Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Murrow vs. McCarthy

A still from Good Night, and Good Luck

It appears we’ll finally have a good film that deals with Joe McCarthy. Guilty By Suspicion, focusing more specifically on the Hollywood blacklist, was well-intentioned but uneven at best. Meanwhile, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, while apparently not a classic for the ages, is quite a worthwhile film, reportedly with the added virtue of being accurate.

(I’ve always been somewhat ashamed that Joe McCarthy came from my birth state, Wisconsin. Other than mediocre beer, only good things should come from Wisconsin, like cheese, OshKosh jeans, and the Green Bay Packers.)

Clooney claims that every scene is verified by at least two sources, and in one of the more interesting choices, Joe McCarthy effectively plays himself — all his appearances are archival footage. Clooney takes the smaller role of Fred Friendly, while the always superb David Strathairn plays legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.

Joseph McCarthy

It’s striking but perhaps not surprising that so few kids today know of McCarthy (to the point Clooney’s been asked, who’s the actor playing McCarthy? Clooney, ever the prankster, has thought of taking out “For Your Consideration” ads for his villain). I remember when studying McCarthy I was surprised to discover he had a relatively short reign, roughly 1950 to 1954, while the Hollywood blacklist in fact far outlasted him. Also, in addition to the harm caused by rumors and slander, there was indeed a physical blacklist (in 1997, PBS’ NewsHour piece interviewed two victims of the blacklist).

Some scholars point to Spartacus as the film that definitively broke the blacklist, because one of the Hollywood Ten, the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, was prominently credited (amazingly, he penned two Oscar-winning screenplays under fronts during the blacklist!). Spartacus, however, didn’t come out until 1960, when McCarthy had been dead for three years. It’s hard to imagine how much people were terrified of the Dread Red Menace and terrorized by Joe McCarthy, with only a few people like Murrow and the great cartoonist Walt Kelly having the guts to take him on.

Kelly’s depiction of McCarthy as Simple J. Malarkey from Pogo

There are a number of articles on the film and Clooney. You can read The Los Angeles Times’ one here, The New York Times one here, Salon’s here (if you can stand navigating their site), The Guardian’s here, and if a remarkably cranky one here by a reviewer who professes his hatred for such similarly crappy fare as All the President’s Men and Quiz Show (sounds like a ringing endorsement!).

Clooney apparently closes the film with these lines from a famous speech by Murrow in 1958 to his fellow broadcasters:

"To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: there is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose?

"Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Dylan Update

Arlo Guthrie once mused that there’s no way Bob Dylan could have written that many good songs in such a short time... he must have just taken a pen and transcribed them as they floated by in front of him.

Not surprisingly, with the release of No Direction Home, there’s a rush of new Dylan articles. The Washington Post’s Jefferson Morley has a new World News Roundup blog and for 9/26/05 supplied links to three British papers:
The Guardian has an editorial about how the once-skeptical culture has come to embrace the unpredictable singer-songwriter. The Times has a perceptive piece on his melding of high and low culture. The Independent has the best package of articles, "Dylan: A Special Celebration," including an excerpt from his nomination for a Nobel prize: "In words and music Dr Dylan has created an almost unlimited universe of art which has permeated the globe and, in fact, changed the history of the world."

The Guardian now has a number of other links, including past articles on Dylan.

Meanwhile, Slate’s David Greenberg has a good article pondering why nearly everyone seems to focus on Dylan’s early career and completely overlooks such masterworks as Blood On the Tracks and Time Out of Mind (I would add World Gone Wrong, although it is an album of covers by Dylan, but stunning none the less, especially his version of “Delia”). The short answer: boomer nostalgia. Dylan for me is one of those musicians like Willie Nelson or Neil Young who’s never content to rest on his laurels. While I might not like all of their material, new or old, it’s impossible not to respect them, as well as their right to keep exploring musically.

Finally, I stand corrected... While Slate’s content can be good, it is also prone to the cranky, curmudgeonly, contrarian and contrarian-wannabe statements that can easily get out of hand on many a website or blog (this one included). I tend to get turned off by sweeping regal pronouncements such as the astoundingly stupid one that men should not wear shorts (it’s the tone more than the content). In the article I linked below, Slate’s David Yaffe complained about Liam Clancy, observing that “We sit in Manhattan's White Horse Tavern with Liam Clancy, an insufferably melodramatic Irish folkie perched in front of a pint of ale that does not seem like his first of the night.” Having fond memories of seeing Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem perform, I took issue with this. While the Clancys and Makem can be caricatured, they remain very good folk musicians with a lasting positive influence. However, I must concede that in the Dylan doc, Liam Clancy really does come off at times as a drunken blowhard versus the charming wry folk poet I’m more accustomed to.

(As part of my penance, I am hunting down a copy of the stupidest, most obtuse article on Dylan I have ever read, in this case from the usually superb Atlantic in the late 90s. The boomer author pronounces Dylan’s career a failure that ended all promise in 1967, which must surely come as a surprise to Dylan... not to mention every fan and every professional musician who’s bothered to listen to him in the 38 years since then! Wait, I'm getting cranky here...)

In the meantime, I’m breaking out Time Out of Mind again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Banned Books Week

I was just reminded that it’s Banned Books Week, a great tradition from the American Library Association to celebrate the many great works that have been attacked over the years. Much more information is available at their site here.

During my last year teaching high school, I was pleased to notice that without any conscious design, every single grade level was reading at least one banned book (proof we were doing at least something right).

Incidentally, my favorite challenge remains the one to Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax on the grounds that it was essentially pro-environmental propaganda. I tell you, can’t we have a children’s book advocating clear-cutting old growth forests and killing off endangered species for equal time? It’s those damn hippies that are ruining this country!

Monday, September 26, 2005

New Dylan Doc By Scorsese

No Direction Home will air on most PBS stations in two parts on Monday, September 26th and Tuesday the 27th. Although most reviewers have noted that it whitewashes Dylan’s drug use somewhat, and apparently the DVD extras are stingy, most everyone expresses excitement and gratitude over the entire affair. Scorsese of course filmed Dylan once before as part of The Last Waltz, the seminal rock doc on The Band, who backed Dylan for many years (Robbie Robertson of The Band was also Scorsese’s roommate at one time!)

If you’re interested, The Washington Post offered some background on the doc here and a review of it here. PBS has its write-up with some nice background material here, while Slate offers it perspective here (although it wouldn’t be a typical Slate review without one asinine comment, here pertaining to legendary Irish folkie Liam Clancy).

Friday, September 23, 2005

TV: Gervais Interview

A brief interview from NPR, with a brilliantly painful clip from his new show:
'The Office' Star Ricky Gervais Back with 'Extras'
Day to Day, September 22, 2005 · Madeleine Brand talks
with actor Ricky Gervais about his new HBO comedy
Extras, in which he plays a struggling actor. Gervais
is best known as the annoying boss on the acclaimed
BBC series The Office.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Judge Roberts' Important Views... on Film

Unable to pin down John Roberts on abortion rights and other important issues, a frustrated Joe Biden chases him down in a crop duster (AP).

Forget about all the other issues, abortion, stare decisis, and whether or not a 12-year old's Constitutional rights were violated when arrested for eating a single french fry in the DC metro - it is the firm position of this blog that one's tastes in film serve as a window unto the soul.

Considering George H.W. Bush screened Chuck Norris movies at the White House, how can one not be excited that John Roberts named as his favorite films Doctor Zhivago and North By Northwest?

Hitchcock gave Cary Grant's character Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest the middle initial "O," suggesting to some a big mysterious zero. Similarly, John Roberts begins as a cipher. Perhaps, though, like Thornhill thrust into the role of heroic spy, Roberts can grow into the role of Chief Justice and make us all proud (although granted, Scalia's legs are not as beguiling as Eva Marie Saint's).

Surely a man who loves Zhivago, which shows a sensitive, intelligent man beset by an oppressive regime, could not throw away privacy rights and be a complete toadie to the state. Nor would he favor the state seizing private property without compensation. However, his views on extramartial affairs in a snowbound dacha remain a mystery.

(If Roberts has written poetry addressed to a woman named Lara, he deserves confirmation, in my opinion. I'll settle for it being to his wife. Even if it's really bad poetry. In fact, that would be more endearing.)

Still, since Roberts has refused to answer many legal questions, perhaps some much more revealing cinematic ones can be offered:

Doctor Zhivago

1) Do you see yourself more as a hard-line Stalinist or a Trotskyite?
2) What's up with all those flower shots?
3) Does the framing device, inventing a daughter and brother not appearing in Pasternak's book, manufacture a false sense of hope that betrays the depth of the source material, or does this choice respectfully underline Pasternak's intent?

North By Northwest

1) As great as the crop duster sequence is, does it make sense for the pilot to crash his plane into an oil truck? (Was this a last murder attempt, or was he just a former Delta pilot?)
2) Do you find it plausible that anyone would grab a dagger out of a man's back, then stand there looking at it versus calling for help?
3) When you face Southerly, do you know a hawk from a handsaw?
4) Do you agree with the Freudian interpretation of that last shot of the honeymoon train entering the tunnel, or are we all just too smutty?

Bonus question: Explain the term mise-en-scene as it applies to the Abu Gharib photos featuring Lynndie England.

Monday, September 12, 2005

David Brooks and The Thoughtful Conservative

While I skew liberal, I’ve voted for Republicans and Independents, and overall my stance is pro-accountability, pro-honesty/transparency, and pro-competence. I’m willing to take on folks of any political stripe, but with the vast majority of talk shows belonging to the right wing and all three branches of government in Republican hands, the balance of power and the bulk of the microphones belong to conservatives. Thus, they get the bulk of attention from those of us in the “reality-based community” who actually want to discuss matters. Additionally, I would argue that the conservative views we hear on radio and TV are actually further to the right of most American conservatives (certainly a greater percentage of Republican congressmen are fiercely pro-life than one finds in the party as a whole). I suspect this is because the typical conservative talk show host offers a simple solution of what’s right and wrong, and that moral certainty is comforting, even when the person is talking from his ass. It’s also more dramatic and entertaining and thus sells better (even some liberals will concede that Rush Limbaugh, while vile and an established liar, has perfected a successful format for his show). Honesty, I hear liberals engaging in hyperbole (Randi Rhodes) and declining to engage in true debate (I heard a show where Mike Malloy needlessly yelled down a caller), but unlike the right wing, I have not heard many of them outright lie. Nor have I heard from the left anything approaching the hatred and venom that seems unfortunately de rigueur of right-wing pundits. My plea is first for more balance. Most liberal talk show hosts are pretty moderate – if we have so many far right-wing pundits, can’t we have at least one or two true commies for balance? But the more important plea is that, in addition to having a more even representation of liberals and conservatives on the air, could we please jettison the bulk of the right wing nut-jobs and let the more mainstream, moderate Republicans take over their slots? (And could we have more honest discussion, the type that sheds light versus the heat favored by programmers?)

This brings me to David Brooks, who will be familiar to anyone who reads The New York Times or watches The News Hour on PBS. While he is definitely a conservative (he’s a die-hard small government man) and I do not always agree with him, he has shown a willingness to offer thoughtful, genuine responses, break with the party line, and to engage in true discussion and debate. In this sense he reminds me of William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley was at times a blowhard, but generally a charming one. When he was full of crap you got the sense he knew it, and if there was any doubt his grin confirmed it. However, when I was a teenager, I watched and taped several of the debates Buckley sponsored and broadcast on PBS, on subjects from drug decriminalization to flag-burning to the death penalty. Buckley had the wit to throw in a bon mot and score a quick point, but when it came down to it, he was always willing to get down to business and actually discuss the matter. We need less of the rabid right-wingers and more conservatives in this vein. (Not to mention, where do we see two hours of formal debate on an important issue of the day anymore?)

While many on the right such as Limbaugh have been berating the poor of New Orleans for not being able to afford a car to evacuate Hurricane Katrina, David Brooks offered two very thoughtful op-eds. The first is about victims and scapegoating during natural disasters, while the second is about the opportunity to rebuild New Orleans better than before, especially in regards to the poor and disenfranchised. I believe this is the compassionate conservatism our President once assured us he espoused.

Katrina News and Editorials

Thankfully, there is some good news regarding Hurricane Katrina at this point. The most encouraging is that the overall death toll is likely much lower than originally feared. The city of Houston, Wal-Mart and chefs in the Mexican army are among those who have contributed some much needed assistance.

There’s a good — well, I hesitate to call it “good” — summing up of the governmental breakdown here.

There are a number of interesting editorials on Hurricane Katrina out there. One of the best I’ve read is Eugene Robinson’s here, dealing intelligently with, among other things, class and race. Colbert King offers a fantastic line advocating honest interaction in his op-ed: “Moreover, the federal government's reconstruction and resettlement czar must not be afraid to be in the company of frustrated and angry black people.” The same paper, The Washington Post, also published what’s overall a rather loathsome piece of intellectual chicanery from Charles Krauthammer. Among other things, he equates those who persecuted Jews and burned witches in past centuries with those who would dare blame George Bush for Katrina. I was so intrigued by his use of faulty argument patterns, straight from a philosophy textbook (when he wasn’t outright lying), I was going to take him on point by point. However, as is the nature of the blogosphere, someone beat me to it and did quite a good job of it. You can read The Poor Man Institute’s critique here.

Meanwhile, if you’ve got the stomach for it, you can see and hear some real hateful commentary from Clear Channel’s Glenn Beck here and the real doozy, talk show host Mark Williams discussing race and Katrina on of all things, ShowBiz Tonight (the link will be changing but can be found under the 9/9 heading). It says something when you can be more hateful than Limbaugh. When will principled conservatives condemn and disown these assholes? The biggest problem is Beck and Williams are not adults, with any sort of intelligence or reflection, yet they are given a standing equivalent to people willing to think and discuss. Somehow, I don’t think Socrates would have tolerated temperamental screaming children or cranky curmudgeons with irritable bowel syndrome in his debates. As Jon Stewart pleaded on Crossfire, let’s elevate the discussion. The first step is not to invite the idiots.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Last year, on 9/10/04, I saw a brief ad featuring Laura Bush wherein she announced that tomorrow was 9/11, “now known as — Patriot Day.” It hit me hard, it alarmed me. When was that decided? Who voted on that? I knew I hadn’t been consulted! I knew there had been some debate about whether or not to make 9/11 a national holiday, and what to call it, with “Patriot Day” being pushed by some folks, and the much more appropriate “Remembrance Day” offered by others. Still, I hadn’t heard of any vote, and had to wonder if asserting “Patriot Day” in the ad was an end-around the discussion.

I learned just this past week that in December of 2001, the U.S. Congress actually passed a bill proclaiming 9/11 “Patriot Day.” There’s a White House photo of Bush on 9/11/04 and a link to his brief speech here.

Now, whatever I may think of President George Bush, I do believe that 9/11 struck him to the core and gave him pause, as it did for may of us. I also have no doubt that Laura Bush’s announcement was made out of sincerity.

This still troubles me. This is serious stuff. Even though I knew 9/11 would become politicized, it still wounds me deeply that this happened. It was just too important an event to be cheapened or distorted. And “patriot” is such a charged word, unfortunately often used as a weapon, not as a uniter. The undoubtedly American practice of dissent is often attacked as “unpatriotic.” “Patriotic” is typically used to describe a feeling of nationalistic fervor, when one of the amazing aspects of 9/11 was the outpouring of international support and sympathy towards us. After 9/11, the French proclaimed, “We are all Americans.”

Everyone grieves in their own way. Everyone feels whatever they feel, be it anger, sorrow, shock... or something completely different. I have no problem with a citizen wanting to call 9/11 “patriot day” if that speaks to them. I remain uncomfortable with the term as an official designation. I do not want to be told what to feel. I do not want to be told that 9/11 meant a particular thing. It is too late to wish that it will not be politicized. It is not too late to remember the astounding degree of personal connection within our country and the international good will that flourished after the horrible events of that day.

Official pronouncements aside, the American public calls things whatever it wishes. Even though the turn of the millennium was actually January 1st, 2001, in the public imagination the date was January 1st, 2000, and that’s when it was celebrated. Similarly but with better judgment, I would argue, “Patriot Day” has never really caught on. I hope it never will. To most everyone, 9/11 will always be just that, “9/11.” This is as it should be. 9/11 means many things to many different people, and while many of us hold the day sacred, it seems to me that honoring individual responses to it is also a sacred duty. The magic of the days and weeks after 9/11 was about bringing the best parts of our private lives into the public arena; surely it was not about public policy intruding on the intensely private and personal.

What are the responses to 9/11? The Washington Post’s lead editorial notes that young people of a certain age on 9/11/01 have become more intent on community service, social work, voting, and what might be called a general engagement. With Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, this trend could not be more welcome.

Meanwhile, I can’t imagine ever not treating 9/11 as a day of reflection, and I know many folks who feel the same way. Below are the reflections I sent out in previous years. Have a good day — no, have your day however you wish. But I hope it will be a good one.

The Thrush and the Starfish

(I wrote this about two weeks after 9/11. I was teaching at a boarding school at the time and sent it to some folks.)

Back in ’94 or ‘95, I was fortunate enough to hear Elie Wiesel give a
talk at Bates College in Maine. Wiesel, author of Night and many other
books, is a survivor of Auschwitz, as well as a noted advocate for human
rights. At one point he related a story that's stuck in my mind ever since.
Reworked in my head somewhat over time, it goes something like this:

Once there was a Sage, a man of great knowledge and wisdom, who lived in a land ruled by a cruel and domineering King. Tales of the Sage’s learning reached the King, who decided to test the man, and had his men search him out.

Scant days later, the simply-dressed Sage appeared before the King.
Resplendently-garbed and sitting on an ornate throne, the King told the
Sage that he had heard of his great knowledge, and inquired that if it
was true. The Sage replied humbly, saying he knew very little, in fact.

The King kept pressing him about his vast wisdom, but each time the Sage
would defer, humbly. None of this satisfied the King – if anything, he grew more angry.

He told the Sage he was going to test his wisdom, and went over to a
gilded birdcage near his throne. He reached inside and grasped a small
thrush in his hand. It struggled, but it was caught fast in the King's
strong hand. The Sage looked on with concern. The King turned his
back to the Sage so that the Sage could not see for a moment, then turned to
face him once more with his hands behind his back. “The bird is my
hand,” he said, with a threatening tint to his voice. “Now, you are a very
wise man -- tell me, if you can – is the bird alive or dead?”

The Sage was at a momentary loss. The King’s tone not only threatened
the thrush, but also implied a threat towards the Sage – it seemed
likely his own life might depend on his answer. More immediately, though, the Sage found his mind racing back to the thrush and its peril. The King
was the sort of man who would kill the thrush. But he could not bring a
dead thrush back to life. Thus, the thrush was probably alive, but if the
Sage said so, the King would almost undoubtedly kill it for spite, and to
prove the Sage wrong. So should the Sage tell the King the thrush was dead
(even though it probably wasn’t), so that the King, for spite, would
show him the thrush alive? But what then about the Sage’s fate?

“Well?” Said the King, looking not just a little smug. “What is your
answer? Is the bird alive or dead?” The Sage gazed at the King for a
moment, and then replied simply, “The answer is in your hands.”

Another tale, fairly well-known, involves a man on the beach.

The beach is strewn with starfish, many of them cooking under the hot sun. As the man walks along the beach, he sees a second man, who stops to pick up a starfish, and chucks it back into the ocean. This second man then comes to the next starfish, and throws that one in too. The first man comes up to the second man and greets him.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"Throwing starfish back into the ocean," replied the second man.

"But there must be hundreds of them along this beach." observed the first
man. "Yup," replied the second, picking up another starfish. "But even if
you spent the whole day doing this -- there are hundreds of them -- it
couldn't possibly make a difference."

The second man looked at the first one and said, "It does to this one," and chucked the starfish into the ocean.


There have been times in these past two weeks that I've felt a slow, weary weight growing on my shoulders. I felt the same feeling when I went through the Holocaust Museum in DC years ago, slowly taking in everything over five hours or so. I've felt a similar feeling this past year while watching a 60 Minutes special; it involved interviewing Timothy McVeigh and showed the memorial and museum in Oklahoma honoring the victims of that horrible incident. I've felt a similar emotional exhaustion, a feeling of being overwhelmed, while attending funerals and other tragedies.

Elie Wiesel, when I saw him, radiated what I can best describe as an
aura of spiritual maturity. Here was a man I wanted to study under, a sage
in his own way, perhaps. Another thing he said that stuck in my mind was
this — "You wonder how to respond," he said, addressing the audience.
Yes, we did, many of us nodding our heads — he had been discussing the
Holocaust and other horrible affronts to human rights and the human
spirit — how does respond to such daunting things? "You respond...
responsibly," said Wiesel.

Thse words might seem simple or trite or evasive — reading them on
the page right now -- but Wiesel went on to speak to the idea that any
response, if guided by conscience, was a worthy act. His words, his
meaning, resonated. Last week's events still loom too huge for me to
grasp in their entirety — certainly on an emotional level. So how
does one respond?

To return to the stories of the Thrush and the Starfish, I find that,
as with the Sage, some things (evil or otherwise) are truly beyond my
control. And, similar to the man on the beach, other things are quite
within my ability to alter. Shades of the Serenity Prayer, I
suppose... Perhaps, like the Sage, or the man on the beach, I can make just one person aware of the power they hold in their hands to do good or
evil... Perhaps, the response is merely *to* respond, to do one good act, to
make one human connection -- and we can all build from there.

Thoughts on 9/11/02 (The Ship and the Blossom)

For want of another title, I guess I’ll call this...
The Ship and the Blossom

I hadn’t planned to write anything. But as the anniversary of 9/11 has loomed closer, there’s been a series of amazing first-hand accounts playing on TV and the radio, and, not surprisingly, it’s stirred things up. Last week I watched a two-part show on two employees at the Pentagon who were severely burned and what their physical therapy involved, in terms of will and endurance. Last night, Nightline’s Up Close program featured Joel Meyerowitz and the photos he took at Ground Zero. Nova just showed a chilling investigation into why the towers collapsed. I’m now watching ABC’s “Report from Ground Zero,” respectfully understated and moving. For whatever reason, two passages sprang to mind today.

The first comes from A World of Ideas II, featuring edited transcripts of a series of interviews Bill Moyers performed several year back. One interview from 1990 features philosopher Jacob Needleman. The two get to talking about the core goodness and generosity inherent, but unfortunately often hidden or buried, in human beings:

NEEDLEMAN: Can I tell you a story? I was invited by Time magazine to be a participant observer at the launch of Apollo 17. At that time, there were a lot of cynical people complaining about the space program, that it was taking money away from the poor and all that. But I went down. It was a night launch, and there were hundreds and hundreds of reporters all over the lawn, drinking beer and waiting for this tall, thirty-five-story-high white rocket lit by these powerful lamps. We were all sitting around joking and wisecracking and listening to the voice of Walter Kronkite like the voice of God coming over the loudspeaker telling us what was going on.
Then the countdown came, and then the launch. The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit that you can bear to look at. It’s not too bright. You don’t have to turn away. It’s beautiful, everything’s illuminated with this light. Then comes this slow thing rising up in total silence, because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. Then you hear a “WHOOOOOH! HHHHMMMM!” It enters right into you. This extraordinary thing is lifting up. Suddenly, among all these cynical people and the wisecracking people, myself included, you could practically hear their jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place, as this thing goes up, and up and up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are human beings on it. And then there’s total silence.
Then people just get up quietly, helping each other up. They’re kind. They open doors. They look at each other, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because wonder, the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder, had made them moral.
By the time we got to the hotel, it was gone. But my point is, in the state of wonder, no one can commit a crime. When you’re in touch with something inner, you are just naturally sharing and caring to other people. So to me, the pursuit of understanding ethics without trying to understand this inner self won’t go past a certain point. It won’t take us where we need to go.

MOYERS: You used the word “moral,” not ethical,” for the moment of knowing and sharing. Why?

NEEDLEMAN: Ethics refers to outer actions, what you do. But inwardly, you are moral. That is, you are in touch with something that’s truer, more your right nature, your real nature. As a result of being moral, you act in a way that could be judged ethical.

MOYERS: But when you got back to the hotel room it was gone?

NEEDLEMAN: It left a trace for a little while. But on the whole, it disappeared under the usual social conventions, and by the time we were ready for bed, we were our usual egoistic selves. But it shows that even in everyday life we sometimes experience a change of what you might call “state.” A state of consciousness, as it were. In that state we are closer to being loving people, caring people.

Needleman speaks of this sense of wonder, this willingness to be open, to see, to connect and to center, as eros.

The second, much shorter passage is from an interview with one of my all-time favourite writers, the British Dennis Potter. In 1992, he was diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis was bleak. He chose to spend his remaining time writing two last (linked) mini-series of four hours apiece! By the spring of 1993, he had very little time left, and was well aware of it. Melvyn Bragg conducted one last interview. In it, Potter remarked,

Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now... it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’... last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance... not that I’m interested in reassuring people, bugger that. The fact is, if you can see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.

Potter died a few weeks later. The interview was named, “Seeing the Blossom.”

There’s always been a link between those two accounts for me. I’ve snuck both of them into classes before, I suppose because I love the idea of suddenly becoming aware of something beautiful, or arriving at that state of wonder. It hit me today that one could say that one “sight” is man-made, the other wholly natural... One is awesome (literally) and commands attention, while the other is subtle, in fact invisible, to those who are not open to seeing it.

There are some experiences that are so powerful or striking they cut through any and all veneer or decorum or BS. Certainly 9/11 is such an event. Today, I’m especially reminded of Needleman’s feeling of camaraderie and connection, but also how they can fade and be forgotten. It’s almost impossible to hold onto that sort of feeling... But then, in some cases, remembering an event fully, unceasingly, would certainly be unbearable.

A teacher of mine, Tolya Smeliansky, would tell our class astounding tales of the history of Russian Theater. The tales about Stalin’s era were particularly dark and heart-breaking. Without ever saying it aloud explicitly, Tolya (like a Victor Frankl, Charlotte Delbo, or Elie Wiesel) spoke to the idea that memory can be an act of conscience. I don’t think until tonight it struck me how the word “memorialize” relates to “memory.” All the 9/11 memorial events occurring (what an astounding idea, to perform Mozart’s Requiem all over the country!) certainly stir up, and help me sort through, my memory. I’m definitely reminded of what I felt a year ago, and also wonder, as if with a New Year’s resolution, how much of Needleman’s “sense of wonder” and connection and eros I’ve really held onto throughout the year.

Last year, it was lovely that whatever way people chose to grieve or laugh or fret or move on was deemed “all right.” So I hope that this week, most folks feel comfortable feeling whatever they happen to feel, and remembering whatever they happen or care to remember. Thankfully, some of the political agendas of the past few months have receded to make room for the personal again. I’ve been concerned, recently, that some folks think unity as a country means everyone must share the same political and religious views versus, perhaps, a unity of compassion. A dictated group-think, group-feel — bugger that. For me, the most meaningful moments of the past week have come from the sincerity and honesty of the first-hand accounts I’ve heard, or of which I’ve been reminded. I’m also reminded that some of my feelings of “connection” with others faded as the year progressed, but I don’t feel horribly guilty about that either. I do find I still can’t fully comprehend, I suppose on a spiritual level, what happened last year. But watching, hearing all these tales on TV, on radio, from folks I meet — it humbles me, makes me feel grateful, gives me pause.

I afraid I really don’t have anything profound to say; I like those passages and felt like sharing them. Alas, I need a memorial or two to jar me back, re-center me. Perhaps those connections that did occur last year, are occurring again, and will occur in the future — around events tragic or sublime, large or trivial — come from building a dialogue, from sharing memories and perspectives — and being open enough to see the blossom.


Friday, September 09, 2005

Powell and Obama

On Tuesday, the often eloquent Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) spoke about visiting Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston. You can read the full text or watch the video here. He concludes:

Which brings me to my final point. There's been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I've said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially-based. The ineptitude was colorblind.

But what must be said is that whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check in to a hotel on safe ground. I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.

And so I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect - Democrat and Republican - on not only our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans. I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the Hurricane. They were abandoned long ago - to murder and mayhem in their streets; to substandard schools; to dilapidated housing; to inadequate health care; to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

That is the deeper shame of this past week - that it has taken a crisis like this one to awaken us to the great divide that continues to fester in our midst. That's what all Americans are truly ashamed about, and the fact that we're ashamed about it is a good sign. The fact that all of us - black, white, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat - don't like to see such a reflection of this country we love, tells me that the American people have better instincts and a broader heart than our current politics would indicate.

We had nothing before the Hurricane. Now we have even less.

I hope that we all take the time to ponder the truth of that message.

Meanwhile, ABC’s 20/20 is broadcasting an interview with Colin Powell tonight, Friday, 9/9. A sneak preview article relates some of Powell’s strikingly similar remarks:

"There was more than enough warning over time about the dangers to New Orleans. Not enough was done. I don't think advantage was taken of the time that was available to us, and I just don't know why," he said.

Powell was asked if the slipshod government response to the disaster was due to racism, since the overwhelming majority of the victims are poor African-Americans.

"I don't think its [sic] racism, I think its [sic] economic," Powell said.

"When you look at those who werent able to get out, it should have been a blinding flash of the obvious to everybody that when you order a mandatory evacuation, you cant expect everybody to evacuate on their own.

"These are people who dont have credit cards; only one in ten families at that economic level in New Orleans have a car. So it wasn't a racial thing --- but poverty disproportionately affects African-Americans in this country. And it happened because they were poor," he said.

Amen. I’ve always felt that while race is undoubtedly an issue in America, class is a much bigger one, yet it’s one we don’t like to talk about. In America it seems almost radical to say that there’s a ruling class, any sort of class structure, or a vast disparity of wealth. I suspect it’s because our country has egalitarian ideals and we wish it wasn’t true.

Both these men have been floated as presidential candidates. How about a joint ticket?

Blame Game: Gregory vs. McClellan

I had heard about this interchange between NBC reporter David Gregory and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, and I read the transcript, but it really must be seen and heard to be believed. Granted, being a press secretary, especially for this administration, must be stressful. That said, McClellan comes off as a little kid yelling “I’m rubber and you’re glue” in a schoolyard.

Crooks and Liars has the video for this via Imus, listed under 9/8. Also of note is the Keith Olbermann video listed under 9/7, contrasting official statements with reality and Tim Russert on Imus under 9/6.

Orwell Watch: Firefighters as Props

This story is getting a lot of coverage from the liberal blogosphere. It was first posted by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Utah firefighters are upset because instead of being used for search and rescue, they have been asked to be PR people and background for photos (this photo does not list the firefighters’ place of origin):

Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.
Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.

While there’s something to be said for having folks trained in first aid dealing with evacuees (part of the stated rationale), surely given the immense need for trained search and rescue personnel, handing out fliers would be a perfect task for civilian volunteers... never mind that many of those that would need FEMA help may not have access to a working phone. Still,

a team of 50 [firefighters] Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.

(While I am not familiar with this specific paper, when it comes to presidential elections, Utah historically ranks as the most Republican state in the nation, hardly a bastion for Bush-bashing.) Chicago’s NBC affiliate ran a similar story involving some Indiana firefighters who similarly felt wasted, got sick of waiting around, and went home (although they are eager to return).

There are related charges floating around about rescue equipment being shipped in solely for a backdrop for Bush without later being sent to disaster sites. These charges surely warrant more investigation and verification; this is the sort of thing I would hope to god is not true. However, in one of the more striking news clip videos I’ve seen, Senator Mary Landrieu points out areas of New Orleans by helicopter and charges just this sort of negligence (The clip is from ABC’s This World on Sunday, 9/4). The image of only a single piece of construction equipment working on the now infamous 17th Street levee breach is rather disturbing.

To add to the mix, FEMA does not want reporters to photograph the dead. Reuters followed up their short blurb here with a slightly longer piece here.

Meanwhile, in an excellent, now much-cited post (“Making the Rounds” 9/7) Brian Williams reports on the tense atmosphere in New Orleans, where a guardsman aimed a gun at a group of reporters (Williams notes the level of stress and that the guardsman was reprimanded). He also observes:

Someone else points out on television as I post this: the fact that the National Guard now bars entry (by journalists) to the very places where people last week were barred from LEAVING (The Convention Center and Superdome) is a kind of perverse and perfectly backward postscript to this awful chapter in American history.

Josh Marshall has a couple thoughtful posts about these disturbing trends, here and here. I feel he veers a bit too alarmist in one of them, but nonetheless these are important discussions to be having.

On this note of controlling perception, several news organizations and blogs have noted that the number #1, 2 and 3 people at FEMA all lack emergency planning experience. They are all essentially PR people, or less charitably, political hacks.

And as with Iraq - and frankly, everything else - this administration seems to believe that appearance is more important than job performance. I wish to god they would grasp that the best PR is doing a good job in the first place, and put the bulk of their efforts there instead.

UPDATE: Some folks have theorized the Williams’ post pressured the authorities to ease up on their efforts to restrict reporters, because several organizations reported freer access again. Williams got so much attention he’s posted a follow-up, which mentions that Howard Kurtz will be writing about the whole story online for The Washington Post on Friday 9/9.

On a Much Lighter (or Stranger) Note

The fact that a man died is not at all funny. The headline for this article, however, is hilarious. What was the copy editor thinking? Why not use "reservoir" instead?

There's some added poetry in that it occurred in Truth or Consequences, NM.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Post Gets Played

The Washington Post is one of the most respected newspapers around, and with good reason. One of the chief causes is probably that, like The New York Times, the Post is an independently-owned paper versus one cog of a mighty empire such as Murdoch’s NewsCorp.

However, they made a subtle but significant error in a major article about Hurricane Katrina on Sunday, 9/4/05 when they parroted a Bush administration official’s claim without bothering to fact check it. The sentence reads, “As of Saturday, [Governor] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.” The article depicts a bureaucratic turf war. However, the unchallenged false claim about the state of emergency gives undeserved weight to the Bush administration’s suggestions that it was Blanco’s foot dragging that prevented FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and Bush from acting.

I’ve heard several flacks spread this lie quite boldly, one to the BBC (I’m trying to get a clip of this). In fact, Blanco declared a State of Emergency on Friday, September 26th. Newsweek, also owned by The Washington Post Company, printed the same error. The Post has since issued a correction.

This was a rather key fact and fairly easy to check, so the question is why it made it into the paper in the first place. The other question is who the administration official was. Was he or she merely mistaken or intentionally trying to deceive? David Brock of watchdog group Media Matters for America has written the Post asking for the official’s identity to be revealed.

I was tipped off to this story in the first place from Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo site. He makes the observation:

Monday's Times, not surprisingly, confirms that the White House damage control operation is being run by Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett.

Add it up.

And who will report this out?

Now, I’m sure local and state officials deserve some of the blame, even while each new revelation about FEMA’s Mike Brown raises the question, just how incompetent is this guy? (He was and is clearly in way over his head. It’s like some sick joke illustrating the Peter Principle as executed by Satan.) Still, Blanco should be criticized for her actual performance versus some lie about it.

The new spin line from the Bushies is that Bush called New Orleans mayor Nagin and begged him to evacuate the city (in other words, if only Bush had been heeded, things would have gone much better). This did not smell right to me, all the more so because Bush was still touring the West at the time (I don’t have an hour-by-hour accounting, but the morning of the evacuation order Bush was sharing a birthday cake with John McCain and delivering a speech on Medicare).

Media Matters has a clip of Fox News’ Brit Hume pushing this story. They also refute it nicely with additional links. Meanwhile, Larry Johnson offers a glimpse into MSNBC's shameful handling of the same spin.

It appears instead that Bush called Blanco shortly before she and Nagin held a press conference announcing the evacuation. Apparently, while Blanco mentioned the call with Bush to give the evacuation order more weight, the decision had already been made. I’m expecting more details on this will come out shortly.

You really, really have to watch these guys.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

FEMA: The Model of a Federal Agency

I recently read a blogger’s post quoting Ronald Reagan’s quip that the ten scariest words in the English language were “I'm from the Federal Government, and I'm here to help.” The blogger’s response: “I'd venture that "there's no clean water, shelter, food, medical facilities, or security" is more frightening.”

The worst government programs are inefficient, or pork projects, or suffer from leaders placed through cronyism. The best achieve immediate or lasting good and are staffed by intelligent and dedicated folks (have you had a conversation with a park ranger recently? They’re not doing it to get rich!). Rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System and the New Deal (sorry conservatives) spring to mind as phenomenally successful — good government in action. Similarly, the Marshall Plan is viewed by most everyone as a brilliant move whose positive effects are still being felt.

Until Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t know much about the history of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There’s a great article here. Apparently, it was pretty inefficient until Clinton appointed James Lee Witt, who unlike any of his predecessors actually possessed emergency management experience. On Witt’s watch, FEMA become a model government agency, earning bipartisan praise. Bush’s appointment to head FEMA was a campaign donor, Joe Allbaugh, who in turn hired a college buddy, Mike Brown, as his deputy. Brown was made the head of the agency roughly two years ago (prior to his FEMA stint Brown had been forced to resign from his job running horse shows.) While folding FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security was a horrible idea, the bigger problem was slashing its budget and chasing away some very experienced, dedicated folks. The Washington Post published an impassioned op-ed pleading to rescue FEMA, penned by Eric Holdeman (director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management). The paper also documents the under-funding flood control has recently suffered in New Orleans.

American conservatism used to stand for fiscal conservatism, and it would be splendid if this strain reclaimed the Republican party from lunatics like Karl Rove’s close friend Grover Norquist who has proclaimed his “goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years,“ shrinking it “to the size that we can drown it in a bathtub.” We need something better than blanket hostility without explanation towards government programs simply because they are government programs (never mind the irony that a “small government” administration created the Department of Homeland Security in the largest government expansion in years). The New York Times’ Paul Krugman hits on this point in a scathing editorial. At some point it would be lovely to discuss government programs in terms of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, goals and — radical thought here — competence.

The news coming from New Orleans is absolutely appalling. While aid workers have been heroic, the management from Mike Brown and others on the upper tier has been criminal and unconscionable. “Situation Normal — All Fucked Up” is simply not acceptable when human lives are on the line. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, in an open letter to President Bush, has called for the firing of Mike Brown and his top staff. But even as Brown failed to rescue the people of New Orleans, let’s rescue FEMA from him and cronyism. We can’t afford another Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, both human and physical, is all the more harrowing with the anniversary of 9/11 right around the corner. I’m donating some money and I have some friends donating blood. They advise to go through the Red Cross website to set up an appointment versus calling as the phone lines have been swamped. Also, one of my brothers forwarded the following list of charities. I fear the aftermath of this one will be felt for a long time, but the more help, the quicker the recovery.