Daily Archives: 27 Mar 2015

American Myth Versus Reality

The American Way - Ohio River Flood

I only saw this picture for the first time last night. But it is a classic from Life magazine. The actual history of the photo isn’t quite as stark as the message of it. Just the same, the message that people take away from it is still true. There is a group of African Americans standing in a food line and behind them is a billboard featuring a a very white family (Even the dog is white!) that proclaims, “World’s Highest Standard of Living.” The tag line — “There’s no way like the American Way” — takes on a whole different meaning than was originally intended.

The photograph was taken by Margaret Bourke-White during the 1937 Ohio River flood. This particular one was taken in Louisville, Kentucky. The only thing that really matters about this is that it explains why people are holding buckets. Even more than food, the people needed clean water. The area had received 18 inches of rain over a two week period. Check out all the pictures from the original article to see just how bad the situation was. But Bourke-White was known for her ironic photographs, and she certainly knew what she was doing. She was making a broader point.

The billboard was not, as one could reasonably assume, part of a government program to cheer people up and head off revolution. No, then as now, it is our private sector that is in the business of hoodwinking us into disbelieving our lying eyes. This billboard came courtesy of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). According to James Guimond in American Photography and the American Dream, photographers[1] for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) took great relish in going after these kinds of things:

First of all, as a group trying to show what had gone wrong with America, the FSA photographers had an aversion to the conservative, big business clichés about American economic life that continued to flourish in the 1930s along with the sufferings of the depression. They expressed this attitude most clearly in the deliberately ironic photographs they made of certain billboards that were part of what Life magazine called a “propaganda campaign” by the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1930s…

FSA photographers were quite assiduous in their pursuit of NAM and other big business propaganda billboards, and their irony was more deliberate. According to Arthur Rothstein, they considered the Manufacturers’ clichés about the American standard of living so absurd — at a time when millions of Americans were suffering from the depression — that they treated the billboards as fair game for visual ironies.

What I think is so amazing about this whole thing is that nothing has changed — except that people working for the government wouldn’t think of taking potshots at big business today. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone claim that America has the best healthcare in the world. What they actually mean is that if you are rich you can get the best healthcare in the world here. Of course, you can do the same thing in Germany, France, and Japan — but let’s not go there right now. It’s ridiculous to think this way. It’s like saying, “Why did the French people revolt against King Louis XVI? His life was great!”

But I’m afraid that most Americans like their pretty delusions. But it gets harder and harder to maintain those delusions. I don’t think the inequities in our society today cause people to be outraged the way they did in the 1930s. Instead, we’ve reverted to an older and more cynical view of the world: the rich are rich simply because they are; the poor are poor because that is what they deserve; God wills it. This is not a rational response.


[1] Margaret Bourke-White was not part of the FSA.

A Tale of Two Natural Born Citizens

DigbyI assume liberals are not going to jump on this Ted Cruz being born in Canada business with the same fervor as the right’s masturbatory obsession with Obama’s birth certificate because the facts are clear: he is eligible to run for president. But it cannot pass unnoted that the right wing spent years attacking Obama for allegedly not being a “natural born American” even to the extent that they claimed he faked his birth certificate. But the fact is that he was born in the US and it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t been since his mother was American, just like Ted Cruz’s.

This is the situation with Cruz. His father was a Cuban citizen when Cruz was born, his mother was American and he, unlike Obama, actually wasn’t born in the US and held a dual citizenship with Canada until last year. All of that makes him perfectly eligible to be president, of course. But the idea that these right wingers are a-ok with Cruz’s circumstances after having made such a spectacle of themselves over Obama shows them to be… hypocrites. Shocker, I know.

—Heather Digby Parton
The Canadian Candidate

Maybe It’s Time Israel Learned Some Manners

Benjamin NetanyahuAs you probably heard, on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported, Israel Spied on Iran Nuclear Talks With US. And they used the information they got to funnel it the Congressional Republicans in an effort to destroy the deal. This resulted in Israel stating unequivocally that they do not spy, Netanyahu’s Office Denies Nuke Talks Snooping. But it was a curious denial. It’s kind of like being accused of robbing a 7-11 store and responding, “I’ve never killed anyone in my life!” The information that was being used so inappropriately is not technically spying. And the real sin here is that the Israeli government is actively trying to screw with our foreign affairs — just like all of us liberals have been saying the last few weeks.

But it is worse than that. At The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman wrote, Netanyahu’s Spying Denials Contradicted by Secret NSA Documents. You know, those Snowden leaks are the gift that keeps on giving. All throughout these NSA documents are discussions of what a threat Israeli spying is on the United States. They are ranked third after Russia and China. A lot of this is exactly what we are seeing with the Iranian negotiations. It would seem that the Israeli government is quite paranoid, despite the fact that it couldn’t have a more constant and true ally.

Interestingly, another problem is that Israel does a lot of industrial espionage focused on us. That doesn’t come as a surprise to me. Last year, I wrote, Spam Geography at Frankly Curious. In it, I described a method I had developed to determine whether a visitor was a real person or a spammer. Users coming from the US, UK, Canada, and India are pretty much all real. So are the vast majority of users from Indonesia. But Israel, which I would have guessed then would also have been mostly real, was as big a spammer as the eastern European countries. In fact, Russia is actually substantially better than Israel.

The fact that Israel isn’t quite as “western” as we’ve been led to believe isn’t that big a deal. But Israel’s behavior toward the United States is really unacceptable. It reminds me of a younger brother who is always depending upon his older brother to protect him. Yet the younger brother does everything he can to undermine his older brother. This is exactly the dynamic I created between Steve and Darren in “The Post-Postmodern Comedy Hour.” Except that in it, Darren (the “younger brother”) is a puppet and he gets his comeuppance at the end of every episode. Darren wouldn’t be a likable character in real life.

We don’t know about what Israel is up to just based upon the NSA leaks. The Intercept also noted:

Previously reported stories on Israeli spying, by themselves, leave no doubt how false Netanyahu’s statement is. A Der Spiegel article from last fall revealed that “Israeli intelligence eavesdropped on US Secretary of State John Kerry during Middle East peace negotiations.” A Le Monde article described how NSA documents strongly suggest that a massive computer hack of the French presidential palace in 2012 was likely carried out by the Israelis. A 2014 article from Newsweek’s Jeff Stein revealed that when it comes to surveillance, “the Jewish state’s primary target” is “America’s industrial and technical secrets” and that “Israel’s espionage activities in America are unrivaled and unseemly.”

I don’t know where all of this leaves me with regard to Israel. It’s been clear to me for a long time that the Israeli government has no interest in a two-state solution because of the way that it has encouraged the illegal settlements. More and more I’m thinking that the United States is more than enough of a safe haven for the worldwide Jewish population. Maybe Zionism just leads to the kind of conservative jingoism that Israel now represents. I’m not suggesting that we abandon Israel. But big brother is starting to think of little brother as a selfish brat who needs to learn some manners. Maybe a couple non-vetoes on the Security Council might help the Israeli government to grow up.

About Ted Cruz’s Music Taste

Ted CruzAs you may have heard, Ted Cruz used to be into “classic rock.” But after 9/11, he said, “I didn’t like how rock music responded.” But he was very happy with the jingoistic response of “country music.” So since that time, he’s listened just to country music. A lot of people have mocked this change on his part. Jonathan Chait wrote, After 9/11, True Patriot Ted Cruz Sacrificed His Love of Rock Music for America and the Republican Party. He questioned whether it isn’t all just for show. Ed Kilgore was even less charitable, Ted Cruz’s Friends in Low Places. He wrote, “It all seems kind of mechanical and unimaginative for a man of Cruz’s supposed brilliance…” I agree with all this. Count me with Holden Caulfield: Ted Cruz is a phony.

But I’m interested in this subject from a personal perspective. At the time of 9/11, Ted Cruz was 30 years old. That’s about the time that a lot of people have a falling out with rock music. Yesterday, my business partner Will told me that he was shocked to find out that Cruz is younger than we are. “He just seems so old!” He is the political operative that Rafael Cruz built — more automaton than human. And for Rafael — born in 1939, I believe — that places his image of a politician in the 1950s. Thus it isn’t surprising that Ted Cruz has the feel of Joseph McCarthy.

The people I’ve known who switched from rock music to country music were never that interested in music to begin with. They were interested in what I term “pop rock” and then they went onto “pop country.” What is the difference between The Romantics and Garth Brooks? Slide guitar. (I know these are old references; I don’t stay up on this drivel!) It’s all so pathetic. That’s not to say that musical tastes don’t change, but they are usually gradual and based on, you know, music and not politics.

Do you know who I can totally see making decisions about art based solely on ideological considerations? Joseph Goebbels. Now, I’m not saying that Cruz is a Nazi, because he isn’t. He’s certainly a lot closer to Hitler than to Thomas Paine, but that doesn’t make him a Nazi. Proto-fascist perhaps, but not Nazi. The main thing is that he’s an ideologue. Everything seems to take a backseat to his political aspirations. So I think we can reasonably say that Ted Cruz doesn’t care much for music, film, or any other kind of art or entertainment. Or as he might say, “That art is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result.”

I would love to think that this means that Ted Cruz would not win the “have a beer with” election. But that’s always been more about pandering. I never understood how it was that people would rather have a beer with George W Bush — who didn’t drink — than John Kerry. They were both tiresome people who graduated from Yale. I couldn’t be less interested in having a beer with either. So I don’t doubt that the people will come to the conclusion that Ted Cruz is a “cool” guy who they’d like to hang with. But at least with Bush and Kerry, you’d know that they would have an opinion about the the song on the jukebox that wasn’t based on the political opinions of the singer or how the song focus grouped in red states.

Morning Music: Martyrs Prayers

Martyrs PrayersOn Tuesday, I published, 35 Years Without Óscar Romero. This led to my discovering THE PROJECT: Martyrs Prayers. It is a collection of explicitly religious songs about Christian martyrs. On the CD they’ve released, there are ten songs, each about a specific martyr. Interestingly, one of them is “Clement,” which I assume is about Pope Clement I. Personally, I find Clement of Alexandria a more interesting guy — admittedly, not a martyr. But he argued against what I think of as the Saint Sebastian form of martyrdom. The question is, if you are clearly just trying to get yourself killed, are you a martyr? I don’t think so.

The martyrs on this album represent what I consider the real deal. Ultimately, most of the martyrs are political in nature. And that goes right along with my feelings about religion as being fundamentally political — at least when it comes to religion and not ontology. And as you should know, when it comes to politics, I have a great deal of faith. Because what’s the option? Applying the same thing to God isn’t much of a stretch, even if it isn’t something that I personally feel.

I’ve only heard two of the songs: the ones that they’ve produced highly evocative videos for. Interestingly, they are both assassinations. The first is the song “Becket.” But I want to highlight “Romero.” In addition to it being a beautiful song, the video includes lots of footage of Romero himself (something we don’t have for most of the others — although they do include two other 20th century martyrs). It’s really great. Give it a listen:

Birthday Post: Jamrud Mosque Bombing

Jamrud Mosque BombingIt is the sixth anniversary of the Jamrud mosque bombing. It was a suicide bombing and at least 48 people were killed and roughly a hundred injured. According to witnesses, a boy of 15 or 16 climbed into a window, went to the main hall that was filled for Friday prayers, and he blew himself up. It was a complete horror as you can see in the photo on the left. But there are two issues that this raises in my mind.

The first is the use of children as suicide bombing. I once heard an interview with a teenage girl who was supposed to be a suicide bomber but backed out at the last minute. And her story was really tragic. Her boyfriend had been killed by the Israelis and so she was upset and mentioned that she would like to get revenge, and the people who lead these kind of thing jumped on her and pushed her into becoming a suicide bomber. It is so horrible. Like military leaders everywhere, she was just a resource to be used however they thought best in their war with the Israelis. All I can say is that warriors should fight their own wars and leave kids out of it. I realize this is not the way things work, and there is nothing any different between that and killing children. Still, I have a hard time not seeing this teenage boy as a victim as well.

The second issue is the bombing of a mosque. I’m just not clear where all our resentment of Muslims comes from. The Muslims who are politically radicalized are mostly in the business of killing other Muslims. So I just don’t see what the whole issue is with their religion. I keep coming back to Sam Harris’ line that “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas.” Really?! It’s such a bigoted and ignorant claim. His depth of thinking on Islam is about as deep as Phil Robertson’s thinking on atheism. The may thing that occurs to me is that this kind of thinking (that many atheists are very open about) is very much blaming the victim.

With deep sadness and hope that the world becomes a better place, we mark this sixth anniversary of the Jamrud mosque bombing.