Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Reviews-Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, Gotrek and Felix, Island and more

Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media
by Ishmael Reed
This is a collection of Ishmael Reed's writings on the phenomenon of Barack Obama (and black people in general and black men in particular) as viewed through the lens of the US media. Reed argues that white supremacy still remains a potent force in American society-especially the media. Many of these essays were previously published at Counterpunch or at Konch, Reed's personal site. 

A recurring theme of Reed's non-fiction is that the segregated media tells lies about black people. This causes great ignorance among everyone, because those lies are rarely if ever challenged (there is no black CNN/MSNBC/FOX) and often become received wisdom-even among black people. Reed views it as one of his highest responsibilities to tell the truth and shame the devil.

And he does just that, wading into such controversies as the Gates-Crowley incident (Reed is contemptuous of both of them), the general whiteness of such shows as Morning Joe, the misguided Black In America CNN series, Obama's (and the media's) love of dishing out "tough love" to blacks but not to other ethnic groups, the racial blindness and just plain racism of some feminists and leftists, historical and current links between Blacks and Irish, the double standards around which people can say racist things about other people (why does Buchanan still have a job at MSNBC), the ridiculousness of David Mamet, racial tropes in The Wire, the writers and producers of Precious and many other things.

Reed is the sort of writer, who while discussing Hillary Clinton's tears during her presidential campaign, asks sarcastically if Mrs. Clinton wept about her husband's execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Reed is a favorite writer of mine. He's been on the front lines of activism and writing for a long long time. I don't always agree with him but he does always challenge, provoke and make you bring your A-game when you disagree.

Gotrek and Felix: The First Omnibus 
by William King
Warhammer is a role playing game. It is also a shared writing universe that provides the background to this game. The Warhammer world is similar to our own circa 1375. Many of the stories in the Omnibus take place in or around a country roughly equivalent to the Holy Roman Empire.

The stories' heroes are of course Gotrek Gurnisson, a proudly pugnacious and somewhat bigoted dwarf and Felix Jaeger, an idealistic and rather loquacious warrior-poet-author-casanova who is a Renaissance man. Felix was a radical student who was expelled from university for dueling. Shortly afterward he helped start (and lead?) a tax revolt against the Empire. This turned into a riot during which Gotrek saved Felix's life. In return Felix swore an oath to follow Gotrek, record his deeds and his hopefully glorious death. For you see, Gotrek is no ordinary dwarf warrior. He is a Slayer-a dwarf who feels that he has so hopelessly tarnished his honor that he can only restore it by the death of a great number of his enemies and his own.
"I am a dwarf. My honor is my life. Without it I am nothing. I shall become a Slayer. I shall seek redemption in the eyes of my ancestors. I shall become as death to my enemies until I face he that takes my life and my shame".
Dwarves take oaths very seriously. And Gotrek, even among dwarves, is considered insanely stubborn and unyielding. So, though Felix realizes that anything dangerous enough to kill Gotrek will probably kill him shortly afterwards, he keeps his promise to share Gotrek's adventures throughout the worlds of Man and beyond.

Although the two become friends they would never admit it. Felix is often irritated by Gotrek's general dwarfish obstinacy and thinks lusting after your own death is retarded. Gotrek, though infrequently kind in his own way to Felix, generally doesn't like humans and doesn't mind saying so-rudely, repeatedly and with great relish. Gotrek values taking the traditional or lawful (by dwarf standards not human) action while Felix is more interested in doing what is right, regardless of the law. This is pretty good adventure writing. Both heroes are extremely dangerous adversaries. If you harm one the other will certainly kill you, no matter the cost, as many of their enemies have discovered. This book is not Michael Moorcock or Robert E. Howard quality but was much better than I expected. The First Omnibus has three novellas. This is easy reading with a surprising amount of humor to balance out the grimness.

by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon's (1947-2001) work is something of an acquired taste. He was perhaps the Tarantino of horror fiction before Tarantino became a household name. Sometimes while reading his work I wonder about Laymon's home life growing up but people who knew him well said that he was always cheerful, fun and likable. It's interesting to me that someone who was evidently quite normal could write such viscerally disturbing stories. That's skill. He's not always my cup of tea.

Island is about a horny inexperienced wimpy teenager named Rupert, who finagles an invitation to a cruise with his indifferent girlfriend Connie, and her much more attractive sisters and mother, along with their husbands and boyfriends.
However the yacht explodes and the entire party is stranded on a deserted island. Only the island is not deserted. Someone is killing the members of the party one by one. Rupert has a chance to become a hero and protect those who are still alive.
This is written in first person which usually I don't like. Rupert describes the events in his journal, that is when he's not leering at Connie's female relatives. Did I mention that Rupert is obsessed with sex? There are a few plot twists which I saw ahead of time and one big one which I didn't see but which certainly lived up to Laymon's wicked reputation. YMMV. Proceed with caution.

Rip it Up
edited by Kandia Crazy Horse
Rip it Up is a collection of interviews,essays and articles concerning the experience of Black musicians within rock-n-roll as well as critical analysis of what "black rock" or "white rock" is. The book explores such ideas and historical experiences as ripoffs, musical segregation, the desire for many groups to have their own cultural expressions. It examines how music that was called "rock-n-roll" in the fifties changed to music called "rock" in the sixties and seventies while generally forcing black musicians to pursue other endeavors. This is not just some sob story of white exclusion because as many musicians and critics make clear the black audience can be astoundingly conservative and even reactionary musically. Radio program directors and record company executives can be extremely prejudiced.

Kandia Crazy Horse is one of today's foremost music and film critics as well as being a huge Allman Brothers, Funkadelic and Lynryd Skynyrd fan. She states that she uses the term "black rock" in quotes because she still has no idea what it is. She chose the book's title in homage to such people as Little Richard (it's a song title of his) Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Louis Jordan and others. Kandia writes:
"The hope for this book is that its spotlight on such obscure classics as America Eats Its Young will serve as a primer on some of the key figures who have made not just rock history but pancultural history...Nevertheless thirty-odd years after the death of Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the greatest ever guitar revolutionary this planet will see, the notion of a black guitar hero is still inconceivable to many-or at least to record executives and other power players in the rock biz."
The book is full of fascinating information (did you know the backup singers for Lynyrd Skynrd's Sweet Home Alabama were black women) and tons of interviews with such people as Slash, Little Richard, Vernon Reid, Venetta Fields, Lorraine Grady and Lenny Kravitz. The essays are dead on as well-in particular Lester Bangs' introspective "White Noise Supremacists" which examines some individuals' simultaneous holding of generally progressive views about society and their racist loathing of anything remotely "black sounding" in music. And of course there are people who are racist as heck in general but love anything "black sounding" in music. People are complicated.

Murder Machine
by Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci
Although John Gotti was the most notorious modern mobster and later, mob boss in America there were people in the Gambino Crime Family that even John Gotti didn't want to tussle with. One such man was Roy DeMeo, a soldier in the Gambino Crime Family who became one of the primary executioners that then Family Boss, Paul Castellano used for his dirty work.
DeMeo was a completely evil man whose primary concern, like that of every other successful gangster was in earning enough money to kick upstairs to his captain and ultimately to the boss. To this end he muscled his way into any business that made money-from prostitution to auto theft to drugs to abuse of children to extortion, bookmaking, strip clubs, adult magazines/films-DeMeo wasn't picky.
In this DeMeo was aided by a small trusted crew of associates (one of whom was nicknamed "Dracula"(!) ) who along with him are believed to have murdered between sixty and two hundred people, while operating out of Canarsie, Brooklyn. Roy not only killed for his Family, the Gambinos, he did "favors" upon request for other Families and reportedly even regular citizens who wanted someone to disappear.

And disappearing people was DeMeo's specialty. As a young man DeMeo had trained as a butcher. He took those talents into his work in the Mafia. Rather than shooting someone and leaving their body to be found by the authorities DeMeo and his men would often arrange to kill someone and completely dismember their corpse so that it would never be found. They became quite blase about this, often ordering out for pizza while chopping someone up. Roy and his crew did not care about killing men, women or children. The paranoid Roy once shot a teenage vacuum cleaner salesman who he thought was a Cuban hitman while crew members killed women for both personal and business reasons. Other Mafia members moved very carefully around the hyperviolent Roy who neither forgave nor forgot insults. The Gemini Lounge (DeMeo's Headquarters) became known in mob circles as a place where you checked in but never checked out.

Murder Machine details the growing tensions between DeMeo and his immediate supervisor, capo Nino Gaggi, who thoroughly despised DeMeo but eagerly took money from him. Ultimately when DeMeo's unsanctioned violence and auto theft rackets attracted too much attention, the Family leader (Paul Castellano) decided DeMeo had to go. He put out feelers to Gotti about doing this but Gotti begged off. Gotti was heard on tape saying "DeMeo had an army of killers".

Ultimately however Paul told Nino to handle it and Nino ordered DeMeo's own crew to do it. Roy DeMeo was found in a car trunk. Ironically, by ordering the removal of the violent but generally loyal DeMeo, Castellano unwittingly made his own downfall that much easier, as an emboldened Gotti ordered Castellano's murder shortly afterwards. Much of this story became known via Nino's turncoat nephew, Dominick Montiglio, who was a courier between Gaggi and DeMeo. This book provided a fascinating look into the 70's-80's world of the street level Mafia.

Red as Blood
by Tanith Lee
I first read this as a kid and completely missed the deeper feminist or political reinterpretations of classic fairy tales and legends. I'm glad I did because frankly I may not have read it if I knew the deeper meanings ahead of time. It's different reading this book as an adult. I like Tanith Lee a lot; she's a favorite writer. Lee mostly gets categorized as a horror writer but that category is far too reductive for her. She's an intensely descriptive writer who loves words. She places tons of analysis and allegory in her stories. They can be enjoyed on many different levels. It's rare that Lee goes for the gross out. She is a serious author with a lot of important ideas.

In this collection Lee uses classic stories as tropes to explore some contemporary issues or in some cases to pull the curtains back and show the even deeper horror that was just hinted at in the versions we know. In many of the stories the person we think of as the bad person may well not have been the bad guy. This is most deftly done in the title story "Red as Blood", a retelling of "Snow White" in which we find out that the Witch Queen/Stepmother may really not be the person who's trying to do harm.

Lee has written a LOT over the years and I unfortunately have yet to read all she's created. Her prose can best be described as almost biblical but in this collection she deliberately simplifies and shortens. Again although a few of the stories have now quite obvious feminist meanings, like any master writer Lee's work stands above that. She can and does write effectively from various POV. You may enjoy this collection more because of that but even if you don't you should check it out as Lee's primary concern is art, not politics.

TR: Another of our favourite stories is Sabella, which has been described as a fantasy/horror/science fiction novella. What is your opinion on genre categories, such as these?
TL: Genre categories are irrelevant. I dislike them, but I do not have the casting vote. Writing is writing and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?
TR: With this in mind, might we mention The Tales of the Sisters Grimmer. What was the inspiration behind these?
TL: I rather like turning all stories around. As a child, my mother told me lots of fairy stories, many her own invention. She too tended to reverse the norm, as for example her tale where the prince ended up marrying the witch -- this one I stole from her -- with her complete consent, to use in my children's book Princess HynchattiRed as Blood was my first concerted excursion into turning all my personal favourites around. When I am fascinated by something, I like to play with it.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Rosa Parks' Estate Squabble

Rosa Parks' is a civil rights icon and hero to many. Since her death in 2005, Ms. Parks has become a pawn in a legal tug-of-war. Her estate which included memorabilia once valued at $10M and a cash value of $370K, is now in the midst of dysfunction. A New York City auction house is in possession of her memorabilia and legal fees have drained her estates cash value.

Per Detroit Free Press:

The financial portrait of Parks' estate, which has been kept under seal since her death, is outlined in a new Michigan Supreme Court filing that offers the first detailed glimpse into a long-running feud over the distribution of her assets.
The legal filing contends that Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. allowed two court-appointed attorneys, John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., to pile up excessive fees that drained nearly $243,000 from the estate, or about two-thirds of the cash value.
After the money was gone, the lawyers persuaded Burton to award them Parks' vast memorabilia collection and the rights to license her name, which Parks had given to her Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development long before she died.
Steven Cohen, who represents Elaine Steele and the institute in the probate case, filed the request Tuesday, asking the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court decision that stood behind Burton's handling of the case and accused the judge of overstepping his bounds by arbitrarily appointing Chase and Jefferson as fiduciaries when the lawyers were not previously involved in the case.
"Since Mrs. Parks' death in 2005 ... the court system of her adopted city has embarked on a course to destroy her legacy, bankrupt her institute, shred her estate plan and steal her very name," Cohen said in the filing. Cohen wants the institute and Steele to get the property back.
Who should be held accountable for the mismanagement of this estate?
Should a court have the authority to manage an estate the way they've managed this estate?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More Racial Politics: Is it Better to Look Like You or Work For You?

 Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.

California’s latest Supreme Court news has sparked a debate that some colleagues and I’ve been having for years.  Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to nominate Goodwin Liu has become a controversial decision. Many feel that Brown passed over several Latino and African American candidates to nominate Liu, an Asian who by all accounts is a liberal and strong supporter of civil rights.  So we find ourselves asking the question again.  Which is more important: that you have a person that looks like you in a position of importance or you have a person who will work for you in a position of importance?

Now clearly I understand that these two things are not mutually exclusive.  I believe we would all agree that having someone with a similar racial and/or ethnic background who also has a point of view that runs parallel with the majority of folks within that same background would be preferable.  However, I fear those days may be behind us.  I hate to be cynical – no, I don’t – but am I the only one who believes that someone like Thurgood Marshall, an “Anomaly,” a champion of civil and individual rights, State accountability, and Federal oversight, would not get the support of a Senate comprised of Tea Partiers? 

We can never see past the choices we don’t understand. 

Since this Neo-esque “Anomaly” only comes around when it is time for the Source to reload the Matrix, we are left with a choice: which is more important, the person or the work they do?  A case can be made for either side.  Since Obama’s inauguration, I’ve had to challenge myself and my positions on this issues.  I like to think of it as growth, maybe it’s bias; hell, maybe it’s both.  What I do know is that I often find myself conflicted.  On one hand, diversity adds value to all aspects of life.  It is very possible for a white male to grow up with very limited access to other races and cultures, informing his political opinions and positions.  And while he may bring value to a discussion, I do believe there is legitimate concern if everyone involved within his decision making circle all come from that exact same background.  So while I understand the political fallout from Justices Sotomayor’s “Wise Latina” comments, I disagree with her detractors.   I do expect a Latina to bring a perspective her colleagues may not have; I expect the same from a White Male.  Clearly, there’s value in having diversity introspectively; there is also value in the extrospective.  Seeing people that look like you in various places of success and authority is a vital piece of any culture.  Not only does it support one’s need to be accepted and respected, it also makes the impossible seem possible; this is especially true for those who aspire to reach heights previously not open or available to them.  Prior to President Obama’s inauguration, the vast majority of African Americans never imagined that anyone other than a White Male would be president in their lifetime.  It was literally an image that we could not view because it was one we had never seen.  All that to say, I believe the Hispanic and African American citizens in California have a point, I do believe you need to see a face that looks like yours in power positions.

However, does this accurately illustrate the willingness of our leaders to work on the behalf of the Black community?  I’m not convinced it does.  As we’ve seen with the nomination of Clarence Thomas, simply putting a black face on the bench doesn’t mean you are reaching out to the black community.   Prior to joining the blog, several of us debated – ad nauseam – several political issues.  Who did more for the African American community, Clinton or Bush?  Arguments were made for both sides of the aisle: Clinton’s Administration saw the first female U.S. Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government, Clinton, at the time, had the most diverse cabinet in history, and more African Americans appointed to the federal bench than any other President.  Conversely, Bush’s Administration (II) topped Clinton in high-ranking diversity of cabinet.  Bush was ground breaking in his appointments of the first African American Secretary of state, serving not only as the highest-ranking African American but also the highest-ranking African American female in the history of the U.S. government.  He nominated the first Hispanic Attorney General in addition to filling three of the four highest-ranking positions with minorities.  However, when asked, the Black community supports Clinton over Bush in a landslide.

No, you’ve already made the choice. Now you have to understand it

I think the Black community must be very careful with their requests.  Sometimes you actually get what you are demanding; and it ain’t always good.  The Janitor and I were conversing with friends of ours on a similar topic.  If, for example, Alan Keys was elected the first Black president, shouldn’t we cheer for that breakthrough equally as loud as we did for Obama?  Despite Keys’ clear Grand Canyon type gap in political points of view from the large majority of Black folks, shouldn’t we celebrate the accomplishment of an African American kicking through the glass ceiling?    Not to my surprise, many of my friends said “No.”  With the Key's example, the ascension of the first Black Man to the position of President of the United States would not trump the fact that his political views were completely opposite of 90% of the Black community.  So why then do we turn around and put that type of pressure on our government executives?  We’re okay with equating who our Presidents and Governors select for a given position with their support of the Black community.  Doesn’t that seem a tad bit hypocritical?    

I digress…

This is simple political arithmetic.  President Bush (the First) put a Black man on the SCOTUS.  President Obama put the first Hispanic female on the SCOTUS; yet he is criticized for not “looking out” for the black community.  Question!  Whose nominee would you say has the best interest of the Black community (and other non-white citizens) at heart?   My blog partner, The Janitor, said: “…the most important aspect of any judge you can nominate is not the color of their skin but rather it is the judicial ideology that they subscribe to.  A progressive Latino, White, or Asian can do just as much to champion the progressive agenda in the courts as a Black judge.”  I believe this to be true.  It makes sense.  Should we start to focus more on the policies of the individual instead of their racial makeup?  What is the break-even point?  Is it acceptable to have zero representation if your needs are being met?  After all, many landmark civil right issues were passed without Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and others in the White House, Congress, or SCOTUS.  While it is important to have diversity, diversity of thought, and a makeup in leadership that reflects the makeup of the country, it is also important that those who make up the leadership actually work on issues that are important to the Black community - YOUR community.  In today's America, can this be accomplished without people who look like you speaking for you?  I don't know. 

If you can’t get both, which is more important: someone that shares a racial and/or ethnic background with you, or someone who will fight to improve your quality of life?

Should we criticize a government chief executive (president or governor) on their political nominations based solely on race?

Monday, July 25, 2011

DSK Accuser Speaks Out!

The Guinean woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, Nafissatou Diallo, has come out publicly to tell her side of the story. You can watch her here on Good Morning America. She also gave an interview with Newsweek here. This is evidently pretty unusual for an alleged rape victim. Given that everything seems to indicate that the prosecutors do not intend to move forward with the case, this could be her method of pressuring them not to drop the case. Diallo will be doing a Nightline interview on Tuesday.

“Hello? Housekeeping.”
The maid hovered in the suite’s large living room, just inside the entrance. The 32-year-old Guinean, an employee of the Sofitel hotel, had been told by a room-service waiter that room 2806 was now free for cleaning, “Hello? Housekeeping,” the maid called out again. No reply. The door to the bedroom, to her left, was open, and she could see part of the bed. She glanced around the living room for luggage, saw none. “Hello? Housekeeping.” Then a naked man with white hair suddenly appeared, as if out of nowhere.
That’s how Nafissatou Diallo describes the start of the explosive incident on Saturday, May 14, that would forever change her life—and that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and, until that moment, the man tipped to be the next president of France. Now the woman known universally as the “DSK maid” has broken her public silence for the first time, talking for more than three hours with NEWSWEEK at the office of her attorneys, Thompson Wigdor, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
I honestly can't call it. Strauss-Kahn has a long history of alleged extra marital affairs. He has also been accused of rape by a French writer, Tristane Banon, whose mother also weirdly claimed she had brutal consensual sex with DSK.  Ms. Diallo holds to her story and says she wants DSK to go to jail. But since she lied to the grand jury and prosecutors does she have any credibility now?
Unsurprisingly DSK's lawyers were not amused and put out this terse statement.
Ms. Diallo is the first accuser in history to conduct a media campaign to persuade a prosecutor to pursue charges against a person from whom she wants money.  Her lawyers and public relations consultants have orchestrated an unprecedented number of media events and rallies to bring pressure on the prosecutors in this case after she had to admit  her extraordinary efforts to mislead them. Her lawyers know that her claim for money suffers a fatal blow when the criminal charges are dismissed, as they must be.
This conduct by lawyers  is unprofessional and it violates fundamental rules of professional conduct for lawyers. Its obvious purpose is to inflame public opinion against a defendant in a pending criminal case. The fact is, however, that  the number of rallies, press conferences, and media events they have orchestrated is exceeded only by the number of lies and misstatements  she has made to law enforcement, friends, medical professionals and reporters.
It is time for this unseemly circus to stop.
Do these developments change your mind about what might have happened?
Do you think it's time to do away with anonymity for alleged rape victims? If not why not?
If someone lies about one thing is it safe to presume they will lie about other things?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Movie Reviews-Insidious, The Devil's Rejects, Big Trouble In Little China

Many modern horror films go for the gross out. Usually this involves buckets of blood and/or torture. I don't often like those sorts of films. So it was surprising that the creators of Saw could also make a throwback horror film like Insidious, which is full of such cliched but still effective moves like jump cuts, wide shots from above, creepy sounds in the dark and being alone in a dark house and thinking you saw something move. Really one of the most frightening things is to be alone or to lose control. When you go to sleep at night what are the noises that you hear? Is it just the house settling? If you dream is that just as real as what's going on during your waking hours? Insidious uses these fears quite well for the first 2/3rds of the film. It also gives a nod to classic horror themes explored in HP Lovecraft's "The DreamQuest of Unknown Kaddath"

The story is quite simple. A writer/musician and her school teacher husband move into a really nice and older appearing home. They have three kids, two boys and a girl. They are still in the process of unpacking but the wife notices that some things are lost but appear to be moved from where she put them. She gradually comes to have more of a sense of unease with this house. Her husband ignores her feelings but he's having strange blackouts of his own. And their oldest son seems to be the most changed by the house. After a few paranormal events which even her husband can't ignore the family flees the house. But evidently it might not have been the house that was the problem.

Good stuff. It's a lost art of making you jump or look over your shoulder in horror films and this film shows that some people still have it. The last third of the film ups the ante quite a bit.

The Devil's Rejects
Sometimes watching film it is easy to get caught up in the acting or the special effects and forget how critical the writing and especially the directing is to making a good film. A strong director can literally sell you a s*** sandwich and make you think it tastes good. Not that the The Devil's Rejects is a s*** sandwich but it IS a remarkable work from Rob Zombie for being only his second film. It was a sequel to his first film (House of 1000 Corpses) and is so superior in EVERY way (writing, acting, cinematography, sound, directing, etc) that it almost was like Zombie traveled through time, learned from great directors past and future, and came back just two years after his first (really bad) movie filled with the secrets of the past and those yet to be revealed.

The Devil's Rejects is a love letter to those seventies drive-in horror films as well as other obvious influences like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although the number of people killed in this movie is not very high, this is an intensely violent film. The most controversial aspect is that there aren't any good protagonists in the film. This may bother some people. YMMV.

The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film but you shouldn't watch the first film. It's not necessary. The violent and sexually depraved Firefly family which consists of Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook), Otis (Bill Mosely), Rufus (Tyler Mane), Tiny(Matthew McGrory) and Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie-Rob's wife and muse) are holed up at home when the Texas Rangers, led by Sherriff Wydell (William Forsythe) , brother of the police office killed in the first movie, show up looking for revenge. After an incredible shootout only Otis and Baby escape. Their mother is captured while their brothers are either killed or left for dead.

Otis and Baby decide to meet up with Baby's father and Otis' stepfather, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and their uncle Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree). But along the way they're gonna have some fun. And "fun" to these two involves murder and torture. But Sherriff Wydell is still on their trail and is willing to do anything in order to bring them to justice. And by this time his idea of justice doesn't involve an arrest and trial.

Anyway by some standards this movie is sick, deviant and down right disgusting but Rob Zombie also deftly places scenes of real humor in the movie. One of my favorite cuts is when Otis is driving Spaulding and Baby to a rendezvous with Charlie, and his sister suddenly decides she wants some ice cream. This reminded me of teasing and squabbling in my own family (without all the profanity and murder that is)

Last thing. The soundtrack is pretty good and includes all sorts of time-appropriate classic rock, blues and country music. It has a use of Freebird which has to be seen to be believed.

Big Trouble in Little China
This is both a satire/spoof of action/kung-fu movies (especially Indiana Jones) and not a bad little action movie in its own right. It was directed by John Carpenter. Trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) is going to pick up his friend Wang Chi's (Dennis Dun) fiancee at the airport when the girl (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped and Jack's truck is stolen. The tough talking Jack Burton isn't the sort of man to take that lying down and he hooks up with Wang and friends to recover the lady and (most importantly to Jack) his truck.

During this endeavor Jack discovers that magic definitely exists and there is a secret otherworld that happens to lie just underneath Chinatown. I give Russell some credit for this film because although his Burton is seemingly the hero in actuality Burton is famously, magnificently and incredibly incompetent (although his heart is in the right place). It's a deconstruction of the Great White Hero. Russell plays Burton as something of a John Wayne spoof. In the occasional instance where he gets something right it's usually by accident or sheer luck. Despite this Burton's confidence never wanes though just about all of the actual fighting is done by his buddy Wang, who is a kung-fu expert.
This movie had some pretty good kung-fu scenes and was ahead of its time for American based action flicks.
It is also, as mentioned quite funny and can be enjoyed purely on a humorous level. Kim Cattrall also stars.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Allen West and Black Conservatives

You may have heard about the tiff between Representative Allen West (R-Florida) and Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.(D-Florida) If not you can read about it here.  In short , DWS criticized West's support for Medicare cuts, given the high number of seniors living in his district and West went ballistic, firing off this email.

From: Z112 West, Allen
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 04:48 PM
To: Wasserman Schultz, Debbie
Cc: McCarthy, Kevin; Blyth, Jonathan; Pelosi, Nancy; Cantor, Eric
Subject: Unprofessional and Inappropriate Sophomoric Behavior from Wasserman-Schultz
Look, Debbie, I understand that after I departed the House floor you directed your floor speech comments directly towards me. Let me make myself perfectly clear, you want a personal fight, I am happy to oblige. You are the most vile, unprofessional ,and despicable member of the US House of Representatives. If you have something to say to me, stop being a coward and say it to my face, otherwise, shut the heck up. Focus on your own congressional district!
I am bringing your actions today to our Majority Leader and Majority Whip and from this time forward, understand that I shall defend myself forthright against your heinous characterless behavior......which dates back to the disgusting protest you ordered at my campaign hqs, October 2010 in Deerfield Beach.
You have proven repeatedly that you are not a Lady, therefore, shall not be afforded due respect from me!
Steadfast and Loyal
Congressman Allen B West (R-FL)
Now this is pretty pathetic because it shows among other things that West is incapable of taking criticism without reacting personally. It was pretty over the top behavior for someone who is supposed to be a cool calm leader. But ok. Congress has seen worse. But West wasn't done of course. He went on the Mark Levin radio show where he saw fit to drop these words of wisdom.

The thing that really most aggravates me is that there's this double standard in that the people on the hard left can continue to attack conservatives -- and especially minority conservatives and female conservatives. But yet when all of a sudden you stand up and say you will not tolerate this any more, then they claim to be a victim, which I find to be absolutely laughable...People who are black conservatives — I grew up in the inner city, strong values, came from a strong military family and background — (and) what we do is we totally invalidate the liberal social welfare policies and programs...“I’m a threat because I’m the guy that got off of their 21st Century plantation. And they cannot afford to have a strong voice such as mine out there reverberating and resonating across this country. And even more so, they’re not used to anyone that says ‘I’m going to fight back against you.’ That is absolutely reprehensible to them.
Whoa....wait a minute there Nat Turner.
Aren't the defining characteristics of Black conservatives supposed to be personal responsibility and a belief that racism either no longer exists or is so small as to be not worth bothering about? I mean that isn't what we hear all day every day from such conservative icons as Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Ken Hamblin, Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas, Star Parker, Thomas Sowell and others?
Hmm. Ok I guess I get it now. I really do.

  • If you have to wait six years for a promotion that whites get in three...
  • If you have discovered that you earn less than some whites with worse education....
  • If you constantly have your work checked and double checked for mistakes you never made..
  • If you have a sneaking suspicion that you're never in the room when the really important decisions are made at work...
  • If you can't get a business loan despite having a great plan, great credit and great assets but see that whites get one despite having less of these requirements
  • If you are stopped and harassed by the police because the car you drive is too nice...
  • If it takes you a year or more to find work after being laid off because interviewers have a different response to seeing you in person than hearing you on the phone...
  • If homes for sale or rent are suddenly "taken" when you show up to look at them
  • If you are turned away from a club or restaurant because there are already enough people that look like you inside
  • If you are a little irritated and concerned about pictures of the President as a pimp, a witchdoctor or an ape being seen as humorous by certain elements in society
  • If you move into a neighborhood and like mushrooms "For sale" signs start popping up
  • If you are driving with a white friend and are stopped by the police because they are concerned for the white friend's safety...
then obviously you just need to work harder my friend and stop whining. Being Black has NOTHING to do with your issues. Man up!!! Stop being a crybaby!!!!
But if you are a Black Conservative and someone disagrees with you, well OBVIOUSLY they're only doing it because you're Black. Those racist so-and-so's!!!! The nerve of them slavemasters!!!! And you should definitely go ahead and use offensive and charged references to lynchings and plantations.  Let the chips fall where they may because simply disagreeing with your ideas is JUST LIKE whipping escaped slaves. Oh the humanity!!!!

Whether it's Herman Cain claiming Jon Stewart mocked him because he's Black or Clarence Thomas referring to "high tech lynchings" or the ubiquitous black conservative references to "democratic plantations" or comparing some social program or discussion as being just like slavery, black conservatives too often use racially charged language both as a sword to attack their rivals and as a shield to prevent legitimate debate. Most disgustingly the ONLY time Black conservatives ever even appear to consider the possibility that racism still exists is when someone criticizes them or opposes them politically. Victimology powers! Activate!!!!!

And I hate to break it to West or Cain or any of the other clowns that traffic in this stuff but guess what? Your family wasn't the only black family to deal with slavery, segregation, discrimination, etc. Millions of other black families throughout the diaspora did as well. So let's stop pretending like you did everything by yourself. Black people in 2011 America are in a better position than we were in 1951 America precisely because many Black (and other) people struggled and died.

And that brings me to the final point. Look I myself have some conservative ideas on some issues. There are indeed honorable conservatives of all backgrounds. I think they're wrong on most things but people can agree to disagree. 

The problem with Professional Black Conservatives is that they are usually used (or in some cases disgustingly eager) to give cover to the most rancid reactionary right wing views, often (IMO) because they have personal issues to work through. Many Professional Black Conservatives have little interest in attracting black people to the conservative side of the aisle. Rather their primary concern appears to be buck dancing for white conservatives and assuring these white conservatives that racism is long gone. Making comparisons to slavery on EVERY FREAKING ISSUE that comes up or running for martyr status anytime someone offers criticism won't attract black people to your cause. It would work just as well as a Jewish conservative constantly telling Jews that supporting (insert social program or idea here) is like taking the fast train to Auschwitz or that Jewish liberals are like kapos at Treblinka while Jewish conservatives have escaped the Democratic death camp. It insults my intelligence and makes me very angry....

What's your take?
Was West out of line?
Is it possible for everyone (black/white/left/right) to tone down and/or remove slavery metaphors and comparisons from modern political debate?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Bundling of Subprime Loans by Asset Managers...Again!

Per the Wall Street Journal, there are at least two private investment firms out there that are still leveraging riskier "subprime" loans: Athas Capital and New Penn Financial. Since the subprime financial collapse of 2008, banks have progressively implemented stricter guidelines for lending, especially on mortgages.  In an attempt to keep this crisis from happening again, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall-Street Reform Act in 2010, but it doesn't appear to have completely stopped investment firms like Athas and New Penn.

Here is where things get pretty interesting and why we should all be concerned. Even though you and I have not taken out a risky mortgage with Athas or New Penn, borrowers of Athas or New Penn have the capability to end up in our retirement funds, credit cards, educational savings plans and even your basic checking accounts. Leading up to the crash of 2008, private investment firms like Athas and New Penn formed partnerships with investment banks, hedge funds and private equity firms. In most cases, all of these entities sit under one roof. In simple terms - lets say you bank with "Jim Bob Bank." Most of us think of "Jim Bob Bank" as a basic bank that handles our checking account, savings account, a few money market or high-yield savings accounts, your credit card accounts and mortgages. This is known as retail banking. 

What sits at the head of most retail banking structures is an investment bank. Investment banks are out to make profit and maintain a strong client base. The best way to do this is to make sure that their institution is a one-stop shop, making sure that you keep all of your business under one roof. Investment banks have many umbrellas and many times you don't realize that your bank is a part of a larger financial institution. Within those umbrellas, in accordance with competition and a profit structure, will be a hedge fund, asset management (private banking or wealth management and institutional investors) and sometimes private equity.
Asset Managers are the major players. They have the capacity to leverage clients on the private wealth side and institutional side, making them the more attractive business line of investment banks to outside private investment firms, private equity funds and hedge funds. According to the promotional video on Athas Capital's website and their CEO Brian O'Shaughnessy, this lending spree is different from the sub-prime lending spree of the past. What Mr. O'Shaughnessy is not telling us or his borrowers is that the old practice of bundling has reemerged to take it's rightful place at the profit table.

When a lender underwrites a mortgage, they make as much money as possible up front with the interest rate and fees. Once the borrowers closes on that loan, to ensure their investment and pull in capital to make more investments, the lender sells the loan to an investment bank to be bundled with other loans and investment products. The investment bank then sells the bundles to their asset management clients. These clients invest their capital into these bundles via funds or products. Essentially money keeps recycling its way through the system.

To have a clear understanding of bundling, imagine if you, as an individual, had the legitimate power to make $1 out of $0.15, literally. Well investment banks have the capability to do so. I took the liberty of mocking up a fictional scenario for our readers. Let's look a Suzy Q:

Suzy Q works and lives in New York City and is in the market to purchase a modest studio in New York City. Suzy earns $91,000 a year as a analyst, she has $75,000 saved for a down payment, a credit score of 760 and her home bank has pre-approved her for a mortgage of $428,000. Suzy finds a nice studio in Greenwich Village with a sticker price of $365,750 and a monthly maintenance fee of $962. Perfect! Suzy closes on her studio with a standard 30-year fixed rate mortgage with a rate of 4.89%; 360 monthly payments of $2445.00. 

So far this example seems like the proper way to go. Suzy had a high credit score, and she had savings which allowed her to put a 20% down payment and a standard 30-year fixed rate loan. However, Suzy's home bank will more than likely bundle her mortgage (unbeknownst to Suzy) with other financial instruments and sell them to investors via investment banks through their one-stop shop. The only difference here between Suzy and the many subprime victims of 2008 is the likely hood of Suzy defaulting on her loan and affecting the bundle that her mortgage is included in.

If we make a few adjustments to Suzy and send her to Athas, we would see a completely different picture and recipe for default and screaming scared investors.

Athas lending rates are a minimum of 8.99%!! (yes I know the average is 4.50 to 4.90%). Let's give Suzy a credit score of 600 and keep everything else in place. According the Athas, they are requiring higher down payments that average 40%. So this now puts Suzy's down payment at $146,300 (as opposed to the $75k she put down in our earlier scenario) and her monthly payments would total $2726.00. Yes, I understand it's only a difference of $281 per month, but keep in mind Suzy had to come forth with a 40% down payment in order for this calculation to work out for a 30-year fixed loan. Since Suzy doesn't have $146,300 to put down towards her apartment in Greenwhich Village, then this must be the end of this story, right?  Wrong. Ladies and Gentleman , welcome to the trickery of the financial services industry - ARM's (adjustable rate mortgages) or ballon payments. Bundling at its finest which equates to profits.

Suzy will be offered a lower interest rate for a period of 3, 5 or 7 years and after that period the rate "adjusts" and can continue to do so for the remainder of the loan, based on the lender and ultimately market conditions. Borrowers were enticed to take these loans with the promise of refinancing the principle balance at the end of the ARM, right before the rate adjusted. The comfortable payment has the potential to sky rocket, giving Suzy a higher chance to default. Investors who've unconsciously purchased portions of Suzy's loan will now begin to see lower returns on their investment and begin running for the hills until the entire thing tanks. In reality, Suzy's original lender Athas has already profited when they sold her loan to an investment bank for bundling.  By the time Suze defaults on this loan they've already moved on to their next victim.

Is this type of activity proof-positive that Americans need the Consumer Protection Agency?
If the CPA does not become an active agency, how can the federal government stop this type of lending?
Should the federal government be able to stop this type of free market lending?
Is Wall Street taking us toward another financial crisis?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

TV, Politics, and Al Sharpton

Yesterday I was channel surfing and I stop on MSNBC which I haven't watched in a long time and who do I see on my TV screen... Motherfreaking Al Sharpton. Like dude was in an anchor chair and giving me the news.

I was confused. I thought I had been bamboozled. I was waiting for the cameraman the director anyone in the control room with knowledge of the board to switch the shot but it never happened. I mean Al was giving me the news, his opinion, and commentary and I was just so beside myself I couldn't even pick my up my bottom lip.

So what did I do. I took to twitter to see if anybody else was seeing what I was seeing. After a series of tweets no one responded. Then I went twitter stalking people I don't know but find interesting (don't judge me) and found this:

I never thought I'd see the day al sharpton became relevant. but here it is. here it is. I am so humbled by this startling change of events.

I haaaaaatttttte that al sharpton INSISTS on giving me liffffffffeeeeeeee these days.....this ASSHOLE just played "He's Got the Whole World"

This is somebody I find smart and absolutely hilarious telling me via twitter that Al Sharpton is giving her life. For real though. I mean that's how you really really feel about life. Okay so let me give the Rev a shot.

I still wasn't sold and explained why to the other members of Urban Politico via email. They will tell you how they feel in the comments. My position though is that Al Sharpton is being played for ratings. I work in TV so I know a little something about "the book" as it's called. Matter of fact we're in one right now.

Let me break it down; ratings periods are the months of November, February, May and July. The July book is the least important. November sweeps (interchangeable with ratings) is when all the juicy stuff happens on your favorite TV shows following the late September early October premiere. If you kill in November you're going to get more advertisers, be able to charge more for advertisments, and basically make the network, and all involved a lot of money and very happy. November sweeps also ends right around Thanksgiving before people realize family is more important than the tube.

In February TV once again gets good following all the re-runs played during the holidays. This follows a period of stupid, insanely high TV watching known as the Superbowl. TV gets a little boring around spring break but come May it heats back up with the season finales that keep you wanting more. Oprah's 25th season was centered around this cycle. July sweeps are for those summer shows to break ground and decide if networks want to keep them going. Think USA.

So this is where Al Sharpton fits in. He's being tried on by MSNBC and so far people are biting. According to TVNewser on
"Sharpton has hosted the 6pm show for the last two weeks. This past week, the hour was second, to Fox News in A25-54 viewers Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday."
Sharpton's show -- which does not have a name -- coming in second to FOX in the most key of key demographics is no laughing matter. It is a tremendous accomplishment. Therefore I will assume Sharpton will be here to stay at 6 p.m. on MSNBC. His trial run this July will set up the network to really give him a great show by the time November hits and the election campaign process truly begins. Sharpton's presence on the network adds to its diversity as Tamron Hall is the only other Black host and Rachel Maddow brings the nerdy lesbian crowd (that is not meant to be offensive just a statement of fact) keeping true to the network's slogan of Lean Forward.

Sharpton's placement also gets the NAACP off of MSNBC's back after that whole rant of cable networks not giving Black politico's a primetime spot. Additionally, since Sharpton has the inside track to President Obama on Black issues -- specifically unemployment and education in the Black community -- he can actually break news as he sees fit and possibly, just maybe, snag that primetime cable interview with the President that won't have the racist undertones and blatant disrespect as Obama's interview on O'Reilly.

Sharpton's placement for ratings, for the election, for diversifying the network is a win-win for everybody involved right. Wrong. You may not see it but I see it as a position of temporary permanence. If Obama wins in 2012 Sharpton on MSNBC can last another four years. If Obama loses Sharpton may keep his show to maintain the "black opinion" or be deemed null and void now that a White man is back in the White House and America goes back to ignoring its flagrant problem with race. I see more of the latter happening than the former but we'll just have to wait and see now won't we.

But beyond this, Al Sharpton is not a journalist. Like not at all. Like not even a little bit. That's my biggest problem with his placement. I mean as a producer I can make anybody look good and they don't even have to be on camera. You call me The Storyteller but really I'm a puppet master. I pick the stories, I order them in the way I want them to be told, I choose the graphics, the video, the soundbites, and set up the live interviews conducted on air. I do all of that for my anchors in Jacksonville, Florida. Imagine what the producers behind Sharpton do to keep him looking good and insure their job security, a promotion, and maybe even a raise. (Yall know journalism doesn't pay)

But these grievances aside I tuned in to some of Sharpton's show Tuesday evening just to see what it was all about.

First thing I noticed is that his accent is thick and it's not distinctly Brooklyn even though that's where he was born. That's not a bad thing but if you notice most newscasters have a neutral tone so as to appeal to all. But I told myself, "Storyteller stop being critical and just watch the damn news."

So I did. His graphics on the show aren't of the flashy variety found on Hardball With Chris Matthews. He doesn't have a set he has a desk so the powers that be are still trying him out. That aside the content was pretty good. The phrasing was catching i.e. "Cut, Cap and Crack Up."

He delivered facts but when it was time for his live interview with Republican Representative Mo Brooks a Tea Party freshman from Alabama I began to take issue. Not so much with Sharpton but with whoever set up the interview. It seemed they chose the most conservative Representative they could find to make Sharpton appear extremely left on his politics therefore reinforcing the theory of cognitive dissonance to make any extreme conservative side with the extremely conservative politician instead of listening to the facts and forging their own opinion and vice versa for the liberals that can't see right.

Secondly, Representative Brooks was blatantly disrespectful questioning Sharpton's mental state so as to not answer a question on tax cuts. Rude, unruly, and possibly a tinge of another R word that we can get into later.

Following this live interview with Representative Brooks, Sharpton then talked to former Clinton Administration member Robert Reich.

The format of Sharpton's show is just like any other primetime commentary show. There are the topics of the day laid out in the headlines. The interviews that turn into tame arguments and serious discussions compared to the type of physical altercations you see on reality television; Basketball Wives anyone. There's the playing to the core demographic which are liberals and mixing in some colored flavor. (Yes I went there)

The show is good, but that doesn't mean I'm all of a sudden tuning into Al at 6 either. The show is good but as I explained earlier any producer worth their salt, and in New York you are definitely worth your salt, can make a personality look good. And yes it's sad to say that I think Al is only a personality MSNBC is trying out on its network because of the current conditions of our country; here comes that R word.

Racism has always made headlines in this country. So what better way to increase ratings than to play on race and racism. What better person to play this game than the man who's made a career out of fighting racial injustices no matter how minute. I don't want to discredit Al Sharpton's activism and all that he's done to push the dreams of slain civil rights leaders forward, however as the tweets above show, Al Sharpton's relevance and credibility have been on shaky ground. Now with the first Black president getting more hate than a little bit, Black people finding themselves in an all out depression instead of a jobless recovery, and the Tea Party people using Herman Cain and Michael Steele as puppets, what Sharpton has to say is way more important now than it was a decade ago.

I appreciate MSNBC capitalizing off of the times, inciting fury and infusing race into the political discourse. I admire them for thinking outside the box and putting Al Sharpton in the position he's in. But because it's all so calculated he will surely end up on Bill O'Reilly's Pinhead list faster than he can create his own Worst Persons. His appointment is populist instead of substantive, it is reactionary instead of groundbreaking, and I have the strange suspicion that it will be temporary instead of permanent. Because of that I would so much rather see an actual journalist with experience, talent, and the command of facts on any and all issues in Sharpton's seat, than a pawn for Comcast (which owns NBC/Universal and therefore MSNBC) to capitalize off of.

But hey. What do I know. I'm just a local news producer trying to make it big. And trust if Al Sharpton wanted me to produce for him I'd do it in a minute even if I knew I'd be looking for another job in 12 months. This is the TV business. Nothing lasts forever. Just ask Keith Olbermann.

What do you think of Al Sharpton's placement behind the anchor desk on MSNBC?
Do you think his appointment will be temporary or permanent like the 20 years Chris Matthews has been with the network?
If Obama is not re-elected do you think Sharpton will once again fade into obscurity his 15 minutes of fame over once again?