Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

Okay: Ed Schultz has apologized for calling conservative radio mouth Laura Ingraham a “slut.” (He quickly caught himself and amended it to “talk slut,” but it was too little, too late.)

The apology—which, to her credit, Ms. Ingraham accepted—was entirely appropriate. Big Eddie is better than that. And he knows better than that; the term is crude, sexist and derogatory. For someone whose “Psycho Talk” segment (now happily restored) calls out right wing calumny it was a classic moment of pot-meet-kettle hypocrisy.

Okay, Rush. And Glennie. And Hannity. And Bill O. And Sarah. And Newtie. And Michele. And…. : Now it’s your turn. For years—never more than since January 2009—you and lesser right-wing demagogues have poisoned the atmosphere with falsehoods, hate speech and racism—veiled and otherwise. You have painted the President of the United States as an alien, radical, enemy of the state; you have demonized American workers. You have manufactured faux outrages, and lied over and over again—be it about health care reform, unions, the benefits of tax cuts and Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian “reform” of Medicare.

Have you used the word “slut” or any of its synonyms? I have no idea. But you have much to apologize for.

You won’t do it, though. Being a right-wing hate-and-fear-monger—or even a Republican— means never having to say you’re sorry.


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Elizabeth Taylor and Andrew Breitbart.

There. You never thought you’d live to see those two names in the same sentence, so as a public service….Seriously, my point, and I do have one, is that our culture, popular and political, has gone to some circle of hell Dante on his most Dantean day could not have imagined.

Okay, we know that. It’s a given. So, what does that have to do with Taylor and Breitbart? (I know, I’m cringing at the juxtaposition too, and so, somewhere, is Dame Elizabeth. Though one hopes she’d never even heard of Andrew Breitbart).

Well, anyway, I suppose my unlikely pairing is about substance vs. shit.

To be sure, Elizabeth Taylor (who hated the headline shorthand “Liz”) was tabloid fodder—she injected steroids into the whole celebrity gossip machine with her home-wrecking affair with Eddie Fisher and her tempestuous relationship with the brilliant and dissolute Richard Burton. Her battles with serious illness, her weight woes, all stoked what I call the Tod Browning—director of 1932’s cult classic Freaks—wing of our public discourse.

But behind the scandalous surface there was so much “there” there. Taylor was a fine actress—rent Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? if you don’t believe me. She was an even finer human being—by all accounts witty, unpretentious and kind. And in the last quarter-century of her life, Taylor’s ferocious advocacy for AIDS research was beyond inspiring.

So Taylor was a celeb with chops. She possessed innate glamour, but also talent and character. A rare trifecta—and the symbol of a bygone age. Today’s pop culture has become Snookified. To be famous is to be famous for being famous. Do something crude, tasteless, and outrageous enough and you’re golden; one viral YouTube clip makes you a household name.

Which brings us to Breitbart. Leave ideology aside. Though I’m a fairly knee-jerk liberal, I’ve heard men and women far more intelligent than I (no great leap) make conservative arguments that give me pause. I’m sure William F. Buckley could turn me into a plateful of Gerber’s strained peas (no great leap). So, too, might Andrew Sullivan (with whom I agree on many points) or David Frum or David Brooks.

But Breitbart—why are ostensibly respectable outlets like CNN and HuffPo providing him with a forum for his inane bile? Like his sideshow soul mate Ann Coulter, he spews out lies and hate and utter nonsense purely for effect and attention; consider his recent assertion that the ideal presidential ticket is Allen West-Michele Bachmann or his declaration that the presidency itself—you know, the office once held by Abe Lincoln—is “beneath” Sarah Palin.

More to the point, what’s beneath her, in Breitbart’s skewed view, is the office presently held by Barack Obama—an office Palin could never in her wildest dreams attain, now that we’ve safely survived the fleeting scare of her vice-presidential candidacy. To say she’s on a higher plane than the White House—more specifically Obama—is roughly comparable to my saying, screw Newton, I’m too good for science.

Aside from his ridiculous pronouncements on 2012, Breitbart infamously perpetrated the whole Shirley Sherrod scam. Remember that one (she does—she’s suing him)? He is a hate-monger, a petty demagogue—and an insect. But with the power of the internet, insects can inflict tectonic damage. For otherwise trusted media to  amplify and legitimize his voice  is wildly irresponsible.

I suppose that as a liberal Democrat, I should embrace the Andrew Breitbarts, the Ann Coulters, the Bachmanns—even the Palins.  Anoint them the real faces of the GOP. After all, the more wing-nutty Republicans appear (calculatedly or not) the better for my party. We see this in the Midwest, where the extremism of Govs. Walker, Kasich and Snyder is reinvigorating the Democratic base—and with it, the campaigns of  previously vulnerable legislators like Sherrod Brown and Debbie Stabenow.

But despite the obvious tactical advantage of making the GOP look like a bunch of yahoos, the patriot in me recoils at the mainstreaming of Andrew Breitbart.

We can’t—and, if we believe at all in our Constitution, shouldn’t—silence him. But do we have to encourage him?

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It’s no surprise, really, that the struggling Borders bookseller chain is filing for bankruptcy—and thousands of employees will soon file for unemployment, as the company closes more than 200 stores across the nation. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“The bookseller suffered a series of management gaffes, piled up unsustainable debts and failed to cultivate a meaningful presence on the Internet or in increasingly popular digital e-readers.”

That is, Borders just couldn’t keep pace with Amazon.com and its eBooks lagged far behind Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad and B&N’s Nook.

Here in Manhattan, three Borders will shut their doors—the massive store—with a great view from the cafe—at 57th and Park, on 2nd Avenue in the Kipps Bay neighborhood and downtown, on lower Broadway.

For those of us who love to be in the presence of vast numbers of books—real ones—it’s a depressing trend. And one reminiscent of the way MP3 technology shuttered music stores like Tower Records. Not long ago I wrote in this space mourning the loss of the Barnes & Noble-Lincoln Center at 66th and Broadway, just across the street from Tower’s old digs (now a Raymour & Flanagan furniture store).  B&N was a kind of unofficial cultural center—it was “our place,” a “Cheers” for nondrinkers, a haven offering coffee, scones, community—and of course books, to browse (yes, many used the place as a library, which was part of the problem) and to buy.

Above all, 200 employees worked there, and while a few were placed in other B&Ns downtown and on the Upper East and West sides, many are still grappling with joblessness—and doubtless with horror tales of “99ers.”

The advent of e-readers may, in fact, promote literacy, allowing owners to carry whole libraries in their pockets. But as with so much of technology, it also taketh away. In this case, the sensual experience of holding, thumbing through, smelling a book. Or losing oneself in the stacks. Call me a Luddite, but those e-thingies just don’t exude the same appeal.

Beyond aesthetics, the demise of record stores and booksellers exacts a human toll. In his book Aftershock, former Clinton Labor Secretary points out that for all our justifiable anti-outsourcing fury, automation has also cost many millions of jobs. The bank teller. The telephone operator—and the guys who made phone booths.  The gas station attendant who cleaned your windshield. The folks at my supermarket and CVS who’ve been replaced with self-service checkouts. And soon, many thousands of employees of the US Postal Service (I’ll skip a “going postal” joke here).

Those jobs are never coming back.

The Internet is a marvel, linking nations, abetting democratic revolutions, disseminating vital scientific and medical information and promoting the exchange of ideas (and allowing crackpots like me to vent and pontificate); it also provides a platform for terrorists and sexual predators, demagogues and propagandists. On balance, it improves and streamlines our lives. But at a cost.

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[NOTE: This post predates Keith’s announcement of the deal with Current TV]

Days later we liberals are still reeling (and the Right still gloating) over Keith Olbermann’s abrupt departure from MSNBC; if nothing else it seems a cruel cosmic joke that Glenn Beck still pollutes the small screen with his vast right-wing conspiracy theories, while Keith—temporarily, at least—is confined to radio, the internet, and print, such as it still exists.

The back story behind Countdown’s sudden end remains to be told. Clearly, relations between MSNBC’s management and their signature, top-rated host were long strained—apparently the famously independent Keith chafed under the authority of the “suits.”

One source of dispute, rumor has it, was Keith’s Friday night readings from the stories of humorist James Thurber, which some saw as a thudding ratings killer (I don’t have the stats either way)—especially at a time when Americans seem to have the attention spans of fireflies.

It was a quaint, unusual feature, to be sure; Keith discussed the segment’s origins with New York Magazine’s Matt McCue:

“While in college at Cornell, Olbermann watched a PBS special by William Windom that turned him on to the works of Thurber. Then, this past March, Olbermann was sitting in a hospital, reading Thurber stories to his dying father [Theodore] as he fell asleep. ‘My father said to me — he had never said anything like this in my entire career — “You should read this on your show,’” Olbermann remembers. “I said, ‘I can’t imagine it would really fit that well. It’s a newscast, more or less. How would I?’ And my father said, ‘Have I ever suggested something like this? It would be tremendous. I enjoy it. You should do it.’ How could I say no in that position?”

And so the readings began, closing out the final show of each week. If you Google “Olbermann+ Thurber” you’ll see that some praised the segments, and others (politically-motivated or otherwise) leveled acid critiques.

Personally, I saw Keith’s Thurber readings as a refreshing change of pace—and a tender, profoundly moving tribute to his dad. Indeed, the tough-guy host’s grief touched a deeply personal chord in me.

Growing up in small-town Metuchen, N.J. in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I was an almost eerily good kid, and extremely close to  my parents and much-older sister and brother. A soft-spoken bear of a man who did a mean impersonation of Jackie Gleason, my father was in every sense a pal. We bowled together on Friday nights and Saturdays; a former Little League coach, he taught me to bear down on grounders and to hit—somewhat successfully, as I won the 11-year-old batting crown.

Above all, we—the whole family, in fact—bonded over Willie Mays, who was at the tail end of his career by the time I came along. During baseball season, we’d ask “what did Willie do?” before we said “Good morning.” Answering that central theological question—in those days before the internet, ESPN and 24/7 coverage—often required my running downtown to buy a New York Post, then an afternoon paper that carried the late box scores from the west coast, and holding my breath, hoping for a couple of hits and dreading an “Oh-for.” On summer nights, when the Giants played in Philly or Pittsburgh, my father and I sometimes sat together, manipulating the radio at just the right angle to get the play-by-play.

I never went through a rebellious stage—a normal rite of passage I probably should have experienced. But I did—finally—begin to grow up. In my teens I wound up in a rehab center—because of illness, no “substances” for me. There were other kids my age at the center and I actually found myself enjoying it—it was the first time I’d ever spent time away from home.

My parents visited every night, of course. One February evening, as they were leaving, my father went to kiss me goodbye—we were an affectionate bunch. But for the first time, I felt a rush of embarrassment, and pushed him, gently away. His hazel eyes—I inherited them—were understanding, albeit with a hint of melancholy.

The next day he was dead—a heart attack while dressing for work. He was only 58. It struck our family like an asteroid, and I don’t think any of us have ever been the same. Compounding my abject grief was the fact that the last time I ever saw my father, my pal, I pushed him away.

Whether it’s sudden and scarring, or long and anguished, the death of a loved one just plain sucks; there is no getting around it. I said goodbye at 17 with a shove; Keith at 50 with James Thurber. But I’d bet we both hurt equally.

And I’d rather watch Keith Olbermann read 52 Fridays worth of Thurber than one second of  Fox News.

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I’m not so old—more or less in the heart of middle age. Just old enough to feel a tad uneasy over those “Low T” commercials—the ones warning that a paucity of testosterone turns men over 45 into impotent slugs. Old enough to be amazed that tonight, an African-American will deliver his second State of the Union address—and that it’s not a futuristic movie. Old enough to have worshiped Willie Mays in the waning days of his career; to remember rotary phones (my in-laws still have one, in fact); to have (briefly) used an IBM Selectric in my first newspaper job—and to view our era of 24-hour-news cycles and nanosecond-by-nanosecond information flow with a mixture of childlike awe and Bergmanesque despair.

Recently, two news stories stirred up my inner yin-yang. The first was the saga of the “Golden-Voiced Homeless Guy” who, for a few days, became a more famous Ted Williams than the one who was arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history (no, I’m not old enough to have seen him play). YouTube turned him into a national figure overnight, successor to “Bed Intruder Guy”—one who provided just the kind of Capraesque feel-good story Americans need in this age of high unemployment, Sarah Palin, and Ugg Boots in July (someone explain that, please).

As it turned out, Mr. Williams’s sudden folk heroism was a marvel of compression, following the whole, rollercoaster celebrity career path —what took someone like Dennis Hopper decades—in what seemed like, well, 15 minutes. He’s on the street. He’s on YouTube. He’s on The Today Show. He’s doing voice-overs and landing a gig with the Cleveland Cavs. He gets into a domestic dispute. He’s confessing to Dr. Phil. He’s in rehab. Then, today, this online report from MSNBC:

“Ted Williams, the formerly homeless man who became an overnight sensation with his “golden voice,” has reportedly left a rehab facility after less than two weeks of treatment for drug and alcohol addiction.

On Monday, 53-year-old Williams checked himself out of the Origins Recovery Center in Texas against medical advice and headed to the airport, according to websites TMZ and E! Online.”

The whole saga illustrates our insta-news era at its most transformative and transitory. Ultimately, of course, Mr. Williams may well be better off than if the Cleveland reporter who “discovered” him had passed by without stopping. But he’s also gone from obscurity to icon to old hat in the blink of an eye. The rush to make him a celebrity exposed his troubled past and present to the whole world. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I hope he finds his way.

The second story is the one that knocked Golden-Voiced Homeless Guy out of the news cycle—in the worst way: The Tucson shootings. I won’t rehash the whole right-wing-left-wing-political-and-blogospherical-rhetoric thing here. What was just as disturbing to me were those 20-odd minutes when the world—including her husband—thought Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was dead. News agencies—save for ABC, apparently—reported this story as fact, the words plastered like tabloid headlines across our screens.

Just as those demonstrably false Shirley Sherrod stories incited an ugly, entirely unnecessary controversy, the “exaggerated” reports of Gabby Giffords’s demise provoked national grief—and gave her husband and family 20 minutes of the kind of hell that causes heart attacks. Certainly the mad race for breaking news isn’t unique to our era; to cite the two most traumatic examples, rumors and conflicting reports flew wildly after JFK was shot and after 9/11 (and still do, via conspiracy theories).

That’s just the way journalism works. And thank God for that—imagine where we’d be without it! But today, with the internet—and TV networks competing with it—the danger of irresponsible, or at least premature, “facts” is greater than ever.

“Gabby’s” miraculous recovery has made for an even more spectacular feel-good tale—that is, under the tragic circumstances. I found myself checking web sites constantly, looking for the latest scrap of good news. Can she walk? Can she talk yet? Does she recognize loved ones? On Twitter, one pundit even speculated about Giffords’s making a dramatic appearance at the State of the Union address.

But from now on, Gabby’s rehab won’t be the stuff of insta-news. It will be an excruciatingly, painstakingly slow process. Even now, she’s fading from the headlines, which in this case is a good thing. While we move on to something else, she and her family may be able to endure the ordeal, and heal, in privacy and peace.

It’s the long game. Which happens to be Barack Obama’s specialty, if not ours. Tonight he’ll lay out a vision for the future—hopefully a bold, progressive one. (And, lib-progressives, I’m happy to hear that Keith Olbermann will be there for us, liveblogging SOTU on his new FOKNews –that’s Friends of Keith–Channel!)

But after the speech is over, in the weeks and month to come, Obama’s vision will not be one whose moment-to-moment temperature we can take on the internet. Much as we thirst for instant results, closely as pollsters track POTUS’ “approval numbers” and every breath of our national mood, America’s recovery will be no more a sprint than Gabby’s.

I could easily write another 800 words about how it’s almost always better to have more information than less, how much the Internet has improved and educated the world. How despite all the lies and hate flying around cyberspace, our 24/7 information age has enriched—and saved—lives in countless ways.

Or even how cool it is to have this blog, and send my intellectually sketchy opinions out to the world.

But once in awhile, it’s probably a good idea to take a breath.

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I suppose most people don’t get sentimental about Barnes & Noble. In New York City back in the ‘90s, the superstores were denounced, decried and in some cases picketed for putting small, quaint local booksellers out of business.

But in the decade I’ve lived in NYC, the vast Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center, commanding the corner of Broadway and 66th Street, has been  an integral part of the Upper West Side. It also provided 200 jobs.

That is, until yesterday at 8 p.m., when the store closed its doors for good, leaving a huge void at Lincoln Triangle.

Physically, the massive store had unexpected charms—little corners and crannies where patrons browsed and in some cases sprawled out—including a colorful cast of regulars, like the burly, bearded fellow who camped out on the third floor—near the sports section but usually reading physics or math books. Or the smiling Latino in flip-flops posted on the invisible border between biography and self-help.

For anyone who loves books, the seemingly endless stacks enveloped you in a warm embrace. But this B&N was far more than a bookstore—due in large part to its proximity to Lincoln Center, it was a cultural mecca, with a third-floor event space where Broadway and cabaret singers and jazz musicians performed on Wednesdays, and on any given night an author might appear, be it a Joyce Carol Oates, or a Hollywood celebrity—Ernest Borgnine was particular delight—or the latest pop-shrink, holistic doc, or chick-lit sensation.

But for me and my wife Susan, the great personal loss will be the huge, airy fourth-floor cafe  adjoining the magazine racks—light streaming through its ceiling high windows, trademark authors mural gazing down as we noshed our scones and drank our coffees, teas and lattes. We met there after work and often went there together on weekends. On election night 2008, when I was too nervous to watch the returns—polls, schmolls, I just couldn’t believe this country could elect an African-American president—we sat there until Ron, the manager, called out to us, “Obama won Ohio.” Then we knew it was safe to go home, turn on MSNBC, and enjoy several of the happiest hours of our lives.

To us regulars the cafe was a kind of Cheers for nondrinkers. We bonded with the young staff, many of whom memorized our phone number (inserted in lieu of our member card)—Ron and Marvin and Greg and Alex and T’Keyah and Sasha and Laura and Andrew and Evan and Jennea and Cindy—and Christina, who met and fell in love with fellow barista Sean—who is also a specialist in the Army Reserve. Now they’re engaged. Christina is expecting their baby in April. And next fall, Sean deploys to Afghanistan.

The cafe—until recently open till midnight every day—was a free wi-fi paradise for laptop and netbook users. And it was a haven for single people, divorced, widowed or simply unattached, many of them middle aged and older, who came there just because they didn’t want to stay home and stare at the four walls.

There was 79-year-old Monroe, in his omnipresent fishing vest (dotted with lefty political buttons), a retired graphic artist and local radio legend—for the past half-century he has been the most prolific caller-in to WBAI. There was Alan, the painter and Judith, the white-haired, angelic former actress,  and Tom Signorelli, a character actor of stage and film who sadly passed away last summer in his 70s—just before the store’s closing was first announced. And an eccentric old guy with Einstein hair and a thick, unidentifiable accent, who resembled a Vaudeville clown—often garbed in a jacket, tie, vest and loud red pants

Then there’s the bearded little man my wife and I dubbed The Water Thief—so named because we’ve seen him steal bottled water at B&Ns and Starbucks all over town. His M.O. is to come in, actually buy a coffee, sit and read the New York Times, then, when it’s time to leave, scurry up to the fridge section, stuff a small Fiji or Poland Spring into his apparently bottomless pocket, and scurry out. TWT picks his spots perfectly—he never gets caught.

‘Where you gonna go—82nd?’ we regulars ask each other.

That would be the store that occupies the former Schrafft’s, on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd. It’s smaller, though, and darker, and the cafe is about 1/3 the size of the 66th street store. There’s an impressive new B&N at 86th and Columbus. But it’s in a windowless basement. And we West Siders can’t get quite comfortable there.

At bottom, “our” B&N offered a sense of community, a place to connect, both with literature and fellow New Yorkers. I know that’s part of the problem: They were there to sell books, and between the recession and the decline of print, the store was losing money. We dropped a lot of $$$ there—aside from all the coffee, scones, muffins and bagels we actually did purchase quite a few books. But many folks did just hang out, and use the place as a library. I get that.

But it was our place. Now it’s going to be a Century 21.

F—ing landlords.

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With the sensational debut of Sarah Palin’s Alaska (okay, the second week kind of sucked) TLC has been inspired to launch a new series of programs highlighting history-making personalities.

Keeping Up With Caligula—A man and his horse poll well among white working class voters—before the days of that “gotcha journalism.”

Mao Minus 70 Million–The Chairman does a purge and cleanse, but he’s bloodthirsty an hour later.

The Real Serfs of Feudalism: Work your ass off, fight with Bethenny, die of plague.

Ashton Kutcher Presents Punk’d With Torquemada— Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Each week T-Man surprises annoying celebrities—then tortures, tries and burns them. Episode One: Ashton Kutcher.

The Slaves Next Door: Monticello— Look out, Hef, here comes Jeff!!

The Bachelor: James Buchanan—Dirty Daguerreotype divas vie for JimBu’s hand—but will he hook up with Henry Clay?

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