Just for Labor Day: Walter Reuther

Walter ReutherOn this day in 1907, the labor leader Walter Reuther was born. He was the man that turned the United Automobile Workers (UAW) into a major political force in the country. He was also a very important supporter of the civil rights movement. Unions were often impediments to racial equality. Reuther understood that workers are workers.

One of the maddening things about Americans is the way we allow special interests to turn us against each other. This is almost a founding principle of the country. It’s the reason we had the slavery of African Americans. At first, it wasn’t a racial issue. But black and white slaves had this nasty habit of ganging up and revolting against the rich. So the rich came up with a great idea: make the Europeans free so no matter how bad their lives were, they would feel okay because at least they weren’t slaves. And indeed, that did put an end to the poor seeing themselves as a single group.

Reuther understood this. But it is so ingrained in who we are. And so many American myths (for example, the rugged individual) have been crammed into our minds that it is very hard to fight. But Reuther tried and succeeded to a large extend. As I noted last year:

He had what I think was a very common political arc for people of his time. He started as a socialist (even a communist) but after the New Deal came in, he became a liberal. Conservatives tend to vilify FDR for bringing socialism to America. That isn’t true, of course, and that thought is typical of the conservative “all or nothing” mentality. If they thought about it for a moment, they would realize that what FDR did was save capitalism from revolution. People like Reuther thought they wanted socialism, but all they really wanted was a more fair and equitable political and economic system. Is a safety net to avoid the worst excesses of capitalism so much to ask?!

Reuther turned the United Automobile Workers (UAW) into a major force in the United States. He also integrated it with the Democratic Party — where he was a major figure until his death. He was also a prominent supporter of the civil rights movement. He was on stage with Martin Luther King Jr during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. He also took part in the Selma to Montgomery March. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash with his wife and others at the age of 62.

Happy birthday Walter Reuther!

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Cultural Decline and Em-Dash Typesetting

Quotation MarksAs I’m sure you’ve noticed, we abandoned Nucleus (Because it abandoned us!) and we are now running on WordPress. What you may not have noticed is that all our quotation marks and apostrophes are now directional or “smart.” This is something that WordPress does automatically when displaying a page. I’m sure I could get a plugin to stop the software from doing that. But I really don’t want to.

For some time, it’s been bothering me that I properly typeset em-dashes (—) rather than using the typewriter equivalent (--). But I stuck with the typewriter equivalent of quotation marks and apostrophes. So I’m glad that WordPress is doing this for me. But it does create a problem.

There is a debate in typesetting community over whether there ought to be spaces before and after an em-dash. I don’t like the spaces. Adding them makes the text look too spread out with an overabundance of white space. But increasingly, style guides do call for the spaces. This is just more evidence that our culture is dying.

I was willing to buck the trend. But yesterday, I quoted this:

Not every justice would own up to partisanship by saying
the recounted votes “threaten irreparable harm to
petitioner”—Governor Bush—”and to the country.”

Oh. My. God.

I’ve seen this error a lot on other blogs. It makes me feel like Arthur Kirkland in And Justice for All. “Don’t you care? Don’t you even care?”

So I have now officially changed the Frankly Curious style to call for spaces before and after em-dashes. This is what we’ve sunk to. Now technology is determining our typographic choices. I just hope that as our culture crumbles, I don’t get killed by falling debris.

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Phantom Lady and Reproductive Choice

Deny me the right to make choices about my own body - Paul Day

This image was photoshopped by the comedian Paul Day. (You can learn all about him in the update to my article, Billy Bob Neck in Heaven?) I thought it captured rather well the conservative mentality that all women secretly desire an Aryan demigod to tell them how to live their lives so they don’t have to worry their pretty little heads.

I don’t know who drew the original panel. It’s a classic style. Even Johnny Craig used it in some of the most ghoulish of EC Comics’ horror titles. But what I find really interesting is that if you go back before 1954 and the establishment of the vile Comics Code Authority, there were a lot of racy comics. Consider how Phantom Lady was portrayed:

Phantom Lady - Comparison

What’s important here is the idea of women as nonthreatening helpers, just waiting for a man who they can follow. This was only ever an image that the power elite and its status quo chorus pushed on the rest of us. And of course: Phantom Lady is explicitly a character of male fantasy. But neutering (Spaying?) of the character is all the proper role of women in society. Mae West was out and Barbara Billingsley was in.

The reason that things like Paul Day’s image above works is because we know all those “safe” comic book representations of women were a crock. Just the same, today Phantom Lady is about as close to soft-core porn as you are likely to see. But even in that, she has a power that would terrify the American man if she weren’t confined to the pages of a comic or any other non-threatening media. No man would try to deny her reproductive choice. And that’s why conservatives want to portray women as dictated by the Comics Code. If that’s who women are then we men really do need to step up and make all the decisions.

It’s not surprising that the most conservative of men find pornography so titillating. Whether it is some Baptist minister or Osama bin Laden, the fantasy of explicitly sexual women is very appealing. But these same men are far too afraid of this same power in real life — both explicitly because such women would never find such cowering men attractive and implicitly because of what such women would expect in other areas of life — namely: equality.

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Terry Eagleton on the 2012 Presidential Election

Terry EagletonI should say that this is the British version of the forthcoming American presidential debates. Although Roger Scruton is infinitely more intelligent than Mitt Romney and I am infinitely more left wing than Barack Obama. Neither of which is at all difficult.

—Terry Eagleton
Intelligence2 Debate: Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton

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Inequality and Oxidizable Money

Gold CoinsI’ve been reading a lot of David Harvey recently. He writes from a Marxist perspective and although I don’t consider myself a Marxist, there is much to be said about looking at modern American economics from this perspective. Last night, I was listening to a lecture he gave, The Contradictions of Capital. And one thing really stood out to me. He asked why people have always chosen gold and silver as a basis for their currencies. Why not an oxidizable metal like iron?

There are two primary uses of money. First, it is a mechanism of transferring wealth. Sure, you could give your doctor a chicken as payment, but it makes more sense to use money. Money is convenient: it doesn’t require us to be forever swapping things of value in order to end up with the things that we want at any given time.

The second use of money is more problematic: a mechanism for the storage of wealth. This is the area where I am most in opposition with libertarians. They see the ability to store wealth as being critical to the economy because people will only work if they know they can hang onto that wealth for the rest of their lives (and their children’s lives (and their children’s lives (…))). But at the same time, the storage of wealth is a primary cause of our continuing Greater Depression. Businesses are sitting on piles of money. In a good economy, they would invest it and hire people to make more money. But in the current economy, they don’t even have substantial inflation to disincentivize their money hording.

So what would happen if money was oxidizable? Imagine if any money held onto by an individual or business was taxed at, say, 10% each year. That would provide a very big incentive to spend the money. This would create much more demand in the economy. And clearly, companies couldn’t get away with just paying their CEO more, because his wealth too would be taxed at the same rate. It would tend to decrease inequality given how we’ve become so much of an aristocracy. This is the basic idea behind Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.

There are obvious problems with this system, but that isn’t to say that they can’t be overcome. In fact, many of them have obvious solutions. The most important is that people should be allowed to save some money. Clearly, some kinds of retirement accounts would have to be exempt and there would have to be some amount that people could save without being so taxed. That’s simple enough. I’m not clear about how such a system would deal with commodities. Would people be taxed on gold bars they hoard in the cellar? Again: that’s not too hard. I think it would be taxed — the same way the state of California taxes business inventory. (For the record, I hate that tax; it is very hard on micro-sized companies.)

The biggest problem is that the rich would just move their wealth outside the country. I believe that this is why Piketty is calling for an international wealth tax. We are seeing this with the various tax avoidance schemes such as corporate inversion. More and more, the only way that we can make the rich pay anything close to their fair share in taxes requires international efforts. Given how successful such efforts have been on the issue of global warming, I’m not hopeful. (Note the Catch-22 here.)

But the idea is intriguing. It is worth giving serious consideration. And maybe some day after things reach a point where the only options facing the rich are reform and revolution, they will choose the former. Does this mean I don’t believe in democracy? Not at all! I am a big believer in democracy. I just don’t think that much of it exists in the modern world.

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Julie Brown

Julie BrownToday, the comedian Julie Brown is 56. But she started as a regular stand-up comedian working primarily in the gay clubs around Los Angeles. This led to her making short films. By the early 80s, she began working in television and film. And in 1984 she released a five song EP, Goddess in Progress. This is primarily what I know her for, because Dr Demento picked up on some of the songs and played them quite a lot. Yes, I was one of those guys: people who listened to Dr Demento each Sunday. I’m not proud, it’s just the truth.

One of the songs on the EP was, “Earth Girls Are Easy.” It is produced in an annoying New Wave style but with enough charm to overcome it. It’s a story song about a UFO that crash lands in her swimming pool. Love ensues. Brown later leveraged it into the film, Earth Girls Are Easy. I found it very amusing when I in college, but that shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation.

The film included a number of Brown’s songs, including “‘Cause I’m a Blonde.” I could do without the song’s The Romantics production, but it is funny:

In 1992, she finally got around to doing a full-on Madonna parody, Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful. But otherwise, she mostly does small projects. I’ve been very interested in some of her political things. For example, she did “The Ex-Beauty Queen’s Got a Gun” — a reworking of her classic “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” for Sarah Palin. And she did the very funny “Victoria Jackson Reacts to the Election!” — a reaction to Jackson’s Twitter meltdown on election night 2012. Here’s another one, “Victoria Jackson Tea Party Spokesmodel.” Vote for Romney: R-O-M-K-N-E-E!

Happy birthday Julie Brown!


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Daniel Schorr on Bush v Gore

Daniel SchorrIn developing countries such as Pakistan, Chile, and Sierra Leone, a transfer of power is often accomplished by military coup. In our country, it is done by judicial coup.

Admitting to something short of cool dispassion, I marvel at the way the gang of five, led by arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, tried to camouflage their 5-to-4 operation behind a nominal 7-to-2 agreement that there was a problem with the Florida recount. That seemed to leave open the chance of fixing the system. Their fix was in, all right, but a different fix. It suppressed the recount for good.

Any one of these five could have returned the contest to limbo. But none did. Decades of conservative support of states’ rights, by overturning federal statutes from affirmative action to federal review of criminal cases, went out the window in an arrogation of authority to judge voting in Florida.

The tactics were adroit. First, the junta on Saturday halted the vote count. That enabled them to say on Tuesday that there was no more time left for vote-counting.

One thing about Tony Scalia is that he levels with you. Not every justice would say, as he did Saturday, that issuing the voting stay suggested Bush had “a substantial probability of success.” Not every justice would own up to partisanship by saying the recounted votes “threaten irreparable harm to petitioner” — Governor Bush — “and to the country.”

Justice Stevens, for the embattled minority of himself, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter, said on Saturday that halting the vote recount “will inevitably cast a cloud on the legitimacy of the election.” Tuesday he said we may never know who was the winner of the presidential race, but “the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” …

That legitimacy has been endangered by the court’s intervention into the white-hot controversy over the presidency that opened the court to suspicion of partisanship. Before this issue arose there were suggestions of partisanship. Mr. Bush referred to Scalia and Clarence Thomas as models for the kind of justices he would name. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor reportedly said they would like to retire under Bush to ensure being succeeded by conservatives. But now, these five have had a banner day. They have selected a president.

—Daniel Schorr
The Supreme Fix Was In

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Blast From the Past: “Patches”

Patches - Clarence CarterIf you are my age, you are most likely very familiar with Clarence Carter‘s hit song “Patches.” It’s a song about a boy growing up on the farm in Alabama (way back in the woods). He is called “Patches” because of all the patches on his clothes. So he’s from a very poor family. One day, his father, who is dying, makes a request of him, “Patches I’m depending on you son—to pull the family through…”

It is a very unique song. It has an ABC structure with the A section spoken. When I was six years old, it sounded kind of like a country tune. Of course it isn’t anything like country. It is Rhythm & Blues through and through. I think it is as distinctive and fresh today as it was 45 years ago:

What I didn’t know is that “Patches” was not written by or for Carter. It was written by the lead singer of Chairmen of the Board, General Johnson, and his songwriting partner Ronald Dunbar. And so Chairmen of the Board first did the song. But it was released as a B-side because the record company thought the talking in the song was too unusual and it wasn’t “hit” material. Of course, that was exactly the reason that the song became a hit for Carter that same year.

Here is the original version of the song by Chairmen of the Board:

That year, Johnson and Dunbar won the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song. And there is a recent and very interesting story about this. Dunbar lost control of the Grammy trophy at some point. I don’t know if it was lost or stolen or what. But it ended up on the show Pawn Stars. In January of 2011, Dunbar got it back. That’s good news for Dunbar and good news for the world—the more money taken away from the bottom feeding family on Pawn Stars, the better.

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No Real Reason I Liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron MunchausenTwo weeks ago, the guys at The Q-Filmcast released an episode on, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. They are clever guys and I’m always impressed with their insights about films. But their discussion of Baron Munchausen is an especially good example of how it is that all of us who write and talk about films are just a bunch of fakers.

Most of the guys were pretty down on the film. In contrast, I really liked it. But pretty much everything they complained about was valid. The scenes go on too long, for example. I think a half hour could easily have been cut from the film. But because the producers had spent so much money on shooting the film and because Terry Gilliam seems to think that every idea he ever had is a gem, the scenes weren’t cut. There were other problems as well: the script is weak; the characters are not well rendered; and it has little dramatic momentum.

In addition to this, Savage—the one person at The Q-Filmcast who really liked the film—was also in agreement about the problems in the film. And that raises a question, “What does it mean to like a film?” I’m convinced that it doesn’t mean much. I like Baron Munchausen the same way that I like my friends: I’m inclined to focus on what is good and ignore what is bad. And I do the opposite with people and films I don’t like.

This fact makes what the The Q-Filmcast does all the more useful. Because there does seem to be a culturally agreed upon critique of what works in art. It isn’t just anyone’s opinion. So listening to their analysis of the film, one gets a good idea of what’s happening in it. And that’s the kind of stuff that comes across better with the back-and-forth of their format.

What doesn’t work—coming from anyone most definitely including me—is the ultimate conclusion. It reminds me of a great scene from A Late Quartet. In it, Christopher Walken tells a story about Pablo Casals (which I believe is more or less true), and it is something that I think all of us who pontificate about any kind of art should remember: we should take whatever joy we can find.

That’s certainly not a complaint with The Q-Filmcast. They are explicitly ombudsmen. And people want guidance as to whether they should use their time watching a film. In the case of Baron Munchausen, all listeners should come away with a good idea if they are going to like the film. There is great value in that and I think people are infinitely better in their hands than the hands of even critics that I like.

It is more an issue for me. What is it I offer to the reader? I hope that no one comes to me for recommendations. I have the luxury of writing about film from three different perspectives. First, I write about the politics in film. Second, I write about film history. And third, I write about films I admire and why I admire them. Other than when I go to movies with my brother, I am spared having to write about films I hate. And even then, I usually take a political track with them, given that action films tend to extremely (but implicitly) political.

I’m still shocked just about every day regarding how irrational I am. I’m great at rationalizing it, of course. Most people are. But ultimately, I liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen because when I watched it I liked it. I could give you lots of reasons to justify that. There is an enormous amount to like in the film. And there is a good deal to hate. In fact, it has enough of both to effectively be a cinematic Rorschach test. Our experience of it is much more about us than it.


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Some Thoughts on To the Lighthouse

To the LighthouseI finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. When I was about fifty pages in, I was extremely close to giving up. Woolf writes the first part of the book in limited third person. But the perspective is constantly shifting, and she provides almost no concessions to the reader. So at the beginning, I was reading along seeing things from Mrs Ramsay’s perspective and suddenly… What? When did William Bankes show up?! And I realized that without warning, Woolf had changed perspective to Lily Briscoe.

But after a while, I was able to just flow with it. A big part of it is just getting used to it. The language is quite beautiful—much of it as exact as poetry. So there is always that to appreciate. But about halfway through the first section, many of the characters come to life. Despite myself, because I knew I was doomed to disappointment, I became very interested in the Bankes and Briscoe characters and their relationship. That kept me reading most of all. But my predicted disappointment was not disappointed. Bankes is not in the rest of the novel and hardly mentioned.

The second section of the book is totally different. It is written in third person omniscient. It is very short and Woolf seems to delight in killing off her characters. In particular, Mrs Ramsay dies, even though she was the main character in the first part of the novel. And this sets up the final section of the novel that goes back to shifting perspectives, but in a much more rigid way. In it, Mrs Ramsay is arguably still the main character, since the memory of her hangs over everyone and everything.

It all goes back to Andrew Ramsay’s explanation to Lily of what his father’s philosophical work was about, “Think of a kitchen table then when you’re not there.” So Mrs Ramsay is the kitchen table: we are with her in the first section and we are not in the last section. What’s interesting about this is that the effect of Mrs Ramsay is only implicit in the remaining members of the Ramsay home. It is only Lily Briscoe for whom Mrs Ramsay is explicit. In fact, Lily seems almost obsessed with her.

The novel ends with the Ramsays finally making their long delayed trip to the lighthouse and Lily finally finishes that painting that has been eluding her since the beginning of the novel. And that’s it. Basically, To the Lighthouse is a novel featuring two days separated by a decade. And it is about how that first day affects the second and all the people experiencing it. As to what it means, that is harder to say.

Woolf seems a bit uncertain about it too. On the one hand, long after her death, we see that Mrs Ramsay still has an enormous impact on life. On the other, Lily’s epiphany is that the purpose of her art is the ephemeral feelings of accomplishment at rendering her vision. I suppose that’s about right. Life is both about now and then. In as much as the novel has an opinion on the future—on hope—it is negative.

Throughout the novel, I was sad. This doesn’t seem to come as the result of anything specific. There is just an overwhelming feeling of dread from beginning to end. It’s like beneath the words, Woolf is whispering to the reader, “Soon you will die and all you will have to show for it is the fun you had along the way. And you aren’t having much fun, are you?” To the Lighthouse is distinctly not fun. But I see why it is considered a great novel. It is edifying. And maybe it will help me to have more fun in my future presents.

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