Friday, April 13, 2007

Imussed

"[Imus] would have to lose everything before being that honest [about his racism], and even then it might be a stretch. But that's not going to happen -- not this time around, anyway. Despite all the ass-covering, tsk-tsk rhetoric, so long as American elites want him as their court jester, Don Imus's career is not only safe, it is sanctified."

So wrote the psychic Son on Tuesday. And what happens? Imus does lose everything. Far from being sanctified, the crusty court jester's cap and bells have been taken and torched in a highly-staged act of corporate "contrition." As CBS chief Leslie Moonves piously put it to his employees, "At the end of the day, the integrity of our company and the respect that you feel for CBS becomes the most important consideration." Oh yeah. Can't you feel the moral power? The Rev. Moonves went on to say that Imus "has flourished in a culture that permits a certain level of objectionable expression that hurts and demeans a wide range of people," and that sacking him was the first step in "changing that culture, which extends far beyond the walls of our company."

Of course, Rev. Moonves didn't explain why CBS carried Imus's show for as long as it did, subsidizing countless hours of racist, sexist chatter, or why instead of just firing the old hack from the get-go, it placed Imus on a two-week suspension. But then, the road to Damascus is a winding one, and not everyone can see the hallowed light and convert at the same time.

The loss of significant ad revenue helped to clarify matters as well; and once MSNBC dropped Imus, that was it, for there was no way that CBS radio was going to be the sole hold-out. Besides, who would now appear on Imus's show and trade quips with the center of so much negative attention? More to the point, who would sponsor the show in the face of all this media-amplified hostility? I confess that I didn't see Imus getting hit this hard, but looking at the chain of events, it makes perfect sense. Mix in some high-falutin' bombast a la Leslie Moonves and the scenario is complete. In America, you can't simply say that you fucked up or tried to get away with something for as long as you could before getting slammed. That's too open-ended and morally vague. We require absolutist, hand-over-heart closures amid rippling flags and sacred light pouring down from Heaven. Most people see right through this, but expect and demand it anyway. In a nation of hypocrites, the emptiest gesture usually prevails.

So, barring a possible move to satellite radio, Don Imus is through, and we can get on with the other, many distractions from the real world that is the American way. Praise white Jesus!

If you desire some decent racial comedy, check this clip from "Hollywood Shuffle", featuring Robert Townsend:



And of course, the great Dave Chappelle, who is so well-spoken:



Especially in this scene. Imus, you haven't a fucking clue.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

Kurt Vonnegut has passed on, apparently from a brain injury caused by a fall. He was 84. No wonder he fell.

Thousands upon thousands of words will be typed and uttered on Vonnegut's behalf, most of them useless, many attaching grand themes to his work and philosophical outlook. But it's really simple: Kurt Vonnegut had a first-rate imagination, wrote clear prose, and proposed that people be kind to one another. He distrusted authority and painted those looking to rule us as clowns. He smoked for much of his adult life and did not suffer from emphysema or cancer. It happens.

Most Vonnegut fans praise "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" as his greatest works, and indeed they are top-notch. But my sentimental favorite is "Breakfast Of Champions," a funny, tragic book that did not tickle the reviewers, and that Vonnegut himself believed to be among his lesser efforts, giving it a C. Not me -- the tangled tale of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout still resonates with me whenever I dip into it, and Trout remains my favorite fictional character in American lit, just ahead of Myra Breckinridge.

Trout was a prolific but largely-failed science fiction writer whose better stories appeared in porn mags. One I still remember was "The Smart Bunny," about a rabbit born with a human-sized brain who hops to the city to have it chopped down, given that a human brain is useless to a rabbit. On his way there he is shot and killed by a hunter, who upon noticing the rabbit's large cranium believes him to be mutated and therefore inedible. So the dead rabbit is simply thrown away. The end.

There's a lesson there for all of us, I think.

I met Vonnegut once, in 1990 at some fancy lit gathering in Indianapolis, our mutual hometown. He was nice but a bit gruff, spoke quickly and wheezed when he laughed. He also reeked of cigarette smoke. We chatted about being Hoosiers in New York, where we both lived, and agreed that New York was a great city and there was nothing like it. He then excused himself to have another smoke.

We crossed paths again, kind of, in 1995, at Terry Southern's memorial service at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on 80th and Lexington Ave. Vonnegut was one of the speakers, as was my friend Nelson Lyon, who worked with (well, propped up, actually) Southern at "SNL", and was Michael O'Donoghue's screenplay writing partner and main inspiration for the character Mr. Mike. As the service wound down, Nelson and I went outside for some air, and just to our right stood Vonnegut, alone and puffing on a butt. He stared at us intensely.

"Nels," I said in a low voice, "Kurt Vonnegut is staring at us. What should we do?"

"One writer at a time, Den!" boomed Nelson in his robust voice. "Today we honor the late Mr. Southern!"

Vonnegut didn't go to the post-memorial cocktail party at George Plimpton's apartment. At least, I didn't see him there. Maybe he was outside, smoking.

Vonnegut said that early in his career, he almost became a writer for Bob and Ray, but didn't feel he was funny enough. Herman Wouk once wrote for Fred Allen, and I don't recall "The Caine Mutiny" to be a laff-fest. There are worse pairings. I think Vonnegut would've done fine. But we'll never know.

Kurt Vonnegut was a free thinker, an atheist who believed that instead of the Ten Commandments, public buildings and courtrooms should display the Sermon on the Mount. At the height of his lit fame, he said that he wrote as simply as he could so that his ideas could be grasped by Generals in the Pentagon. He cracked wise to the end, and now he's dead.

So it goes.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bad Boy Inc.




At our weekly political meeting at FAIR, where the group's business was discussed and our radio show planned out, items from the corporate press were tossed around, analyzed, critiqued. One week, someone submitted an editorial cartoon showing stereotypical black people dancing in a rain of welfare money, and we were trying to decide whether this was a racist cartoon, or a parody of racist images. When the strip was passed to me, I studied it for a moment, then shook my head slowly and said, "Well, one thing's for sure -- those are some crazy, shiftless Negroes."

The white people, who made up the majority of the meeting, froze, their faces slowly turning toward the two African-American interns to see what damage Mr. Loose Cannon wreaked this time. But the interns, a female and male, laughed, as did another staffer who happened to be Indian. My radio partner (a lesbian, since I'm categorizing here) smiled and flashed me the "What am I going to do with you?" look that I often received from her. Only then did the white folk relax a bit. After all, if the black kids were cool with it, then my crack must've been funny. Or something.

In retrospect, the "shiftless Negroes" line wasn't all that great. It was a sarcastic riff on a ridiculous image, whatever the editorial intent. But the fact that a white lefty didn't fear offending young black lefties cut through the unspoken tension that hung over the office. White guilt can become so self-consuming that the only "acceptable" means of communication to those of darker hues is a rigid condescension and humorless deference, which of course is insulting to any thinking person. My crack didn't tip-toe around racist thinking -- it lambasted it using its own language. (Also, the interns were used to me popping off one-liners, talking in different accents, and doing celebrity impressions. That context helped.) But white people trying to ridicule racism up-close risks all manner of misinterpretation. It's a very fine line, and as with all humor, a very subjective, touchy business.

None of this applies to Don Imus. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of his shtick knows that the I-man and his crew revel in mocking African-Americans, Arabs, queers, women, or anyone else who isn't an aging, craggy white man. Imus's latest outrage, calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," is all over the media, and while Imus professes guilt through stupidity, this racial scandal is a PR goldmine for him and his show. I mean, when was the last time Imus got this much attention? Yes, it's negative attention, but this is America, where publicity conquers all. And that Imus's "punishment" is two-weeks off the air tells us, as if we don't already know, that the corporate honchos at MSNBC and WFAN appreciate Imus's commercial "edge," and this suspension merely sharpens his brand. The old man is still a Bad Boy. A very naughty, profitable boy at that.

Public contrition is another regular American feature, and Imus played his part yesterday by appearing on Al Sharpton's radio show. The Rev. Al is no stranger to the media spotlight himself, and Imus's remarks serves his celebrity as well. Their conversation made for great radio, for here were two serious media pros playing this controversy for all it was worth. Each knows his role and performed accordingly. It couldn't have been better scripted. Imus knew that whatever punishment he would receive, it wouldn't end his career (far from it). Rev. Al knew and still knows that his calls for Imus to be permanently removed from the airwaves is a pipe dream, so Imus will remain a target of his broadcast ire, as will Imus's soft-on-racism bosses. Win/win all around. And while some legitimate points were raised during the show (Imus would never consistently refer to Jews the way he does to blacks), the noise level owed more to Jerry Springer than to a serious discussion of racism in the media. But then, that's showbiz.

I can't remember ever finding Imus funny, but I did yesterday as he informed Rev. Al of his charitable work for African-American children with sickle cell anemia and cancer. When Imus thundered to Rev. Al's guest, Bryan Monroe of the National Association of Black Journalists, "I bet I've slept in a house with more black children who were not related to me than you have!", I thought, man, that's not only a crazy statement, but a shameless one, too. Imus tried to water down his racist remarks by hiding behind sick and dying black children. And that he did so as the only white person on an African-American radio show was so twisted and absurd that I broke down laughing. If only "SNL" took those kind of chances.

Were Imus genuinely serious about dissecting his racial humor, he would have to admit that as a white person, especially of his generation, he was raised on racist imagery which molded his thinking about black people in general, as is obvious whenever he and his cronies cackle about "nappy-heads" and the like. There is nothing in his humor that attacks racist assumptions, for racist assumptions are the basis of his humor. Thus, he can't use the "satire" defense when caught spewing the garbage that is his act. All white people hold racist assumptions of some kind; we've been conditioned to do so, though, hopefully, this diminishes with each succeeding generation. If Imus copped to this and said, "Look, I've got a lot of racial stereotypes in my head, and I think they're funny. That may be sick, but it's the truth", then we'd be getting somewhere. But clearly, Imus isn't interested in that kind of confession, not while he still has a public platform and is backed by heavy-hitters in the media and politics. He would have to lose everything before being that honest, and even then it might be a stretch. But that's not going to happen -- not this time around, anyway. Despite all the ass-covering, tsk-tsk rhetoric, so long as American elites want him as their court jester, Don Imus's career is not only safe, it is sanctified.

ALSO: My pal Louis Proyect, who somehow manages to listen to Imus, weighs in on the controversy.

Monday, April 09, 2007

No Comment




Should there be a general, civil code of online commentary? Can there ever be a shared perspective on what constitutes "civil" exchanges? The bloggyworld is presently wrestling with these and related questions, which were given prominent play in this morning's New York Times. Fortunately for the Son, none of this applies to me. It's like watching a bunch of Speech Club wonks drafting constitutions that only apply or appeal to their little circles, while bloggers like me are off to the side draining beers and chuckling at the ruckus.

Actually, it's incorrect to label the Son a blog. I'm not part of any online tribe, party apparatus, ideological clique, or cool kids club. I'm always happy when someone links to one of my posts or blogrolls me. It's nice to be appreciated. But what is considered the blogosphere has very little effect on what I write. Age has a lot to do with this; temperament, too. While I love the widespread, direct access the Web provides, which truly is a revolution in human communication, I see no point in erecting structures that essentially limit what one can say to another based on political affiliation or outlook, which is really what these proposed "civil" codes are all about. Abusive, even threatening, comments or blogposts are being used to help harden ideological boundaries, for there are those who believe that sharp political disagreement with a certain host's stated views is a form of abuse, which in turn generates genuine abuse and nastiness, and soon becomes a flame war.

We've all seen this. Goes on all the time. Before I started the Son, and a few months into the project, I visited some of the more popular liberal sites and commented under a pseudonym just to get a feel for the crowd. The political statements I made were pretty much my own, with a few theatrical embellishments here and there, but nothing false or outlandish. Needless to say I was swamped with hostility from a given blog's regulars, especially if I said anything critical about the Holy Clintons or President-In-Exile Al Gore. I would try to reason with some of these people, but usually it was a lost cause. The Dems are the final word in human decency, and if one critiques the final word in human decency, then that person is indecent and worthy of abuse. If you doubt this is the general tone, take some of my arguments and post them at Daily Kos, Atrios, or Firedoglake, and see what you get in return.

This is why I don't have comments at the Son. I have no interest, much less the time, to oversee and referee those looking to burn down a thread with whatever is sizzling in their brains. If people wish to react to something I've written, pro or con, they are free to email me and I'll usually respond (though with my readership climbing, it takes me a few days to get through my mail), depending on the intelligence of the reader or the relevance of his or her comment. I've had some pretty stupid people email me with all manner of bait, and by not having a comment thread, their idiocy doesn't muck up the Son's home page. Only I see it, and trust me, I'm doing you all a favor by keeping it off the main stage. There's room for only one raving nut at the Son, and that's me.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Weather Vain




Lots of libs and lefties like to Weather bash, which is fine, as those who engaged in domestic bombing campaigns did more than damage property -- they helped to kill what remained of the anti-Vietnam war movement. Former Weather member Mark Rudd said that the group essentially did the FBI's job for them, and he's right. Blowing up buildings in a largely apolitical country with no mass support among the populace was politically narcissistic and strategically dumb. Weather's violence owed more to Dadaism than to revolutionary struggle, and if it hadn't helped to strengthen and further legitimize the state, Weather might be seen today as an interesting, if ridiculous and dangerous, performance art movement.

Given all that, it strikes me as strange how vehemently anti-Weather many libs remain. The resurgence of the Students for a Democratic Society, from whence Weather emerged in 1969, has reignited Weather hate, as seen in this Nation piece and at Crooked Timber. (Max Sawicky takes a saner tone.) This pronounced disgust seems more like a "rational" pose, the price of admission to "serious" dialogue about the new SDS, and little more. Not one of these libs, so far as I've seen, will ever admit to getting so frustrated and angry with the imperialist state that they fantasize about blowing up some symbol of violence and oppression, for such fantasies are sick if not fascistic. Well, call me a twisted Nazi, but there have been plenty of times in the past 25 years when, after reading about or watching my tax dollars slaughter poor people, I had visions of blasting corporate headquarters' to the sky, so long as the buildings were empty, of course. Even in my head, I had no desire to kill strangers, regardless of their complicity in mass murder and starvation. And that included war criminals like Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, and Caspar Weinberger. Tar and feathering, yes; but murder? No.

Many years ago on a Brooklyn street, I shared this view with a writer for The Nation whom I knew for a time. He looked at me as if I'd puked on his shirt. "How can you say that, Dennis!" he said, scrunching his face. "That's Weather Underground bullshit. You're not into them, are you?" I replied that while I thought that Weather was extremely counterproductive and self-marginalizing, I did understand their urge to make bombs. Sometimes the shit gets so thick and bloody that all you can do is scream and throw dynamite. Besides, I added, there was all that free dope, acid and group sex that Weather famously engaged in.

"Wouldn't you want to fuck a young Bernadine Dohrn with a head full of good weed under a poster of Ho Chi Minh?" I asked him.

"Ewww!" he said. "No way. That's screwed up."

"Maybe. But you gotta admit, it would be fun."

The Nation lib cut short our conversation and walked swiftly down the block. Needless to say, we didn't talk again.

I don't recall if he supported NATO's bombing of Serbia, but many libs did, and those are usually the ones who are most vocal about the horrors of Weather violence. So, on the one hand, an American liberal can applaud US bombs hitting selected targets and killing civilians, then in the next breath, denounce a small collection of crazed white kids blowing up parts of empty buildings. The former is still happening, while the latter is ancient history. Pretty much sums up the liberal mindset of today, and if you think that's funny, just wait until the '08 election season really heats up! In some places, the weather never changes.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Losing Influence




Couldn't sleep Sunday night (which is typical of late -- I look like a haggard lunatic in daylight), and instead of YouTubing, I remembered that C-SPAN 2 was re-running a three-hour profile of Alexander Cockburn at midnight, so I plopped on the couch and joined the show about 20 minutes in. Whatever one thinks of Cockburn, he is an entertaining figure, eloquent and glib, his right eyebrow sharply arched as he vents about whatever is thrown at him. And he did not disappoint, though it appears that age is fucking with his memory as he occasionally stumbled over names or blanked out completely. The man's entering his late-60s -- is that what awaits?

While watching Cockburn, I thought back to my initial discovery of his work in the Village Voice, around 1981 or so, and how electric his column was. I was just beginning my adult political education, so I didn't get all of Cockburn's points or references, but I instantly recognized first-rate prose and sharpened wit, and from that point on, I made it a point to read Cockburn whenever I could. By the time he landed at The Nation in 1984, after being suspended by the Voice for taking money from an Arab foundation (to write about Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon), Cockburn really hit his polemical stride, and within months his "Beat The Devil" column was the must-read in that dusty, liberal space. What I loved about Cockburn back then was his open, unapologetic radicalism. When he celebrated the achievements of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, he did so robustly, at times putting The Nation's more cautious liberals on their heels. Only Christopher Hitchens kept up with him on the column front, while regular contributors like Holly Sklar fleshed out Cockburn's themes in longer pieces. Add in Andrew Kopkind, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Robert Sherrill (whose book reviews in the mid-80s practically burned through the page), among others, and it's easy to see why The Nation was so vibrant in those days. Its editorial mix and overall attitude helped steer me away from the comedy scene and into the world of media activism, where I began to learn the basics of writing political essays. And Cockburn was my primary model.

The danger with venerating your creative influences is that, should you spend any time alone with them, you will inevitably be let down or disillusioned. This is for the best, as deification is a dead end, and those you elevate usually turn out to be assholes of one kind or another, so one should take the work on its own merits and not grasp at something that doesn't really exist. I learned this first-hand with several influential figures I've met, talked to, or gotten to know; and this was especially true with Cockburn.

In my defense, I was young. Mid-20s. Politically naive. I actually believed that the guy who wrote "Beat The Devil" would be as exciting and engaging as he was in print. But when I first met Cockburn at The Nation's offices in Manhattan, he was extremely condescending, snide, sarcastic. I left myself wide open for his hostility, smiling and turning cheek after cheek. After all, he was The Man, while I was no one, still learning about politics from the ground up. I think my enthusiasm for his work stirred in him contempt; and once he saw that I would take anything he dished out, he made cracks about my youth, my gullibility, my obvious hero worship. In retrospect, I probably had it coming, as I tended back then to gush over those who inspired me. But I also realize that Cockburn was in full control of the situation, and could've shown a bit more patience and mercy to a kid wet behind the ears. That he chose instead to make me feel like a fool suggested that perhaps Cockburn wasn't that generous a person. He seemed to get a kick out of knocking me around. But I didn't care. I thought he was the best.

In time, I learned to hit back when needed, no matter the heavy rep of the target. Not that I relished combat or sought it out, but after years of writing at various levels and in numerous forms, I felt comfortable and quite capable of defending myself, and when Cockburn and I finally clashed in the letters pages of New York Press, nothing he said, no matter how stupid, petty, or deceitful it was, got to me. Indeed, it made me laugh. He no longer was The Man, not to me, anyway. And his reliance on gutter tactics proved how dumb it was of me to venerate him in the first place. Prick a prick, and he'll bleed all over you.

Still, I agree politically with Cockburn more often than not, and share his disdain for the Dems and those liberals sworn to defend the mule. Even with our recent falling out, where he essentially ordered me to not write about Hitchens or I'd lose my Counterpunch access, I keep his site on my blogroll. He posts at least one interesting piece there a day, and once in a while, Cockburn himself brings some old heat from the days when his work had more force and reach. This occasionaly touches the younger part of me still alive -- the schmuck.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Doll Play

Claim that any or all art forms have stopped evolving, or have simply died, and dozens of people will say you're full of shit -- which you may well be. I certainly don't discount that possibility in my case. There's plenty of creative expression that I've not seen or am completely ignorant of, and many of you, responding to my "Post-Meta-Feta" post, have been kind enough to school my aging ass on what you consider to be cutting, or at least interesting, musical and comedic efforts. I'm still wading through the stuff you Sonsters have forwarded (as more flows in), so it'll be a few more days before I write a follow-up to my original post. Until that glorious moment, allow me to step back a bit and give this topic a more personal context.

The other day, while scrolling about, I came across some 15-year-old kid's complaint that he has no contemporary musical influences to inspire him; that everything is by-the-numbers safe and ready for mass consumption. The kid wished that he was born in the '60s so that he could've experienced the original punk and new wave bands in real time, and not as someone else's nostalgia. While it may seem a dopey thing to wish for, I do feel for the kid (though his sentence structure is nearly non-existent, and no, not in a good, pomo way), for that was a great time, and it left an indelible mark on me, as I've written here before. One of the old bands that the kid enjoys is the New York Dolls, who were the precursors to, and in many ways the main influence on, punk itself. And while I was 13-14-years-old when the Dolls were at their hottest, I didn't know they existed until years later. Such was life in early-70s suburban Indianapolis. So, in a sense, I'm just like that kid, looking back to a sound and visual style that in its day was exciting, off-putting to stiffs, and most importantly, vital. Check out this clip of the Dolls in their prime:



For a kid like me who tried his best to dress like Ziggy Stardust, the Dolls would have been heaven. David Johannsen's Marilyn Monroe jacket combined with Johnny Thunders' hair would have made for compelling school attire, assuming I could approximate it and not be censured by the principal and faculty, as I sometimes was when wearing feather necklaces and sparkling eye liner (and don't think that studying karate at the same time didn't hurt when encountering confused, queer-phobic jocks and their minions). Had I been aware of the Dolls at that age, I would've gone apeshit for them. Musically, they weren't terribly innovative, but they had passion, verve, a theatrical flair, and a who-gives-a-fuck gender bending attitude. Bands like the Dolls were synonymous with freedom, simply because back then, there weren't that many open examples of men performing and dressing like them (Bowie excepted, of course). So I understand why that kid latches on to the Dolls, given what's on offer these days. I'd probably do the same were I him -- ah, hell, who am I kidding? I do latch on to the Dolls just as passionately as he. What's not to love?

As many of you know, a new New York Dolls is touring the world with an album of fresh material behind them. Here's Johannsen along with guitarist Sylvain Sylvain promoting "One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This" on a British talk show from last year. The song "Dance Like A Monkey," which appears at the end of the clip, isn't that bad, actually. I'll take an older David Johannsen over an older Mick Jagger any day. Sometimes, we aging fucks can still bring it, if only a step or two slower.