Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day of Action: Anti-War Portraits

On Saturday, February 4, 2012, as I was on my way to look at art in the galleries, I encountered the beginning of an anti-war gathering and march in Duffy Square (the top of Times Square), where 7th Avenue and Broadway intersect around 47th Street.  The day was officially called Day of Action--No War on Iran, and was part of "International Days of Action," a set of demonstrations against the sanctions being imposed on Iran and the growing talk of the possibility of an (Israeli) air strike against Iranian nuclear plants. Although 
representatives of many organizations were in attendance, the chief organizer of this New York City protest was  The World Can’t Wait, an organization established in 2005 to repudiate the Bush administration.

After gathering in Duffy Square at 1:00 for the good part of an hour, the march headed south down Broadway, then turned east after several blocks, its goal being the headquarters of the US mission to the United Nations and the Israeli Consulate.  I stayed with the group of some 500 marchers until they turned east; then I continued on my way to Chelsea to see art shows.  

Below are my photographs of this event.  I sub-title my post “Anti-War Portraits” for reasons I hope are obvious as you scroll through this blog post.  Here are my photographs roughly in the order taken.

Edith and Nydia
Edith and Nydia, from Manhattan, are members of the Granny Peace Brigade, a group dedicated to peace, justice and human rights and with connections to several other similar women's organizations, such as Code Pink, Gray Panthers, and The Raging Grannies.

Nydia and Jacques

Nydia and Jacques
We've already met Nydia (at least as seen from the back).  Here she is talking to Jacques, who is from the Bronx.  At the bottom of the sign carried by Jacques, we read ""  This is an anti-war umbrella group formed after the September 11th attacks, and its acronym stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.  Brian Becker, its national coordinator, believes that in reference to Iran America has been creating an artificial crisis in order to foment regime change.  Here is an interview with Becker.

Shayan, seen here in the center, now lives in Brooklyn, but is from Iran.  His sign, "Fight the Bankers, not Iran," is courtesy of the International Action Center, an activist group founded by Ramsey Clark that opposes any and all U.S. military intervention.  The connection between bankers and Iran is unclear, but several groups (including Ron Paul) claim that international central bankers want to regain control of the market for Iranian oil.  That is because, since early 2008, Iran quit trading its oil with U.S. dollars;  instead, it now uses the Euro and its own rial, thus creating the only market not dominated by the dollar:  the Iranian Oil Bourse, or Oil Bourse in Kish.

The Raging Grannies and their Daughters
The Raging Grannies is an international movement which began in British Columbia in 1987, now boasting "gaggles" or chapters all over the globe.  Their stated goals are to "promote global peace, justice and social and economic equality by raising consciousness through song parodies and satire."

Model of an Unmanned Drone
The stealth drone, or more properly, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has become the weapon of choice for our fight against modern terrorist groups in foreign countries.  These scale models of drones hovering over Times Square (and Zuccotti Park when it was occupied by OWS) generate a surreal atmosphere of a looming, mechanical menace.  Significantly, Iran now has one of our surveillance drones which landed on its soil (or was downed by its forces) during an operation over western Afghanistan in late November, 2011.

Crowd: Duffy Square, Looking North

Sign Cluster: Duffy Square

Stars Aren't Born...
All these protest signs, seen in the context of Times Square, are almost like some special form of urban camouflage, given that the exterior of most of the surrounding buildings are already covered with signs and digital billboards.  Times Square is the paradigm of the building-as-billboard, or the "Bill-Ding Board," as American Architect Robert Venturi labelled the phenomenon in the early 1970s.  The peace demonstrators in Duffy Square are simply adding a new layer to this wonderful urban collage.

Jack below George M. Cohan Statue
Jack, who came in from Coney Island, holds up two signs.  In his left hand, we see an ironic and contradictory sign about bombing Iran (but sparing its Persian culture).  In his right hand is a sign with references to "the third UN."  If Jack is promoting the third UN, then he is embracing those groups neither employed by a government nor by the UN secretariat--in other words, that growing body of outsiders such as independent experts, scholars and consultants and other NGOs.  These are people whose position as outsiders allows them to be more critical and to make bolder suggestions than any insider would dare to do.  However, Jack's affect, both in dress and in his jester-like behavior, would seem to call into question the strategic importance of that sign.  So, to me, he remains a bit of an enigma.

By the way, Jack stands at the base of the statue of George M. Cohan, the man considered to be the father of American musical comedy.  Among the many popular songs of this composer, playwright and producer is Give My Regards to Broadway, which more than explains his central position in Duffy Square.  The statue was dedicated in 1959 and designed by American sculptor, Georg John Lober, who also designed the statue of Hans Christian Andersen in Central Park.

Pat, dressed in his psychedelic, painted jeans and jeans jacket, came in from Hackensack, NJ to participate in this event.  He must feel right at home among the bright neon signs of the square.

Socialists Table
The International Socialists Organization set up a table of books and literature at the south end of Duffy Square.  Although right-wing America uses the term "socialism" as if it were the most heinous of four-letter words and promiscuously misapplies it to its democratic target-of-the-moment, the word most basically refers to the support of the production of goods for public use as opposed to private profit.  Socialism only came to be seen as a movement in opposition to capitalism in the late 19th century.

Today's International Socialist Organization is committed to stop the war in Iraq, to fight against racism, the scapegoating of immigrants, and anti-gay bigotry, and to support the broad struggle for women's and worker's rights:   is this really a set of goals that we want to demonize?

Cynthia, shown here on our right holding up the Ron Paul sign, lives in Brooklyn and proudly says that she represents "Artists for Ron Paul."  Certainly, Ron Paul's consistent stance on non-intervention and against wars of aggression and their entangling alliances, justifies his presence at this anti-war rally.  It should also be noted that, in anticipation of growing talk about Iran, Paul berated his Republican opponents in December in Iowa for wanting to follow Iraq with another "useless" war.  

Still, this rally has nothing to do with the ongoing Republican primary fights, and so a sign for a political candidate seems a bit out of place here, as also, some would argue, is the sign's grand scale.

And here is one who would make this latter argument: Rosa from the Bronx.  Whenever the two handlers of the unwieldy Paul sign tried to show it off to the crowd, Rosa would stand in front of the sign in an attempt to block it from the view of the crowd.  Inadvertently, the three were partaking of a delightful piece of choreography.  Unfortunately for the Paul (sign) bearers, Rosa was both much more fashionably dressed and, given her South American background, a much better Salsa and Samba dancer.  She continued to claim her place in front of the Paul sign.

The sign Rosa holds up calls for the stop of US involvement in the murdering of Iranian (nuclear) scientists.  Certainly assassination is a truly heinous crime and should be condemned.  On the other hand, it is far from clear that the United States had anything to do with the recent assassinations.  Mossad is a much more likely suspect, as is an Iranian terrorist group referred to as MEK (or MKO).

On the Move: Down Broadway

Ryan: Broadway Plaza
As the demonstrators left Duffy Square on its way south and east toward the United Nations, they were able to take advantage of the new pedestrian plaza that has been carved out of the Broadway car lanes.  This urban design change has created an amenity not only for New York pedestrians but also for the police, whose job stopping automobile traffic and keeping marchers safe, must now be much easier.

The Broadway pedestrian plaza was begun in 2010 and offers seating areas in what was once roadway on Broadway between 47-42nd Streets and again between 35-33rd Streets.  It has facilitated a festival-like atmosphere in which the pedestrian in Times Square and Herald Square is not merely walking on a crowded sidewalk, but also sitting, reading, eating, gawking without danger of being run over, and being the flaneur, to use Baudelaire's term for one who soaks in the art made of people on the streets of the city.

In the lower picture, Ryan (in leather jacket), who had come in from Tampa, FL, sits in the plaza just above 43rd Street eating his lunch as the demonstrators file by him.  What an introduction to the city: a front-row reviewing stand...or maybe those demonstrators become Ryan's personal welcoming procession!

Stacey, also from Florida, came from Orlando.  However,  she has been in New York for a while and has been active in the OWS movement, even when its participants were still sleeping in Zuccotti Park [scroll back to see my previous four blogs on OWS].  Getting a decent picture of Stacey was nearly impossible, because she was continually gliding past me on her in-line skates.

Finally, this is where I parted ways with the demonstrators, and Usabio makes an appropriate ending, because his signs take us beyond this particular event.  Usabio is a teacher from Jackson Heights, Queens, and his sign refers to the Republican Governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, who gave his party's response to President Obama's State of the Union message.

As you may recall, Daniels introduced that most inane of phrases--"trickle down government" which he then pinned on Obama.  Interestingly, because of his intended derogatory implications for this phrase, Daniels may be the first Republican ever to admit, inadvertently, the complete ineffectiveness of one of his party's cherished concepts: "the trickle-down theory," an essential part of Reaganomics and supply-side economics.

In his response speech, Daniels than falsely blamed President Obama for our unemployment and our national debt, for dividing our nation and its peoples, for disparaging "people in business" and carrying out a "pro-poverty policy."  He even had the chutzpah to insist that congressional Republicans were totally innocent of placing "obstacles" in the way of progress and he assured the nation that Republicans "put patriotism and national success ahead of party or ideology or any self-interest."  Talk about psychological projection!--I know, we weren't until I brought it up; but what a bunch of lies.

May I remind you that, before becoming Governor of Indiana, Daniels was George W. Bush's first budget director (2001-2003).  As Ezra Klein points out, in this capacity, Daniels "oversaw the first round of tax cuts, and the initial cost estimates of the war in Iraq, and the development of the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. During his time as Bush’s budget director, the deficit increased by almost $200 billion. After he left, the policies he helped pass would add trillions more to the deficit. They are still adding to the deficit today.”  Yet, somehow, Daniels has deluded himself into thinking that this mess is all Obama's fault.

I can't endorse Usabio's sign calling for an invasion of Indiana, but I can understand his anger at a governor who takes absolutely no responsibility for his mistaken policies that put our country in such an economic hole, and then who turns around and blames it all on President Obama.  No, let's not invade Indiana, but let's be sure to keep one eye on the real threat behind our domestic problems while we keep our other eye on an equally threatening set of international issues. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Super Bowl, Star Spangled Singers, and Sulphuric Politics

Kelly Clarkson at Super Bowl XLVI

When I watch a professional sports playoff game, my anxieties peak at the singing of the national anthem, before any play begins.   I worry that the selected singer may falter on some of the more challenging passages, and I hope the singer will retain enough of the standard version to appeal to all viewers.  The Star Spangled Banner, with its interval jumps and register extremes, can challenge many singers.   As Tom Everett of the Harvard Bands observes, “Our national anthem, with the exception of the middle section, is not the most lyrical or easiest to sing.”

With that said, most (but not all) of the performances at major events, like the Super Bowl and the World Series, are quite passable.  One exception that comes to mind might be Christina Aguilera’s version for last year’s Super Bowl, which I found pretty painful.

However, this blog post isn’t about how  The Star Spangled Banner ought or ought not to be sung.  It grew out of an e-mail I received from my friend,  Jim.  Apparently,  Jim had received an e-mail from one of his friends, forwarded from someone else, which he then forwarded to me.  The title of this e-mail was: “National Anthem at the Super Bowl--an editorial.”

Jim simply introduced it to me with these words: “Thought you would appreciate this.”

I can’t say whether the original writer of this “editorial” was referring to our most recent Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in his critical remarks.  In my opinion, Kelly Clarkson’s rendition earlier this month was just fine, even if not as positively memorable as Whitney Houston at XXV.... 

Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV

Jennifer Hudson at Super Bowl XLIII

However, I do think that the writer has a point.  Here  [in red]  is what he wrote, preceded  [in blue]  by a remark by whomever had forwarded this e-mail to Jim:

Don’t know who wrote this, but I totally agree. I wish some of these pop star divas would read this and take it to heart.

Our sentiments EXACTLY… AMEN!

“So, with all the kindness I can muster, I give this one piece of advice to the next pop star who is asked to sing the national anthem at a sporting event: save the vocal gymnastics and the physical gyrations for your concerts. Just sing this song the way you were taught to sing it in kindergarten — straight up, no styling. Sing it with the constant awareness that there are soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines watching you from bases and outposts all over the world. Don’t make them cringe with your self-centered ego gratification. Sing it as if you are standing before a row of 86-year-old WWII vets wearing their Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and flag pins on their cardigans and you want them to be proud of you for honoring them and the country they love — not because you want them to think you are a superstar musician. They could see that from the costumes, the makeup and the entourages. Sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with the courtesy and humility that tells the audience that it is about America , not you.”

If you agree, please pass this on. The entertainers need to get the message!

I never met a U.S. Veteran who fought for socialism. 

Having read the above, I replied to Jim’s e-mail as follows:

Dear Jim:

I concur with the sentiment expressed in the “editorial” to our pop singers.  What they do is often questionable, and sometimes less than musical.   I, too, usually cringe at some point in the singing.

On the other hand, I was totally unprepared and thrown for a loop by the writer's final sentence.  What a foolish non sequitur.   What does the singing have to do with "socialism?"   If the writer is implying that, because the singer is "butchering" our national anthem, he/she must be a "socialist,"  (and thus not a true American),  then the writer falls into a related form of "self-centered gratification" of which he is accusing our pop singers.

So, sadly, after writing a piece that could have won over almost every reader (at least of those over 50), Republican or Democrat, the writer then adds a totally unrelated sentence that turns off at least 50% of his readership.   With 9 ill-chosen words, the writer manages to undermine the somewhat justifiable purpose of his plea to respect our national anthem and calls into question his own status as a thoughtful person.   And "thoughtful" is the operative word here, because any person who actively thinks for herself/himself would never fall for the insane nonsense that our right wing tosses out, so egregiously, in its attempt to villify the word "socialism" and then pin it onto the democratic donkey.

Thanks so much for sending me this.  I truly do appreciate your interest in keeping me informed.  But I'm also saddened to realize that even honest efforts to sing our national anthem fall prey to the dishonest vitriol of political name-calling.

Sincerely yours,


Monday, February 13, 2012

Political Reality Checks--Whose News Do You Trust?

Dear Rob:
I read your recent e-mail about a neighbor of yours who had some negative comments about George Soros and  In it, you bemoan the fact that you “can’t believe anyone any more [because] they seem to twist everything to fit their agenda.”  I sympathize with the constraints to engaging in social and political discussions with ones neighbors in today’s heated climate.
Given your rather idyllic, rural existence, you also may feel a greater need to treat neighbors more gently than someone living in a more highly populated environment.  This particularly may apply to a neighbor who holds strong opinions divergent from yours:  the greater your  disagreement, the more you must weigh the value of either engaging him in some form of intellectual discourse, and risk being branded un-neighborly, or simply remaining a silent, and thus supportive, listener.
When I lived in central Pennsylvania, a fairly conservative part of that state, and especially when I drove up to Manheim to play tennis at my club there, I had to decide, daily, whether to talk politics and be the lone voice of progressive and liberal ideas or just play tennis!   Usually, I did the latter;  but as the 2008 elections neared, I took a certain delight in wearing my Obama cap when I played, for which I took a lot of flak.  This kept me on my toes on the doubles court, a bit like Lewis Carroll’s “Father William.” To wit:
"You are old," said the youth, "And your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"
"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life."
All I can say is that you and your lovely wife have great educations and a breadth of experience that ought to buttress you somewhat from what appears to be a strain of vehement and radical conservatism in this particular neighbor.  All you can do is to believe in yourself.   But then, you also have access to the internet;  reliable sources there will provide you with a reality-check on almost any issue.
For example, your neighbor calls George Soros a "dangerous and frightening man."  Outside of the fact that Soros supports progressive and liberal causes, which your neighbor seems to hate, what does he know of the man?  Does he know that Soros gave away over $8 billion to the causes of human rights, public health, and education?  Can your neighbor really be against the promotion of such worthwhile causes?
Does he know that Soros played an instrumental role in helping Hungary, the country of his birth, to transition from communism to capitalism?  Certainly, your neighbor should applaud anyone who helped overturn a communist country (which I am sure ranks near the top of his list of hated things),  and then double his applause for one who led Hungary towards capitalism (which must rank at the top of things he reveres).
George Soros is also the creator and chairman of the Open Society Institute, which, beginning in 1993, was dedicated to promoting democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal and social reform to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union;  its operations have also spread to other parts of the world, such as Africa.  I can imagine some die-hard communist calling Soros a “dangerous and frightening man,” but hardly any thoughtful and patriotic American citizen!
I’m not sure what your friend’s sources of information are.  A likely source is FoxNews--really more of a right-wing propaganda outfit than a real news source--and, as I see it, America’s equivalent for the sort of biased news reporting that Tass once fed to the citizens of communist Russia.  Another possible source could be statements made by some of our politicians who are stumping the country right now on the electoral road, saying whatever is expedient for the audience before them at any particular moment.
For example, I can imagine someone making generalized, negative remarks about George Soros in the way that Newt Gingrich has lately been tossing out derogatory references to Saul Alinsky, as if he were the devil incarnate.  Gingrich is smart enough to not say too much, but he regularly has been equating Obama with “the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.”  That’s all that his conservative base needs to hear--some guy with a funny name, Alinsky, is clearly a terrible threat to everything American.  Yet Alinsky, a community organizer and writer, has been compared to Thomas Paine as “one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left,” and the methods he developed have been embraced and applied by many people, including Newt Gingrich.  Talk about biting the hand that feeds you while also misinforming the public!
Then, again, your neighbor may be reading the work of such conservative bloggers as Selwyn Duke, who has called Soros “the Most Evil Man in America,”   or the highly conservative newspaper, Human Events, which published an article in April of 2011 titled “Top 10 Reasons George Soros Is Dangerous.”  Neither are reputable news sources.
Then there is  Your neighbor writes that he “has a lot against,” this organization which “is largely funded by George Soros.”   Right-wing pundits and bloggers constantly link MoveOn and Soros as if they were Siamese twins, but here is the reality.   MoveOn was started in 1998 by two entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd.  It took its name from its original petition asking Congress to stop wasting valuable time and money, “censure President Clinton and move on.”  Now, during the 2004 election cycle, George Soros backed the Voter Fund, a Democratic 527 organization.  However, stopped receiving any donations to its 527 organization after the 2004 election, and its primary funding has been from its members, whose average donation is ca. $50.00.  George Soros does not fund  That is the reality, no matter how often FoxNews and right-wing pundits say otherwise. 
Finally, your neighbor also sent you an article by Matthew Continetti on “Combat Journalism: Taking the Fight to the Left” and suggests that it offers a view of journalism today that he feels rings true.  Since I have been planning to write a blog post at some future date on what we could call the 4th Estate, I won’t respond to this article in any detail.
However, be aware that Continetti repeats a favorite conservative trope which holds that most journalists today are promoters of left-wing and progressive ideology, because today’s journalists must have college degrees and come out of graduate journalism programs.  What “hogwash!”  This falls into the same category as Rick Santorum’s call to all Christians to stop contributing to America’s institutions of higher learning because they brainwash and indoctrinate our children in liberal ideology.
Continetti then hails the rise of conservative journalism since the 1980s with The New York Post, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News, calling them a counter to the “biased news” of the New York Times, Washington Post, and (pre-Murdoch) Wall Street Journal.  He then concludes his piece by touting his own paper, the Washington Free Beacon, which ostensibly will reveal the real issues behind the news, or, as he writes, “the half that the elite media have taken such pains to ignore.”
Here is his conclusion:  At the Beacon, all friends of freedom will find an alternative to the hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, paranoid hyperbole, and insipid folderol of Democratic officials and the liberal gasbags on MSNBC and talk radio.  At the Beacon, we follow only one commandment: Do unto them.”
It would seem to me that the most egregious examples of “hackneyed spin, routine misstatements, [and] paranoid hyperbole,” are to be found on FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh, The New York Post  and the Washington Times.   Simply put, the entire notion of a dominating liberal media is nonsense.  It is a phrase that has been repeated ad nauseam and daily for so many decades that people just assume it must be true.  It's not.  Select your news sources judiciously.
Stay well, my friend, and hold on to your solid, reasonable convictions; stay silent, if you must, in respect to your neighbors.  I always look forward to hearing from you.
Yours truly,  Tyko

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Clint Eastwood, Chrysler, and the Super Bowl Ad

As a group, automobile advertisements on TV may certainly be nowhere near as bad as the bulk of sophomoric ads for the more popular American beers. Nevertheless, they rarely manage to generate any sort of appeal, at least for me. Too many of them focus on the testosterone of fast driving, four-wheel drifts, and even four wheels off the ground, jumping some abyss, as if Evel Knevel were back in action.

For the most part, TV ads adhere to a fairly narrow set of themes, depending upon what sort of product is being featured.  Cars reveal their sleekness and power,  beers their loyal, hard-partying twenty-somethings,  detergents their comparative excellence in stain removal.

For me, the constant in all of these ads is how ineffective they are in appealing to my interest in purchasing the product.  I may marvel at the amounts of money spent to produce them.  I may admire the sophisticated visual production of many of them (even as I fail to recall the featured product).   Yet, I confess to an enormous difficulty in understanding why any thoughtful person would ever succumb to their transparent promotions.

But then I saw It's Halftime In America, David Gordon Greene’s ad for Chrysler cars,  narrated by Clint Eastwood, which appeared during halftime at the televising of the Super Bowl.  I was captivated.  I was blown away.   In fact, it gave me goosebumps; and, when I watched it again on You Tube in order to transcribe the exact wording, I actually teared up at its message.

Certainly, this must be the effect that advertisers seek, but hardly ever get.  This ad grabbed something so visceral in me that, had I not retired three years ago, moved to New York City, and thus sold both our cars, I would be visiting some dealership this week, trading in my Prius or Audi and selecting my new (and first ever) Chrysler.   Never in my life have I responded like this to an advertisement.   In fact, if I had any response at all to an ad in the past, it was one of disdain or possibly disgust.    This ad, however,  It’s Halftime in America, ranks as the best advertisement that I have ever seen in my entire life of seven decades!

Just as the message of the ad touts the importance of teamwork, so the unequalled quality of the ad itself is the product of the highest level of teamwork--Clint Eastwood as narrator, David Gordon Greene as director, Matthew Dickman and Smith Henderson as writers, the advertising firm of Weiden & Kennedy, and I’m-not-sure-who for the music.  

All is spot-on:  Eastwood’s gorgeous, gravelly voice;  the writers' moving words that conjure up our patriotic faith in this country;
subtle and subdued musical orchestration, dominated by low register brass to create a serious, yet resolute, mood;  the visual images of people, places and events around America, some evoking another challenging period, the Great Depression, as captured by Dorothea Lange. 

Subtlety is the hallmark of the entire two-minute presentation of It's Halftime In America:   Eastwood is merely a dark silhouette at first--his voice is his presence--and only at the end do we see his iconic face.   So, too, the product is withheld: we briefly see a front fender of the Jeep, and then a brief, distant shot of an assembly line--no hood shots with logos, no stunt driving, no attempts to show the car in all its sexiness.   Only at the end, as the images give way to the text, “Imported from Detroit,” do the product names emerge below: Ram,   Dodge,   Jeep,   Chrysler.

Even if you have seen this ad before, please watch it again and, if you wish, follow its text which I provide here below.

Here is the ad, It’s Halftime In America, and its text: 

It’s half time. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.  

It’s half time for America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting, and they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback; and we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.  

The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything.   But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again.  

I’ve seen a lot of tough service; a lot of downturns in my life; times when we didn’t understand each other; it seems that we’ve lost our heart at times.  

The fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.  

But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one....because that’s what we do.   We find a way through tough times and if we can’t find a way, we make one.  

All that matters now it’s what’s ahead, how do we come from behind; how do we come together; and how do we win?  

Detroit’s showing us it can be done,  and what’s true about them is true about all of us.   This country can’t be knocked out with one punch.   We’d get right back up again, and when we do the world’s hearing the roar of our engines.  


It’s half time in America, and our second half is about to begin. 

Imported from Detroit 

Now that you have watched the ad, I invite you to read the text again, but with a few, added interpretive annotations [in blue].  I annotate it because, like any great work of art--which it is--it embraces metaphor, expands beyond its ostensible purpose, and lends itself to interpretation. Yet, I will hold these annotations to a bare minimum because they pale against the expressive power of the ad itself.

"It’s half time. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half."  
[The ad is part of the Super Bowl show, not a separate entity; in contrast to this, most ads are non sequiturs that can appear with any program and have no kinship to the program]

"It’s half time for America, too.  People are out of work and they’re hurting, and they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback; and we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game."  
[The ad expands from the immediate event to our shared life and experiences as Americans in 2012.  It also emphasizes that our situation is more important than even this most important of football games]

"The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything.  But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again."
[The ad gives focus to America’s general crisis and to that of a particularly hard-hit city and the home of the product, Chrysler.  The “we all” who pulled together to rescue Detroit and Chrysler can be interpreted as both the Bush Administration in its last year and the Obama Administration with their stimulus package, even though some present (Republican) members of America's “team” have chosen not to play ball because they are so determined to undermine President Obama, and thus our country as well]

"I’ve seen a lot of tough service; a lot of downturns in my life; times when we didn’t understand each other; it seems that we’ve lost our heart at times."

[The ad makes the narrator, Eastwood, not merely a disembodied voice, but an individual who is also affected by our malaise. We may infer that he represents some hard-bitten member of Detroit’s working-class]

"The fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead."

[The ad offers a covert admission to the partisan, political divisions that mire our progress; the implication is that, before the second half begins, we (America) need to get our entire team--Republicans and Democrats--on the same page]

"But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one....because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times,  and if we can’t find a way, we make one."  

[The ad stresses the importance of teamwork, which enables us to do what we like to think Americans do--find a way to overcome adversity.  How can any American find fault with this sentiment?]

"All that matters now it’s what’s ahead, how do we come from behind; how do we come together; and how do we win?"  

[These are actually the big question marks, and, with a leap, they could be interpreted as the essential questions before Congress in the coming months]

"Detroit’s showing us it can be done, and what’s true about them is true about all of us.  This country can’t be knocked out with one punch.  We’d get right back up again, and when we do the world’s hearing the roar of our engines."  

[Again, with that leap, we can read this as saying that Detroit has revived with the help and cooperation of two administrations; America needs to stay the course set by that example, and, if it succeeds in so doing, it can still be a world leader]


"It’s half time in America, and our second half is about to begin."

“Imported from Detroit”
[The American automobile industry began to rebound by the summer of 2010, and this trend has continued to the point where they are now announcing profits, and so there are several intriguing meanings to the use of the word, "imported"]

Friday, February 3, 2012

Daniel Henninger, Obama's Speech, and the Wall Street Journal

Dear Jim:

Thank you for sending me Daniel Henninger’s Wall Street Journal article, “Obama’s Maddening, Winning Speech” (Feb. 2, 2012).  I read it with interest, but also with some astonishment at what I perceived as a questionable display of bias, right at its very beginning. In my opinion, this was hardly appropriate for a journal of such high reputation.

These are Henninger’s opening words: “His poorly received State of the Union speech deserves a second look.” My response to this is, “Wow! poorly whom, exactly?”  I, for one, thought that SOTU was a pretty darn good speech.   But then, Henninger loses no time to imply that I must be in the minority--or let’s be accurate, I ought to infer this because of his second sentence, where Henninger suggests that those who contribute to “conventional wisdom [have] pronounced the SOTU a relatively weak Obama effort.”

So much for what I thought I heard Obama say.  Or maybe, I should start to worry about the quality of my mind!   I must say that I consider Henninger’s entire first paragraph (4 sentences worth) an affront to his readers and a mode of writing more appropriate to propaganda than to intelligent, reasoned discourse.   Maybe he’s simply concerned that, were he to begin in a more neutral way, his readers may arrive at opinions different from his own.  Still, his beginning is demeaning.

Let’s dispense with his introductory remarks and get to the meat of his article, which seems to be the economy.  Henninger writes that Obama is “going to take ownership of the American economy. Not the real one, but the one he’s just made up.”  Once more, my response is one of incredulity:   Did he just accuse President Obama of fabricating reality, of creating a fictional economy?

What a classic piece of Republican projection: of Republicans accusing the Democrat of doing that which they regularly seem to do themselves.    Just who is it who has been making up stuff and creating a fictional reality over the past several years, if not Republicans?   After all, our economic crisis is a child of their policies, of their indefensible tax cuts, and of a steady stream of their deregulation policies.

Let us not forget that Henninger wrote this piece just two days ago, at a time when we have had new information about our economic status.   Has he consciously ignored the “inconvenient” facts that in December our economy had created 203,000 new, non-farm jobs and in January added another 243,000?   Is he unaware that our unemployment rate dropped in January from 8.5% to 8.3%?   Exactly who is making up what here?

A bit further on in his article, Henninger decides to bring the weight of truth to bear on Obama’s speech, and so he cites “Washington’s policy sophisticates” as if this referred to some generally understood and specific body of infallible, ultimate judges.   He indicates that he is worried about the fact that “a speech that flopped among Washington's policy sophisticates is soaring out in the country.”   Who are these “sophisticates?” Since he never says (transparency, anyone?), I will suggest that they may constitute a small coterie of members of the Heritage Foundation, or they may not even exist.

What I find particularly delicious about this reference to “policy sophisticates” is that the entire Republican field of presidential candidates has been tripping over itself to separate from “Washington insiders” and, at the same time, using the word “elite” as if it were the most heinous of adjectives in existence.   Yet, here is Henninger, an arch conservative and Fox News contributor (besides being Deputy Editorial Page Director for the Wall Street Journal) embracing the expertise of some unmentioned group of elitist Washington insiders.

That’s wonderful. But there’s even more about Henninger’s manipulative way of writing, of coercing his reader.   When he wants to insure that his readers know where to position themselves on a topic (and jump on his bandwagon like high schoolers at a pre-game pep-rally), he uses clauses like “any half-awake citizen will notice...,” or he begins a paragraph condescendingly: “Mr. Obama may not know much about the private economy, but...” I would hope that such wording immediately would raise warning flags in the minds of most readers.

However, the most amazing thing in Henninger’s essay is his penultimate paragraph.  Here it is, in its entirety:   “The GOP is appealing, as its candidates so often do, to the American brain. Barack Obama is happy to be left by himself, going for their hearts. If he wins, the Republican will wail at the unfairness, irrationality and illogic of what beat them.”

Who is he trying to kid?  Did he really say that the GOP candidates, those brave knights of the Right, are appealing to the “American brain?” Is he seriously implying that it is the Democrats who have been acting and speaking illogically and irrationally?

Let’s take a quick look at those GOP candidates, Henninger’s saints of truth, intellect and logic.   If Romney were appealing to the “American brain,” he wouldn’t tell blatant lies, like he recently did when he said that our safety-net programs have “massive overhead” when, in fact the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that between 90-99% of dollars allocated to safety-net programs reach the beneficiaries. This is just the latest of a litany of nearly daily lies that Romney states as he tries to win over one constituency or another.

Is Gingrich really appealing to the “American brain” when he argues that he did not lobby for Freddie Mac?  Are we to believe that Freddie Mac paid him over $1.6 million for his good looks and his questionable cred as a historian?   Or, even more mind-boggling, are we to believe that the “American brain” can take seriously Gingrich’s promise to create an American colony on the Moon within less than a decade?

If Henninger’s “American brain” is a powerful and well-trained brain, can it possibly embrace Santorum’s argument that America’s colleges and universities are merely centers for the indoctrination of left-wing ideology?   This is what Santorum told his audience-of-the-day last week (members of the Naples, FL First Baptist Church) and he urged them to stop giving any money to America’s institutions of higher education!  The crux of Santorum’s argument was that, by giving money to American universities and colleges, we “are undermining the very principles of our country every single day.”

I don’t believe that Henninger can agree with this (and I’m certain that the “American brain” would not).

Then there is--or in some cases, was--the rest of the Republican candidate pool.   Rick Perry was named one of the worst governors in the nation by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and has been plagued by unethical campaign financing, lack of transparency, putting partisanship above his Texas citizens, and personal use of campaign funds. There’s a no-brainer for you.

Michelle Bachmann probably tells a lie/day when given the opportunity of a public forum, and PolitiFact has probably burned up half of her large wardrobe in assigning her statements its “Pants on Fire” rating.    Her lies are like salted peanuts: were I to cite one example, I wouldn’t be able to stop, and I’m sure that you all have your favorites already.

Then we arrive at the absolute insanity of Herman Cain’s 9% flat tax, or what he calls his 999 economic plan.   Is there a thinking brain that can embrace it?  His is a regressive tax which would hurt the poor much more than the wealthy (as do all the various Republican plans being floated, by the way) and it would cut the Federal revenue in half.   This is hardly a way to fix a struggling economy.

Given the fact that Ron Paul has made many outrageous anti-semitic comments in his past, has endorsed the doctrine of “nullification” which gives states the right to reject Federal laws, and apparently remains opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is hard for the thoughtful “American brain” to even dig down below this smog to some of Paul’s foundational positions that, some may argue, merit discussion: his isolationist stance and his ideas about the Federal Reserve and the gold standard.

Then, of course, there is Donald Trump.  But he has cleverly taken himself out of the race, and for good reason. He has an associate who is an unindicted co-conspirator in a massive 2000 stock swindle, two other associates who served prison time on cocaine charges, and a partner who was prosecuted for trafficking underage girls off the Turkish coast.   For these reasons, no clear-thinking “American brain” would even get as far as questioning the logic of Trump taking up the cause of the Birthers.

Unless I missed a candidate (I spared us Sarah Palin, because she never officially threw her name in the ring), we are left with Jon Huntsman.   Unfortunately, Republican voters have been too influenced by their conservative wing and the Tea Party to give much consideration to the sole candidate who really could appeal to a thinking person. When he only received 4% of the Republican vote in South Carolina, Huntsman, the one true intellectual among the lot, was forced to withdraw.

Now, in conclusion, let me return to the Henninger article and its source, the Wall Street Journal.   As I recall, Jim, you and I were discussing great newspapers over Thanksgiving dinner, and you cited the Wall Street Journal to counter my vote for the New York Times as among the best papers in the world.  My response was that, ever since it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch, the WSJ could no longer hold a candle to the NYT.  I then encouraged you to send me a WSJ article sometime that you considered evidence of its continued greatness.

It may be that you sent me the Henninger article for some reason other than as evidence of journalistic prowess. Even so, I am a bit at a loss to understand what it was that you saw in this article that made you think that Henninger--or this particular piece by him--might persuade me that the Journal still can compete with the Times.   If this is the best you can find, I sadly refer you to Joe Nocera’s less-than-flattering op-ed piece from July of 2011, the title of which is “The Journal Becomes Fox-ified.”  For the time being, I rest my case and happily return to reading the Times, still the best paper in the world. 

As ever,


PS: This is a different friend named Jim, for those who recall my blog post of May 22, 2001: "Letter to Jim: Helprin's Hillsdale Commencement Address."