more to the straight ahead bebop jazz or soul jazz than Harris did, either man was completely comfortable playing virtually any type of music-funk, jazz, soul, gospel, blues, rock (However Kirk wasn't overly fond of rock or loud amplification and had had words with Miles about Miles' use of amps and electric instruments),etc.Each man had an immediately identifiable sound. 

Carolina Chocolate Drops
A general stereotype in American musical culture is that Black consumers and musicians are always looking for the next big thing.  White consumers and musicians tend to be more interested in repeating and refining what has already been done. Both approaches have validity but at the extremes each can tip over into complete and total artistic entropy. A group that challenges this thinking is the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This African-American string band would not have been thought novel in say 1923 but in 2011 they're virtual musical revolutionaries. They write and perform music and use instruments which have long been thought to be either archaic or "white" as far as mainstream popular African-American music is concerned. People tend to forget that the banjo is an African developed instrument.
The band members, Dom Flemons (guitar, banjo and jug), Rhiannon Giddens (kazoo, guitar, banjo, fiddle) and Justin Robinson (fiddle and jug) met in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC. They got to talking and after advice and tutelage from noted fiddler Joe Thompson, they started their own band.  It's not often known that there is a rich string band tradition in African American music that goes waaaaaaaaaaaaay back. For whatever reason this music mostly died out in the thirties or was subsumed by what we think of today as blues music. You hear bits and echoes of it in bluegrass and in the Piedmont Blues. There are more links between "country" and "blues" than we have been given to believe. Monster guitarists like Etta Baker, Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten (all long gone) were also part of this tradition. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are keeping this music alive and putting new life into it for a new century. And they are pretty darn good musicians. Snowden's Jig has almost a klezmer feel to it but it is a very old traditional African-American work.

Snowden's Jig
Louis Prima
A Sicilian-American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Prima was influenced HEAVILY by Louis Armstrong. He also shared Armstrong's and Gillespie's stage presence and zest for life.  Prima came up at a time before Italians were fully accepted as being "white". He played at the Apollo to appreciative Black audiences. Indeed, because of his complexion and "hep-cat" verbal stylings, when he first arrived in New York he was subjected to racial segregation as many white club owners thought he was Black or "mulatto".
Chances are even if you don't know his name, you'll recognize his voice. Just about any self-respecting Italian restaurant has his music playing at some point.
Although it wasn't called rock-n-roll when he was young, Prima, much like Louis Jordan, was playing music that was rock-n-roll in all but name. His lecherous and aggressive stage presence, complete with loud suits in incandescent colors certainly was a forerunner of several rock stars that came after him. Although he ended his career in Vegas, one must remember that when he went there Vegas was not considered the pinnacle of cheese or bad music that it became later. Prima, unlike Sinatra, had encouraging words for the new rock-n-rollers supplanting his style of music in the fifties. He was, along with people like Jackie Wilson/BB King or Ike Turner, a sartorial influence on a young Elvis Presley.
Prima may be better known to the post 1960 generation as the voice of the orangutan who kidnaps Mowgli in the movie The Jungle Book. There is a serious amount of joy in his music which can be heard in everything he sang or played. This music harkens back to a time where dancing was a two person activity.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

TSA Pats Down Six Year Old Girl

I was going to write out a very long essay explaining why I think these TSA searches are demeaning, illegal and unconstitutional. Many of the TSA's processes need to be stopped for good.  But honestly I  (a) don't have the time, (b) am far too angry having watched that smirking saurian Napolitano defend the practice on MSNBC's Morning Joe and (c) think that this video and the parent's statements tell the truth of what all this is about far more than I ever could hope to do.

“Nobody likes to see those kinds of things, in we doing that even though it was done professionally according to the protocols,” Napolitano said. “But, what TSA is doing is reexamining those protocols all the time. It’s all in relation to threat – what is the threat? And one of the things we do see is if you categorically remove a group from any type of screening, well those who seek to do us harm will then exploit that group. So you have to be very careful on how you do it.”

BS!!!! This is a big heaping pile of BS. And it stinks.

The whole issue with the 9-11 attacks and attempted attacks since then is that they have fundamentally and perhaps permanently altered our ideas about guilt and innocence and which is more important to find. Additionally they have tragically reduced people's interest in freedom and increased their interest in so-called security. This goes far beyond left and right. It's about who has interest in freedom and who does not.
To live anywhere is to accept risk. This week, somewhere in this country a mother is abusing her children. Some young man is going to shoot some other young man. A woman will be raped. Someone will drive drunk. Someone will get into a fist fight at a bar. Someone is abusing their spouse or planning to have them bumped off for the insurance money. As I am writing this some nut could come shoot up the place. Someone is turning a blind eye to worker safety in favor of profit. Someone is planning what she thinks will be the perfect embezzlement. Someone is robbing a liquor store and shooting the owners. And so on.

Generally speaking, we don't allow the police to fan out and break into people's homes they THINK will commit those crimes and search for evidence. With a few exceptions, we don't allow police to search people walking down the street just because. And we certainly don't base our justice system or everyday rules in society on the theory that it is better that 10,000 innocent people have their rights violated than let one guilty man go free. The government can not provide 100% security. But it can strip you of your rights.

Eventually, some determined terrorist will hide a bomb in his or her body cavities. What then?
Does this mean every other citizen, regardless of age, gender, or personal beliefs about privacy must then submit to public cavity searches?  Free prostate exam/pap smear with every 5000 miles flown??
This is ridiculous. The TSA should be severely limited in these sorts of searches. I would much rather see a honest debate about current immigration policies- i.e. is it really a good idea to allow immigration from countries we are currently bombing? The example of Faisal Shahzad would seem to indicate that maybe, just maybe it might not be. You can not invade the world and then invite the people you've invaded to come to your country. Some might hold grudges. Some hail from places where grudge holding is damn near a statutory requirement of citizenship.
If that girl in the video had been my kin I don't think I could have tolerated that.
The TSA needs to be forced to stop these searches. I don't care about the possibility of attack. There are some rights which are simply fundamental. If we are putting our hands down the pants of six year olds, it is WAY PAST time to reject this entire paradigm.

What do you think? Is the TSA doing the best it can, or is this a power grab by the exact sort of people who shouldn't have this sort of power? Should children be exempt from these searches? Are you okay with strangers feeling on you in public? How do we tell children don't let anyone touch you in certain places...except for the TSA agents, their police backups, etc.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Michigan Republicans Attack Democracy

I'm in charge now you see.

Haven't you ever wondered, once a representative who differs politically from you, has said or done something that you find spectacularly stupid or offensive, what a nice thing it would be if the person just wasn't in office any more OR had his authority limited to something more appropriate to his intelligence, say for example asking you "Paper or plastic today?"

You probably have.

Unfortunately the flaw in this here republic is that people get to vote on their elected representatives, no matter how stupid you may think they are or how immoral you may find their political positions. So this means, absent term limits, internal legislative rules or criminal convictions, someone you don't like may hold her elected position with all the authority of that position for as long as she likes, no matter how much damage she may do to her constituency. Bottom line is that the people get to decide on their elected representatives. Period.

Well not so fast. Although much of the conversation about the new Republican governorships and state legislative majorities in the US has focused on Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, the new Republican governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and the Republican state House and Senate majorities have been busy as bees proposing or imposing a host of new changes to how state government works. One of these changes has been the ability for the State of Michigan to grant executive powers to emergency managers for municipalities, not just school boards, which allows the emergency financial managers to eliminate collective bargaining contracts. It also allows earlier appointments of such managers, before a municipality asks for one or declares bankruptcy.

Benton Harbor— In a move believed to be the first under sweeping new state legislation, Emergency Manager Joseph Harris suspended decision-making powers of city officials Friday.
Officials only can call meetings to order, adjourn them and approve minutes of meetings as part of the order issued Friday.

The action is likely the first since Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law in March a new statute that grants more powers to emergency managers appointed by the Treasury Department to take over distressed schools and communities.
At least one elected Benton Harbor official was sanguine about the order. "It doesn't bother me," said City Commissioner Bryan Joseph. "I'm in favor of it."
Joseph said he has watched financial mismanagement for decades, which was one of the reasons he ran for election in 2008.
But the move drew a strong rebuke from the AFL-CIO. The union represents administrative workers, among others. "This is sad news for democracy in Michigan," said Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan AFL-CIO. "With the stripping of all power of duly elected officials in Benton Harbor … we can now see the true nature of the emergency manager system."

This being Michigan the race element is never far from the surface and one must note that Benton Harbor is over 90% Black. But the other two cities that have emergency financial managers, Pontiac and Ecorse, are not majority Black, although they are getting close. The mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, is using the threat of an emergency financial manager, to attempt to leverage concessions from city unions.

No one can doubt that these cities are indeed in pretty crappy condition. People can argue over how they got there and what needs to be done to solve their issues. Some people say that this is the obvious end result of a bloated welfare state and union "gimme" mindset that must ruthlessly be eradicated. Others respond that this is late stage capitalism as more workers become superfluous to profit and are shed at ever increasing rates. Other people have even simpler and much uglier theories which are related to the demographics of those cities.

Whatever one's opinion might be, should we agree that the people in a given city should have the ABSOLUTE right to elect whoever they want and run their city how they want? Or is this a quaint notion at a time where Detroit councilwoman (and lovable quack) JoAnn Watson is calling for a city bailout on the scale of what the federal government gave to GM.

What's your take?
Do you think emergency managers are critical to fixing the problems of certain cities?
Is this just a new tool to bash unions?
Are union contracts the problem these cities face or does it have more to do with the collapse of housing and flight of capital overseas? Are these problems related?
Would you be willing to give your city's decision making capacity over to an emergency financial manager if your governor thought it necessary?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Movie Reviews-Glengarry GlenRoss, The Godfather, Your Friends and Neighbors

Glengarry GlenRoss
A long time commenter, Molly, asked what is it with men and The Godfather? I discuss some of that in the following review but another classic film that defines and debates masculinity is Glengarry GlenRoss. Even more than The Godfather, this film explores rigid ideas about manhood. And if you don't fit within those conceptions, hit the bricks pal, cause you are going out! This film was directed by James Foley but it was written by David Mamet and based on Mamet's play. It's Mamet's film. It had an all star cast (Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, and Al Pacino).

A group of real estate salesmen, having failed to meet their bosses' expectations are given one last chance to redeem themselves. I'll stop here and let Alec Baldwin explain it. He was truly at the top of his game here and could not be touched. He almost won an Oscar for this and should have. This scene was also "lifted" and used in Boiler Room. I used to work for someone like this character. I didn't always enjoy it but I did get better at what I do.

Obviously with that sort of incentive the salesmen take a variety of steps in order to keep their jobs. But don't be fooled by the sales setting. This film is really about competition among men and how men (and society) define men based on $ucce$$ or lack thereof. Good film.

"I'm here pop. I'll take care of you now. I'm with you now. I'm with you."
The Godfather
The Godfather's appeal is not limited to men but it does have sternly traditionalist views. There are parallels between tactics shown on screen and real life business. This is among cinema's greatest movies. In 1945, a quiet college educated Italian-American Marine Captain, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) returns to his New York home for his sister's wedding. Michael's family includes his domineering but fiercely protective oldest brother Sonny (James Caan), his adopted intelligent levelheaded brother Tom (Robert Duvall), his hapless brother Fredo (John Cazale) and his boisterous and imperious younger sister Connie (Talia Shire).

Michael is a prodigal son who has rejected his father's business. Michael brings his WASP fiancee, Kay, (Diane Keaton) to the wedding. Kay is fascinated by the stereotypically loud and demonstrative Italians celebrating the wedding, right up until the time that Michael explains to her that the large scary man sitting alone is Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) a Family retainer who murdered six people in two weeks to end a business dispute in the Corleones' favor. And even the dreaded Brasi is afraid of Michael's father.

Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is a grandfatherly Italian man who is earlier shown with his top advisor and adopted son Tom Hagen, dispensing gifts, advice and assistance to visitors. There's no man too humble to get Vito's help and no man so important Vito can't make him an offer he can't refuse. A wise man with great wealth and a warped moral system, Vito is a modern day King Lear. He leads America's largest and most powerful organized crime "Family". It's unclear who will inherit this kingdom.

Vito's underboss, oldest son and presumptive heir, Sonny, is a brash, extroverted Don Juan who is prone to sudden violence and acting before thinking. The middle son, Fredo, lacks the force, intelligence and charisma to lead men. His adopted son, Tom, is not Italian and though smarter than Sonny or Fredo combined, also lacks the strength required to lead. Michael is the best suited to inherit but Michael has refused to join the Family Business. The four brothers correspond almost perfectly to the Four Temperaments. Vito would prefer to see his youngest and favorite son free of corruption and violence.

But like any father Vito is not omniscient. Times change. Events spin out of Vito's control. An upstart drug dealer demands Vito's protection. When Vito declines this despite Sonny's and Tom's urgings, this rival gangster initiates a war that will leave several Corleones and their followers dead or in exile, the family divided internally and the Corleone power almost eliminated.

This movie redefined the genre. No other Mafia movie would challenge this film's artistry until Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas in 1990. Goodfellas was a corrective to The Godfather. Where The Godfather examined the tragically flawed top gang leaders and featured virtually operatic violence, Goodfellas showed street hoodlums. These characters were to a man (or woman) self-serving, greedy and treacherous. Their violence was brutal, disgusting and often mindless. Goodfellas was based on a real story.

The Godfather, today considered to be an unquestioned masterpiece, barely made it to the screen. The studio didn't want Brando or Pacino and constantly threatened to fire the director, Francis Ford Coppolla (FFC). Studio execs referred to Pacino as "the dwarf". And Coppolla didn't even want his sister, Talia Shire, for the Connie role. He thought she was too pretty for the job and didn't want her to get fired . He relented and hired her, thinking if nothing else someone in his family could make some money. The real life Mafia forced the writers to not use the word "Mafia" in the film. Robert DeNiro read for both Michael and Sonny but would have to wait until the sequel to make his mark. He and Marlon Brando remain the only two actors to have won Oscars for playing the same character.

The Godfather is a great film because it only uses the Corleone POV. From a father chastising one son for a dumb mistake to comforting another son overcome with grief,  from a deceptively jolly "uncle" teaching a younger man how to fix pasta sauce to brothers arguing over how to save the family business, the film humanizes characters who are after all, generally quite bad people. You actually identify with the Corleones.  We only see the Corleones acting in self-defense against people who are much worse than they are. FFC was actually dismayed by the audiences' positive reaction  (somewhat similar to how James Gandolfini was irritated by people's endorsement of the Tony Soprano character) and changed the viewpoint rather drastically in the sequel, making it evident that the Corleones were not heroic.

This should have been obvious from the infamous meeting scene of the Dons, who, struggling to define the rules of the post-war heroin trade, agree that it will not be sold to (white) children or in (white) schools but rather to "...the dark people. They're animals anyway so let them lose their souls..."

Your Friends and Neighbors
Neil LaBute wrote and directed this film. After his previous film In The Company of Men it made his reputation as an auteur who looked at humanity's ugly side. Some called this film "misogynistic". It wasn't. Both genders come off as equally vile or pathetic.

This film was LaBute's artistic high point. But it's not a date movie-unless you want to dump your date. LaBute set unnamed characters in a unnamed American city. You don't know the names of the characters until the end credits, although they have long conversations and other interactions with one another. That was a neat trick that never felt like a gimmick. LaBute's style is minimalist here.

This movie is like a Seinfeld episode, were Seinfeld much more cynical and tons more malefic. It's about nothing in particular. This film is dialogue heavy. There are comedic moments and you might call this "dark comedy" but it's definitely not a slapstick laugh out loud movie despite what the trailer shows.

Aaron Eckhart is a sad sack flabby middle management type (Eckhart gained significant weight for this role) who is nauseatingly nice to his wife, Amy Brenneman. Brenneman is patient with her husband but it's evident to each spouse that they have less and less intimate interest or common ground. Both walk on eggshells to avoid hurting the other's feelings.

One person who DOES have a physical interest in Brenneman is Eckhart's best friend, a priapic drama professor, Ben Stiller. But the talkative, demonstrative Stiller has met his match in his girlfriend, a no nonsense Catherine Keener, who seems perpetually upset at the world in general and in particular at Stiller's need to talk constantly-even during intimate moments. While Stiller may pretend he's BMOC when Keener is not around, when she's there it's clear who's running things.

Both Stiller and Eckhart are friendly with the Alpha male of their pack, Jason Patric, a handsome doctor who NEVER has any problems with women for the simple fact that he is so incredibly self-contained he has no need for them emotionally. For him women only serve a physical need. Though he makes this clear to women, he lands better looking and more numerous women than either of his friends. Nice guys finish last. Patric is not a nice guy.

Patric meets his buddies for dinner and exercise 2-3 times a month at which time he regales them with tales of male dominance, elaborate revenges and wild monkey coitus with beautiful women. When someone asks him isn't he concerned about the moral implications of his actions, his response is:
"Yeah, God right? Do I believe in all that, heaven and hell? I don't know. Maybe God does exist. Maybe. But right now, we're on MY time".
Patric has his own ugly secret which he fondly recounts to his friends but which both they and the viewer can only see as utterly horrific. Patric should have won an Oscar for this film. His character may be "evil" but the movie shows, sociopathic or not, he still has some loyalty to his friends. Patric has to show emotional coldness, threatened physical violence, barely contained seething anger, extreme self-righteousness, and zest for life all without raising his voice. Natassja Kinski also appears as an artist's assistant who is pursued by different characters in the film and changes their relationships.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Illegal Immigration Backlash-Coming Soon to your state?

This will be a very short post (by my standards) because I have tons more to say on this issue and want to organize my thoughts better for later discussions. But in case you missed it, there is another immigration enforcement law controversy brewing in a US state. This time it's Georgia, not Arizona. However the law is very close to what Arizona tried to do. Basically the state intends to, via its police powers, make life rather unpleasant for illegal immigrants. If someone is suspected of committing a crime the police may verify immigration status. Georgia also intends to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get hired.
I can't speak authoritatively on the constitutional issues although some of my blog partners certainly could and likely will. I am more interested in the political and social implications. The new Census data shows that the Hispanic population in Georgia grew 96% in the last decade while nationwide a full 22% of all children were Hispanic . Hispanics now outnumber Blacks in most metro areas.
Overall the Hispanic population grew four times faster than the US population.
In short this country's demographics are changing rather dramatically and there is a growing number of people across the board who are more than a little peeved at this. They are also convinced that it's been done via illegitimate means (i.e. illegal immigration) Of course it's not just Hispanics who are illegal immigrants but it's safe to say that's the group most partisans on this issue have in mind.

(Reuters) - An Arizona-style immigration bill cleared the Georgia legislature late Thursday and needs only the governor's signature to become law. The legislation would give police authority to question suspects about their immigration status. It would also require many private employers to check the immigration status of newly hired workers on a federal database called E-Verify. After extended debate, both the state Senate and House of Representatives passed the legislation in the final hours of their 40-day session.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has not said whether he would sign it. Deal supported E-Verify as a member of the U.S. Congress, said Phil Kent, spokesman for the Virginia-based nonprofit Americans for Immigration Control.
Read more here
The interesting thing to me is that even though presumably the Georgia Legislators saw the mixed results and negative blowback that Arizona received from its mostly aborted law, they went ahead and passed the bill anyway. And if you are in the US and don't live in California or New York, check around, there's a chance your legislature might be preparing some law on illegal immigrants even as we speak. People are getting very heated around this topic. Also the more states that pass laws like this, the less vulnerable any individual state will be to boycotts.

My take is that I don't think people should be racially demonized as anyone can theoretically become an American. That's different from Europe, which is also something I will write on later this month. However I also don't think it's too much to ask that people wait in line and do it the right way. I also believe that the level and amount of immigration should be up to the US, not to the would be immigrants. The US takes in more than 1 million legal immigrants each year and I think that's more than enough.

What's your take? Why do you think anti-immigration laws and feelings are spreading? Do you think the US should have open borders? Will Georgia's law face the same fate as Arizona's? Will immigration reform become a hot issue for the 2012 election? Would you boycott any state that passed legislation like this? Is this the last gasp of a dying white electorate?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Reviews-Chuck Berry, The Mob, and Obama

Brown Eyed Handsome Man
By Bruce Pegg
What thoughts first come to mind when you hear the words "Chuck Berry"?
The TRUE King of Rock-n-Roll? A countrified Black man and the MC Hammer of 1950's popular music? A Black man that was too friendly with white women?  An Oldie McOldster that hasn't done anything new since the early seventies? Someone who Keith Richards stole every lick from? The coolest guitarist ever who popularized such stunts as the duckwalk, riding the guitar, or playing behind his head?  A Brown Eyed Handsome Man? A true poet? A lazy one-trick musician? An extremely mercenary and bitter old man that demands cash up front and EXACT adherence to his contract?

Well all of these descriptions and more make up Mr. Berry's persona. The book Brown Eyed Handsome Man (the title is taken from a Chuck Berry Song) by Bruce Pegg is both a biography of Chuck Berry, a rehab of his image and an history of just how bad it was for Black people-in this context Black musicians- in the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. I have said it before and I'll say it again and again. I have nothing but wonder and respect at any Black person that came of age before 1970 or so and still managed to keep his or her internal dignity intact. Because it wasn't always easy to do that.

This book discusses Chuck Berry's middle-class origins, his early brushes with the law, his mix of cautious integrationism and prickly if oft hidden pride in his musical skills, business acumen and blackness. "Maybelline", the song that could be said to jump start rock-n-roll was an adaptation and rewrite of an older traditional country tune, Ida Red. With Berry's deliberately "whitened" diction and a mixture of straight-eighth and shuffle rhythms, the tune was a big hit with white audiences but also led to such humiliations for Berry as being turned away from live performances when the promoters didn't know he was black.
Many such Black entertainers, athletes, and musicians have such stories to tell, of course-especially back in the fifties. Nat King Cole was brutally assaulted by the Klan. Bo Diddley's maracas player almost caused a riot/lynching when temporarily overcome by the music, he forgot where he was, jumped into the audience and started dancing with a shapely young Caucasian maiden. Although men like Berry and Diddley were idolized by millions, they STILL had to know their place. Failing to do so could be professionally, legally and personally costly. Ironically some of the same hoodlums who turned out en masse to protest integration or assault civil rights demonstrators were likely Chuck Berry fans. It's a hypocrisy that persists in America to this day.

A musician's life back in the fifties or sixties (or even now really) was not an easy road and it was much more difficult if you were black. Whether it was racial confrontations with Jerry Lee Lewis, royalty ripoffs from his label's owners, the Chess Brothers, shows in which supposedly Berry wound up owing the white promoters money, constant police harassment and intimidation, and spurious "that Negro touched me" charges from white female fans or their jealous boyfriends, Berry has been through the ringer. This culminated of course with his 1962 conviction for Mann Act violations for hiring a 14 yr old hat-check girl of Mexican-Indian heritage. After that sentence Berry became exponentially more caustic, private and distrusting. And he was already moody. The book does not end with the Mann Act conviction but goes up through 2002.

Pegg also does a great job in tracing Berry's musical influences, people like T-Bone Walker, Carl Hogan (Louis Jordan's guitarist), Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole, Charles Brown and Pee-Wee Crayton. This is a great book for music fans and history buffs. Don't be mistaken; it's not a wide eyed fan book. The author also touches on many of Berry's faults: his capriciousness, his refusal to share credit on certain things and his occasional decisions to sacrifice talent for cold hard cash. Chuck  Berry probably isn't someone you would have wanted your daughter around back in the day. Heh-heh. I liked this book. It is a source of confusion and dismay to me that the younger black audience often turns its back on older performers. It's strange. If young whites can appreciate people like Wanda Jackson, Tony Bennett, Keeley Smith, Earl Scruggs and so on, you would think young Blacks might give some of these older Black stars some credit and attention before they're all gone. And there are not many of them still left.

Nothing But Money: How the Mob Infiltrated Wall Street.
by Greg B. Smith
This book is by the author of Made Men and Mob Cops. The title is actually somewhat misleading as in many of the stories detailed the Mob is no more corrupt than any of the Wall Street workers. What the Mob brought to the table was more capital, better connections (a NY mob associate arranges to have would be investors comped at Las Vegas hotels and casinos-the details of which would have been VERY interesting to learn about), and of course the realistic threat of violence. In this story the Mob didn't so much 'infiltrate' Wall Street as it was enthusiastically sought out by rip-off artists looking for well-off partners and the ability to enforce illegal contracts.

The book's focus is on the late eighties through the nineties. Two of the three primary Wall Street crooks in this story made deals with the authorities and either got probation or disappeared into the Witness Protection Program. The fact that one of them was a scion of an old WASP family and the nephew of a U.S. senator likely helped his case. The only one who didn't was Italian-American and he got the longest sentence.

The book does go into the brutish way that the Bonanno Family (the primary family initially involved with the stock scams) enforced discipline. Word to the wise-if the boss has said do not take any sell orders on a stock, do not take any sell orders on a stock and do not let anyone THINK you have taken any sell orders on a stock, otherwise you might get an extended beating with an office chair in front of the entire workforce.
The book shows how the Bonnanos react and respond when other Families get wind of how lucrative and almost risk-free the stock swindles, pump-and-dump and other crimes can be.
Again, though the ideas, brain power and business models for these things were primarily provided by people not in the mob or at best mob associates. Cary Cimino, Jeffrey Pokross and Warrington Gillette were shady (and wealthy) people long before they hooked up with Mafia members Robert Lino, Jimmy Labate or Sal Piazza. None of this criminality would have been possible without the active assistance of non-mob actors like banks (who set up and paid phony id accounts), institutional investors, realtors, and other upperworld people.

Interesting fun fact: Stock swindlers prefer seniors, men and people from the Midwest to target for nefarious deals.
"The operating assumption was that if you lived in the Midwest you were a drooling rube who might be a genius about cow breeding methods but was surely dumb as a fence post about securities.

The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad
by Tariq Ali

I have mentioned before that sometimes a book's title and cover tell you exactly what it's all about. I just finished this book. I can't wait to see what Mr. Ali makes of this latest deal between the Republicans and Obama. Look, I'll be very frank. If you are a Obama diehard partisan, please don't read this book. You won't like it. It will raise your blood pressure. You will have agita. You may start by yelling out loud and end up throwing it across the room. You will be interested in finding all sorts of reasons why Mr. Ali is wrong in his argument but you will also find that he has anticipated most of your objections and ripped them apart in the next chapter, if not the next page.

But if you are a progressive, liberal or radical who is not irredeemably wed to either the Democratic Party or to the notion that Obama is just the best President that ever was or ever will be, I strongly endorse this book. It was written shortly before the 2010 midterms and details all the ways in which the author feels that the President is just a continuation of Bush policies. He says Obama is just putting a friendly face on imperialism. This includes a health care reform package that is a bonanza for insurance companies, indefinite wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, total appeasement of the uglier politic in Israel, more drone attacks in Pakistan, etc. The author is a proud hard left man and has no patience for not telling the truth as he sees it. He sticks to facts. He goes down the list and says on issue after issue after issue, "If Bush did A and Obama did A, why is Obama any better".

Ali predicted the Democratic loss in the midterms though I think even he would be shocked at the magnitude of the loss. Ali may come across as pessimistic and even petulant but that would be a misreading of his objections. Ali firmly believes that a better world is possible and he's been working for that before Obama was born. This is not a book based in personal issues. It's about the movement.

Listen to him here. He does NOT pull any punches.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

School Integration-What's in it for you???

People moving out/People moving in
Why/Because of the color of their skin
Run,Run,Run but you sure can't hide
Ball of Confusion-The Temptations

As you may have heard, Detroit has lost a lot of people.
The census report states that Detroit is currently home to about 713,000 people.  This means that Detroit stands to lose revenue sharing funds from the State of Michigan as well as from the Federal government. Detroit will also (unless the state legislature rewrites the laws) lose the ability to levy an income tax on non-Detroit workers or add fees to utilities bills or several other Detroit-specific actions. The reasons for the increasing population decline are myriad but are mostly centered on such issues as 1) crime 2) poor public schools 3) high taxes and high insurance costs 4) lack of job opportunity 5) older housing stock.
Of course the local political establishment demanded a recount but it’s rather unlikely to get one or reach the magic ceiling of 750,000 residents, which allow it access to all the items mentioned in the above paragraph. That’s all neither here nor there. Anyone paying attention locally would have seen this coming a long time ago. What IS interesting though is that unlike the initial wave of departures in the fifties or the accelerated exodus in the sixties or seventies, those leaving Detroit in waves now are mostly Black people. In fact proportionately so many Black people left the city that Detroit’s proportion of citizens who are white may have increased.  Again, there are still more reports to be released.
This Black hegira has had some positive and negative results. South East Michigan (Metro Detroit) is no longer the most segregated area in the nation.
We’re number 4. Whoopie. Believe it or not, 3 of the 10 most segregated census tracts are found in Michigan.

Not Mississippi. Not Alabama.
That’s the positive side (the slight decline in segregation) -if you consider integration to automatically be a good thing. This also might mean that in the suburbs at least both major political parties might have to start competing for black swing voters, which could mean a slight decline in race-baiting or in being taken for granted.
The negative side though is that the arrival of large numbers of Black students in suburban public schools has led to increased white parental removal of their students from those schools.  Some white parents are sending their children to public schools further away; some are choosing private schools, charter schools or home schooling.  Although most people are too polite to say why openly, bottom line is that when they have any sort of choice, many whites simply do not want their children attending primary schools with large or even noticeable numbers of blacks.  There is a tipping point and it seems to be somewhere between 5-10% Black enrollment.
Because the housing market is so depressed it gave many Black Detroiters who were so inclined the ability to move to the inner ring of suburbs around Detroit. Many whites can not afford to move out yet but if past events are any predictor of future ones, in roughly a decade or two some of these formerly majority white suburbs will be majority black. With a few notable and laudable exceptions the public schools in Detroit are to the point where one local columnist mused that one way to fix the public schools would be to outlaw private schools, on the assumption that if the better off were forced to attend, then something more would be done.

The trend is particularly notable in Macomb County, which led the state in increase in black population, and where one in 10 students takes advantage of schools of choice, often to study in classrooms that are whiter than their neighborhoods.
The result for many of the more than 13,000 Macomb County students now taking advantage of schools of choice programs is daytime segregation and nighttime integration, said Jason Booza, a demographer at Wayne State University who has studied the racial and spatial dynamics of Metro Detroit for a decade.
"It's the continuing self-segregation of groups," said Booza, an assistant professor of family medicine at Wayne State University. "It's a pattern we've seen in Detroit for 100 years."
The connection between race and schools of choice is a hot potato among educators, who maintain that parents make choices based on quality of education, not the color of their children's classmates.
Kurt Metzger isn't so sure. "This is totally about race," said Metzger, a demographer and director of Data Driven Detroit. "There is a tipping point. When schools reach a certain percentage of African-American (students), whites start looking elsewhere."

Metzger, who has studied the racial makeup of schools, believes schools are not comfortable talking about the racial component of schools of choice.
"I believe the white population is much more willing to stay in schools with an increasing Asian population or a Latino population (than an African-American population)," Metzger said. "You hear code words: It's getting rougher, or the quality has gone down."
In the past, white residents uncomfortable with black neighbors sold their homes, Metzger said. Because of declining home prices, many can't move now — but they can move their children.
The impact is an increasing disparity between rich white districts and poor black districts. As students pull out of increasingly minority districts and take their state aid with them, the schools are forced to cut more programs, making more students decide to leave.
"It's institutional racism, and we need to talk about it," Metzger said. "We can't keep closing our eyes." 

Full Article
Again, with the exception of comment boards or when they are among an entirely same-race group, many whites are not willing to speak candidly about WHY they don't want their children going to school with Black children. This is something that needs to be addressed honestly. The other thing that needs to be discussed is how long can this game of musical chairs continue. One can not force someone else to like you but de facto segregation also has larger costs for everyone.
So what do you think? What does integration mean to you? Is integration automatically a good thing? Is it important to you?  Do you respect someone who tells you upfront that they don't like you or would you rather people hid their feelings behind politeness or passive aggressive behavior? How do you manage the inherent conflict between freedom and equality? What is the solution to the achievement gap in schools?