And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy

When then-President Richard Nixon sat down at the piano on the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1974, he was reinforcing a conservative, polemical wall of sound to help contain several decades of transformational popular music, from blues and jazz to rock & roll. Music was the last thing on his mind.

As part of his notorious race-based “southern strategy,” Nixon led the efforts of conservative elites to co-opt American country-western music. He got the idea from George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, which Wallace had filled with country stars like Hank Snow and Hank Williams Jr.

At his Grand Old Opry gig, Nixon bragged that White House performances by Merle Haggard and others had been huge successes with his “very sophisticated audiences” because the country singers spoke to “the heart of America.” He was lying, of course. In his diary, Nixon aide Bob Haldeman confessed that the Haggard concert “was pretty much a flop because the audience had no appreciation for country/western music and there wasn’t much rapport.”

Nixon’s tricky fib and Haldeman’s confession are just more evidence of conservative elites’ cynical manipulation of lower middle class whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and other transformative rebellions of the 1960s. Nixon had nothing in common with Merle Haggard’s audience. Blueblood George H.W. Bush had nothing in common with Lee Greenwood’s audience when he deployed Greenwood in his 1988 campaign. That didn’t mean they couldn’t pretend.

The right-wing colonization of country music is still very much in play. Continue reading “And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy”

Mesmerized by the Right

When our sideshow news cablists, the White House, the NAACP and others began their carnival barking outside Andrew Breitbart’s tent once again – this time echoing Brietbart’s slander of Shirley Sherrod – the predictable puerility followed. The White House apologized and blamed the media culture, Fox News denied its role, pundits claimed the high ground and called for Sherrod’s reinstatement. The NAACP’s quick admission – “we were snookered” – was the only adult behavior around.

It’s a rare day that Sarah Palin, the Klondike Queen of Kooks, doesn’t get a front-page turn on Huffington Post. Left, Right, Middle or Ozone, commentators of all stripes are mesmerized by the Right. No matter how nutty, nasty or distant from reality, the extremists talk and the whole political sphere gets all rubbernecked.

I’ve fought white conservatives’ annual voter suppression and intimidation campaigns for decades in the South. It was and is hard to get attention on the issue. But let a couple of black guys dressed up as New Black Panthers hang around an African-American polling place in Philadelphia, and FoxNews has America thinking the Liberty Bell down the street has finally fallen apart.

When CBS News’ Bob Schieffer somehow avoided the Right’s hypnotists on this unscandal and failed to make it a subject on “Face the Nation,” Fox’s Megan Kelly was so shocked she attacked Schieffer on the air. That’s how accustomed the Right is to having its daily way with the minds of America’s newsies and pundit class.

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Interview with John Waters about his new book Role Models

John Waters
John Waters photograph © Greg Gorman

How lucky we are that John Waters grew up with such a strong obsessive streak and that he has befriended his neuroses and harnessed the little buggers’ energy to shine a beacon of light on the margins, the misfits, the fringe, the forgotten, and on the seedy underbelly of contemporary culture and, invariably, shows us sweetness. The filmmaker, writer, and visual artist has espoused a desire to be considered a “filth elder.” To borrow his words about Tennessee Williams, John Waters is “a bad influence… in the best sense of the word.” Okay, that’s actually stealing but also leaving behind a handwritten IOU, nay, “We Owe You” thank you note for keeping us in touch with our inner juvenile delinquent.

For the last forty years he has worn his iconic pencil-thin moustache and for the last twenty he has been a disciple of fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and dressed in a look he calls “disaster at the dry cleaners.” Through his many many artistic contributions (like being among the handful of filmmakers who can take credit for the theatrical “midnight movie” phenomenon and his imperfectly perfect films like Polyester, Hairspray, and Pecker) we have come to know his passion, charisma, and his distinctive firebrand sense of humor. I mistakenly presumed that the title Pecker character (played by Edward Furlong and who snapped his way into the New York art world) was a nod to Waters’ personal history. Yet in his DVD commentary, he noted that Pecker’s candy addict sister, Little Chrissy, was where Waters really showed his hand (he can’t keep confectionery at home). But I also couldn’t help wonder if John Waters is a man who plays his cards a little close to his chest. Well, they are now all on the table with the release of his new book Role Models [Farrar, Straus and Giroux].

John Waters Role Models Book Jacket
Jacket illustration by Eric Hanson

Role Models is a compendium of the people who’ve had a profound influence on John Waters, the person. As someone who has long viewed Mr. Waters as an American original and who has great regard for his keen insight, wit, storytelling, and iconoclasm, I must honestly say that I was unprepared for this book’s emotional largess, its naked sincerity, the tender eloquence, and the grand literary leap of Waters’ prose. Of course Role Models is fucking hilarious, but it is also, in turn, shocking, earnest, scary, and bizarrely wholesome as Waters weaves the reader through a tapestry of low and high culture, colorful characters, and cautionary tales. Waters is a massive bookworm and in praising a certain title he writes, “Sometimes when I want to feel smarter, I sneak up on this volume on my bookshelf and kiss it.” I may never get to first base with Role Models but a grateful, knowing wink is assured some day. I have not been able to shake this most incredible read.

I spoke to Mr. Waters on June 1st, the day Role Models was published. Unbeknownst to me, the phone number I had was for the front desk at the Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia. For a split-second I was surprised that an assistant or handler didn’t pick-up and then I wondered if Mr. Waters was prone to using cheeky pseudonyms. “Could I have Mr. Water’s room?” I asked flatly. And the woman on the other end replied, “Let me connect you.” After a mental high-five and two rings there was that voice, “Hello?” I pre-apologized about the likelihood of mispronouncing some names and Mr. Waters chimed, “Oh believe me, I know that. I had to read the whole book for the audio version and I realized I couldn’t pronounce some of them.” And with that we were under way.

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Fatal Fantasies of Our Technological Omnipotence

Behind the public’s impatience with President Obama and the Gulf Oil spill lie dangerous fantasies of technological American angels that can fly in an fix everything and anything. The same kind of fantasies, of course, lead a company like British Petroleum that they can overcome the unexpected with a combination of public relations savvy and technical know-how.

It’s not optimism. Optimism is reality based and healthy. It’s reality-defying denial. The New York Times had a weekend piece on this all-too-American trait. In it, the late physicist Richard Feynman is quoted:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

When Frank Rich is speculating that the oil spill will damage Obama, irony spills faster than oil in Gulf waters. George W. Bush was the President from the Oil Patch. Big Oil never had friends in high places like Bush and Dick Cheney. Now Sarah Palin, busy collecting oil company money more efficiently than a boom collects oil slicks, accuses Obama of being in the pocket of Big Oil.

And what do we make of Republicans who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub but shriek for federal assistance when economic, environmental and technological disasters strike near their homes?

When politics becomes dissociated from reality, bad things happen to good people, usually at the hands of bad people happy to exploit the virtual fantasy worlds they’ve helped invent. “Drill Baby Drill,” said Palin. There was never any considered thought given to what a BP-like disaster would do to the Gulf state fishing, shipping and tourist industries. Raising questions about it seemed out of place in the fantasies. Then disaster strikes and we turn into a nation of unruly children, wailing like infants who wail for their pacifiers after they throw them to the floor.

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Gone Fishin’

When ESPN did the empty-net story that Barack Obama planned to ban fishing, America reached a new level of ignorant media bloviating (pardon the redundancy).

Not even Matthew Continetti, author of the ridiculous book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin, can match the fish story pound for pound on the preposterous scale. Palin, like Wanda in A Fish Called Wanda, has double and triple-crossed her way to all the diamonds. As Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan said to Continetti Friday on Bill Maher’s Realtime, Palin’s “persecuted all the way to the bank.”

Anyway, here’s how ESPN’s outdoor writer Robert Montgomery put the newest Obama’s-gonna-get-you-if-you-don’t-watch-out conspiracy theory:

The Obama administration has ended public input for a federal strategy that could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing some of the nation’s oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters.

Sure ‘nough, a google search of “obama fishing ban” is already producing a quarter of a million hits. America should replace “e pluribus unum” with “hook, line and sinker.”

If I have it straight from the teacups, Obama’s going to take away our guns and our fishing poles, appoint death panels, turn America into an African Socialist Paradise, condemn all white people to second-class citizenry in a reverse apartheid, destroy Christianity in a secular humanist fit and, probably, cut in line at the movies.

Meanwhile, our ever-vigilant media keep legitimizing the nuttiness. By today’s media standards, Charles Manson was a respectable spiritual leader with a few bad-apple followers. Hey, they report, we deride.

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Democrats and the Rise of the New Confederacy

It’s hard to ignore the irony. The wannabe Republican heirs of George W. Bush gather in New Orleans, the city Bush’s callousness and ineptitude all but destroyed, to advance a movement best called the New Confederacy.

At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference here, Texas Gov. Rick Perry invoked his love for the Tenth Amendment, the New Confederacy’s code term for “get the black man out of the White House.”

Touting his states’ rights bona fides, [Perry] said, “I believe in the 10th Amendment with all my heart. Basically what is says is that the federal government was created to be an agent of the states, not the other way around.

Sarah Palin was here. So was Newt Gingrich. Mentions of Hurricane Katrina were few and far between. “We are so over Katrina,” said a New Orleans GOP activist. But the full collapse of the moral levees that once held back a tide of hatred and prejudice was evident. The New Confederacy – despite Mitt Romney’s one-vote win and Palin’s third-place finish in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference – is now the GOP’s dominant political force.

Republicans’ coded racist appeals, beginning with Richard Nixon’s infamous “southern strategy,” weakened the Democratic Party in the South. In the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, white voters fled the Democrats’ Big Tent for the Republicans’ Big Box, the wall-to-Walmart, magnolia-white land of confederate dreams.

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Beyond the Palin: She Got Her Health Care in Canada

SarahPalinSarah Palin admitted in a Canadian interview that her family used to go to Canada to receive health care. That would be Canada’s single-payer health care system.

The vocal opponent of health-care reform in the U.S. steered largely clear of the topic except to reveal a tidbit about her life growing up not far from Whitehorse.

“We used to hustle over the border for health care we received in Canada,” she said. “And I think now, isn’t that ironic?”

Isn’t that twisted, you mean. Palin has railed against the very idea of health care reform in this country, once going so far as to say there would be federal “death panels” who would decide who could live and who would die. But what does she turn to when she needs a doctor? You got it. A public option. In Canada.

Dogs bark. Birds fly. Politicians lie. There’s no real news here. But the monstrous hypocrisy of Republicans like Palin lying to prevent millions of Americans from getting the health care they need to stay alive while guaranteeing themselves good care — even at the cost of a trip to Canada — is beyond the Palin. So to speak.

Nearly half of America — Medicare, military personnel, federal retirees — already receive their health care from a public option. As far as I know, Peoria hasn’t turned to Stalinism. Dr. Trotsky is not performing tonsillectomies. Opponents of health care reform are bought-and-paid for shills of big insurance. They are being paid to turn you away from the doctor. Not really all that complicated a business arrangement.

America can extend health care to hardworking families AND it will lower the budget deficit that’s suddenly all the rage to worry about. Republicans didn’t mind George Bush tripling the deficit, of course. In any case, like I said, improving Americans’ health will lower, not raise, the deficit.

Goldman Sachs, by the way, is telling its clients to buy stock in big insurance companies, because their profits are up and competition is down. These are the same companies that are rejecting your claims or refusing you coverage altogether because you once had the measles.

Rick Perry’s Race to the Bottom

Little_Red_Schoolhouse_Childrens_Fairyland_Oakland_CAGov. Rick Perry says Texas will not compete for billions in education dollars in the federal “Race to the Top” program. It’s just another pitch to the secessionists, of course. So, Texas schools will go without money that could be used to education children. Instead, kids will be sacrificed to the extremist nonsense that has filled Perry’s tea cup of a head.

The money comes with guidelines of course. So the “Race to the Top” program was denounced by Perry’s education commissioner, Robert Scott. Scott called it, comically, a step toward the federal takeover of Texas schools.

Both Perry and Education Commissioner Robert Scott have harshly criticized the program’s rules, and Scott suggested that one provision was a harbinger of a federal takeover of public schools.

The decision not to apply fits nicely into the anti-Washington narrative that has dominated Perry’s gubernatorial primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. It provides him another opportunity to tell the Obama administration that Texas doesn’t want its intrusion in state matters.

In a letter to Perry, state Rep. Garnett Coleman, a Democrat and one of the most knowledgeable leaders in Texas on matters of education and health policy, urged the governor to apply for the funds. Democrats here don’t agree with some of the scoring guidelines — incentive pay and charter school expansion. I don’t either. But the good the money would do far outweighs the downside.

Perry’s actions have nothing whatsoever to do with what’s best for Texas children. Perry has become Sarah Palin in pants, and he’s just  pandering to the idiots. Perry knows about as much about education as Palin knows about Russia. I guess he can see a school from the porch of his $10,000 a month taxpayer-paid luxury mansion in West Austin.

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Halloween Candy

halloween candyI don’t know what to make of a new U.S. News online readers’ poll. Sarah Palin is running away from the field on the question of who will hand out the best Halloween candy. Eighty percent award the prize to Palin. Michelle Obama is second, with 7.3 percent. Sensibly, readers put Rudy Giuliani in last place. I wouldn’t accept candy from the guy, either.

Why Palin, though?

Palin is the living embodiment of Suzanne Stone Maretto, the ambitious reporter who manipulates some high school students into murdering her husband  in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 black comedy, To Die For.

Played brilliantly by Nicole Kidman, Suzanne wants to be a big-time TV journalist, and she is certain that she the deserves fame, fortune and power, despite her lack of skill and experience. The one thing she does have is a pathological anti-social immorality that allows her to trash or kill anyone stupid enough to get in her way.

She winds up in ice, so to speak, a victim of her dead husband’s family’s vengeance. On ice: isn’t that where the GOP establishment wishes Palin would remain? The woman once hailed by the media as a budding starlet who could outshine Barack Obama and add a bit of sex appeal to John McCain’s campaign is now seen as, well, a kind of costumed nutcase. Maybe that explains why folks think her candy would be best.

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Republican Operative: “I don’t want everyone to vote.”

Judging from big media’s slobbering acceptance of right wing attacks on ACORN’s voter registration efforts, it remains a far greater sin in America to be suspected of voter registration misdeeds than to forcibly and publicly, through deception and armed muscle, keep a registered citizen from voting.

Why is this? Continue reading “Republican Operative: “I don’t want everyone to vote.””