Leonard Bernstein and Others

Leonard BernsteinYou know it is a good day when it is exactly 483 years since the birth of Ivan the Terrible. Was he really so terrible? Overall, he seems to have been good for Russia. Of course, in a fit of rage, he did kill his brilliant son (and heir apparent), leaving the throne to his mentally retarded son. So it’s a mixed bag, especially if you are (1) brilliant and (2) a son.

Dutch astronomer Philippe van Lansberge who just couldn’t accept that the planets moved in ellipses was born in 1561. The great English horse painter George Stubbs was born in 1724. Recently, one of this paintings sold for $36 million. I don’t think much of him generally and I really don’t think much of that particular painting. Pioneer writer Bret Harte was born in 1836. Mathematician Helmut Hasse was born in 1898.

Modern composer Stefan Wolpe was born in 1902. Oh, yes: I could provide you with an example of his work. But would you click? Would you perform even that small act of clicking the play button to hear the music? I’m sure you wouldn’t after I told you that his music is “difficult” and “ugly” and “something that makes twelve tone composition sound like Tchaikovsky.” So I won’t even try. Just go look him up yourself you ungrateful readers! (No, seriously: you won’t like his work. I guarantee it!)

Michael Rennie was there The Day the Earth Stood Still. Am I right?! Based upon that, it must have been after this day in 1909, because that was when he was born. I’m not a fan. But I do love this song:

Surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning was born in 1910 and only died last year. Actor Van Johnson was born in 1916. The great American racist George Wallace was born in 1919.

Game show host Monty Hall is 92 today. The Monty Hall Problem was one of the first things I wrote about on this site. Actor Sean Connery is 83. Regis Philbin is 82. The great jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter is 80. Here he is with his quartet doing “Footprints”:

Comedy writer Marshall Brickman is 72. Her is a clip from his funny (but troubled) film Simon:

Novelist Martin Amis is 64. So is one of the worst human beings in the world, Gene Simmons. Elvis Costello is 59. Here he is at the White House doing “Penny Lane”:

Film director Tim Burton is 55. Here is the entire original short Frankenweenie:

And actor Tom Hollander is 46.

The day, however, belongs to Leonard Bernstein who was born on this day in 1918. He makes me think of the line from Citizen Kane, “You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” During a time where he couldn’t have been so famous, he might have been one of the greatest composers of the century. As it was, the next line from that bit of Citizen Kane comes to mind, “I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.” The music he wrote for West Side Story is probably the best for any musical ever. I’m not that fond of him as a conductor, but I think he is a lot better than most people say. But his greatest legacy will likely be as an educator. I remember a series of short films he made that were really important to me as a kid. I especially like this one about Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I like that he takes the romance out of the composition process and shows that it is mostly just hard work. (This is doubtless true of Mozart as well, but he did all of that work in his head.)

Happy birthday Leonard Bernstein!

Humor Attempt Turns Racist

Patrick HowleyHumor is great. I agree with Elizabeth Bennet when she said, “I dearly love a laugh.” But humor is dangerous as a writer. You can inadvertently says something that you don’t mean. Even worse: you can say something that you do mean.

Patrick Howley is a writer for The Daily Caller, the supposedly libertarian website that is in fact just a conservative also ran that only stands out when it gets a story hopelessly wrong. But last Monday, Howley tried to have a little fun with the Obamas buying a new dog. Look: I get it. I didn’t even mention it because I absolutely don’t care. And clearly Howley was annoyed by the “press release for children” that the White House put out. “So now, in addition to helping with those official duties, Bo takes on the important role of big brother!” Stuff like that is enough to send me to the sink for a bout of retching.

So I’m totally with Howley on this stuff and his article gently mocks the whole thing throughout. I’m not with him when he tries to be serious for a moment by throwing in a line about the unemployment rate. That’s just childish. And it isn’t funny or clever at this point, because every time the president plays a game of golf, the right have a simultaneous orgasm over the fact that he isn’t fixing every problem in the nation. How dare he not be working! But mostly, the tone was about right. I mean “correct.”

Then he got to the end. And he took a very bad turn. Again, he was trying to be funny when he wrote this:

With the addition of Sunny, the Obamas now have two black Portuguese water dogs.

The Obamas do not have any white dogs.

Get it?! It’s because Obama hates whites; even white dogs! Am I right? (Note: the new dog has quite a lot of white fur, but I guess it’s like the old racist laws: if you have any black hair, you’re black!)

The problem here is that The Daily Caller is a racist website. Most of it isn’t overt; it is more along the lines of what I talked about last week: The Racism of Reverse Racism. But it is clearly racist and so when people read such a thing as “The Obamas do not have any white dogs” they understandably go ballistic. Little Green Footballs, for example, calls it “flat-out racist.” Even the non-political site Terribly Terrier called it “dog whistle politics.” But mostly, everyone responded as Media Matter: without comment, since none is really necessary.

Like I said, I think it is all a joke gone bad. I don’t necessarily think that Howley is a racist. But the Aspen Daily News got to the heart of the problem:

Whatever the writer’s intent, it’s clear that he dislikes Obama, and the fact that they have no white dogs is supposed to mean something. Just like it’s clear the rodeo clown who wore the Obama mask to work dislikes Obama. And both were aiming to get a bunch of other people to dislike Obama, too.

I say it’s OK to dislike the president. I had a very strong dislike for W when he was in office. But if you’re going to dislike the president, you need to at least pretend to do so for a valid reason.

Otherwise, you just look stupid.

But that’s the thing on the right. It is very much like a group of high school jocks who make each other laugh by cracking jokes about what losers the nerds are. That’s to be expected from young people. But The Daily Caller is supposedly a legitimate news organization. If they want to make fun of Obama, they ought to hire P.J. O’Rourke. Otherwise, as stated: you just look stupid—and at least marginally racist.

Surveillance States’ Newest Propaganda Campaign

Edward SnowdenThe Independent published a remarkable story on Friday that hasn’t gotten much coverage, Exclusive: UK’s Secret Mid-East Internet Surveillance Base Is Revealed in Edward Snowden Leaks. If you have heard about, it has probably only confused you. The biggest news has been that Edward Snowden released a statement saying that he never spoke to The Independent. But if you read the actual article, you will see that this is irrelevant. The article doesn’t indicate that Snowden has been in communication with them. And that’s what makes it such a remarkable piece of “journalism.”

Based on the article’s headline, you might get the impression that this is an important revelation. But read it more carefully and you’ll see what is really being said: “There is information in the Snowden files that could cost lives!” Although the article never mentioned the detention of David Miranda, that is what it is all about. The article is making the case that it was right to detain him because he had (or could have had) this kind of “dangerous” information. So after the initial revelations were revealed at the top of the story, it continued:

The Independent is not revealing the precise location of the station but information on its activities was contained in the leaked documents obtained from the NSA by Edward Snowden.

The implication is, “We here at The Independent can be trusted, but should this kind of information be allowed in the hands of that loose cannon Glenn Greenwald?” The whole thing smacks of what has long been the conservative take on the First Amendment, “You can say anything you like—so long as you don’t!” To me, this is taking the whole “journalists against journalism” war to a new level. Now we learn that leaks are perfectly fine so long as they aren’t in the hands of someone who will use them like Julian Assange or Glenn Greenwald or Bart Gellman. We can trust Jeffrey Toobin with our leaks. Therefore: freedom of the press!

What Greenwald suggests is that The Independent article is just an NSA/GCHQ operation. It is hard not to think that is exactly right. I’m sure that the NSA now knows what files Snowden took—at least generally if not specifically. What’s more, after taking Miranda’s computer away, it is very possible the GCHQ got the information from there. So someone from the United Kingdom’s government goes to The Independent and says, “Here’s a document we know that Edward Snowden leaked. This is the kind of the harm that could be done if this fell into the wrong hands.” And thus the story is written. I don’t blame the reporters at The Independent; it’s a good story. The problem is that the story they wrote is pure propaganda and speculation. No one has argued that there weren’t potentially dangerous documents in the leak. That’s why Snowden gave them to reputable journalists rather than just dumping them on the internet.

The story surrounding The Independent report is very important. It shows that the surveillance system is engaged in a propaganda campaign. But unlike previous campaigns, this one is fairly subtle. It mixes facts with unjustified fear for a toxic mixture of authoritarianism. Look for more of this in the United States press.

Washington Post Budget Propaganda

David FahrentholdDean Baker is like Jesus Christ, suffering for the sins of the press. In this specific case: he reads the Washington Post so the rest of us don’t have to. Unfortunately, after he brought this most recent “reporting” outrage to my attention, I was forced to read it myself. The article was the Post’s lead story this morning and even the title is amazing, After Six Budget Showdowns, Big Government Is Mostly Unchanged. But the summary of the article sounds downright reasonable, “The Post’s David Fahrenthold examines the amount of federal spending, workers, rules and buildings over the years.” Okay! Let’s get started!

From the first sentence it is terrible. In addition to the cynical tone, Fahrenthold doesn’t seem to understand even the most basic notions of finance or politics. I’m just going to focus on the first four paragraphs and leave the rest to Baker. (I’m only willing to suffer so much.)

After 2 1/2 years of budget battles, this is what the federal government looks like now:

It is on pace, this year, to spend $3.455 trillion.

That figure is down from 2010—the year that worries about government spending helped bring on a tea party uprising, a Republican takeover in the House and then a series of ulcer-causing showdowns in Congress.

But it is not down by that much. Back then, the government spent a whopping $3.457 trillion.

What really stands out to me is the word “whopping.” That’s a highly charged word that doesn’t belong in a reasonable discussion of the budget. After all, what does it even mean? Is that an unreasonable amount of money for the government to spend given what it does? Fahrenthold doesn’t say. It is just a Really Big Number to scare the prols with.

Note also that his numbers are presented to confuse. First, they aren’t inflation adjusted. If they were, the 2010 number would be $3.63 trillion, so the total budget would have gone down by 5% in those two years. Of course no one but political hacks who are trying to deceive present budget numbers even simply in inflation adjusted numbers. It is necessary to look at the federal budget as it compares to the size of the economy. Just on the simplest level, the population keeps growing.

Dean Baker presents the math that Fahrenthold didn’t. And you can see why he didn’t: it doesn’t make the case that he wants to make. As Baker notes:

Of course a serious analysis would have expressed spending as a share of GDP, which shows that spending dropped from 24.1 percent of GDP in 2010 to 21.5 percent of GDP in 2013. This decline in spending of 2.6 percentage points of GDP would be the equivalent of roughly $420 billion in today’s economy.

That’s a decline of 12% in government spending. In other words: it is a lot of money. But Fahrenthold and the Post don’t want to talk about that because they have a political ax to grind. Note also the conservative framing: this is only about total spending. We are bringing in a lot more money in tax revenues than we were three years ago. So the deficit has been reduced far more than even this. Apparently this doesn’t matter over on 15th Street. They just think the government is too big and so they are going to “report” that.

I’m also really taken by his claim that government spending “helped bring on a tea party uprising.” That’s just not true. The Tea Party members were not concerned at all when the government was bailing out the banks. It was only when a far smaller amount of money was going to homeowners that the Tea Party movement started. What’s more, it is outrageous to claim that it was the budget deficit that gave the Republicans control of the House. Much of that was just fundamentals. After 2006 and 2008, there were Democrats in places that were overwhelmingly Republican. That couldn’t last. But more than that, the Republicans won because the economy continued to suck and seniors were convinced Obama was coming after their Medicare.

I highly recommend reading all of Dean Baker’s article. He gets more into weeds. The truth is that the Washington Post has long been obsessed with the budget deficit and they use it to call for the gutting of the entitlement programs. The whole thing is just despicable. It is not journalism; it is scare tactics with a political agenda. This is why we call the paper Fox on 15th Street.