Friday, November 22, 2013

The Majesty of the Gettysburg Address

Author's Note: I sent this to Counterpunch as a written rebuttal, but heard no response from them and can only assume I failed to satisfy their editorial needs or standards. More's the pity. Link to the orignal piece is here: The Frauds of the Gettysburg Address

In his “The Frauds of the Gettysburg Address” (Counterpunch, November 18, 2013), Kirkpatrick Sale has slandered a great figure in world history and a great document in the history of human freedom and tradition of rhetoric. Abraham Lincoln is long dead and buried and so it remains to us the living to defend his legacy and to consecrate his contributions to our collective experience.

Sale’s piece is so rife with half-truth, innuendo and outright untruth that one hardly knows where to begin, as a sentence-by-sentence refutation would prove numbing to the readers. Because he alleges that there are three “monstrous frauds” contained within the Address proper, perhaps one should begin with Sale’s second paragraph:

First, what Lincoln did at Gettysburg was to create a brand new purpose for the war that the North was fighting against the Confederacy. No longer was it to be for the preservation of the union, as he had declared many times in the previous two years, nor for the restoration of forts and armories and customhouses, as he declared in his declaration of war, but now it was to be for the banners of equality and liberty that he has unfurled eleven months earlier in the cause of black emancipation.
Most serious historians of the Civil War, among them James McPherson, Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton, agree that the brand-new purpose for the war had been fashioned about a year earlier with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam Creek, a battle that saw Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the north decisively rebuffed and thus a much-needed victory of sorts for the Union. Perhaps Sale can argue that Lincoln is giving voice to that new purpose for the war at Gettysburg, but Lincoln himself says his purpose there is to dedicate the battleground and to consecrate the memories of those who suffered and died there:

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Sale next charges Lincoln with distorting history, because Lincoln says that the nation was formed “four score and seven years ago” and was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In his slavish insistence upon historical trivia, to wit, that the nation was actually not formed until 1783 or arguably 1789, Sale tries to indict Lincoln for fraud, because Lincoln indulges in literary license. Perhaps Sale would have been happier -- though the world be impoverished – had Lincoln said “Three score and fourteen years ago” rather than “Four score and seven years ago.” No matter to Sale that most Americans then and now date the founding of our nation to July 4, 1776. To Sale, Lincoln’s use of literary license constitutes fraud.

But Sale elevates sophistry to a whole new level when he adds to his indictment of Lincoln by saying “Moreover, that Constitution, and the nation that it created, had nothing (emphasis Sale’s) to do with being ‘dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’” From niggling pedant, Sale jumps to over-generalizing cant. “Nothing?” Really? No matter that the Declaration of Independence says its signers “hold these truths to be self evident . . . that all men are created equal.” Furthermore, Sale elides the most salient phrase in the same Preamble to the Constitution upon which he relies for his indictment. That phrase? “To form a more perfect union.” See, that’s what Gettysburg and the entire Civil War was about, forming a ‘more perfect union.’ That’s why men were willing to rush to delay the advance of the Confederates through Gettysburg proper on the first day, to hold Cemetery Ridge on the second day and to remain steadfast in the face of Pickett’s Charge on the third day. That’s why they were willing to shed blood and die. To form a more perfect union. Because it’s a process that’s never done but always in a state of being done.

Sale next presumes to read the minds of those brave Union soldiers when he says a “new birth of freedom . . . was the farthest thing from their minds.” Some joined to defend the principle of the inviolability of the Union, some joined to combat the abomination of human bondage. But my guess is that most of those Iowa and Wisconsin farm boys joined up to get away from the drudgery and boredom of farm life and see a bit of the world. That takes nothing away from what they actually did at Gettysburg. My point is that we can’t know with any certainty why soldiers joined up. Nonetheless, Sale doesn’t pass up a chance to slander not just Lincoln but those brave soldiers:

They were presumably fighting for the Union, or because they had been ordered to, but they were all white men and they had no notion of giving their lives for a world of free blacks.
Leaving aside the very real movement of Abolitionists, some of whom without question filled the Union ranks on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, Sale ignores what any veteran of combat will tell you: soldiers fight and bleed for their fellow soldiers, not for grand abstractions. Not for saving the union, not for abolishing slavery, not for states’ rights (on the Confederate side). No, soldiers fight, bleed and die for their brothers and sisters at the small-unit level. Again, this takes nothing away from what they achieved at Gettysburg that July day so many years ago.

Sale makes his third and final pillar of fraud center around the peroration when Lincoln promises that government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The fact that Lincoln himself had been elected a mere three years earlier should suffice to demolish Sale’s claim that the United States was not a radically new experiment in self-government. Are we simply supposed to ignore Lincoln’s biography, his rise from humble origins and destitution, in order to allow Sale’s point to stand? Lincoln sought through his address to contrast the radical American experiment with the decadent European aristocracies and monarchies that polluted the Western historical landscape. In so doing, he reminded his listeners what was at stake, the motives of individual Union and Confederate soldiers notwithstanding. Representative self-government was and is the issue.

Sale calls it ‘an entirely fraudulent address.’ We shall have to leave it to the readers now and in posterity to decide who is perpetrating the fraud here and who is advancing the cause of human freedom. But it comes as no great surprise that five score years later, Martin Luther King Jr. would begin his “I Have a Dream Speech” with words that evoke Lincoln’s Address. King listened and understood then, as we too must listen and understand now, that Lincoln speaks not just to listeners dead some 150 years but to us today, right here and now: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” There is much that remains unfinished, much that remains imperfect and imperfected in our union. But advance it they did so bravely and advance it must we still.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Further Thoughts on CBS and 60 Minutes' Logan-Gate

I followed with great interest yesterday two excellent threads concerning the recent CBS' <em>Sixty Minutes</em> broadcast about Benghazi, subsequent revelations of shoddy journalism, and insufficient retractions (corrections) thus far:

attytood's DailyKos thread


Mark Sumner's DailyKos thread

I was struck and touched by the calls for boycotting the show and its advertisers and for contacting the show's production team to register one's absolute displeasure.

I could not comment easily yesterday, because I had only my smart phone with which to recommend threads and various replies thereto. But in the process of reading I had some further thoughts about how to influence matters in the best interests of journalism, the American public interest and the truth.

In short, time to think like a capitalist and consider selling your stock in CBS. I don't own any stock (or bonds) in CBS, you say, so how can I sell stock in CBS?

If you're like me, you probably have either a 401-K, an IRA, some investment brokerage account or some combination of the three (I have a combination of the three, but with a very modest amount under $1,000 in the latter).

But how many of you know what stocks and bonds your various retirement accounts invest in? I discovered this morning that my various accounts hold some $13.80 in CBS' Class B stock.

How, you might ask, since CBS' Class B stock (ticker = 'CBS') currently lists for some $60/share. The answer lies in the small slivers of various stocks and bonds owned or controlled by mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs) that you have in your account.

To give you just one example, my Schwab IRA contains 10 shares of an exchange traded fund called "POWERSHARES S&P ETF 500 HIGH BETA PORTFOLIO" (Ticker = 'SPHB'), worth approximately $290.00. I bought this because it is a mid-cap value ETF and Schwab's analysis suggested I could use some mid-cap exposure.

All well and good. But when I took a closer look at SPHB's holdings, I discovered that, as of 11-13-2013 (yesterday), this ETF held 0.94% of its holdings in CBS stock. Taking that 0.94% figure and applying it to the roughly $290 I own means that this one ETF I own holds about $2.73 worth of CBS' stock (0.0094 x $290).

I have other ETFs and mutual funds that own similar small slivers of CBS stock. The result is that, taken together, all those various tiny slivers add up to about $13.80 worth of CBS' stock in my various ETFs and mutual funds.

At this point, I have a couple options. I can contact each ETF and mutual fund to ask or demand that it liquidate its holdings in CBS immediately. Hah! Fat chance that will happen for little ole me with my $2.73 in CBS stock at SPHB. But I can also sell my SPHB (and other such ETFs and mutual funds) and find some other ETFs or mutual funds that do not hold CBS stock.

Oh yeah. And, in keeping with the calls to boycott CBS and its advertisers, I can also contact CBS' corporate organization and specifically its investor relations division to ask, as a part owner of CBS, that it fire and or otherwise discipline any manager, journalist or editor at CBS News involved in the broadcast:

CBS' Corporate Site and Contact Information

A couple additional thoughts: CBS Class B stock (the stuff I own) is called 'non-voting stock' which means that my ETFs and mutual funds don't get to vote at shareholders' meetings on matters concerning CBS' corporate governance. I'm not entirely sure what stock allows one to vote, presumably Class A shares. From all I've been able to discern, I own no slivers of Class A shares. It should go without saying that if you actually own shares of CBS' Class A (or Class B) stock directly, i.e., not through an ETF or mutual fund, you are in the proverbial cat bird's seat and can contact CBS' investor relations and be listened to and heeded far better than little ole me.

To show that this strategy works both ways, I plan to search for ways to add to my holdings of CostCo stock to show my approval of their decision to give their employees the day off for Thanksgiving. As of this writing, my analysis shows that I own some $17.22 of CostCo stock (ticker = 'COST') in various ETFs and mutual funds and I'll be looking to augment those holdings to increase my weighting of CostCo. In fact, I may sell every ETF that holds CBS and use the funds to buy ETF and mutual funds that hold CostCo.

In short, it's time for progressive capitalists (oxymoronic though that may be) to start flexing our muscles where it counts: in the boardrooms and executive suites of America's media giants.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Party that Devoured Itself

There is something deeply fulfilling watching New York's Republican Representative Peter King call Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz "a fraud" and then complain when Cruz' Libertarian supporters make obscene and threatening King's office.

Republicans thought they could co-opt the TeaBag monster they created in the wake of President Obama's inauguration in 2009. For awhile, their efforts succeeded and TeaBaggers bowed to the establishment wing of the Republican Party.

But now, with the nation on the brink of a government shut-down and furlough of all non-essential federal employees and nearing the precipice of a first-ever default on its debt obligations, the TeaBag monster has slipped its leash.

This Republican gotterdammerung has been 30 years in the making, dating from the demagogic sloganeering of Reagan that government is the problem and not the solution, a marketing tack that has now fleshed itself out.

So bring it on. Let the revolution commence with a collapse of American democratic institutions. It can't happen soon enough.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Tale Told By an Idiot: War on a Hunch? Stumbling into Peace? Makes Sense to Me

The past few days have constituted the Obama administration's 'WTF?' moment. This past Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough confessed that the administration did not have clear-cut evidence that Bashar al-Assad was behind the nerve gas incident at Ghouta on August 21. Although it did not have clear-cut evidence, the White House said it was proceeding on the basis of 'common sense.' As in 'common sense' said that Assad must have done the deed:

“This is not a court of law. And intelligence does not work that way,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said during his five-network public relations blitz Sunday to build support for limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The common-sense test says he is responsible for this."
Link to Washington Post story

Excuse me?

That's just another way of saying the administration (or factions within it) had a hunch that Assad was behind the attack but couldn't prove it. So, as Monday broke, they were still saber-rattling to beat the band, beating the war drums with a racket to give the Venice Beach weekend drum circle a run for its money. Just doesn't pass the smell test. Stinks like a rotten fish.

Then early Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared at a press conference and was asked if there were anythng Syria could do to head off an attack:

"Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week - turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting (of it) but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done."
Link to Reuters story

Kerry was not counting on the wiliness of Vladimir Putin, nor the caginess of al-Assad. Russia immediately pounced on Kerry's impromptu remark to say she would be suggesting to Syria that it consider the proposal. And Syria, quicker than you can say 'WMD,' announced it would welcome the chance to turn its chem weapons over to international control.

This all happened faster than the State Department could react. Only after the Syrians had accepted Kerry's proposal, did the State Department deign to inform us all that Kerry's words were 'simply rhetorical.' After that walk-back raised eyebrows, the State Department walked back its own walk-back in saying that the only thing rhetorical was Kerry's speculation that Syria would not accept the offer.

But the offer was apparently one that Kerry (and possiblyObama himself?) never expected the Syrians to accept. So when Syria accepted, it was too late for the administration to retract the offer.

Thus, the U.S. stumbled into peace. Any measure short of war offers a moment to be praised, but this is idiot diplomacy. Certainly not a Cuban Missile Crisis moment. More of a 'WTF?' moment.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Snowden's Name Sounded So Familiar

As soon as I heard Edward Snowden's name revealed yesterday as the source of the most recent revelations about NSA domestic spying, I knew the name sounded familiar. I went traipsing through the smoke rings of my mind and, sure enough, in the file labelled 'Best (American) Novel Since 1945," I found the answer.

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Snowden was the tail-gunner in Yossarian's plane who gets killed in Yossarian's arms while on a bombing run over the French city Avignon. One could argue that Snowden's death marks a crucial turning point in the events of the novel and in Yossarian's state of mind (or lack thereof, as the case may be).

I've copied one relevant portion of Catch-22. Wouldn't you know it, the snippet also has a major intelligence (used with all the ironic suggestions Heller would have seen in the word) twist to it:

'Why me?' was his [Doc Daneeka's ]constant lament, and the question was a good one.
Yossarian knew it was a good one because Yossarian was a collector of good questions and had used them to disrupt the educational sessions Clevinger had once conducted two nights a week in Captain Black's intelligence tent with the corporal in eyeglasses who everybody knew was probably a subversive. Captain Black knew he was a subversive because he wore eyeglasses and used words like panacea and utopia, and because he disapproved of Adolf Hitler, who had done such a great job
of combating un-American activities in Germany. Yossarian attended the educational sessions because he wanted to find out why so many people were working so hard to kill him. A handful of other men were also interested, and the questions were many and good when Clevmger and the subversive corporal finished and made the mistake of asking if there were any.
'Who is Spain?'
'Why is Hitler?'
'When is right?'
'Where was that stooped and mealy-colored old man I used to call Poppa when the merry-go-round
broke down?'
'How was trump at Munich?'
'Ho-ho beriberi.'
all rang out in rapid succession, and then there was Yossarian with the question that had no answer:
'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'
The question upset them, because Snowden had been killed over Avignon when Dobbs went crazy in mid-air and seized the controls away from Huple.
The corporal played it dumb. 'What?' he asked.
'Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?'
'I'm afraid I don't understand.'
'O— sont les Neigedens d'antan?' Yossarian said to make it easier for him.
'Parlez en anglais, for Christ's sake,' said the corporal. 'Je ne parle pas fran‡ais.'
'Neither do I,' answered Yossarian, who was ready to pursue him through all the words in the world to wring the knowledge from him if he could, but Clevinger intervened, pale, thin, and laboring for breath, a humid coating of tears already glistening in his undernourished eyes.
Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to. Colonel Cathcart sent Colonel Korn to stop it, and Colonel Korn succeeded with a rule governing the asking of questions. Colonel Korn's rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn's rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything (Emphasis Added)
A couple notes: The question: "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" alludes to the medieval French poet Francois Villon's 1462 poem "Ballade (Des Dames du Temps Jadis)" where the question "But where are the snows of yesteryear?" ("Mais ou sont les neiges d'anton?") forms a refrain that ends each stanza. That sets up Yossarian's hilarious-tragic attempt at franglais: "Ou sont les Neigedens d'antan?"
 I found myself thinking that all one really needs to do is substitute the names of a few current players (Colornel Cathcart might be current DNI General James Clapper, for example) and this passage would read like contemporary journalism.

What is the moral of this post? That advanced degrees in English aren't much good for anything, maybe. Oh, yeah, and maybe that we should hope that the fate of the fictional Snowden does not befall his real-life counterpart. For now, at least, Yossarian's question has finally got an answer. Snowden lives.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance, Barack Obama and the Current Democratic Majority

If your household is anything like mine, over the past few days you've done nothing but discuss (not necessarily in this order): Bradley Manning, Barack Obama, the NSA and Glenn Greenwald.

If your household is anything like mine, over the past few days the following words to describe emotions have received prominent play:

Pissed Off

Well, this morning, while making my coffee, I had a minor epiphany. Back on May 8, I had published a diary about Mark Sanford's election to the House and how the psychological concept of 'Cognitive Dissonance' might have played a role in explaining, among other matters, why Romney won the district by 18 points in 2012 but Sanford only won by 9 points:

Cognitive Dissonance, Mark Sanford and the Current Republican Electorate

That diary did not receive an overwhelming response and I'm not sure it should have, given the convincing rebuttals in the Comments section. But that does not mean that Cognitive Dissonance does not play a role in social psychology and might not be a useful tool to contribute to our understanding of other political events.

Ah-ha, I thought to myself this morning. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. Might not Cognitive Dissonance also be at play here and might it not also explain the relentless sniping and circular firing-squad-ism on display these last few days at DailyKos, DemocraticUnderground and other progressive spots?

For those who do not spend a lot of time with psychology and social psychology, the Wikipedia article does a great job of defining and discussing Cognitive Dissonance broadly speaking:

In modern psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel "disequilibrium": frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety .  . . Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed "dissonance reduction", which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors. This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior.
Cognitive Dissonance Defined

To put it bluntly, I think the Democratic majority is experiencing a massive outbreak of Cognitive Dissonance right now. The two competing 'cognitions,' if you will, can be condensed down to the following:

A) Barack Obama is a good (or "decent") guy who has my best interests at heart and the best interests of those I care about


B) Barack Obama is a bad (or "devious") guy who is spying on me and those I care about.

Talk about your basic recipe for inducing a massive bout of anxiety. What's an ordinary, decent Democrat to do?

Well, I know how I have reduced the anxiety I'm experiencing: I published a diary on DailyKos yesterday that provided me with some catharsis:

Boy, was I a Schmuck

In short, I reduced the importance of one of the discordant factors by basically negating Cognition A above. What is weird (and I hope the professional psychologists and social psychologists reading this will weigh in heavily on this) is that I would still secretly like Cognition A to be true and have only ruefully and wistfully reduced its importance in my belief structure.

I really would like for Barack Obama to be a 'good' (or "decent") guy who has my best interests at heart. But how can I reconcile that desire with the evidence of my own two eyes? 

Boy, was I a schmuck

(Candidate) Obama 2007:

"When I am President, one of the first things I'm going to do is call in my Attorney General and say to him, 'I want you to review every executive order that's been issued by George Bush; whether it relates to warrant-less wiretaps, or detaining people, or reading emails, or whatever it is-i want you to go through every single one of them.' And if they are unconstitutional, if they're encroaching on civil liberties unnecessarily, we are going to overturn them."

(President) Obama 2013:

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls . . . What you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved them. Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved. And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout."

(Candidate) Obama 2008:

"We only know these crimes took place because insiders blew the whistle at great personal risk ... Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal."

(President) Obama 2011:

"Bradley Manning broke the law."


Boy, was I a schmuck. I won't get fooled again.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance, Mark Sanford and the Current Republican Electorate

In modern psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel "disequilibrium": frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety .  . . . Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed "dissonance reduction", which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.[6] This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior. (Emphasis added)


I have not seen anyone yet discuss the role cognitive dissonance might have played in yesterday's special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, an election that saw the self-confessed philanderer and disgraced former governor Mark Sanford win over Elizabeth Colbert Busch (ECB). The district went overwhelmingly for Romney in 2012 (by 18 percentage points), so I think it fair to label the district a pocket Republican borough. And yet, Elizabeth Colbert Busch lost by only 9 points, only one half the margin by which Obama lost in 2009. Why is that?

Cognitive dissonance theory offers one explanation for why Sanford managed to win but also why ECB managed to halve the margin by which a Dem last lost the district.

In short, Republicans in the district were faced with two conflicting "ideas, beliefs, [or] values." Specifically, Sanford was and is a self-confessed adulterer who used public money to finance his extra-marital excursions while keeping his own staff and the people of his state unaware of his whereabouts. This much is well known and thus should need no further elucidation. One can be sure that white male Republicans in the First District knew only too well about Sanford's sordid past. Against this, though, ECB offered herself to voters as a representative of, if not a progressive, then certainly a pro-choice, pro-LGBT, pro-government position.

And so cognitive dissonance enters into the arena. Republican voters felt massive anxiety, because the misogyny they manifest daily and felt toward ECB conflicted with someone (Sanford) who had violated the 'family values' those same Republican voters publicly proclaim each Sunday when they go to church and, for many, throughout the week.

Festinger hypothesized that cognitive dissonance (or the anxiety produced thereof) could be reduced -- brought into consonance -- if one of the discordant beliefs lost some of its importance. I would argue that this is exactly what transpired in SC's 1st yesterday. Republican voters reduced the importance they gave to 'family values' while maintaining their misogyny full-blown. To the extent ECB was viewed as a proxy for Obama, Republican voters maintained their racism full-blown. To the extent ECB was viwed as a proxy for non-hetero sexual identity, Republican voters maintained their homophobia full-blown.

It is easy to dismiss Republican voters as 'hypocritical' for loudly and publicly proclaiming 'family values,' while simultaneously voting for a scalawag like Sanford. By the same token, though, one must then explain why that hypocrisy exists at such an obvious level; I think cognitive dissonance explains the obvious hypocrisy better than do appeals to Republicans' innate 'evil,' 'ignorance,' and so on. Don't get me wrong: Republicans are evil and ignorant, but that does not explain why they are such obvious and public hypocrites.

I am unsure what, if any lessons, this race and its outcome hold for Democratic and Progressive strategists, nor how those strategists could exploit cognitive dissonance to achieve electoral successes. But I think there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Because cognitive dissonance cuts both ways. If many Republicans reduced their anxiety by devaluing 'family values,', I think large numbers of Republican voters reduced their anxiety by changing their views on gun control, LGBT issues and government's role in our lives. Remember that the Mormon Romney won the district by 18 points in 2012 (a cognitive dissonance story in itself), but a mere year later Sanford only won by 9 points. This result tells me that some voters reduced their cognitive dissonance by lowering the importance they ascribed to ECB's ideological stances. In other words, ECB seems to have convinced some voters previously inclined to vote Republican that her election would not herald the Apocalypse.

My musings above prompt some additional questions:

Is it fair to say that the Republican Party today is misogynist, racist and\or homophobic?

Had Democrats run a white male espousing an identical platform to ECB's, would he have fared any better against Sanford?

By the same token, would a black male espousing a platform identical to ECB's have done worse?

How might progressives exploit cognitive dissonance in coming elections to win progressive victories?

And finally, if Republican voters have reduced the importance they give to 'family values,' might this create an opening to drive a stake through the hearts of the demagogues and charlatans nurtured by such appeals to "family values"?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Zach Galifianakis and Me: A Memoir

Here's something you'll never see in Braille: "If you see something, say something."

Zach Galifianakis, Saturday Night Live, May 4, 2013


In 1998, I began playing covers and newly written original songs each Monday evening at an open mike in Santa Monica, CA at a wonderful venue on Pier St. called simply 'Creativity.' The venue had an enormous stage and seating for about 50-75 audience members. I was an amateur on the pop music scene and had only recently begun writing my own songs, so the Monday open mike was a chance to play before other musicians and stand-up comedians, all of us trying to break in to our respective entertainment fields and all searching for that key to unlock entry to the entertainment world.

The venue Creativity seemed tailor-made for my efforts, as its proprietor kept the Open Mike strictly acoustic. (Although this occurred during the hey-day of the "Unplugged" fad that swept alternative rock, I suspect the devotion to acoustic had as much to do with the proprietor not wishing to pay ASCAP and other fees.) The stand-up comedians at the time were practicing a new form of comedy called 'Alternative Comedy" or "Alternative Standup". Rather than recite a pre-canned and memorized routine, the stand-up comedians would stand on the stage holding little notebooks or pieces of paper with their observations of funny things that had happened to them just that day or that week.

One night, a mild-mannered and diminutive figure took the stage. Short and a little overweight, he seemed to pause briefly as he squinted at the tiny notebook he held in his hands. I no longer remember what he said next. But Zach Galifianakis proceeded to set the room on fire in the next 5 minutes. Keep in mind that this was a room half-full of professional stand-up comedians and, still, it is fair to say, Zach had the entire room convulsing in the type of hysterical, transformative laughter one associates with a Jack Benny or Robin Williams. I mean, everyone in the audience is laughing non-stop and I am laughing so hard my sides hurt.

Zach did not show up every Monday night. In fact, among the performers at Creativity, Zach was probably one of the more irregular of performers. (No doubt, his professional career in show-biz was already beginning to take root.) But every time he came, the room hushed in anticipation of his latest observations. Each time, the room would be reduced to that same level of existential laughter I witnessed on his first performace. And all this from a tiny little spiral notebook filled with mundane observations.

The venue Creativity eventually folded, unable to pay the sky-high Santa Monica rents from the meager offerings of its entertainiment and the poverty of its clientele. Many of the comedians subsequently relocated to a new open mike at the Gypsy Cafe, a restaurant in Westwood, CA, just down the street from the UCLA campus. This was a comedy-only open mike and no musicians were ever featured there. But I had made so many friends among the comedians at Creativity that it was only natural that I would migrate there to see the comedy open mike.

I saw many of my favorites at the Gypsy each week. There was the very funny and profane Arthur Montmorency, who went on to write for That 70s Show. (I heard later on the grapevine that Arthur died of a drug overdose, a victim of his own success perhaps.) There was Maria Bamford, who has gone on to enjoy success of her own. There were so many other hilarious comics whose names and routines have now escaped me over these past 15 years. And there was the positively Dickensian Lean Gene, a hugely obese man who was unable to ever elicit a single genuine unforced laugh from the audience, partly because he was so grotesque but mainly because he was so desperately unfuuny and so pathetic in his desperation to be loved by the audience and failure to understand how unfunny he really was. (I heard on the same grapevine that Lean Gene died of a massive coronary, brought on by his morbid obesity. But maybe also by a broken heart that none of us knew existed?) Every once in awhile these days, I will see a name in the media and will say to Alma, my wife, "Hey, I knew so and so back at the Gypsy or Creativity." For the most part, though, the names and acts of these stand-up comedians have faded into obscurity.

About this same time, I had pushed my songwriting and performing career in its natural trajectory for a singer-songwriter, as I styled myself at the time. I had entered the studio of one of my associates from the open mike circuit and begun recording some of my songs. Before I knew it, I had 15-20 songs recorded in the studio and so, the next logical step was, make my own CD. Audio CDs, to the un-initiated, are (or were) the coin of the realm among aspiring musicians on the circuit, a sort of audio business card, if you will, a way to generate a little revenue off mostly non-paying live gigs, a way to get your work "out there," bascially a rite of passage for any serious aspiring original musician.

In April of 2000, my CD Living in the Shadows finally came out. Ah, what delusions of grandeur I had as I placed my order for 1,000 CDs (getting a nice per-CD volume discount in return for my hubris). I proceeded to sell a few copies on, a few copies at gigs I was playing around town, and a few to my friends and acquaintances from the open-mike circuit.

Here's how I know that Zach is not just a great comedian, but a wonderful human being to boot. I happened to bump into Zach in March of 2001 at a local coffee shop in Santa Monica (right next to the now-defunct Creativity performance space). He was sitting there by himself alone, with a cup of coffee in a disposable cup, working on a personal digital assistant as I recall. His face brightened when he saw me and I sat down next to him. "So what have you been up to?" he asked. I told him I had come out with the CD and was trying to sell it. He immediately without question reached into his pocket and pulled out $10 (my asking price at the time). I gave him a CD and then I asked him what he had been up to. "Well," he said, "I was just asked to audition to be a writer for Saturday Night Live and my agent thinks I should. But I don't know."

Had I been more of a decent human being and less a star-struck publicity whore myself, I might have probed Zach just a little bit to find out the cause of his reservations. Instead, I thought to seize the opportunity and said, "Hey, let me give you another CD so you can pass it along." He took the 2nd copy of the CD, stuffed in in his satchel with the first and his PDA, and we left to go our separate ways. I learned later that Zach's misgivings were not my imagination and that his writing stint with SNL lasted only two weeks. I have often thought back on that encounter as not one of my finer moments and, while I doubt that Zach ever remembers it, I hope he does not go "Ugh" should a memory of it ever cross his horizon.

Now I do not watch many new movies in theatrical release and, after September 11, 2001, music seemed to fade out of my life, replaced with new activism in the progressive and anti-war movements that would occupy much of the next decade. Truth to tell, I don't think I was ever good enough to deserve the big break that is required to make it in show biz. I was talented, but the streets and restaurants of Los Angeles are littered with the resumes of the merely 'talented.' I certainly was not dedicated enough. One of my piano teachers, Richard Cass, once told me, "You have to give it 100% all the time. Because there are many others out there just as talented as you who are giving it 100%." Mr. Cass must have been able to see into my soul, to see that I lacked that certain fortitude, that willingness to stick with it long enough to get my name in the bright lights.

I don't think I thought of Zach once in the next several years. I never saw him after that night when I sold him a CD. But a few years later, while renting a movie, I happened to see his name on the case for The Hangover."Hey, Alma," I said to my wife, "I knew Zach. He was easily the funniest stand-up comedian I ever saw perform on the open mike circuit."

Last night, May 4, we turned on the television to watch Saturday Night Live. Wouldn't you know it? Zach Galifianakis was guest-hosting. The weird thing is that I think the funniest part of the show was Zach's opening monologue from which the joke at the top comes. Zach's performance as an ensemble sketch comedian did not match the comic heights of his best solo work, although he did have some funny moments in the M&M Store routine where he plays a racist and sexist employee trying to apologize to his co-workers or the sketch where he tries to record himself meeting new friends at his house for the first time.

Zach, it seems to me, is funniest as a solo comedian where he has a one-on-one relationship with his audience, unmediated by any distractions. After last night, my wife agrees that Zach is best as a solo performer. I told her that his monologue last night was not nearly as good as the solo Zach I remembered from Creativity and the Gypsy so many years earlier.

I'm not much of a practitioner or participant in the cult of celebrity. My wife all too frequently has to tell me who the latest star or starlet is and what he or she is famous for. I seldom even watch much television any more, aside from current episodes of The Good Wife and re-runs of Cold Case. But I can honestly say that Zach Galifianakis and I once shared the same stage and that I feel honored and privileged to have done so with one so young and manifestly gifted as he. Zach, if you're out there in the blog-o-sphere or one of your assistants reads this, please accept this greeting from years and performances gone by. (The email address on the back of my CD is still valid, if you want to get in touch.:) It is all too fitting that you 'made it.' If any of us were going to 'make it' in the 'Biz,' I am glad that the universe saw fit to reward you for your hard work, dedication and comic genius.

And, Zach, I've never seen any of your movies, so maybe it's time I returned that gesture of generosity you displayed to me so many years ago and rented one of your movies. But, after you have accumulated enough loot and swag from Hollyweird and its offshoots, the open mike circuit desperately needs your talents again to light up a room with unforced and hysterical laughter, to remove all of us -- if only for an all-too-brief moment -- from the hum-drum banality of our existence, if only by rubbing our noses in it.  Life is too short and, Zach, we miss you out here in La-La land.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Whither the Social Contract?

A startling new poll was released yesterday by Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind:

Startling poll results

FDU surveyed 863 registered voters nationwide and discovered that 29% believe an armed revolution may be necessary in the next few years to protect 'our' liberties. Buried within those aggregate numbers was an even more startling statistic: 44% of Republicans think an armed rebellion may be necessary. (Somewhat more reassuring, albeit still alarming, 18% of Dems felt that armed revolution may be necessary.)  In other words, more than 2 out of 5 registered Republican voters now thinks armed rebellion may be necessary.

Keep in mind these are not undocumented immigrants or even permanent residents. These are American citizens and registered voters, fully enfranchised within the existing system, who now see violence as a possible solution.

I think we should be very alarmed by this.

Historically, Americans have resolved their political differences at the ballot boxes and to a lesser but still significant measure through the courts. The only time large numbers of people in the nation has resorted to open, armed rebellion (1861-65), some two million Americans were killed and many more wounded.

What these new poll numbers tell me is that the social contract may be starting to break down, that unwritten contract that says we may disagree and disagree vehemently but we resolve our differences peacefully and without violence. We have other examples in the recent past to counsel us: Rwanda and Bosnia. Those are examples of societies that eschewed the non-violent political process and instead turned to violence to resolve differences. One shudders to imagine an America that devolves to that. But 44% of Republicans think it may be necessary to become just that.

I am not sure what can be done to reverse this now. My thoughts ramble and do not cohere. I would like to see President Obama, Vice President Biden, Speaker Boehner, Minoority Leader Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell convene to tell all Americans, Dem and Repub alike, that political violence is unacceptable, no matter whence it originates and, more important, is ineffective. And to warn that 44% of Republicans that, just like in 1861, any armed rebellion will be met by an implacable and unified federal resolve to suppress it.

But, for all I know, Boehner and McConnell are part of that 44%. That's what truly scares me.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Whither the Sixth Amendment?

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence. ("Amendment VI" to the U.S. Constitution. Emphasis added)

A couple days ago, I happened upon an article in my home-town rag, The Los Angeles Times. One brief passage in particular about the pre-Miranda interrogation of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev caught my eye:

Until that point, Tsarnaev had been responding to the interagency High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, including admitting his role in the bombing, authorities said. A senior congressional aide said Tsarnaev had asked several times for a lawyer, but that request was ignored since he was being questioned under the public safety exemption to the Miranda rule. (Emphasis added),0,5051005.story

Wait, what?

The 'Public Safety Exception' to the Miranda rule does not allow the government to deny suspects their rights, e.g., to remain silent or to counsel. It does allow the government to put aside temporarily its obligation to read suspects those rights. In other words, Tsarnaev had the right to an attorney, whether he was advised or not, and he attempted to exercise that right by requesting an attorney.

If the Times' reporting is to be believed, the government chose to ignore Tsarnaev's request for an attorney and kept right on questioning him.

I'm not an attorney, more like an attorney manque, nurtured on episodes of Perry Mason and Law and Order. But from where I sit, the government willfully violated Tsarnaev's right to an attorney. The Public Safety Exception never allows the government to deny suspects their rights. It only allows the government to delay informing suspects of their rights for a brief period. There is a difference.

As soon as Tsarnaev requested an attorney, whether during the Public Safety Exception or otherwise, the Sixth Amendment required the government to provide him with access to one. So, please, someone, anyone, tell me the U.S. did not jeopardize its entire case by violating Tsarnaev's Sixth Amendment rights.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What is "Blowback"? is reporting that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, suspected in the Boston Marathon bombing, has confessed from his hospital bed to U.S. interrogators that he and his brother planted the bombs to protest the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This might make a good time to discuss 'blow back' and what it is and is not.

Put bluntly, the Brothers Tsarnaev's bombing attack is not 'blow back'. The attack may indeed be retaliation. But "blow back" has come to mean a particular type of reaction to U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, according to writers like Chalmers Johnson, blow back occurs when the American people are largely kept in the dark about the consequences of America's foreign policy until the inevitable and eminently predictable blow is struck against her. The American people are thus mystified at this display of seeming 'motiveless malignity.'

Since it can be safely assumed that the American people were largely aware of the consequences of the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan -- whether they disagree or not with those consequences -- the Marathon Bombing hardly constitutes blow back.

Contrast Tsarnaev's alleged motive with Osama bin Laden's fatwa, issued prior to 9-11, that authorized the attack upon the U.S. In his fatwa, bin Laden mentions several grievances, two of which strike me as ones largely hidden from the American public: the preventable deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children during the decade of the 90s as a result of U.N. sanctions on so-called dual use items (sanctions maintained largely at the insistence of the U.S.) and the continued presence and basing of U.S. troops on Saudi Arabian soil after the end of the First Gulf War (aka "Operation Desert Shield\Storm"). In each of these cases, the American public was largely unaware of the effects its foreign policy was having upon the people of the Middle East. Thus, when 9-11 occurred, it could rightly be seen as an instance of 'blow back,' given that Al Qaeda's response seemed to lack any motivation, so much so as to allow Bush to claim ludicrously that AQ hated us 'for our freedoms.'

While I have been saying, since 2001, that attacks like the Marathon Bomber were inevitable and would come when the people of the Middle East and Central Asia were ready to strike and not according to our timetable, I have also never felt that attacks like the Marathon Bomber constitute 'blow back.' In the case of the Marathon Bomber, the motives were already known or should have been known.

No American can therefore say that he or she could not have seen this coming. Indeed, a more pointed question is why it did not come sooner. Nor can any American any longer hide from the probability that attacks like these will continue as long as we contiinue our murderous and criminal policies in the Middle East.

I found the story and images of the 8-year-old victim, Martin Richard, particularly poingant. In one such photo, Richard is seen holding a sign that says "No more hurting people . . . Peace." Surely one so young possessed of such wisdom should be inoculated from the murderous consequences of the Bush Junta and its successor regimes. Indeed, I had flattered myself that my 8 years of bi- and thrice-weekly vigiling in the streets of Los Angeles had similarly inoculated my wife (maker of my signs) and me. Alas, I see now that such is fond delusion. And, if I'm being honest with myself, it is fond delusion. For where is the outrage for the deaths of the 12 Afghan children killed in a NATO airstrike in Afghanistan just 9 days before the Marathon bombing? There is no outrage, just a numbed and deafening silence. Those 12 Afghan children were just as innocent as Richard, lives as full of promise as his. And those 12 Afghan children are suddenly dead, just as Richard is. Perhaps Richard would have been the next Einstein, perhaps one of those Afghan chidlren would have been the next Salk. We shall never know.

But I do know that further attacks on us will come until the foreign policy of the United States undergoes a radical change and until the perpetrators of all the death, torture and destruction have been held fully to account. Until both conditions are satisifed, we will not be experiencing blow back. But we will be experiencing retaliation. There is a difference.