We Could Sing Better Songs

Educating RitaI’m all right with you, here in this room; but when I saw those people you were with I couldn’t come in. I would have seized up. Because I’m a freak. I can’t talk to the people I live with any more. An’ I can’t talk to the likes of them on Saturday, or them out there, because I can’t learn the language. I’m a half-caste.

I went back to the pub where Denny was, an’ me mother, an’ our Sandra, an’ her mates. I’d decided I wasn’t comin’ here again. I went into the pub an’ they were singin’, all of them singin’ some song they’d learnt from the juke-box. An’ I stood in that pub an’ thought just what the frig am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in an’ stay with them, an’ join in the singin’? …

Well I did join in with the singin’, I didn’t ask any questions, I just went along with it. But when I looked round, me mother had stopped singin’, an’ she was cryin’, but no one could get it out of her why she was cryin’. Everyone just said she was pissed an’ we should get her home. So we did an’ on the way I asked her why. I said, “Why are y’ cryin’, mother?” She said, “Because — because we could sing better songs than those.” Ten minutes later, Denny had her laughing and singing again, pretending she hadn’t said it. But she had. And that’s why I came back. And that’s why I’m staying.

—Willy Russell
Speech by Rita in Educating Rita

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Congressional Chicken and Long-Term Dangers

Mitch McConnellLauren Fox at National Journal has been doing a lot of good reporting about the upcoming Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shutdown. But I have to admit to being flummoxed by the whole thing. The Republicans seemed determined to create fights with no other point than to make President Obama look bad. And then more often than not, they fail even at that. I now have a bit more sympathy for Charles Krauthammer; it must be really painful to watch your own party do this. And for what? Over the issue of “amnesty” for five million people that can be reversed the moment a Republican gets in the White House?

But Fox provided one clue to the situation in an article on Monday, Conservative Groups Won’t Budge in Their Opposition to a Clean DHS Funding Bill. It would seem that what conservatives want the Republicans in Congress to do is what they want America to do: look strong, beat their chests, pretend that they are more powerful than they really are. It’s pathetic, but that is about right. She quoted Dan Holler of Heritage Action saying, “If Senator McConnell reverses course and pulls this bill, without forcing the Democrats to get on it, that is going to embolden Senate Democrats to hold out constantly on every single bill.”

John BoehnerReally?! That’s what is going to make the Democrats do that? It isn’t, oh, I don’t know, six years of Senator McConnell doing exactly the same thing to the Democratic majority? That’s hard to imagine. But that actually circles back to Krauthammer. As I discussed before, he is delusional if he thinks that a government shutdown is going to be blamed on the Democrats. Everyone knows who wants a government shutdown. This is not an issue that can be finessed.

Fox continued, “Not blinking first, [Dan Holler] contends, is the only way Republicans can display dominance to Democrats in the new Senate.” What are they? A pack of dogs? Do conservatives really think that the Republican Party can bully its way to power? It all goes back to this general belief of the conservative movement in the United States that they can will themselves to power. The idea is that if they just hold out long enough — if they are willing to destroy the entire nation, then they can get their way. It is like a game of chicken.

Ted CruzBut as Jonathan Bernstein wrote yesterday, Will McConnell or Boehner Blink First? He noted, “John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are playing a game of chicken this week. Against each other. Whoever veers off first will lose more True Conservative points.” It all comes down to the fact that the Democrats don’t need to do anything. So the question is whether Boehner or McConnell will give in first.

But in addition to it all being pathetic, it is dangerous. We’ve long known that Boehner doesn’t have control of the crazies in his caucus, and now we know that McConnell doesn’t have control of the crazies in his — led by Ted Cruz who is a true believer in the will to power theory. And if they are acting this way about immigration, what’s going to happen when it comes to the debt ceiling. I find it all exhausting. These freaks can do untold damage — not just to the United States, but to the entire world. And it won’t hurt them. There will always be millions telling Ted Cruz that he’s a great man.

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Scott Walker and the “Gotcha” Question

Scott WalkerKevin Drum asks a fair question, Is It Fair to Keep Peppering Scott Walker With Gotcha Questions? Basically, is it right to ask him if he believes in evolution? The whole thing brings me back to a quote I heard from an ex-conservative who said that the hardest thing about being a conservatives was always having to lie about what you really thought. And that, I’m afraid, is why questions about evolution are hard for Republicans.

Let’s look at the position that Walker is in regarding evolution. I suspect that he actually does believe in evolution. He’s a reasonably bright guy who is surrounded by educated and sophisticated people. He may have compartmentalized the issue, but I doubt seriously that he thinks evolution is a big conspiracy by atheist scientists. The problem is that the base, which is going to vote for whomever the Republicans nominate, are the ones who want him to be a creationist. But in a general election, the non-base who might vote for a Republican don’t want to vote for one of those crazy Republicans.

So I think it is certainly okay to ask him “gotcha” questions. It isn’t because any reporter cares whether he truly believes in evolution or the president’s love for the country, but rather because it tests him as a politician. Look at Todd Akin. He didn’t lose because of his loony ideas about rape and abortion; he lost because he was loony enough to talk about it in public. That’s a key distinction. And in Scott Walker’s case, we know that he’s as loony in his beliefs as Todd Akin. The question is how he’s going to finesse his looniness publicly.

I wish we didn’t have these “gotcha” questions. I wish instead that reporters were interested in actual policy. Walker has been allowed for years to go around and not answer the question of whether he would sign a “right to work” law. Instead, he was allowed to claim that he didn’t think that any such law would come across his desk. Fundamentally, that’s the same thing. But if his really vile conservative ideology had been forced into the light of day, a lot of people would have voted against him for the same reason they voted against Todd Akin.

Now the core of Kevin Drum’s article is actually about why it is that “gotcha” questions always seem to get given to Republicans and not Democrats. The only “gotcha” question I can remember recently was Alison Lundergan Grimes’ refusal to say if she voted for Obama. Of course, that wasn’t a “gotcha” question originally; it was just made into one by her. But it was meant in the same way as the questions that Walker was asked. Who cares who Grimes voted for? Who cares if Walker thinks Obama loves the country?

But this all gets to the heart of a major difference between Republicans and Democrats. Other than a strong tendency among Democrats to have no spine about the simplest of issues (whether they vote for members of their own parties), Democrats don’t have to hide what they really believe. And that is because the vast majority of the things that Democrats really believe are hugely popular. What does Scott Walker believe regarding the economy that is popular? I know of nothing. To Walker, asking about the minimum wage is a “gotcha” question that sends him spinning. “Minimum wage?” The real reason people make so little is Obamacare!

I can see some difficult questions that the Democratic candidates for president might be asked. In particular, they are going to have to deal with Obama’s executive action on immigration. But even there, I suspect that smart politicians will say, “Hell yes, I’m continuing it!” Because the people who really care about killing it will certainly vote for the Republican no matter what. So I don’t see a big problem for the Democrats.

Ultimately, the “gotcha” question is an invention of the Republican Party. It is part of their decades long campaign to “work the refs.” It is meant to intimidate reporters into not asking questions that the Republicans don’t want to answer. For Sarah Palin, a “gotcha” question what what magazines she reads. That’s right up there with, “What’s your favorite breed of dog?” So I hope the gotcha questions keep coming. Because the American people need to know as much as they can about Scott Walker. He’s a bad guy and if the electorate knows what he really stands for, it will rightly run away from him.


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Morning Music: Tie a Yellow Ribbon

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak TreeIn 1973, Irwin Levine and L Russell Brown’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” was released by a band referred to as “Dawn featuring Tony Orlando” — for contractual reasons that have never been very clear to me. It eventually became Tony Orlando and Dawn, with “Dawn” apparently being Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, even though that was not originally what the band name had meant.

At this point, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” is kind of a joke song — something for Las Vegas crooners to emit from the silk and amphetamine. As usual with this kind of song, the very things that made people first love it — it stayed at Number 1 for a whole month — is what people now hate about it. Story songs tend not to hold up well over time anyway. And this one is overwrought, regardless. “Bus driver, please look for me; ’cause I couldn’t bear to see what I might see…” And then the final payoff, “A hundred yellow ribbons ’round the ole oak tree!” It doesn’t help that Tony Orlando looks like a guy every woman in America regrets having had a one night stand with.

But I think it is a brave tune. It is about a man coming home from prison after doing hard time — three years inside, which means he was probably given ten years. That’s bank robbery time. Or possession of a joint in 1970. But it shows a laudable act of love on the on the part of the girlfriend. A hundred yellow ribbons seems a bit excessive, but then a simple letter would have destroyed the whole conceit of the song. In “Stand By Your Man,” Tammy Wynette implies that a woman should look past all manner of abuse thrown her way “that you don’t understand.” But in this song, the woman is standing by her man in a mature way. You don’t allow a man to walk all over you, but you also don’t expect him to be perfect. So you get down to the important business of decorating that ole oak tree.


The down side of this is that Tony Orlando has been a big booster for “yellow ribbon” campaigns for soldiers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does indicate that he wants to distance himself from the actual content of the song. He also hangs out with Christian conservatives on show like Huckabee and The 700 Club.

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Birthday Post: Christopher Marlowe

Christopher MarloweOn this day in 1564, the great Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was baptized. Like most people of that time, we don’t know when he was born. His best known play is Doctor Faustus. This is a shame because in many ways, it is his weakest. I think the reason people still do it is because it is fun to stage. When Orson Welles directed the play in 1937, he let fly all of his interest in magic and turned the play into a magic show. But the language in Doctor Faustus is still very strong. I would say that Marlowe was a far more consistent writer than Shakespeare in that regard.

The thing is, Shakespeare was a slightly later writer than Marlowe. And as such, his plays are less poetic than Marlowe’s. If you watch a Marlowe play, you can actually hear the poetry. That isn’t often the case with Shakespeare, whose poetry is more like natural language. As a result of this, many scholars claim that Shakespeare is better. But playwrights after Shakespeare, like John Webster and Thomas Middleton, wrote in an even more natural style. None of them wrote anything like what one would consider natural dialog, however. So for my money, it is better to have poetry that sounds like poetry rather than vaguely stilted dialog. I recommend checking out Derek Jarman’s filmed version of Edward II. It is very good. And here is the whole thing on YouTube:

Unfortunately, Marlowe barely lived to the age of 29. He got in a fight and ended up being stabbed in the eye. This has caused some amount of speculation. He was awaiting trial for heresy. It was not the first time he had been arrested; Marlowe lived a colorful life. But given that he had done some spying for the court when he was at university, people speculate that he was “gotten rid of.” And it could be. Then again, Marlowe ran with a rough crowd, and it is easy to imagine them all getting drunk and ending up fighting. I tend to go with the more obvious theory. Of course maybe Marlowe faked his death and then went on to write Shakespeare’s plays for him!

(For the record, there is the ultimate reason why we know that Marlowe didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays: their styles are nothing alike. If there is one thing that all these years of reading and watching and memorizing Shakespeare have taught me, it is that Shakespeare repeats himself a lot. He has very definable cadences. He reuses the same phrases. His wit is quite distinct. Marlowe is nothing like that. I wish people would stop reading about these conspiracy theories and just read some of the actual playwrights. All of this discussion would go away.)

The following are two brief scenes from a production of Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. The first scene is standard, in all versions of the play. The second scene is from the later version of the play and may or may not have been written by Marlowe. Regardless, the company has changed the scene a lot to rather good effect.

Happy baptismal day Christopher Marlowe!

This is a small edit from last year’s birthday post.

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The Hopes and Dreams of the Little Blog

Frankly CuriousIt seems like only yesterday that Frankly Curious published its 2,000th article. (It wasn’t; it was almost two years ago.) We are now well over 5,000 articles. What’s more, the articles are much longer now. In the early days, articles were often very short. And then there is this thing since I moved over to Word Press. It tells me how many words I’ve written, and that tends to make me shoot for 500 words — the Frankly Curious standard. But I often find myself well over double that. What am I gonna do? I have a lot to say.

This comes up because I was thinking of writing an article about the ridiculousness of the libertarian argument against labor unions. I will probably get to that soon, but I was thinking, “Didn’t I write about that before?” Well, the truth is, I can’t find that I have written about it, which is odd given that it is something that really bugged me even when I was a libertarian. (As a libertarian, I was a huge supporter of labor unions — strong labor unions were the only way libertarianism could ever work.) But what if I had? It isn’t like it would be just a rehash of the older article. And it isn’t like I had anywhere near as many readers before as I have now.

But what is the purpose of this blog? I know I write these articles from time to time. But I really am trying to figure it out. As you should have noticed, there is now a “Morning Music” post. It took me exactly three days for it to get totally out of hand. The idea was just that I was going post some video that I thought was interesting. But it couldn’t stay at that — no. Now I have to go on and on about what I think is interesting. For example, I have one coming up about Michael Penn’s minor hit, “No Myth.” And I swear, I get 500 words out of talking about Wuthering Heights.

So I seem to have set up another trap for myself. Now, instead of five posts per day, it is six. And there are three set ones: the birthday post, the quotation, and the music post. But here is the interesting thing: they are actually the easiest ones to write. I know I have to create them, so there is no question of whether I should or shouldn’t write them. The hardest part about writing any article is starting it. Actually, of the three, the quotations are the hardest, because I have to find something that is interesting without my commenting on it.

This means that I have three articles per day that I consider “real.” And by “real,” I mean hard. They are article that generally require that I read a lot about what’s going on and look for something that I think is worth writing about. And then that leads to reading what other people are writing about. And this usually results in what I think is my best work here. Most especially, I think my best work is about economics, because that’s an area where I think I have the perfect level of knowledge (low but not zero) to get across complicated issues. But in general, no one is interested in these articles. Which is fine.

The question remains: do people like this? That’s a rhetorical question — don’t feel the need to chime in. But if you think it sucks, please let me know. It isn’t likely to change anything. The addition of “Morning Music” is part of my broader attempt to make Frankly Curious a destination site. This isn’t as loony a thought as it might sound. The number of people who come directly to the home page is way up over the last year. I want this to be a place where people can come every day and know that there will probably be something that they’ll find vaguely interesting. And it provides my life with structure that I badly need.


Speaking of structure, this is currently the publishing schedule of Frankly Curious:

12:05 am - Birthday Post
06:05 am - Morning Music
08:05 am - General Post (usually politics)
11:05 am - General Post (usually politics)
02:05 pm - Quotation
05:05 pm - General Post (hopefully not politics)

I’m thinking of moving the birthday post to 5:05 am. There’s a technical reason for that. I rather like it going up after midnight.

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Reporters are Not Economically Liberal

Eric AltermanAlso, lest we forget, journalists are not entirely immune to the seductions of affluence. While they are not nearly as well paid as the nation’s corporate, legal, or medical elite, high-level Washington and New York journalists do make considerably more money than most Americans. They have spouses who do too, and hence, live pretty well. According to a study conducted by the sociologist David Croteau, 95 percent of elite journalists’ households earned more than $50,000 a year, and 31 percent earned more than $150,000. He points out, “High levels of income tend to be associated with conservative views on economic issues such as tax policy and federal spending.” And journalists are no different. The journalists’ views on economic matters are generally consistent with their privileged position on the socioeconomic ladder, and, hence, well to the right of most Americans. They are more sympathetic to corporations, less sympathetic to government-mandated social programs, and far more ideologically committed to free trade than to the protection of jobs than are their fellow citizens.

—Eric Alterman
What Liberal Media?


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The Strongest Argument Against King v Burwell

Nicholas BagleyOn Monday, Nicholas Bagley over at The Incidental Economist wrote, Fifty Shades of Wrong. He’s a little different from most of the people over there in that he isn’t a doctor; he’s a lawyer who specializes in issues related to health. So it’s a good idea to keep up with him, especially these days of the never ending flood of anti-Obamacare lawsuits. Of course, you always have to be careful in listening to what legal scholars say about the law in regard to Obamacare because they can only speak to the law and its traditions. They can’t speak as well to the ideological madness that lives inside the conservatives on the Supreme Court.

This article is in reference to a recent academic article in the University of Miami Business Law Review, Anomalies in the Affordable Care Act that Arise from Reading the Phrase “Exchange Established by the State” Out of Context (pdf). It was written by Timothy Stoltzfus Jost of Washington and Lee University and James Engstrand, a practicing attorney. And it takes on the case in King v Burwell in a very interesting way.

The base of the case is that there is one sentence in the healthcare law that seems to imply that subsidies are only available to state run exchanges — not federally run exchanges. To many people, this seems to be a smoking gun — even to many liberals. But it has been noted that there are other parts of the law that imply just as strongly that the subsidies are to be provided to purchasers regardless of what kind of exchange they use. To me, that’s a very compelling counterargument. The truth of the matter is that in any sufficiently complicated document, there will be inconsistencies and contradictions. (See, for example, Sancho’s disappearing donkey in Don Quixote.) The fact that the plaintiffs have found one — and only one — example of a contradiction does not mean that the proper reading of the law is that one sentence.

Unfortunately, I find myself unable to read the article itself. This is strange, because I’m pretty good at reading scientific papers in fields far outside my own. But the lawyers have their own thing going on. I get the gist of it. But it is too fine-grained for me. So I’ll have to depend upon Bagley’s summary. Basically, what the authors are arguing is that if the Supreme Court finds for the plaintiffs, it will be introducing “at least fifty” anomalies into the law. (Hence the title of Bagley’s article.) In other words, in the name of fixing on inconsistency, the court will be creating far more new ones.

I agree with Bagley’s conclusion:

Jost and Engstrand are on exactly the right track: they’re building a statutory case, premised on the text of the ACA as a whole, in favor of the government’s interpretation… As it stands, the meticulousness of their examination is unmatched. Let’s hope the Supreme Court takes notice.

That last sentence is the killer though. I really want to believe that after all the information that has come out since the Supreme Court took the case, that King v Burwell will go down in flames, nine to zero. It’s my hope that at this point, the conservatives are thinking that they kind of embarrassed themselves in even taking the case. But at the appellate court level, conservative judges have seemed quite willing to find on behalf of the plaintiffs for no other reason than that they just don’t like Obamacare. If there is anything that the last 15 years should have taught us, it is that the judicial system in this country is every bit as political as the United States Congress.

But this information does give me confidence. And I am hopeful that Obamacare will squeak out a 5-4 decision. And if it does, it will be fascinating to see how the conservative justices tie themselves in legal knots — go against almost everything they’ve ever said in the past — to justify why it doesn’t matter what the total law says — only what one sentence says that happens to lead to the conclusion they want.

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Rats Exonerated for Black Death

Black Rat Eating With Its HandsVindication! The European black rat, long blamed for the Black Death and for later waves of plague, has been exonerated. The real culprit, it seems, is the gerbil with its “cute” tail. Ha! All you rat haters out there can suck it! Not that I dislike gerbils. They are wonderful. I am fond of all my fellow mammals. But rats have been vilified for too long. And why?

Well, I will tell you why people don’t like them: rats don’t have much hair on their tails. Really. That’s it. That is how superficial we humans are. And in the case of black rats, there is the color too. People really do not like black pets nearly as much. I assume this is true of wild animals as well.

There is a new study out in Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences that looked at climate data as it applies to the question. Brad Plumer at Vox provided the details, Scientists Now Suspect Gerbils Were the Real Villains in the Black Death — Not Rats:

Earlier research has suggested that the optimal weather for rat-driven plague outbreaks in Europe would have been warm and somewhat dry summers. But that created a problem: the plague data and climate data don’t line up — it didn’t seem likely that rats in Europe were the ones driving the repeated plague outbreaks. (As further evidence, past studies have found that rats were often absent from plague centers in northern Europe.)

Typical. Why did we think that it was rats, anyway? I don’t think there was ever much reason to think it other than that people see rats and they noticed that they got around a lot on ships. And they have ugly tails. Hence: it’s gotta be rats! But the same climate data makes it looks like the great gerbil is responsible. I should note, it is a rather large animal that look more like a squirrel or a chipmunk. It is not the cute little animal that we so often see on YouTube getting baths. That isn’t to say they aren’t adorable too.

Great GerbilThe real culprit, of course, are the fleas. And it isn’t like the rats weren’t carrying the infected fleas on them. The problem seems to be that the plague was even more devastating to rat populations than it was to humans. So rats are not only not the culprit — they are one of the primary victims of the plague. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, you rat haters!

Out in the big bad world, wild animals are, well, wild. In general, wild rats behave the way we expect social animals to behave. They aren’t perfect but then neither are humans. But I have actual experience with pet (fancy) rats. And they are wonderful creatures. I’ve never been around a hamster who didn’t bite. I’ve never been around a rat who did. They are wonderful pets. This is what Wikipedia has to say about rat social behavior (emphasis mine):

Rats are generally very friendly to other cage mates, particularly with females. They will even sometimes help or take care of other sick rats

Unless there is an issue integrating rats together, owners should endeavor to house rats in pairs as they are incredibly sociable creatures. It’s important that Rats are continually entertained.

Why are rats not as beloved as dogs? The Black Death is certainly part of the problem. I hope this research helps. But I would hate it if the gerbil becomes the scapegoat. As I said, it is the flea — which doubtless killed lots of gerbils too. And even the flea has no moral culpability. It isn’t like humans who knowingly drive other species to extinction.

But ultimately, I think the Black Death association is more a result of the low esteem we hold rats. Ultimately, it is that damned tail. Beauty is only skin deep — just like humans.

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Morning Music: Gwen Verdon & Bob Fosse

Gwen VerdonAfter my rant about the Academy Awards a couple of days ago, I got to thinking about Bob Fosse. And as I was making my way around YouTube watching dance numbers, I came upon this great one from Damn Yankees, “Who’s Got the Pain.” It is interesting in that it actually features Fosse and his future wife, Gwen Verdon. Verdon was a Broadway legend. During the six years from 1954 through 1959, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical four times. To me, she looks like Shirley MacLaine, which is interesting because Verdon starred in Sweet Charity on Broadway. Anyway, here she is with Fosse doing Fosse’s choreography:

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