Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Good and the Bad

I first fancied myself a writer back in the early '70s. It was a heady time for arts writers at the time, with Rolling Stone and the Village Voice producing high-quality rock and film criticism on a weekly basis. Of course, there was better product to write about then. But there has been no one in recent years like Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Andrew Sarris, Lester Bangs, Pauline Kael, etc., to bring meaning to the great music and movies that were being produced at the time.

So it was that, in the fine tradition of Christgau's Pazz and Jop Polls, I produced my first best-of list of record albums (yes, albums) for the year 1975. It was handwritten -- and that's not the only way it was amateurish. I swear I just saw it around here somewhere -- if I find it, I'll scan it and put it up. In the meantime, I do remember that my top album was Neil Young's masterpiece "Tonight's the Night". Say what you want about by 2+ years of blubbering on this blog -- as least I got that right.

I am in no position to do a music best-of this year, nor have I been for the past twenty years or so. I am as disconnected from popular music trends as they are from me. The last great album was, what, "The Rising"? The last great radio singles were both from OutKast ("Hey Ya" and "The Way You Move"), and that was over five years ago ("I Kissed a Girl"? Please.). I hear there might be other things going on out there - at least I get exposed to some of them on the life-saving Radio Milwaukee 88.9 - but music as a force that can cause seismic societal change (like the Beatles) doesn't exist any more. Now: you have a niche, I have a niche, and seldom the twain shall meet, except maybe on Facebook.

But that doesn't mean we can't recognize some of the things that made 2008 such an entertaining, terrifying joy-ride. Ergo, 2008: the Good and the Bad:


Springsteen at HarleyFest - a glorious multi-generational celebration.
CC Sabathia - he'll never be as dominant with the Yankees as was he was during the Brewers' frantic playoff run, but what a beautiful thing to watch.
The Illusory Tenant - a smarter and better blogger than I'll ever be.

James T. Harris - the biggest buffoon on radio, blogs and Fox Noise all rolled into one. Produced the funniest video of the years by stomping off of CNN when he couldn't answer a simple question.
David Clarke - if you're drunk and lucky, your publicity-hungry, wing-nutty sheriff might help you get out of the snowbank and send you on your way, too.
Mark Belling - proudly flying the racist flag for 20 years now.
The Shepherd Express - continuing to slip into the abyss, with idiotic weekly polls; ludicrous transcribed conversations about sports with their ridiculous mascot and some other guy; and, this week, an embarrassing poem by their embarrassing society columnists. The death of the newspaper industry can't come too soon for the S-E. The difference is they 1) brought it on themselves and, therefore 2) deserve it. Well, there goes my Best of the Blogs citation, eh, Lou?
Journal Sentinel - Desperately trying to maintain relevance while its pages shrink and price increases. Its limited content is strangely clogged with Patrick McIlheran and, every Sunday, some editor or other making pathetic excuses for themselves. By the end of '09, the paper might be just a weekender.


Barack Obama - good luck, brother -- make us proud
Hillary and Bill Clinton - put up with more bullshit than any couple, ever, and still continue to make the nation a better place, everyday
Democratic Congress - if they do it right, it's ours for a generation.
Sen. Al Franken - funny, right and his soon-to-be-confirmed victory steams the right more than any other loss.
Shoes Thrown at Bush - the perfect ending for a pathetic excuse for a president.

John McCain - embarrassed himself by abandoning his better judgement and his principles by giving himself over to the usual Rovian GOP consultants. The result was the disaster he deserved.
Sarah Palin - in over her head, beyond parody (as delicious as Tina Fey's parody was), and Exhibit Number One for McCain's incredibly irresponsible campaign. Had as much business being on a national ticket as Joe the Plumber.
Sean Hannity - Took over for Rush Limbaugh as the nation's number-one wing-nut, on the "strength" of his cable platform and willingness to shill and provide smarmily-friendly platforms for Palin and any other Republicans afraid of real journalists.
Dick Cheney - The most demonstrably deranged, evil executive presence since Nixon, without the endearing psychosis. "You Don't Know" Dick is doing a farewell tour showing how wrong he is about everything. Bye-bye, now. And take Junior, your little rodeo clown, with you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sentimental Hogwash

The right-wing has a Ronald Reagan fetish. And now, it seems to have found another dead movie star who can rescue us from ourselves and, particularly, the evils of middle-class home ownership. His name is Henry F. Potter, the money-grubbing curmudgeon in one of my guilty-pleasures of a movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. As Potter’s direct descendant, The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns would say: Exxcellent...

The Journal Sentinel’s resident wing-nut, Patrick McIlheran – for whom the shrinking paper still seems to be able to find lots of room, with no progressive counterpart – celebrates the holiday in the Christmas Eve edition of the paper by calling for a revival of Potter’s skinflint ways in the fine art of mortgage lending. "Time for us to find our inner Potter," says Paddy Mac, in one of the most deliciously stupid columns in his decidedly undistinguished oeuvre. On the occasion of a visit by several community bankers to the ivory tower on State St., he puts what I’m sure they would think is unfortunate words in their mouths, "But they were saying, in essence, that when the fictional old grump harrumphed, ‘Ideals without common sense can ruin this town,’ he might have had a point." Hey, presidents of Continental Savings Bank and Johnson Bank, you have just been compared to one of movie history’s greatest villains – Merry Christmas!

Of course, the Potter character had much more on his mind and his agenda than fiscal austerity and vague notions of "common sense". As played by the iconic Lionel Barrymore, he was a maniacal control freak with the goal of owning or at least holding a mortgage on every piece of property in a place that we now know, if not for the accident of George Bailey’s birth, would have been called Potterville. All of his sanctimonious bromides about the Baileys’ more accommodating path to home ownership creating a "discontented lazy rabble rather than a thrifty working class" were just a cover for, as George put it, keeping people in Potter-owned slums. If he could have figured out a way to make more money by handing out loans to the lazy rabble, he would have done that quicker than anyone.

Henry Potter didn’t have high morals about debt-to-assets ratios, adequate down-payments or anything else. He didn’t believe in anything but his own monopoly, power and wealth. That’s why his win-at-all-costs attitude led him to steal money from Uncle Billy so he could eliminate George and get the Building & Loan (a theft, by the way, left unresolved in the movie – did Potter get away with it, while the whole town pitched in to make up the money he stole?). And this is the kind of guy McIlheran thinks we need more of?

I think the elevation of an attractive role model like Mr. Potter is just what the Republican Party needs. Palin/Potter in 2012!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Audacity of Rick Warren

Screw Rick Warren. Seriously. Who needs another greed-headed Christian minister spewing nonsense all over another inaugural pageant? Can’t we retire this nonsense with Billy Graham? Why do we have to legitimize the worst of the sky-god charlatans every four years? Why can’t they stay in their churches or stadiums where they belong?

Warren - the king (or whatever) of the Saddleback church (why Saddleback? Why not the Ponderosa, fer cryin' out loud) is only the latest of the self-styled snake-oil salesmen that have managed to capture the imagination of enough suckers to make a nice living for themselves by doing an entertaining dance while spouting their version of some gospel or other. From strangely respected bible-thumper Graham to Jim Bakker to Pat Robertson to Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a.: Pope Benedict XVI), no one with a loud enough megaphone ever lost any money screeching about Christ and passing the hat. No less so Warren, who apparently can’t even be bothered to don a tie or a miter, dressing Friday-casual as he spouts the recycled glittering generalities of Robert Shuller for the gullible thousands who fill his megachurch.

As with anyone whose basic reason for existing on the public stage is a fraud, there are problems with large parts of Warren’s mostly vague, warmed-over messages (he seeks Christian "self-sufficiency, scalability and reproducibility" for "the Purpose-Driven Life". Whatever.) His ambitions are nothing less than global, suggesting that churches around the world do the work that government can’t or won’t – of course, with a large dose of faith-propagating nonsense thrown in with your health care. However, while pretending to draw us together with one hand, he smites with the other; actively advocating an end to reproductive choice, comparing homosexuality to pedophilia while actively campaigning against gay marriage, opposing embryonic stem cell research and taking other similarly loopy positions.

For reasons known only to him but easy to surmise, Barack Obama has invited the homophobic, anti-choice Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, thereby offending many supporters. I don’t necessarily think we should single-issue these kind of speakers in what I assume will be an inoffensive ceremonial role. You take what you can get with religious figures – by nature, they are bound to be wrong about many things and some are wrong about everything. Obama is also trying to take the partisan edge off of the national discourse by reaching out to the right-wing evangelical community, something for which that group will neither recognize or give him credit.

But rewarding Warren, essentially, for his notoriety, despite his offensive rhetoric and inclinations, is unnecessary. Whatever happened to the humble Irish Catholic priest who would mouth some quick gibberish and get out of the way? No, we have to have the grand statement from the grandstanding evangelical who didn’t vote or support Obama and who will be there with his lemming-like congregation and his hoard of fellow-traveling ministers to try to get in the way of some of the president’s attempts to return the government to sanity and normalcy. It’s like John McCain inviting Jeremiah Wright to his swearing-in. Audacious, sure, but what’s the point?

Aretha Franklin is also in the inaugural program, probably delivering something from her gospel tradition rather than one of her Top-40 classics. If she chose to, I suppose, she could take the edge off of Warren’s unseemly presence with some timely selections. How about some "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" for a woman’s right to choose? Maybe she could serenade some of the so-inclined women in the audience with "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman." Maybe she should just get in the new president’s face like she did with Matt Guitar Murphy in the Blues Brothers movie: "You better THINK".

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Clear Channel's House Racist Strikes Again

The pride of Clear Channel and the shame of Milwaukee, Mark Belling, made national news this week – featured as he was on Media Matters for one of his all-too-frequent racist diatribes.

"Whether it's blacks, Mexican-Americans, whatever," said Milwaukee’s most obnoxious racist on his unfortunate radio show on December 10th, "people who live in a neighborhood should not have to put up with newcomers deciding that that neighborhood is going to be ‘Crimeville.’ You wonder why racism occurs, why people fear ‘look what's happening to the neighborhood’ when some -- when a minority person moves in. The answer is because sometimes it does mean an increase in crime."

I don’t know who tipped of Media Matters to this particular outrage – I mean, Belling - when he isn't causing undue pain by libeling grieving family members - says something stupidly racist almost every day. I was driving around on Friday, I think it was, and he was blabbering about kids in ritzy-North Shore Bayside middle-schools were buying, selling and otherwise sharing the ADHD drug Adderall. These are good kids from good homes, he said, not like those bad kids from bad homes who spend all of their time ruining their own and the rest of our lives. This is something we expect and don’t care about from inner city kids, but if it’s going on in white suburbia, well, now it’s a crisis. Why this distinction needed to be made – I mean, drug dealing is drug dealing, is it not? – is clear only in the fevered imagination of Belling, who thinks so little of his listeners that he thinks this is the kind of race-baiting crap they want to hear.

As I have said before, Mark Belling is worst than a racist. He doesn’t believe a word of the fear-mongering, blacks-are-ruining-your-life crap he peddles everyday on the radio. But he plays on the prejudices and ignorance of his targeted South Side, angry-white-male audience by feeding them what they want to hear; by validating their disgust for the black people they encounter on the bus and on the streets; by telling them that all their racist perceptions are correct. The insecure clowns that hang on his every word are being played like a violin by Belling, who is smart enough to know better, but cynical enough to poison the community discourse for the sake of rating points and a few extra bucks in his pocket when it comes time for contract renewal.

By all appearances, Belling exists in a world of his own, strangely isolated from the community of other right-wing talk-show hosts and bloggers who spout the same tired GOP talking points but also engage each other and, sometimes, some of us on issues big and very small. He doesn’t maintain a blog himself, largely ignores what is happening on the political blogs and, on the right anyway, they ignore him. By comparison, Charlie Sykes is a social butterfly, even as he hides in the same studio cocoon as Belling. This gives the other right-wingers plausible deniability on Belling’s racist excesses – Rick Esenberg, for instance, pretends not to listen to him and therefore refuses to defend or condemn any of it. But, scurry as they might from Belling’s stink, they are all part of the same echo-chamber and ultimately responsible for the poison messages spewed by one of the two guys with the largest megaphone.

But those most responsible for Belling’s racist regime are not officially political at all – Clear Channel, the monopolistic owner of WISN and five other radio stations in Milwaukee and the advertisers who make his continuing irresponsibility possible. The reason Belling has always been untouchable is because he gets the best ratings in Milwaukee’s ridiculously weak afternoon drive-time radio market. He and his nonsense are still there because he makes money for Clear Channel, through the advertisers who throw money at WISN to air ads during his show. It is way past time to make an association with Belling painful, not beneficial. None of Belling’s advertisers should be patronized by anyone who is against racism – which should be everyone. Those who pretend to be good corporate citizens, starting with Clear Channel and ending with every advertiser right down the line, should take a good look in the mirror and figure out what is more important – a temporary presence on a highly-rated radio program or a healthy community, unblemished by the daily broadcast of blatant racist garbage.

UPDATE: Commenter David M. asks a legitimate question: why do I think Belling doesn't believe what he says on the air? I thought I would bring my response out here.

The primary reason I think this is because he is otherwise too smart, too well-read, too conversant on other complicated issues to reduce things in his own mind to the black-and-white idiocy he spouts in front of the microphone.

Belling is not the only one who insults his listeners' intelligence - Sykes and the others do it all the time. For instance, when the GOP sends out a talking-point about, say, the supposed taint of "Chicago machine" and Illinois politics on Barack Obama, all the wing-nuts talk like they are totally convinced and, in fact, "worried" about this. But they know better -- they have read the articles all over the place that Obama directed his career above and around regular Chicago pols and was a distant as he could be from the dreadful Blagojevich. But they pretend to believe it in an effort to score phony political points.

Same with Belling and racism. I don't know anything about him personally -- I saw him at a Bucks game once -- but he is too much of a cosmopolitan city-dweller to believe that nonsense. He is being deliberately provocative, dangling the prize of validation before his needy audience.

Like I said, this makes him worse than a racist. Those willing to say ugly things they don't believe to stir up the emotions of those they think are manipulable and weak are the worst kind of demagogue, whether it's for ratings or political power.

Anyone who actually believes the racist nonsense spouted by Belling wouldn't have the capacity of talking for three hours a day on the radio. Belling has the brains and talent to do so, and chooses to manipulate people with what he doesn't believe rather than enlighten people with what he does. In radio, it's called "being a cynical hack". In politics, it's called "fascism".

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Future of Television

I have seen the future of television. And it is not Jay Leno.

Leno was introduced this week by NBC as the host of a prime-time show along the lines of his current Tonight Show, but not really, to run five nights a week at 9. This is supposedly NBC’s revolutionary answer to waning interest in network television generally – give the middle-aged something they can’t stay up past 10:30 to watch now, and let the kids watch Conan and stay up all night. All they need is a comfortable pop celebrity to show up every night and they'll be happy as clams. Why anyone could stand to watch Leno for longer than five seconds is beyond me, but then, I’ve always been a Letterman fan. Why not Junior Bush – I hear he’ll be available soon.

The Leno stunt also has the distinct advantage of being about ten times cheaper to produce than the drama/cop shows that dominate that hour of programming. This is the TV equivalent of the shrinking of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other newspapers, as ad revenue and readers flee to the internet. Both network television and newspapers are facing the same reality as the car companies – they are enormous, inefficient, labor-intensive organizations that have managed to exist past the time that anyone cares anymore. The most successful shows on TV are now reality shows, where millions of nondiscriminating viewers lazily tune in to see stupid people doing stupid things. The Leno show is the next logical step – just set up a camera, put Leno in front of it and see what happens. Television may end up coming full circle, with the modern equivalent of David Garroway and a monkey chatting up whoever happens to stop by their empty studio.

The future of television, we are also told, is digital. In a short two months, moving pictures will not fly through the air anymore, at least not the version that can be picked up on most current TV sets without a satellite or cable connection. The industry has been squawking for months about the conversion, urging people to get the converter boxes they need to continue their "free" programming. But the fact is that millions of elderly, poor, uninformed and chronic procrastinators will turn on their only window to the outside world on February 17th and wonder what the hell is going on. TV will lose a significant part of its universal, democratic character on that day, becoming just another toy for the elite. Some people have had the same TV for twenty years or picked it up for $25 at the rummage sale down the street and now they have to do what now? This is going to be a much bigger mess than the Y2K flash-in-the-pan. The house-bound underclass is going to wake up someday soon and find that someone has destroyed their easy access to Jerry Springer. And they are going to be pissed.

So, although Jay Leno and DTV are unfortunate parts of television’s immediate future, they are not the future of television. The future of television is something like...Netflix.

Yeah, I said Netflix, but not the part that delivers DVDs through mail (Hah! The mail! Just wait until that bad boy goes digital. What do you mean you don’t own a computer?). It’s the instant internet delivery option that Netflix offers on a limited number of their selections that is so facinating. And not just playing the things on your computer – it’s putting the content through a box that explodes it onto your TV, in full-screen and living color.

I discovered this quite by accident last week while I was goofing around the menus on my son’s Xbox360. All of a sudden, there was a button that invited me to get Netflix content through the Xbox. Having just caved in to a free two-week offer from Netflix, I thought I’d check it out. First, you have to go on the computer to jam some selections in your "instant queue" and then, son of a gun, the damn things turn up on the Xbox. Pick one, hit play, and in no time at all, high-quality video content fills the wide-screen. You want to watch all 37 episodes of the first two seasons of 30 Rock? Yes you do, and so do I. How about The Office, American and British versions? King of Kong? Deja Vu, the excellent documentary of Neil Young’s Freedom of Speech tour in 2006 with those other three guys (including some footage from the Milwaukee show)?

Television’s union with broadband internet was only a matter of time, but Netflix-through-the-box (also works with some Blu-Ray players, Tivo and Netflix' own little box for $99) shows how it might work. I can see a time very soon when it will be announced that a pile of new episodes of various series will be available on a given day, and all you have to do is go grab it off the virtual shelf.

Live content – news, sports, QVC – will be a little trickier, but I’m sure somebody is working on it. There is also that small matter of how you pay for the production of shows and actually make money off the deal, but that doesn’t sound like my problem, now does it? Besides, how much can it cost to set up a camera and aim it at Jay Leno and his monkey?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bring Me the Head of Rod Blagojevich

Fred Dooley at Real Debate, apparently with more time on his hands than I and other lefties have, is calling us out for not immediately calling out the Wizard of Springfield for his various nefarious plans to build himself a new house, pay for the kids' college and pad his retirement account on the backs of Illinois citizens looking for a decent Senate replacement for Barack Obama. Allow me to take time out of my busy day and evening to say, unequivocally, that I would like to wring the little man's neck, swing him around the top of the nearest Christmas tree by his hair and fling him, Hancock-like, into the deepest part of a frozen Lake Michigan.

I have several motivations for wanting Gov-for-now Blagojevich to swim with the metaphorical fishes. Very little of it has to do with "good government". Like Richard Nixon, Blagojevich is by all accounts and by evidence of his very words on the wiretaps ("I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing," says Governor Genius) an insular and singular dick, the product of an unseemly combination of "arrogance and stupidity". As such, he is representative of nothing. You end up wondering less about the governor himself than whoever he is talking to on the phone. Are those people telling him how nuts he is? Are they laughing, hoping it's all an unfunny joke? (Prediction: The defense will be he was just kidding around. What else does he have?) In any event, the threat of any actual corruption occurring was slim-to-none: who would have agreed to give him anything for the appointment? No one, that's who.

But Blagojevich's real crime was what he has done to give the right-wing echo-chamber a way to beat Obama over the head. Ever since Obama won the election a month ago, the usual suspects on talk-radio, cable TV and blogs have struggled to find a way to find cracks in Obama's increasingly solid composition. They have been treading water, recycling McCain campaign talking-points about how the closet Marxist pals around with terrorists and Joe the Plumber was right and Sarah Palin is great and blah de blah blah. Their flop-sweat has been audible through their venom-dipped microphones, as Americans looking for something other than poison lies turned the dials to something more reality-based. The lack of wing-nut effectiveness was reflected in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this week, that shows the President-Elect with a 67% positive rating.

But now Blogo-Mania has given the wretched slime-mongers of the right new ammunition to destroy hope and prevent change. Since Tuesday morning, every last one of them has been fully stocked with fresh talking-points from the RNC to smear Obama with an imaginary association with Blagojevich's fevered irrationality. Did you know the phrase "president-elect" appears 44 times in the criminal complaint? Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said there are no allegations "in the complaint" that Obama knew anything about it. "In the complaint"! That means there might be something somewhere else! Obama said he never talked about a replacement for him in the Senate with Blagojevich. Yeah, but who did on his behalf?

And so on. It doesn't take much for the right-wingers to get a hook to drive their agenda. They are hardly concerned about intellectual honesty. Blagojevich gave them the only thin window of opportunity they need, and for that alone he should be sentenced to 20 months as a coin-collector at an Illinois tollbooth.