Mike Lee’s “Busy” Year

Mike LeeDerek Willis over at The Upshot had a little fun at Congress’ expense, Do-Nothing Congress? These Members Did Something (Annual Reports). Since Congress doesn’t really pass any legislation and since earmarks are gone, it’s hard for our representatives in Congress to show that they’ve actually been working. So some of them are producing yearly reports.

Actually, I’m not against this at all. Reports are useful. For example, most Californians don’t know that our Senator Boxer is the chair of the Environment and Public Works committee. So it’s good to let the people know what these people are doing. But in a great example of professional level snark, Willis wrote, “Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, was among the members of Congress who wrote an annual report to detail his activities. At 357 pages, it included all his tweets from 2013.”

Of course, that’s not all that Mike Lee has been up to. After all, since 2009, he’s only tweeted out 2,763 such delights as this:

What does he fill up all those pages with? Well, for one thing: letters. Not ones he wrote, of course. Ha! That would be too time consuming. Ones he signed. (That can be exhausting depending upon the weight of the pen.) For example, he signed, “Letter to President Obama on the Russian Adoption Ban” (May 31, 2013). And that was just him—and 153 others. But still.

There are also a number of press releases. For example, would you believe that Mike Lee introduced a Balanced Budget Amendment? Who would have thought? Probably the reason you didn’t hear about is because it didn’t go anywhere because its purpose was the same as most of what Mike Lee does: publicize Mike Lee and what a great guy he is. Everyone loves the idea of a balanced budget. The fact that it is a terrible idea is why we haven’t enacted one.

Lee also has a lot of “reactions.” Like on 26 Jun 2013, he was “disappointed” that the Supreme Court didn’t understand that fags getting married was gonna ruin it for all the good God fearing straight couples around. He also sponsored measures like S 1616 that was, “Read twice and referred to the Committee on Finance.” That’s as far as it got, but you know: that’s about as far as Mike Lee ever gets. Did I mention he hates fags?

After about a hundred pages of that, we get to the sexy stuff: Constituent Outreach. That’s where we learn in one nifty info graphic that Mike Lee provided 81,089 written responses. If you’ve ever asked for a response from a representative, you know that these are written by computers. His “mobile office” visited 29 counties. He sent 5,850 letters to Boy Scouts, which I don’t think has anything to do with the Boy Scout pedophilia scandals. He had 629 meetings with constituents. I wonder: does that include lobbyists? Because if it does, that’s probably 621 lobbyist meetings and 8 meetings with actual voters. But I’m cynical.

A total of 311,544 “mail” was received. What does that mean? I don’t know. It must be mostly email messages. And I doubt it matters. But what does matter—and it matters a lot—is that Lee has distributed 1,150 servings of Jell-O. I have no idea what that’s about, but it creeps me out. I don’t think I will ever again be able to eat that delicious dessert.

And on it goes. It includes letters from constituents who tell Mike Lee that he is doing a hell of a job. And there is one letter from a young child who seems to be about in the third grade. The letter is about how this child would really like Lee to do something about Obamacare. Why? “I am against paying for some else’s insurance.” And you thought the Jell-O was creepy! Even better: Mike Lee’s office does not block the name or address of this poor child who I’m sure is not responsible for the letter. It is rather too specific. What 8-year-old says, “Have a good one!”?

There is also an infographic on media outreach where we learn that his website gets 41,392 average visits per month. That shocked me! That’s about half of the number of people who visit Frankly Curious, which is (you know) a tiny blog. But there were 18 occasions on which editors were so desperate that they allowed Mike Lee to write an editorial. And then it ends with his twitter feed.

There is no conclusion—nothing to wrap up the important work that Mike Lee did last year. Which I think is the proper conclusion. Because having gone through the whole report—page by page—it doesn’t seem like he did much. There is a lot of repetition. For example, press releases at the beginning are shown pretty much unaltered at the end under “media outreach.” After 357 pages, I think Mike Lee is a slacker.

Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley

LV Elvie ThomasFor many years, I have been fascinated by the blue duo Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. They recorded a handful of songs in 1930 that are classics to people like me who love all that old blues music from the Mississippi Delta. (But read on.) In addition to it being really unique in that here you have two great blues singers and guitar players working together, there was the fact that we didn’t know anything about them. And I did look into it. But unlike Robert Johnson who we at least have lots of legends about, there was nothing about these two. But then I found this amazing article by John Jeremiah Sullivan in The New York Times magazine, The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie. It was subtitled, “On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.”

If you are interested in this music or the period or just the work that ethnomusicologists do, stop reading right now and go read the article. It is fantastic. A great mystery is unraveled right before you. But I will warn you: at the end, you will want more. It is a very long article, however. I’ll give you the lowdown here. And the first thing I should probably do is introduce you to Geeshie and Elvie. Although most people who are into this kind of music would totally disagree, my favorite of their tunes is “Pick Poor Robin Clean.” I also think it is the best introduction to them:

One thing that is most interesting about this whole story is the centrality of Mack McCormick, an ethnomusicologist who knows more about this period than anyone else in the world. From the age of 16, he’s investigated 888 counties in the south. He is now 83 years old with tens of thousands of pages of interviews, photos, and much else documented. It is his life’s work, yet most of it has never been released because, having collected the data he finds himself under the crushing burden of trying to make sense of it all.

What’s interesting to me is that I know of McCormick because I went through a phase when I was crazy for Robert Johnson. I still am as far as his music goes; but I don’t especially care about his life story anymore. And the reason I don’t is because I read an interview with McCormick where he laid out the case that we probably don’t know anything about Johnson. Basically, regionally Johnson was such a star that there were a lot of Robert Johnson impersonators. Not in the sense we think of with Elvis Impersonators, but a lot of blues singers of that time just grabbed the name. So the story of Robert Johnson getting poisoned by a jealous husband? Maybe that was the guy who created those songs we love; and maybe not.

What I didn’t know was that this was just one small part of McCormick’s work. And in an interview with John Jeremiah Sullivan, McCormick revealed that he had interviewed a woman near Houston, TX in 1961 by the name of LV Thomas who used to be a professional blues musician. Through a lot of twists and turns, we learn that LV was in fact Elvie. She had always lived in Houston, so she wasn’t from Mississippi at all. Even though Geeshie is now the more famous one, Elvie was the veteran. Four years ago, I wrote a short article complaining that not only did Wikipedia not have a page on Elvie Thomas, when she was mentioned on the Geeshie Wiley page, it claimed she was a man! That should give you some idea of just how exciting this new information is.

Apparently, Wiley’s real name was Lillie Mae. It was LV who gave her the nickname Geeshie, which was slang for something like a country bumpkin. Geeshie seems to have come from Louisiana originally—or maybe even Mexico. She was in her early 20s when the recordings where made whereas Elvie was almost 40. So the power structure seems pretty clear. After those recordings, it seems they worked together for another four years when LV found God and decided that her music days were Satanic.

But the most interesting thing is that LV was a lesbian. I don’t know if that was why she was hiding in the church. Baptists have lots of funny ideas about the world. Regardless, one year after the recording was made, Geeshie murdered her husband—stabbed him in the neck. But we know she didn’t go to jail for it, because she and LV continued to perform together for three years after that. What’s more, in 1961, LV indicated that she knew where Geeshie was—west Texas, supposedly. It is speculated that Geeshie could have gotten off by claiming self-defense. She and her husband were black and the authorities didn’t much care regardless.

This raises all kinds of interesting questions. Could LV and Geeshie have been lovers? Did Geeshie kill her husband because he found out about their affair? Did LV find God after Geeshie dumped her? There are too many great novels that could be written with the fragmentary information that we have. But what’s most frustrating is that McCormick did another interview with LV during which she was apparently more forthcoming. And we don’t know at all what she said. (McCormick seems to be a bit difficult—but he’s allowed.)

At least for now, we have the music. Here is Geeshie singing the blood curdling “Skinny Leg Blues”:

And here is Elvie singing the strangely titled “Motherless Child Blues”:

Oh, one last thing. We do now have one picture of LV Thomas when she was in her 80s. That’s what’s at the top of this article.

Conservatives Think Communism Is One Election Away

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman asked a great question over at The Plum Line today, How Much Does Right-Wing Rhetoric Contribute to Right-Wing Terrorism? He’s very careful not to ruffle any feathers by claiming that people like Michele Bachmann are actually culpable, “But what I am saying is this: there are some particular features of conservative political rhetoric today that help create an atmosphere in which violence and terrorism can germinate.” He goes on to talk about the “fetishization of firearms” and the idea that Obama is turning the United States into a totalitarian dystopia.

I don’t think the firearms are the problem—I think they are a symptom. He’s closer to what’s going on in the second of his reasons. There is a very big problem on the right that when the Democrats are in control, those on the right act like a revolution has taken place. When Bush the Younger was elected, liberals were very unhappy. But the reaction of liberals was not, “This is the end of America as we know it!” It was more along the lines of, “Well, this is going to make things worse.”

I want to be clear on this distinction. I like political extremists because I like people who care about politics, even if they are total idiots. Libertarians and socialists alike have a whole bunch of stuff that they don’t like about the current state of governance in this country. Neither of them are particularly well served by either party. But people on the left don’t flip out and say that just because a Republican is in the White House it is the end of the 40-hour work week. But people on the right do flip out and say that just because a Democrat is in the White House the black helicopters are coming to kill your children.

Waldman provided an excellent example of this. Senator Ron Johnson, about as mainstream a guy as the Republicans have, said of Obamacare, “So we’re going to the Supreme Court, begging them please, please allow us this one last shred of freedom.” Of course, I think Waldman was being way too charitable when he said that Johnson was speaking metaphorically. I don’t think Johnson or any of the people who talk this way really know what they think. They just have this automatic reaction that any liberal policy is the end of freedom. Their precursors said the same things about Social Security and Medicare and unemployment insurance and the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week and just about any other policy you can think of that is now uncontroversial.

Years ago, I was confused when conservatives would talk about the “liberal media.” This was long before Fox News. Eventually I realized that to them, “liberal” simply meant “not conservative.” So it is very basic to the way conservatives see the world that when a Democrat is in the White House it must mean that there has been a Soviet style takeover of the country. Now, they would claim that when a Republican is in the White House, the country is at best just treading water. But that’s just apologia. The truth is that the far right calm down completely when the Republicans are in charge. Waldman explained:

In our recent history, every election of a Democratic president is followed by a rise in conspiracy-obsessed right-wing populism. In the 1960s it was the John Birch Society; in the 1990s it was the militia movement shouting about black UN helicopters, and during the Obama presidency it was the Tea Party.

In the Clinton years, it looked like there might well be active revolt by the militia movement. But then Bush was elected and: poof!

Democracy is about a lot more than voting. It would not be a democracy if every time a different party got control the the government everything changed. There is no government for four years and then the government owns everything for the next four years. Democracy depends upon a certain level of consistency. And the conservative elites understand this, because they have been hugely successful at slowly moving this country to the right such that when the liberal party proposes healthcare reform, it does it in the most conservative, market-based way possible. But the conservative base does not understand this.

Again, we must come back to the pernicious effects of the DLC and the Democrats’ move to the right on economic policy. This has given those on the right the idea that socialism is capitalism with a tiny amount of government regulation. This is the great threat that our democracy faces, because both sides need to see the full extent of possible political debate. But on economic issues the Democrats now occupy the position that just four decades ago was considered center right. So the conservative base thinks that “far left” is defined as whatever the Democrats think. Thus something like Obamacare that is a tiny step to the left is socialism.

So the right is very confused. But they have good reasons for being confused. And the only way out of this mess is for the Democratic Party to play its proper part in our two party system and move to the left. Sadly, this can’t be done too quickly. It took as 30 years to get into this mess, it will take another 30 to get us out of it. As it is, I wouldn’t rule out armed rebellion by right wing groups who think that the end is nigh. But the critical issue that that Democrats have to learn what Republicans have long know: it isn’t about winning elections; it’s about controlling the debate. We need to greatly expand the debate. The world is out of control when Bill O’Reilly receives no ridicule for saying Dana Milbank is from the “far left.” That’s a world in which you’ve got Charles Krauthammer on the left, Milbank on the far left and Paul Krugman in hell as the Prince of Darkness. And that’s just crazy, especially when you consider that Paul Krugman isn’t all that liberal.

Revelation Predicted Muhammad?!

Obama the Anti-ChristI just happened upon an email that has apparently been bouncing around since before Obama was even elected president, The Book of Revelation Describes the Anti-Christ as Someone With Characteristics Matching Those of Barack Obama. I know, I know: crazy right wing conspiracies are nothing new. I suspect there were people claiming that every president, regardless of party, since Roosevelt (pick one) was in fact that anti-Christ. Revelation may have a terrible track record, but the track record of the prediction that people will make nutty predictions based upon Revelation is solid as the law of gravitation.

But some of these things are just too delicious. Anyway, there is only one part of this that I love. Here it is:

According to the Book of Revelation the anti-Christ is: a man, in his 40s, of MUSLIM descent, who will deceive the nations with persuasive language, and have a MASSIVE Christ-like appeal… [Note: I removed a number of grammar, spelling, and other errors from that quote; no need to make the people look any worse than necessary.]

Okay, let’s think this through a little bit. The Book of Revelation was written somewhere around the year 95 AD, at the end of the first century—just like much of the New Testament. Muhammad was born sometime in the late sixth century. So it would be pretty amazing if the Book of Revelation really mentioned anything about Muslims. I mean, if it did, everyone would be in agreement that Revelation really does predict the future.

And what does it mean to be of “Muslim descent.” I understand that one can be “racially” Jewish. But Islam isn’t like that—especially for Kenyan Muslims. Of course, this is entirely typical of right wing extremists. Remember the guy who hated Muslims so he killed six people at a Sikh temple? The level of religious ignorance in this country is staggering. We really ought to have religion taught in school, but unfortunately, most people who agree with me don’t want comparative religious studies, they want Christian indoctrination.

Remember when Phil Robertson pronounced that non-Christians were just violent? I wrote, Why Would Anyone Think Jesus Makes You Non-Violent? He even said something that I thought was hilarious: Nazis didn’t have Jesus, even though they were explicitly Christian. But as I noted in the article, “But what about Jainism?” The Jains are the most non-violent people in the world. They literally won’t hurt a bug. Yet most Americans would see them as the same as Muslims: one of those foreign religions.

Now, I know: the Book of Revelation is a wacky bit of literature that seems like it was written by someone having a bad LSD trip. And like Nostradamus’ writing, you can read anything you want into it. But I still think it is funny as hell. Why not just claim that it says the anti-Christ will be the first black president of the United States? “You know, the one that talks pretty?!”

Given the very real economic issues that face this country, I find these kind of unhinged rantings amusing. But in the grand scheme of thing, they are dangerous. I’ll be writing more about that later today.

La Chanteuse Barbara

BarbaraOn this day in 1930, the great singer-songwriter Monique Andree Serf, better known as simply “Barbara,” was born. She was a French Jew who had to hide out during the Nazi occupation of the country, and overall had a pretty bad childhood. She later became a cabaret singer. But it was not until she started writing her own longs that her career really took off. According to Stephen Evans at the BBC, her song “Goettingen” was more important in reconciling Germany and France after World War II than Charles de Gaulle’s 1962 speech in Ludwigsburg. I’m not that fond of the song—it’s kind of theoretical with lines like, “Mais les enfants ce sont les memes, a Paris ou a Goettingen” (“But children are the same, in Paris or in Goettingen”).

Barbara was at her best when she was being extremely personal—and that was most of the time. No one can make me cry as easily as she can. It isn’t just the writing. Her cool delivery makes it all seem so factual—like she’s saying, “I’m just telling you what happened.” There is also the sense that she is on the verge of losing it too.

But as is typical of a chanteuse, her songs told complicated, even deep, stories. A great example of this is her song “Nantes,” about coming to see her estranged father before he dies and arriving too late. This is not a great recording, but it is the only one I could find with English subtitles (although they aren’t very good subtitles). Prepare to be affected:

Happy birthday Barbara!