The 20th Century Goes With Seeger

Pete SeegerI just got word that Pete Seeger has died. Even though he was 94, he looked like he was doing great. So I’m a little surprised. It seems like the 20th century is finally over. Is there any other icon left?

I’ve embedded a video below from a concert a little more than 20 years ago at Wolf Trap. He’s performing his song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” which he wrote almost 60 years. It seems like the song has always been around, just like he has. But then, that is true as far as my life is concerned.

He will be missed.

Ayn Rand Would Have Loved Tom Perkins

Ayn RandToday at Political Animal, Ed Kilgore wrote, Atlas Whined. In it, he discusses “venture capitalist Tom Perkins much-mocked letter to The Wall Street Journal comparing people like him to the persecuted German Jews .” And he notes that Ayn Rand would be very disappointed with such “fearful titans.” He notes, “How could she worship the Creative Capitalist if he’s cowering in his mansion?”

This is not entirely correct. Rand was very angry at the “business leaders” of her day. They then, as they had for generations before, believed that in order to stay in good standing in polite society, it was necessary to give money back to good causes. A good analogy is the way that Hollywood stars now have particular charitable causes that they support. To Rand, this screamed, “Altruism!” She wanted them to get rid of what she saw as hypocrisy.

The business community of today would be a great improvement from her perspective. What’s more, half of the political spectrum now says that by pursuing their own self interest, business owners are doing a great service to the society as Job Creators. The depth of Ayn Rand’s economic knowledge was the same as her philosophical knowledge (shallow), so she saw this as a direct outcome of her philosophy.

The truth is that the Perkins whine about the 1% being vilified by the collectivists could be taken right out of one of her essays. She would agree with Perkins and say what he wrote was only self-defense. What, after all, is John Galt’s speech, but an eight hour whine about how all the “takers” don’t understand the beneficence that all the “makers” are bringing to them? And of course, in Atlas Shrugged, that is the case. In the real world, it simply isn’t. (See Property Right for a short introduction.)

The only thing that Ayn Rand would quibble over is that venture capitalists like Tom Perkins even make the case that they are Job Creators. She would prefer them to understand her philosophy that says that people should only look out for their own self-interest. (See Enlightened Self Interest for her all-purpose caveat.) But yelling at liberals and calling them Nazis? That was Ayn Rand’s stock-in-trade.

Mozart and Carroll

MozartOn this day in 1832, the great writer Lewis Carroll was born. This two Alice novels are still wonderfully fun to read. And you should go and do that! What bothers me is that most people think of him as some kind of pedophile. Even if he had actually been one, that wouldn’t change the work. But I accept the “Carroll Myth” theory that basically says it is all nonsense. Regardless, we have the books.

Other birthdays: scholar Richard Bentley (1662); landscape painter Arkhip Kuindzhi (1841); portrait painter John Collier (1850); labor leader Samuel Gompers (1850); composer Jerome Kern (1885); philosopher Arne Naess (1912); bluesman Elmore James (1918); actor James Cromwell (74); singer-songwriter Kate Wolf (1942); Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason (70); one of the most dangerous men in the nation, John Roberts (59); comic book legend Frank Miller (57); actor Bridget Fonda (50); actor Alan Cumming (49); comedian Patton Oswalt (45); and flutist Emmanuel Pahud (44), who in celebration of the day will perform a little Mozart for us:

The day, however, belongs to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was born on this day in 1756. I know that most classical music fans think that I’m a neanderthal, but he is my favorite composer. I’m very fond of other composers, of course. I quite like much of Schubert, Debussy, most Les Six, and a great deal of the later twentieth century. And, yes, I like Beethoven, but I often find him exhausting. To me, Mozart is the sweet spot between the intellectual excesses of the Baroque period and the emotional excesses of the Romantic period.

The thing, though, is that I continue to find Mozart transcendent. Like the D major flute concerto above. It was originally the Oboe Concerto in C major, but Mozart got a job to write a couple of flute concertos, so he just reworked it. It is some of his weakest adult work. Yet every time I hear it, it delights me. That’s Mozart the hack. I still think he was at his best with opera, probably because of his love of the theater.

But I’m afraid that I talk about his operas too much. So here is his G Minor Symphony. It encapsulates half of Beethoven’s career:

Happy birthday Mozart!

Class Distinction in The King’s Speech

The King's SpeechI finally got around to watching The King’s Speech last night. It is a very good film. It looks great and the acting is flawless. It is that most unusual of films: a character-based narrative. The plot only matters in so much as it motivates the characters. And the two primary characters are really interesting. I wanted to know more about them. When the film ended, I wanted another hour. In an age when I think most films are an hour or more too long, The King’s Speech was a delightful change.

The film tells the story of stuttering Prince Albert (eventually King George VI) and his work with speech therapist Lionel Logue. According to everyone else, they form a friendship over this work. I don’t see it this way. They form a relationship. Friendships require some kind of equality. For example, people don’t have friendships with their pets. There is no doubt that Albert is fond of Logue, and apparently closer to him emotionally than he is to any of his friends. (Although Albert claims to not having any friends.)

The whole power dynamic is exactly what we see in The Madness of King George between king and Dr Willis. In that film, King George III tells Willis at the end not to look him in the eye because he is no longer the patient. Willis was necessary to George for a certain period of time—just like a coachman. But there is never any question that George is royalty and Willis is not, regardless of how useful he may be.

The exact same dynamic goes on in The King’s Speech. But it is so much more richly rendered than in The Madness of King George. This is primarily due to the fact that Albert was not insane and because of the kind of work he required. But over and over, Albert makes clear their distinction. This is especially apparent two-thirds through the film when the king learns that Logue has no formal training. Logue has never claimed to have had formal training, and in the film, he seems to be Albert’s last option—all the well-credentialed speech therapists having been tried. But Logue’s success with Albert doesn’t seem to matter. It is again: class and class alone.

All of this probably makes Albert seem like a horrible person, but he is not. He is quite sympathetic. I don’t blame a man for believing what he’s been told all his life: that he was born better than other men and they are rightly beneath him. What’s more Colin Firth plays him with such barely controlled anger and terror that it is impossible not to feel his pain. What’s more, within the cultural straight jacket of his upbringing, Albert seems to be a decent man. If you have to have a king, he is a better man for the job than most.

For me, however, there is one great man in this film and it is not the king. Logue is a fascinating character. He is an amateur actor who loves Shakespeare. There is a funny bit in the film where Albert’s wife tells Albert that he ought to check out Logue because, “His approach seems rather different.” This cuts directly to Logue auditioning for an amateur production of Richard III. It is rather bad, but very much what you would expect from a speech therapist who loves the words more than theater. He is the sort of man that many would ridicule, but he is blinded by his love of it. And as a result, he is a greater man than any of his detractors. Geoffrey Rush completely captures this nerd-aspect of the character without ever letting it slip into a type. I thought the performance was even more impressive than Firth’s.

The supporting cast was also quite good. Helena Bonham Carter as Albert’s wife was very good. Derek Jacobi is wonderfully pretentious as the Archbishop. Michael Gambon as George V does great delirium, but let’s face it: I’m just in love with his voice. But the standout performance was Guy Pearce as Edward VIII. No one is quite so good as Pearce is at doing subtle arrogance. It is just perfect for Edward. It would have been easy to sympathize with Edward. After all, he abdicates the throne so he can marry the woman he loves. But Pearce gives him that extra something that just makes you want to punch him.

Ultimately, I would have rather had a play with the two characters and maybe a small supporting cast. And as I think is clear, I’m far more interested in Logue than the king. But the filmmakers weren’t interested in making a play focused on Logue. Given what they were trying to do, I think it is a perfect film. It works on every level.

Afterword

Looking at the actual historical figures, the class differences are even greater. Again, I don’t doubt that the men had real affection for each other. But they were not friends. The royal family was and still is the clearest example of our ridiculously arbitrary social system.

“Please, Sir, I Want Some More”

Oliver TwistOh, how America, day by day, becomes what conservatives most desire: the Dickensian utopia where the rich are treated as titans and the poor know their place.

This morning, Jonathan Chait reports, Obama’s Plan to End Discrimination Against the Long-term Unemployed. Chait seems to be reasonably impressed. But as plan’s go, I file it along with things like the plan to impress a a rich man by befriending his dog and other Horatio Alger myths.

The situation for the long-term unemployed is indeed bad. As Chait shows in a graph from a new study, recently unemployed people with no experience in a particular field are four times as likely to get a call back as long-term unemployed people with experience. What’s going on is simple enough to explain. Employers just assume that if someone has been unemployed for a long time, there must be a reason. And this creates a feedback loop where the longer someone is unemployed, the harder it is for them to get a job.

Obama’s plan is to have major employers commit to not discriminating against workers in this way. And sure, even bringing up the issue is a good thing. The more people know about their biases, the better they can manage them. But it is weak tea. It reminds me of Oliver Twist saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” But in this case, it is, “Please great and powerful Job Creator, give me at least a chance to compete against people who don’t have any of my skills.”

This touches on a broader issue with American business. In my experience, businesses would much rather hire fools and incompetents than hire one of those weirdos with skills and brains. Conservatives always claim that the government is bureaucratic, but in my experience, corporate America is even worse. What they want above all is nothing that will upset their little worlds. So despite the fact that we constantly hear that there are jobs out there but people don’t have the skills for them, the truth is that employers don’t really care. That is crystal clear when unskilled workers are called back far more than skilled workers over an issue as vague as the amount of time unemployed.

Of course, I don’t blame Obama. Actual policy to improve the economy can’t pass Congress. But fobbing off responsibility of aid for the unemployed to the rich is hardly the answer. But as answers go, it is the ultimate conservative approach: let the poor go cap-in-hand to the rich and beg like the servile dogs they are. But the long-term unemployed are not children. They are adults. Many of them are 50-somethings—middle managers and other skilled workers who any civilized society would value as the backbone of the middle class.

“Please, sir, I want some more.”