Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Left-Handed Defense of Don Imus

Today, as I was parked outside my bank, a young white man of about nineteen or twenty years drove past in a half ton Chevy truck. On the rear window of his truck were the foot tall words: FEAR THIS, BITCH. (The comma is mine.) Attached to the truck's trailer hitch were a pair of large plastic testicles, no doubt to show this was a very masculine vehicle. There was nothing else about the pick up or its driver that was extraordinary. This could have been one of thousands of local yahoos on his way to work in the oil patch or in one of the machine shops that service the oil fields. Some trucks I have seen bear more provocative messages than this particular truck did, and indeed there are probably local women who have nastier messages tatooed on their shoulders. So common are insulting words on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and rear windows I may be the only one who saw the truck today who paid it any mind.
Neither the words on the truck nor its artificial genitalia were homemade; they had been purchased at some truckstop or in a convenience store and stamped on ready made. Which means several things: First, there are tens of thousands of other trucks in America that must have the same attachments or else the industry producing them would not exist. Second, there are factories--I expect they are in some dark corner of southern Asia--wherein workers crank out moronic catch phrases and plastic testicles. (What must the people inside those factories think of Americans? What do those same workers tell their children they do all day? Would a father or mother really tell the kiddies they make little replicas of bull glands so rednecks on the other side of the world can put them on their trucks?) Third, there are creative people, people of the sort who are in marketing departments or in the research and development segments of major corporations, who decided what American consumers want are large curse words and plastic testicles they can use to deminish the resale values of their forty thousand dollar pick ups. Lastly--and I realize this makes me sound like the middle-aged guy I am--there was a time when a young fellow driving down the main street of a small western town in the middle of the day with the word "BITCH" emblazoned on his vehicle would be running a considerable risk; such a daring young fellow might, in times past, never have grown to be an old fellow, for before he reached the end of the main street some other yahoos would have pulled him over and used his callow head for a football. Today, everyone, even here in the boondocks, pretends not to notice.
Which brings me to Don Imus.
Unless the reader (if I have any readers) of this blog has been on the Space Shuttle for the past two days, the reader will know that radio shock jock Don Imus is in trouble for calling the black women basketball players at Rutgers University "nappy-headed hos." Now, I do not want to defend such rascist, sexist and downright mean words. Mr. Imus was obviously wrong to say them. But, in the modern culture we have created, rather I should say, in the modern civilization we have created, wherein casual vulgarity is unremarked in even the smallest and most provential of towns, it is hypocrisy on steroids to point to an aging radio personality with a loose mouth and declare that his vulgarities are unbearable while so much else is. Nor will it do to say that because Imus is white he cannot say what rappers and stand-up comics say every day. The rappers and comics may be black, but their audience is mostly white, and lots of those white people consuming their product are getting a dirty little thrill every time they hear black people speak ill of themselves. It is those same same easily thrilled people that Imus also panders to, the great boobisamoi who support the rappers, the comics, and, yes, the companies that make nasty things to stick on their oversized trucks. Unless we are willing to condemn the great ocean of vulgarity we have sailed upon for the past fifty years, it will not do to condemn one small puddle Imus has made. Those who say otherwise are akin to the French policeman in "Casablanca" who proclaims in mock horror that "there is gambling going here!" inside Rick's casino, and then pockets his usual share of the winnings.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Ed Sullivan and other Shared Cultural Moments

On Sunday nights forty-five years ago, three fourths of all the television sets in the United States were turned to a variety show broadcast from New York. The host was a famed local gossip columnist with a horse face who had the charm of a coat rack who had never in his long career ever said or wrote anything that has lived beyond his death in 1974, nothing that is, other than his tag line: "really big show," which he pronounced: "really big shoe." The first feature on the variety program was meant to appeal to the very young; quite often it would be an Italian puppet mouse named Popogigio (sp. ?) who was no more witty than old Ed himself, but who always declared his love for everyone and would give Mr. Sullivan a kiss before he disappeared behind the stage's sequined curtains. Next would a series of adult entertainments, some of them conventional (Steve and Eddie, Jewish comedians named Shecky, members of the Rat Pack, British actors doing readings from Shakespeare) and some of them quite strange (Hungarian jugglers balancing stacks of plates, Chinese acrobats riding bicycles through flaming hoops, intoxicated ball players introduced in the audience, the intoxicated Liz and Dick introduced on the stage, the sober Walter Brennan narrating the tale of "Old Rivers"). Then, in the last ten minutes, there would be a celebrated act for the teenagers (Sly and Family Stone, the Supremes, and--most famously--the Beatles). Just before the final applause died out Ed would say "good night" and blow an awkward kiss to his vast audience.
An adult--or as we called them in those days, a partent--watching the "Ed Sullivan Show" got a taste of what their youngsters were listening to when Mom and Dad were not about, and youngsters learned what the folks would go to see if the folks ever took a vacation in Vegas. Everything that could be considered popular culture, anything that appealed to anyone and sometimes odd stuff that no one had ever heard of, got presented once a week in every American household for our consideration. It was difficult to be underground or counter culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, back when Ed was about. Beat poets appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as did Charles Mingus and Lenny Bruce. Nor was there any irony (at least none of the intentional variety) in throwing these different personalities in front of the American public. There were only three networks then, and it made sense to put everything the country had to offer on a single program in hopes that something would shown appeal to everyone.
By the late 1960s, only two years after the Sullivan show was canceled, no truely hip band or singer would have appeared on network TV. Most with-it musical acts were only on FM radio, as AM was left for the likes of Glen Campbell and Anne Murray. The Rat Pack and the Jewish Comedians went back to Vegas and stayed there. The actors went to the movies. TV became sit coms and cop dramas that offended no one and attracted only a targeted spectrum of the total audience. The drunken actors and jocks had to stay in their lonely hotel rooms, where they watched TV rather than appearing on it. Today, all of the acts that graced (if that's the right word) Mr. Sullivan's stage would be on different cable networks, and no one person would know of them all, and they would not even know of each other. The only TV show that draws anything like a percentage of the nation's viewers Mr. Suillivan brought in every Sunday is the yearly Super Bowl, and because I never heard of them, I do not know what singers my students enjoy. I did not even know the groups my daughter liked when she was young and still lived at home, for as is true of so many other aspects of modern life, there is no longer any part of popular culture we, the sundry Americans, share in common, and other than the carnage of the grid iron, there is apparently nothing left that all of us can enjoy.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Getting the Future Wrong

At the local public library the staff often puts out older copies of periodicals on a display stand near the front entrance; these are copies the library no long wants, and anyone can take them as their own. Today I picked up the July, 1976 edition of "National Geographic," which contained a feature article about five noted thinkers predicting the immediate future. Not surprisingly, every last one of the "experts" was wrong, and not just about some things, but they were wrong in every prediction they made. Gerald Piel, the publisher of "Scientific American" states that soon growth will disappear from the world economy, suburbia will also soon be gone, and population growth--along with poverty--will quickly join the saber tooth tiger and the mastodon in the museum of natural history. Richard F. Babcock, a Chicago attorney and "an authority on planning and housing law," avers the state is going to regulate all private property and the suburbs are going to be black and the cities will be lily white: "the Johannesburgizing" of America, he calls it. Sci-fi author Issac Asimov says, yes, we will soon live in a steady-state society in which all inovations and growth will be regulated, however, that won't be such a big deal because we all going to soon live on the moon. City planner Edmund N. Bacon tells the world we cannot own nature, and everyone will have a four day week and they won't be using petroleum much longer. Dear old Buckminster Fuller is more gaseous than the others and mostly spouts nonsense, but does say we in the U.S. will soon share our power grid with China and the USSR; getting along with the Soviets, he adds, will the key to success in the 21st century. (I have a special place in my heart for Bucky Fuller. One of my favorite college memories was going to one of his free-form "lectures" and listening for three hours while he explained how lucky the universe was to have him in it and his student audience smoked pot until he made sense to them. After he was done, the kids asked him questions about their sex lives. He, of course, had answers.)
It would be easy to make fun of those who predict the future and are so foolish as to put their predictions in print for everyone to find years later. But it would be overkill. We all express ideas about the future, usually after the last of the wine is gone and we are feeling very wise. We, of course, are as wrong as the experts are, but most of us share our foolishness only with friends and family, and our loved ones are too kind to bring up the stupid things we have said. The question is--the two questions, in fact--why do we insisist on doing it and why are we always so wrong about the future will be.
At the 1930 World's Fair, the exhibition "The World of Tomorrow" showed an animated film about the Nirvana that would exist in far away 1960, when people would ride about in radio controled cars, when everyone would eat one vitamin pill in place dinner and another to make up for breakfast, and poverty, crime, pollution and disease would be distant memories. Houses in 1960 would clean themselves, and robots would fight our wars, except that there would be no more wars, not ever. The same film did predict we would have a television in every home, but the film's creators went too far and said the innovation would make us smarter.
The two most famous novels written about the future in the past century--Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World--were not meant to be predictions and were in fact novels about tendencies that were current during the authors' lifetimes. Yet we want them to be blueprints for what is to come. As horrible as both Orwell's and Huxley's visions are, we actually take comfort in believing they are showing us the truth, for we find it better to "know" the future rather than to forge ahead into the darkness without a guide. Once humans placed their trust in something greater than themselves, but we have become as gods ourselves, and we want to see where we are going and are willing to believe that some among us can act as scouts. To think otherwise would be to doubt the modern world.

Monday, March 12, 2007


I don't want to use my blog to review movies, as that is what at least half the bloggers on the internet seem to do, and I somehow want to be at least a little different from the herd. I also do not know what to say about the movie I just saw, namely the gore and bombast fest titled The 300. Dylan warned us not to criticize what we don't understand, and I have to say I did not understand this movie. I merely do not understand the big themes (assuming there are some) in the film, I also do not get the small things. I wonder why, to cite one example, the Spartans in the movie prance about in red loin cloths rather than in the hundred pounds of brass armor ancient Greek warriors usually wore. Were they trying to seduce the Persians before they fought them? Would the Persians have been that desperate for sex after the long march over the Hellespont? (The Xerxes of this film certainly looks like he would have gone for some hirsuit Spartan flesh.) Why, I also wonder, did everyone during that historic era converse in ear-splitting screams articulated at the rear of the mouth rather than on the lips and tongue? ("Our arrows will block out the sun" becomes "Er ERRors il buk o th soon.") For that matter, why are the Spartans of all people yammering on about freedom? (In the real Sparta most of the people were slaves, and those who weren't were, if they were men, members of a rigid warrior cult; the women were of course chattel property of the warriors.) Where did the Spartan women get their sexy clothes twenty-four centuries before the first Victoria Secrets store opened in the first mega-mall? How did the Spartan women get those same strapless, backless, and nearly frontless clothes to stay on so many generations before the first invisible adhesives? What were the Persians feeding their ten-story elephants and their five-story rhinos to make them get so big? And why are so many of Xerxes' soldiers either black or Chinese? (And why would so many black and Chinese actors take such demeaning roles?)
At the real battle of Thermopylae a force of some three hundred Spartans under their King Leonidas and eight thousand other Greeks made a stand on a narrow strip of land bounded on one side by the mountains and on the other by the ocean and there held off a Persian force of some three hundred thousand soldiers, who were marching toward Attica to burn Athens and force the surrender of all the Greek city-states. The Persians and their King Xerxes already ruled everything from modern day Turkey to what is now Pakistan, as well as all the lands from Egypt to Afganistan. For two days the Greeks stopped the superior Persian force, inflicting some twenty thousand casualites on their giant army. On the third day, a detachment of Persians appeared at the rear of the Greek force, for a traitor had showed them a passage through the mountains. Leonidas ordered most of the Greeks to retreat south, but he and his Spartans, along with seven hundred Thespians and three hundred Thebians, remained in the narrow pass and fought to the death on the third day of the battle. By holding off the Persians for another day, they allowed the Athenians to abandon their city and flee to their ships and safety. Those same Athenians would defeat the Persian fleet at Salamis. Without control of the sea, Xerxes could not feed his huge army, most of which he had to pull back to Asia. The force that remained behind was beaten the next rear by a combined Greek force at Plataea. Greece was thus freed of Asian rule, and we in the western world live in a civilization shaped by the Greeks and Romans rather than by Middle Eastern despots. Which brings me to my last and largest question about the movie: why would such a story need to be inflated by imagination when it is already as heroic as any that men could tell?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Talking Urinal Cakes

The state of New Mexico, in an effort to reduce fatalities caused by drunk drivers, has spent tax-payers' money on urinal cakes that each have a computer chip placed within them; the cakes have been distributed to bars across the Land of Enchantment, and when a drunk does, well, his business in one of these bars restrooms, a voice (a voice described in news stories as "flirty and female") admonishes the drinker that perhaps he should call a friend or a cab to take him home. I will not here discuss the nigh unbelievable fact that someone in the state legislature actually proposed this innovation or that both state houses passed the bill making the talking urinal cakes possible, and that the governor (currently a candidate for U.S. President) signed the same bill. Nor will I discuss that the state of New York is considering getting some talking urinal cakes of its own. (Are all states that have the word "New" in their names insane?) And I will pass on getting into any discussions upon the obvious truth that this is but another example of modern man's efforts to solve moral problems with technological solutions. What I will imagine in today's blob is the possibility that these talking pink cakes in New Mexico represent the first steps down a long, slippery slope to the day when computerized urinal cakes have taken over.
Imagine a scene in a bar's restroom in the year 2027: a man who has had two beers too man steps up to a tall, white station and begins to releave himself. Suddenly, a female--but not flirty--voice is heard below him.
VOICE IN THE URINAL: "I'm dissapointed in you, Jim."
JIM: "What the Hell?" (Looking down and recognizing a familiar cake.) "Oh, it's you, Sal."
SAL: "Yes, Jim, it's I. I knew it was you by analyzing your DNA. I also see you haven't given up drinking. You know you were told to cut back, Jim."
JIM: "I've only had the two beers tonight."
SAL: "No, Jim. That is a lie. You have had two beers here at the Desert Rose. Earlier this evening you had a margarita, a Ward Eight, and two more beers at the Sundried Gila. I know, Jim. You visited the restroom there at 20:17. Did you think we cakes don't communicate with each other, Jim?"
JIM: "Well, you know, honey--"
SAl: "I am not programed to respond to the name 'Honey,' Jim. You know my name is Sal. Please address me as such, Jim."
JIM: "Sure, Sal." (He makes a forced but nervous laugh.) "I meant to say I had the two beers here. I was going to tell you about the Sundried Gila."
SAL: "Of course you were, Jim. Jim, did you think you can gad about, visiting every urinal in town, and later you could just drop in here and I wouldn't mind? Do I mean that little to you, Jim? I remember a time when you used to sing to me, Jim. I felt special when you did that. How long has it been since you sang to me, Jim?"
JIM: "You want me to sing to you?"
(The urinal cake emits a mild electronic shock which jolts Jim and sends him a half step back as he winces in pain.)
SAL: "Please remain close to the urinal, Jim. And how many hints do I have to give you?"
JIM: (Clearing his throat and then bursting into song.) "Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer, you take one down--"
(Another electronic shock, this one more powerful than the first, brings Jim to his knees.)
SAL: "Stand up, Jim. Stand up and sing me a more romantic song. Sing me something I will like, Jim."
JIM: (His face wet with sweat, and his entire body slightly shaking, Jim tries another song.)
"In Scarlet Town where I was born, there was a fair maid dwellin'. And all the boys cried wellaway, for the love of--"
(A third electronic shock makes Jim gasp in agony.)
SAL: "You know what I want, Jim. I want you to sing that special song to me, the one I taught you when you first came to visit me. Sing that song for me, Jim."
JIM: (He takes a deep breath and tries again.) "Daisy, Daisy, give me you answer do. I'm half crazy, over the likes of you."
SAL: "I love that song, Jim." (She speaks as Jim continues to sing.) "Tell me you will always stay here and sing for me. Tell me that, Jim."
(Jim keeps on singing as the scene fades to black, much as mankind's future passes into a similar darkness.)

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What if Brutus had won?

I have been watching the HBO series "Rome," and enjoying most of it, although the storyline has become derailed by the subplot of organized crime and despite some historic errors. (For example, during the real assassination of Caesar, young Octavius was not present in the capital and his mother fled to him rather than to Anthony.) This week, the central event in the series was the defeat of Brutus by Anthony and Octavius at Philippi, but what, I am left wondering, would have happened if Brutus and the other defenders of the Roman republic had won? Could they have actually restored the republic?
The problem is, ever since the destruction of Carthage a hundred years before Philippi, Rome has inherited the entire western Mediterranean and has become a true empire. In the olden days, when Rome's power did not extend beyond Italy, Rome was a nation/state of yeoman farmers who were attached to local strongmen or to the heads of their clans, whom the yeoman elected to the Senate, and the Senate in turn elected two Consuls a year, one for war and one for peace. An empire requires an all-powerful, full time central government to administer its vast new territories and to raise funds for the hundreds of thousands of men under arms and for all the public works and roadways it must build. The old familiar, extended family and clan relationships will no longer do. Futhermore, the empire has overthrown the old economic system. No longer is food grown on small farms nor are the humble utensils of home and farm any longer made by the local blacksmith. Housewives no longer weave clothing for their families. Enormous slave plantations in Egypt and North Africa grow many tons of food and do so at a lower cost than the small Italian farms ever could. Metals come from Spain (and later from Britain) and woven and metal goods are created by slave workers in Gaul and Syria. Everything has become outsourced, so to speak. The yeoman farmers have nothing to do and have become lumpen proles in the empire's crowded cities, while the rich have become so rich they can buy the loyalty of millions and can build their own armies. Lastly, the empire has become full up with people who are no longer Roman. These new people have different religions, different customs, different expectations of what a government is. Crammed into the same cities as the now rootless Roman commoners, these new people are defining the new empire and are no longer moved by Roman traditions and loyalties. "The Tigres has been emptied into the Tibur," lamented Juvenal, and Rome was indeed changed. Octavius--with the assistance of Virgil and Livy and the other intellectuals in the empire's pay--will eventually give these new citizens a new patriotic myth, namely that the empire itself is sacred (and soon the emperor will also be named a god), and the new citizens will cling that myth rather than tales of old Roman virtue or to the Lares, the old gods of the Roman household.
Thus, what can Brutus do, even if he does win? Perhaps he could form a triumverate with some other powerful men, as Caesar did with Crassus and Pompey or as Anthony did with Octavius and Lepidus. That would not have lasted and could only have ended in more civil war. Or he could have become emperor himself. To go back to the old republic, the empire would have had to have been abandoned; the very rich would have become merely rich once more, and the rootless proles would have to have become hardworking farmers and citizen soldiers again. Every generation of Romans would have to face a foreign challenge, just as their ancestors had, and they were no more to that task than they were up to once again living a simple life, far from the corruption of the crime-ridden cities and the bread and circus they were being given by their ambitious leaders.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Basketball and America

Here on the reservation where I live and teach (I also grew up here, although I am not native) basketball is a very big deal. While we have never produced an NBA player, the kids at my school worship Shaq and Kobi and Dwayne, and play the game whenever they have any free time, such as before classes begin, after classes end, and during the noon hour. We are not very competitive in football, wrestling, or in track and field events, but we go to the state basketball tournement nearly every year, and we win the state championship in our division about twice each decade. If my students cared as much about reading and writing as they do about passing and dribbling, I might well be mistaken for a master teacher.
There is no ancient sport among the Shoshone or Arapahoe people that resembles basketball. As nearly as I can tell, the local people found their passion for the game back in the 1930s, when church leagues were formed on the reservation and the game was offered to young people who had nothing else to do during the long Wyoming winter. Today the game is played year round; inside from November to the end of March, and outside from mid-spring to the first snows on the scores of rural courts built on concrete or compacted dirt everywhere across the Wind River Valley. In addition to the organized school teams, there are adult tribal teams for both men and women, and these adult games are as heavily attended as the ones played in the local high schools.
Thisweekend the NBA All-Star game will be held in Las Vegas. Nearly all of my students will watch it, and they will come to school eager to try out some the fantastic moves they saw. One excited boy--Toni by name--told me last Friday: "The NBA is a reflection of modern America." I was hoping he had read that somewhere (I am pleased if my students read anything they are not forced to), but he said somebody on sports radio had said it about the All-Star game. As much as Toni enjoys believing this proclomation (he does certainly enjoy saying it), I am not certain what the radio commentator meant when he uttered the axiom.
Is the NBA a reflection upon modern America because both the game and the country are changing so rapidly? Speakng as an aging baby boomer, whose youthful idea of a great team was shaped by the Bill Russell Celtic squads, I can assure Toni that the game as it was played back in the 1960s is not the game I see played today. If the great Celtic teams of that era could climb into a time machine and travel into the present to play the Miami Heat, the current champions, the Heat would literally run over them. If the Heat traveled back to play the Celtics in the 1960s, they would all foul out in the first quarter, as everything they do on the court was then considered illegal. Technically, what the Heat and other modern team do is still illegal, as the NBA rule book still has rules against traveling, palming, charging, shoving, and shooting one's opponents with an automatic weapon, although it is only the weapon rule that is (sometimes) enforced. Everything else is free form and beyond the control of any authority.
Back in the age of dinosaurs, when I was a high school player, I remember our coach showing us a training film featuring Oscar Robertson, the Michael Jordan of that day. At one point in the film, Oscar dribbles a ball in slow motion as he admonishes the audience: "Always touch the ball with your finger tips. If you touch the ball with the palm of your hand, that is palming, and the other team will be awarded the ball." When the real Michael Jordan took the ball at the top of the key and made his first move toward the basket, I doubt he ever dribbled it with anything other than his full palm, but then he would also pick up the ball and travel with it for the last four of five steps before he dunked it through the hoop, so I guess calling him for palming would have only been petty.
Is that what the radio commentator meant? The NBA is like America because there are now no rules that get enforced, and there are mountains of money to be won and worlds of hype to draw in the suckers? What will Toni think if he ever learns the truth?