Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

To My Republican Friends

Some of you have been forwarding to me attacks against Barack Obama in recent days. I thank you for thinking of me, but I have to say that I have neither the time nor the energy to read, much less vet, them all. I have recognized several, however, as the fabrications of Andy Martin, a well known political crank who was the subject of an expose last week in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/13/us/politics/13martin.html?scp=5&sq=Obama%20Kenya%20Muslim&st=cse . Mr. Martin is a rabid anti-Semite, among other things, so don't expect me to hearken to his claims. Other allegations have been attributed to Wikipedia, which is not a source but a clearing house of sources, and to the South Korean owned Washington Times. Sorry, but these hold no sway with me.

I get my news primarily from the liberal New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal, neither of which have deemed these attacks as credible, much less, newsworthy. I don't watch Fox News, but I understand that they have soft pedaled them as well.

I'm writing to you today, however, to make a larger point. Far-right critics of Obama seem to think he is an ideologue, be it liberal, Muslim, or Socialist. Since they are ideologues themselves, they erroneously assume everyone else is an ideologue as well. We've had eight years of the most ideological president ever--a man who believed that all the answers were either in the Bible, in Market Conservatism (to give it a name), or in his gut. I believe that ideologues are essentially lazy. When confronted by a crisis, they simply consult the relevant scripture and leave it at that; alternative viewpoints need not be considered, and gut feelings trump all.

Obama, thank heaven, is not lazy. Obama is a pragmatist and a man of intellectual breadth. He is sympathetic to the poor, but contrary to the facile stereotyping of the right-wing, that does not mean he's a Socialist. He believes in negotiating with our enemies, but that does not mean he's an advocate of World Government. He knows we have to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, but that does not make him a Tree-Hugger. He is, I repeat, a pragmatist, and pragmatism is exactly what's been missing for the last eight years. That's why George W. Bush stripped his administration of everyone with an independent outlook, and that's why he's leaving his successor a nation in shambles.

I don't expect I will change your votes; and you certainly won't change mine. But I hope in the future you will think twice before sending me the rantings of fringe radicals, especially those with anti-Semitic leanings-- I am especially offended by them. Furthermore, I hope you will see past the mud-slinging and whisper campaigns that have so blighted American politics in recent years. I hope you'll support instead candidates at all levels who define themselves by their priorities and competencies, rather than those who dwell on the alleged shortcomings of their opponents.

We have some true crises on our hands, but we're not going to hate our way out of any of them. The torch will most likely be passed to the Democrats, but that of itself will solve nothing. What's needed is concerted effort under dynamic leadership. I think Obama is the more personally resourceful candidate, and that's why I'm voting for him. My choice has absolutely nothing to do with ideology, and even less to do with hatred.

I hope you will respect my decision, just as I respect those of you who support Senator McCain.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fear Itself

I write this before the market opens on Friday, following a disastrous Thursday on Wall Street and more bloodletting overnight abroad. We are watching our pension funds and nest eggs vanish before our eyes, and there is nothing we can do about it. Mutual fund investors are cashing out in droves, and that compels the funds to sell large blocks of their holdings, usually at the end of the day, which causes prices to plummet, thereby prompting even more investors to cash out the next day. This is the vortex of fear that Franklin Roosevelt so memorably warned us against.

I've been thinking of FDR a lot lately. His administration put into place safeguards against another Great Depression. But a new generation of economists and politicians inspired Congress to dismantle these brakes and firewalls. They are a tenacious bunch, these Chicago Schoolers, but their case for laissez faire has been considerably weakened. FDR will have the last word, I hope, as we recognize that the greedy assault by these "masters of the universe" is a tyrannical attack on human rights..."everywhere in the world."

Here are FDR's words:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want--which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb."

— Franklin D. Roosevelt, excerpted from the Annual Message to the Congress, January 6, 1941

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Cubs

I checked the box scores almost daily, went to one game when the Cubs came to LA, and watched maybe two more on TV during the season. But halfway into the first playoff game, I turned off the set and went back to reading about the economy. With a war, a recession, a bailout, and a close Presidential campaign, baseball has lost its savor. I hope the Cubs will finally have their day, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it much if it had come this year. Maybe next.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Ants and Rain

The summer is still in full vigor in southern California--temperatures in the nineties and not a hint of rain. Keeping the ants out of my house is always most difficult at this time of year. Yesterday I was reading in my favorite chair when I felt one crawling up my leg, and later another, and another. I aimed my reading light at my feet and saw they were swarming frantically in two whorls on the floor. The speed of their movement evinced frustration, as though their communication was amiss and some promised morsels couldn't be found. This morning, I fought a battle with them in the kitchen, and once again, there was no nexus for their raid; they were scouting desperately and in great numbers.

I don't spray poison. I have a dog and I won't take a chance of hurting her. However, the garden stakes keep the insecticide encased in metal. The ants swarm it, carry the contents back to their nest, and there they die, along with their queen. Somehow this is a nobler end for them than the ignominy of dying beneath my broom.

Rain is predicted for tomorrow, and if it comes, the ants will go away. Today I must prepare for the rain by sweeping the valleys on my rooftop. Rain is my best defense against the ants; once it comes, they won't invade the house again this season. However, if I fall off the roof while sweeping it, I suppose I'll have to concede some victory to the ants.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman

Two of my favorite Paul Newman films are "Absence of Malice" and "The Verdict". The latter is essential viewing for anyone interested in the craft of acting, especially his summation at the end of the trial. Both films are suffused with intelligence: every shot, every line of dialogue, every character, and every beat of the plot. I suppose that's what we came to expect from a Paul Newman film.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What Would Tolstoy Say?

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm not saying this to show off, but I've read "War and Peace" and I loved it. I've also read a little of Isaiah Berlin, who famously commented on Tolstoy. The idea is this: great leaders think they shape events, but in truth, history is out of their hands. It is the heroics, or lack thereof, of individual soldiers acting in concert with their comrades, combined with the weather and other unforseeable circumstances, and let's not forget luck, that determines troop movements, the delivery of dispatches, skirmishes that grow into battles, wars, and the fate of empires.
In our present crisis, which threatens to end America's economic pre-eminence, I keep wondering what happened to the whistle blowers. I want to hear from the loan officer at a branch of Washington Mutual who told her supervisor that Joe Shmo would never be able to repay the loan they were floating him, only to be told to shut up because their region was under pressure to write more mortgages, and if Mr. Shmo defaults, it's not their concern since that's handled by a different department, and besides, in the roaring real estate market, they'd all be shmos not to ride the crest and the devil take the hindmost. I'll bet she left WaMu thinking she'd hit the glass ceiling, only to realize now that she'd just failed to be a team player among lemmings.
And the loans they made! Zero down payment; no proof of income required; history of bankruptcies not considered; complicit home inspectors and appraisers never challenged. People got loans for 110% of the purchase price, never made a single mortgage payment, defaulted, and then walked away with the extra 10% free and clear--truly a license to steal.
And why? I think Count Tolstoy could have explained it very clearly.

Here’s to Rupert Murdoch after all

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

It costs a few nickels, but I subscribe to the online version of the Wall Street Journal. The site recently overhauled itself and it's stunning. More important, I'm impressed, even flabbergasted, at how even-handed it is in the presidential campaign and with the credit meltdown. I never expected Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Journal earlier this year, to steer it into the middle of the road. Just shows to go you.

Goldman-Sachs-Morgan-Stanley-Lehman-Merrill-Lynch-Pierce-Fenner-Smith-and Trotsky

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm trying to absorb the financial news, but it's happening so quickly I doubt that anyone, including our presidential and vice-presidential candidates, can keep up. I have one comment to make, and it will only take one sentence. Reality check: it seems we became a quasi-socialist country this week, and so we need to explore the best ideas of socialist thinkers, however unappetizing that task may be, lest we blunder from a failed capitalist state to a failed collectivist one.

Garage Cleaning

Saturday, September 20, 2008

My garage was filled with more stuff than Hector the Collector (c.f. Shel Silverstein) could ever dream of. I had visions of one day holding a giant sale in which every practical, decorative, arcane, and hard-to-find item would be united with its pre-destined owner--like Shiva in search of Shakti. However, there were three problems with this strategy. First, there aren't any Shivas or Shaktis in my neighborhood, and no one who'd be willing to pay what any of my arcana is worth. Second, my garage and driveway are not suitable for a sale because I live on a slope at a dead-end, where people who actually find my place are likely to trip, fall, and sue my ass. Third, I had ceded the use of my garage, sans payment, to the storage of stuff I don't want (c.f. George Carlin) which means that even if I eventually sold everything for top dollar, I would never recoup the loss of the use of my property. (Did I ever tell you I have an M.B.A.?)
Sooo, today I started loading up my SUV and I'm about to take it all to St. Vincent DePaul. It's actually going to take me several trips. The garage, only partially emptied, now has an airiness to it, a feeling of decadent spaciousness. It's like the man who told the Rabbi his family were at each other's throats because his house was so small and there wasn't room to turn around. The Rabbi said, "Move the cow into the house," and later, the horse, the chickens, the goat...you see where this is going. When the Rabbi finally gave the man permission to kick out all the animals, the family said their house felt like a palace. So be it with my garage.

Dark Knight

Sunday, August 10, 2008

I broke my own rule and went to a movie with a car chase in it, The Dark Knight, but only to see Heath Ledger. I guess I'm just past the point in life when super-heroes can enthrall me, although as a pre-adolescent I was devoted to them. BTW, comic books sold for a dime back then. The present film toys with the idea of how slippery evil can be, tripping the soul and making it slide; but it doesn't mean a word of it. Batman is still irreproachable albeit misunderstood. Morgan Freeman's character, at his moral crisis, sanctimoniously has it both ways. As for the DA (Aaron Eckhart), since his transmorgrified face doesn't seem to be bothering him at all, how can we take him seriously? It's all comic book moralizing. For that reason, my favorite sans-Ledger-moment of the movie happens on the ferry boat when Tiny Lister, in orange convict jump suit, charts the course.


Guero Bear-o

I said good bye to an old friend this afternoon.
He first arrived around Christmas, thirteen years ago;
A stray running up and down my street,
Causing all the other pups on the block to raise a ruckus;
I went outside to shoo him away, but he came to me;
I threw a stone at him and he tried to fetch it;
He was mine--a 50th birthday present of himself to me.

After hosing him down, I saw he was a handsome boy;
And sweet--he didn't begrudge losing his masculinity.
He was never top-dog at my house,
But I don't think that mattered to him.
His smile never withheld the least bit of his heart.
And so he lived, and departed, in the wisdom of Milton's words:
"Who best bear his mild yoke, they serve Him best;"