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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
Sure, the heroine at the center of Brave is a princess, a plot decision met with some derision from the feminist commentariat, which was looking for a more radical lead role in Disney and Pixar's new hit movie, heavily promoted as a movie about a new type of cinematic girl (new at least for big budget animated adventures). But I'm inclined to dismiss that dismissal and to conclude that Brave really is a radical departure for the Pixar hit machine. And to my eye, it's an important mainstream feminist document.
First, let's get this out of the way. Brave is important because it's a big budget mainstream flick - one of the summer's feel-good family hits! - not an art house indie or a film that a dozen film students load into their Netflix queues. Many millions will watch. And many millions of children will watch over and over and over again - as is the habit of children with their favorite movies. That means many millions of boys and girls will internalize the ethics of Brave, just as they did Toy Story or Wall-E or Finding Nemo.
And those ethics revolve clearly around a notion of feminism that dashes away the post-feminist compromise and places - oh, the very radicalism of it - free will at the center of a strong female character's plot line. To put it bluntly, Merida is the first animated princess in major American film history who does not fall in love, who does not act on the basis of romantic motivation, and who does not (mild spoiler alert) choose a handsome mate in the end.
Fifty years ago today, John Glenn circled the Earth three times aboard Friendship 7, the first American in orbit. Fifty years ago yesterday, the New York Mets opened their first spring training with Casey Stengel's stories in St. Petersburg, Florida. And 50 years ago tomorrow, I slipped into this world. My parents had watched Glenn coverage on snowy black and white television the day before, and my grandfather bought a new camera for the occasion of my birth. There was a snowstorm in New York.
Such a round number, fifty. The states of course. The half dollar. The knowledge that within limits of human biology, 50 is often the biggest anniversary most people attain. The Rolling Stones are 50 this year. So is Darryl Strawberry, that meteoric and magical Met, born three weeks after I was. David Foster Wallace would have been 50 tomorrow, born the same day as me in upstate Ithaca.
My father was a newspaperman on the production side, and my mother a school teacher. The American world they brought me into was far smaller and less connected, far more conservative and tribal than the one my children will bring their children into. In 1962, the year that James Meredith sought to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, much of the South still broiled under legal segregation. Women had little access to the top ranks of the work place, and the Ivy League was all-male. Homosexuals hid their identities away, or faced terrible consequences. The idea that a one-year-old baby born in Hawaii the year before me to mixed race parents would someday occupy the White House was the stuff of pure political fantasy.
Time is a strange phenomenon, particularly when considering generations. The last Civil War veterans died during the decade before I was born, but veterans of the frontier wars against the American Indian and the Spanish-American War were still around when I came on the scene. World War I vets were grandfathers, and World War II vets were the still-young middle-aged managers. The U.S. had a few military advisers in Southeast Asia, and the idea that an American army would someday invade a Middle East nation wasn't even on the radar screen, nor was Islam much of a geo-political factor. The enemy was communism and its spread, personified by 35-year-old Fidel Castro and his patron in Moscow, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. Winston Churchill still lived, as did Harry Truman, Jawaharlal Nehru, Douglas MacArthur and Charles DeGaulle. Mao ruled China. JFK was President, RFK his Attorney General and Martin Luther King was a young civil rights leader. Marilyn Monroe still had a few months to live.
'Tis strange to be 50, I'll admit. So much still to do, so many projects simmering. The challenges mount (precluding much time on this blog, long-suffering followers). But some things are timeless, and music is one of them. Here then, as a little gift to myself, one of the chart-toppers of 1962 (number one on some charts) - and a true classic of the genre:
In his most recent book Liberty Defined, libertarian Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul takes dead aim at Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms," the ideas that created the social foundation for the American compact on the edge of the great mid-century war against fascism and totalitarianism. Seventy years removed from that 1941 speech, Roosevelt's words may seem to some as gauzy as the Gettysburg Address did during the FDR's time, yet this passage from that speech - delivered 11 months before Pearl Harbor with the certain knowledge of the national peril ahead - reinstated in absolute terms the American commitment to her founding ideals, and the evolution of her place in the wider world:
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 world 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.
These were heady words for a man restocking the arsenal of democracy in order to fight and win a global war over both Atlantic and Pacific hegemony, a fight that brought the nation into its next stage of massive armament and its generational opposition to communism in general, and the Soviets in particular. Yet at the time, FDR's speech was also a political broadside - something of a killing blow, really - against the isolationists of the era, personified by Charles Lindbergh. The America First campaign attracted many anti-war liberals, particularly young intellectuals like Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal, but also socialist leaders like Norman Thomas. No matter that nativism and anti-Semitism fueled much of the isolationist movement, and filled halls for Lindbergh speeches, the left could join the nativist right in opposing military campaigning.
Roosevelt's Four Freedoms cut through the claptrap isolation-and-bigotry brew of the American Firsters like a scythe over amber waves of grain, and they established idealistic 20th century goals to be pursued by American policy-makers. Have we ever lived up to any of those Four Freedoms completely? No, we haven't (nor did Roosevelt). But many of those who believe in this notion of a democratic republic with strong communitarian values believe we should keep on trying. Ron Paul, on the other hand, fills his halls (at least partly) with those who reject that view and believe FDR's Four Freedoms were a radical cul de sac off the main highway of America's real national ethic: the acquisition and preservation of property.
Writes Paul in his book (h/t Daily Beast): “Any effort to mandate or enforce the goal of making everyone free from want and fear through government action will guarantee the destruction of the concept of personal liberty. Whether it’s local government or world government, and no matter the motivation, this effort can only destroy one’s right to life, liberty, and property.”
Notice the bastardization of the original American set of rights: the "pursuit of happiness" has become property. This mutant strain has been living in vitro in American public life since Roosevelt used the power of the Federal government to battle the Great Depression's, and extended its reach in modern life. The New Deal, the Great Society, Medicare, Social Security, the G.I. Bill, Federal aid to schools, the nation's highway system, the EPA, FEMA, Head Start, the Labor Department, and of course, national defense and the military, were all responses in their own ways to the embrace of a greater communitarian spirit embodied in the four freedoms.
The libertarian obsession with property rights is in direct conflict with the ideas of national unity that have linked the majority of Americans since 1941. Ron Paul may associate with some unsavory racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, anti-immigrant, gay bashing supporters and that association – best seen in 20 years' worth of newsletters he claims not to have written nor edited nor approved – is both offensive and disqualifying to a candidate of a major American political party.
Yet their offensive character, is really just a sideshow to the ideological threat that the rise of Ron Paul represents. The linking of so many liberals and civil libertarians on the left with either tepid or bold support for Ron Paul signals an abandonment of those communitarian ideals in favor of a very narrow reading of American destiny. Weary of war, of corporate warcraft, of heightened state security, and battered its by the malfeasance of deregulated financial monsters, many liberals understandably feel their hearts skip a beat when they flip on the latest Republican televised debate and hear the isolationist Congressman from Texas rail against the military-industrial complex and the Federal Reserve.
Yet this is just the candy that a predator uses to lure his unsuspecting victim into the back seat of his car. If the left joins this right, our future is a wasteland. The path that Ron Paul represents, should he be elected president of the United States, leads to what is rightfully described a Somalian in in nature. For there, removed from the community of nations, lies the ultimate libertarian state. It is a place where property is valued more highly than the lives of the people who inhabit the land, and where property is protected by force of arms and the freedom to use a weapon. There is no social safety net. There is no national economic system. There is no reserve bank. There is no healthcare know education no welfare no collective bargaining no interstate highway system no truly national defense. As David Atkins writes in Hullabaloo:
This, by the way, is why racism, theocracy and libertarianism go hand in hand, when from a philosophical point of view they should have little to do with one another. The negative effects of the lack of a central government are so obvious in developing countries that wherever the social order fails as in Somalia, it must have been due to bad religion, or the defect of having been born to an inferior race. Ron Paul fans must reassure themselves that such things would never happen to white, Christian folk. They're immune from the Somali problem by virtue being of different stock and different values, you see.
In a post on the Naked Capitalism blog, Matt Stoller describes model modern liberalism as comprising two distinct – and as he hints, equal – elements: a central Federal government that protects the rights of individuals and provides a social safety net, and opposition to warfare. I suggest that while both of these elements are indeed found in modern liberalism, in any left or center-left voting pool in the United States, that they are far from equal. The largest strain of U.S. liberalism is rooted in domestic communitarian values and economic self-interest for the majority of the working public. Opposition to military adventurism and to what some progressives call American Empire comprises a strong, often loud, highly principled, and righteous strain of the liberal polity. Long may it hold sway in primary campaigns, and warn American politicians of the limits of a democratic republics hegemony.
Yet it is a mistake to place what Stoller called "distrust of centralized authority" on the same level as the concern for economic well-being and domestic civil rights. Economics always comes first. This may be ungenerous, this may not be the highest ideal of a great nation, this may mean the pale watering down of one of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, but it is also the truth. We should all oppose our sad and unethical drone warfare and the erosion of civil liberties in the era of military adventurism and anti-terrorism "security" apparatus expansion. But we also need to realize that Ron Paul opposes these and other excesses not because they're wrong, but because they're paid for by a strong Federal government he seeks to abolish - the same elected government that guarantees our liberty, regulates commerce, and provides some measure of social safety net.
I am a liberal, more of a social democrat actually, as I grow older. There may be some phrases and ideals embedded in the tumor that is libertarianism, but I trust neither Paul's judgment nor his ethics. He would lead us backwards, and abandon many of the freedoms in this hard land of ours that organizers and advocates have fought so hard to attain. The dalliance with Ron Paul that so many liberals, center-lefties and civil libertarians seem to be engaging in during this Republican preseason, does not seem - if I may be frank - to be intellectually rigorous. Too many war-weary liberals seem happy to waive the rest of their communitarian views - and with them, their responsibility to work for reform. Roy Edroso cannily knocks that chip off the liberal shoulder with a post on Paul's libertarian cronies and their real ideas about "freedom" on the American scene:
These guys can always work together, because they all came out of the same Big Bang of hatred for the New Deal and its legacy: Big Government and the coalition that sustains it -- blacks, gays, unionized workers, women, et alia. Each conservative tribe has its own relationship to that legacy -- some of them (the more intelligent ones, generally) are deeply cynical, and some are as sincere as any schizophrenic street preacher. But all of them deeply hate that a bunch of minorities have coalesced to get something that they think belongs by right to them and people like them, and many of them have learned that it would be more effective (and, these days, more popular) to strike at the state that enables that coalition than at the minorities themselves.
What mania, particularly, animated Paul's newsletter stories of criminal-natured blacks and AIDS-drama-queen gays doesn't matter to me. I know that he's a Republican Libertarian and, having been born earlier than yesterday, that is enough for me.
[Cross-posted from the Sidney Hillman Foundation]
For all the splashy immersion in code, data, platforms, and techniques that generally soaks the discussions and analysis of the democracy and civil rights movements among the digerati, it was striking how little technology asserted itself Monday night at Personal Democracy Media’s “instant” conference on Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party organizing at New York University.
While the network itself was at the center of the rangy panel discussion, there was little on Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and video platforms from those on the stage, and not much from the audience either. This was surprising in some ways, because from where I sat, the 10th floor of the Kimmel Center was basically Geek Central, East Coast Chapter, convened by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.
Yet the web seemed almost a side player, a stipulated tool in the hands of craftspeople making something shinier and more valuable. To some, it was the network itself, with a perfect circle of actor/activists signaling the highest purpose of our digital connections. This is a standard point of view among those convinced that social networks and the digital ties that bind necessarily offer a brighter future for democracy and the public commons.
But there was another factor in last night’s discussion of how Occupy and the Tea Party captured hearts and minds and moving feet that clearly rivaled the network and its much-studied effect: human empathy.
To my ear, speaker after speaker stressed the appeal of an empathetic connection within organizing groups to challenge the powers that be.
“Communities and networks are becoming communities of care–we care for each other space,” said grassroots organizer Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of The Engage Network. She said much of the success of Occupy’s core group of organizers came from their collective realization that in today’s society, “there's no one coming for us." Pulling together into “small circles of trust “ isn’t a technique – it’s a necessity, she said. “People are coming together and they’re re-knitting the broken fabric of our broken communities by standing together.”
Jessica Shearer, executive director of SEIU ‘s Healthcare Education Project and a veteran political organizer, talked with disarming directness about organized labor’s lack of the human touch. She told of fleeing the scene of domestic violence as a child, and how her mother had called the union for help. “No response. Not a single word. Not ever. In desperation she turned to the evangelical church. By nightfall we had a place to stay and a turkey stew.”
Shearer said that big unions like SEIU struggle to reach people in real ways, and really empower their members. “Everywhere unions stagnate, we shrink. Unions fall victim to our own scale and sophistication. We know that Occupy is important but we’re still learning our lesson.”
She contrasted organized labor’s response to the Tea Party and said that while unions were altogether smarter and more sophisticated with their “large professional call centers and mass mailings,” the truth was that “the Tea Party, you” – turning to California Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler, who sat next to her on the dais – “kicked our butts.”
Shearer talked about the October 5 march in New York, when organized labor first endorsed Occupy Wall Street and swelled its numbers to more than 12,000 marchers (including me). A month later on November 17, the crowd grew to more than 30,000 people including major union leaders. But she pointed out that those numbers, while large for the Occupy movement, are tiny compared to the millions of potential boots on the ground. What’s lacking still, Shearer asserted, is the visceral connection to people, to members, to workers who might want to organize: “Labor is on the edge of a cliff. What we lack -- what we feel we can no longer afford -- is human scale outreach.”
The crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo just might have the opposite problem, according to social analyst Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, who has spent time with the networked revolutionaries and written about freedom movements on her technosociology blog. The Egyptian freedom activists gravitated toward the rewarding and now-familiar human interaction at Tahrir, missing their moment in the recent elections. Tufekci scratched a bit at the sacred hide of “the network” during her talk, worrying aloud that small groups of organizers can fall in love, in essence, with organizing itself and their own perfectly-formed (and basically closed) circles, while ignoring models like the U.S. civil rights movement which, led by goal-oriented visionaries, plunged ruthlessly on in pursuit of legal and societal change – and succeeded. Yet she couldn’t help but tell the wonderful tale of the Twitter-powered creation of ad hoc field hospitals in Cairo to treat the hundreds of casualties from the clashes with authorities.
But the three organizers who ran the field hospital creation network weren’t faceless drones in a network in which each member is an exact equal. They were leaders – just as there are leaders of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, whether they accept those monikers or not. Some of it is indeed based on hubs of information and sharing data. Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky remarked (correctly in my view) that “the person who collates information often becomes the go-to person.” And despite being the only self-identified Tea Party member in the room, Mark Meckler elicited a sea of nodding liberal heads when he said that these movements “are not leaderless, they’re ‘leaderfull.’”
Meckler painted a different painting of Tea Party organizing than is generally accepted by progressive critics – one that reflects both a sharing ethic among organizers and a lack of support from the big institutions (the national GOP, Fox News, and the Koch Brothers made their appearances in discussion and on the Twitter feed for the event). His description closely aligned with the vision of Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider – the concept of “emergence” and the bubbling up of movements from “starfish” organizations that regenerate their myriad parts and adapt. In a digitally networked world, asserted Brafman, “this is going to be the platform for activism going forward.” In Brafman’s “small circles of trust” the technology drops away.
Occupy organizer Beka Economopolous brought the broad sociological concepts down from 30,000 feet to the pavement in Zuccotti Park. “What's great about OWS is that it gets people out of their houses and off their computers,” she said. Occupy has a strong sense of its own dramatic presence to the left – “we stage defiance and sacrifice and that captures people's imaginations.” And at some level, it’s about “touching people's hearts and fulfilling peoples needs.”
Shirky had the take-away question in my view: at what point, if ever, does Occupy “go all the way” in altering our relationship with government? Or better stated, in a democratic republic, when does it change government – since we have no relationship in theory.
The answer’s unclear, of course. Yet it was heartening to me to hear Shearer’s account on the burgeoning impact of Occupy on organized labor. It’s not quite that the Occupiers are standing over an operating room gurney, charging a couple of electronic paddles, and yelling “clear!” Maybe it’s closer to an ice cold Gatorade to a long distance runner. But I had to agree with her conclusion:
“Occupy Wall Street is not an alternative to real organizing – it is real organizing.”
Lyndon Johnson's journey from the political precincts of segregated rural Texas to the moment in 1965 when he told the American nation "we shall overcome" was a long one, yet the great moments of advances in freedom are best seen in the changes, in the evolution of thinking. The long struggle for equality in sexual orientation doesn't hold the same century-long existential question for the country as a whole, but it has nonetheless been an accelerating freight train of social change in the last decade, a welcome success in the process of smoothing of the rougher, unfair, immoral edges of our society. And the fragrant, flowering success of the gay and lesbian rights movement has given us all proof in dark challenging times that there still exists a willingness in the American spirit to rethink ourselves, to stride into the future with purpose, and to pursue a more perfect union.
And last week, the Obama Administration provided its LBJ speech in that long struggle - and signaled its evolving commitment to linking gay rights to its wider human rights agenda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a non-supporter (yet) of full gay marriage and a one-time supporter of the Clinton White House Defense of Marriage Act, threw both her not inconsiderable personal international stardom and the full weight of U.S. foreign policy behind supporting equality for homosexuals - and more importantly, condemning those nations who turn a blind eye to anti-gay violence.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing Republican reality show mess that passes for that sad, obstructionist party's nomination process, the speech didn't get the domestic media play it deserved. Yet it marked a high point of the Obama Administration, and showed the keen coordination that has become the extraordinary relationship between President Obama and Secretary Clinton, formerly bitter rivals. Speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Clinton formally declared the fight against discrimination against homosexuals a key priority of U.S. foreign policy.
"Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today," she said. "In many ways, they are an invisible minority."
Then she took dead aim:
“Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights. It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished.”
In a word: bravo! It's hard to beat the reaction of Dan Savage (with his implicit political message) in HuffPo: "The check I was planning to write to Obama's reelection campaign just acquired another zero."
At Feministing, Easha Pandit praised the speech, especially its muscular and clear-eyed culture message.
I particularly value the connection of social justice issues to human rights language. It’s a powerful statement. This language and the leverage of American diplomatic efforts are vitally important, they give the issue visibility and legitimacy. I particularly appreciated Secretary Clinton’s call for the freedom of expression. She said,
“It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave.”'
Pandit rightly pointed out that U.S. domestic policy still has a ways to go before both anti-gay violence and discrimination disappear from these shores, politely emphasizing the Obama Administration's own slow boat evolution. Yet radio host and gay rights activist Sandip Roy saw a clear lack of hypocritical nagging in Secretary Clinton's landmark speech.
But the most interesting (and un-American) part of the speech was that she didn't use her speech to set up the United States as any kind of beacon for human rights or get on a moral high horse. She acknowledged that the American record was "far from perfect." She didn't use her bully pulpit to just trumpet the Obama administration's own record -- for example, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
She actually looked abroad for inspiration -- to South Africa, Colombia, Mongolia, and India:
"To highlight one example, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India two years ago, writing, and I quote, 'If there is one tenet that can be said to be an underlying theme of the Indian constitution, it is inclusiveness.'"
That's noteworthy. When foreign leaders decide they need to acknowledge inspiration from India in a speech, they don't usually look to the Delhi High Court. Their speechwriters do a quick search on "Famous Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi" instead.
Secretary Clinton's address in Geneva was strong, dramatic and historic. But it was also given more import with the release of a White House memorandum over President Obama's signature that explicitly ties the U.S. emphasis on human rights to gay rights in our foreign policy. While American foreign policy in general in far from a perfect expression of freedom and civil rights, this is a time for applause and good feeling. Compare Secretary Clinton's address and the sickening, gay-baiting pseudo-Christian political ad released this week by former GOP frontrunner Rick Perry and you'll glimpse the vast contrast between the team we have - and their potential successors. As Leslie Gabel-Brett of Lambda Legal said: "A vision of equality and human rights for LGBT people has taken hold, and the number and power of those who promote that vision is growing. It may be a heavy boulder up a steep hill, but many people are pushing history toward the full recognition of LGBT human rights under the law at home and around the world."
Is there a more noble goal for a superpower's foreign policy?
When Sandy Alderson, speaking as the newly-arrived Moneyball guru of the New York Mets, openly mocked All-Star shortstop José Reyes with a line about sending the free-agent a box of chocolates to show himhim he was loved, he signaled that the Mets future was a lot dimmer than it has been for decades. Alderson, it seems, got the job to run the Mets in order to disassemble the other major-league team in baseball's largest market. A year ago, Alderson promised Mets fans that the budget for the team would closely resemble (with a few cuts) what it has been for the last few years. He claimed that the Madoff scandal affecting Fred and Jeff Wilpon and their partner sol Katz the ownership group of the New York Mets would not change baseball operations in a significant manner.
He was not telling the truth.
Thus under Alderson's orders the Mets made no offer to one of the top homegrown star players in the team's 50 year history.
In the last 10 years no Mets player has been as bright a spark on the field as José Reyes. Signed by the Mets at age 17 out of the Dominican Republic, Reyes has been the rare baseball talent who publicly delights in playing the game at its highest level. The long triple. That cannon arm from deep in the hole. The race down the first base line on a dribbler past the pitcher. The sprint to short center field to grab a pop-up. The spark, the smile, the crazy hand gestures. The flying dreadlocks and sheer exuberance, and the love of baseball. All gone to Miami.
The Mets never made an offer to Jose Reyes, the greatest shortstop in the history of the franchise. And on the National League side of town, the Wilpons now own a small market baseball team in a new with no hope of competing and a quickly dwindling fan base. Here in Casa Watson the generation of fans that I usually take to the ballgames has informed me in no uncertain terms that they do not wish to visit Citi Field on a regular basis in 2012. They perceive that the business entity known as the New York Mets does not care about retaining their business, that it does not care about their brand, that chooses not to compete for the entertainment dollar in New York area. But mostly, they are sad. They will miss their favorite player. And they realize that the team they call their own simply did not want one of its greatest homegrown stars back. And they know that the team across town would never let one of its star attractions get away.
This is New York Mets baseball. In 2012, the team will celebrate 50 years. But how closely will these Mets resemble the initial team of 1962 in the loss column, only without the lovability, without Casey Stengel, without the sheer joy of beingthe upstart New York National League baseball club. Somewhere Dick Young is applauding Sandy Alderson, and slapping his buddy M. Donald Grant on the back.
Bloggers are the bridge and tunnel kids of the modern media club scene. Sure, we pay the cover charge and provide the much-needed amplification for the really big voices (you know, the ones getting paid to riff on the digital stage) but too often we find we've been allowed past the ropes just so Lou Reed can drunkenly insult us at the bar.
In the Max's Kansas City of the left-leaning web - the actual Park Avenue premises of sainted memory being the scene of an ugly episode that a kid from Yonkers who bore a much skinnier resemblance to me endured at the pointy end of Mr. Reed's claws in 1979 - there's a gentle unpretentious fellow always leaning against the bar to welcome the teeming, blogging, linking masses from the precincts of deep Outer Blogosphere. To the authors and other "content creators" (a term that Jack Donaghy surely must have invented in some far off Liz Lemon day-dream) who have felt the critical sting of his blade over these last few decades at the Village Voice or Esquire or Vanity Fair, the name of this approachable blogging Bing Crosby might come as a surprise.
For it is James Wolcott.
And before this post progresses too much farther, I urge you to hasten in the direction of the nearest bookshop, virtual or the kind with comfy chairs and cappuccino bars, and purchase his forthcoming 1970s memoir, Lucking Out, which I have been reading with real pleasure since the advance copy hit my mailbox last week.
To bloggers like me, and Lance Mannion, and Blue Girl, and Al Giordano, and Roy Edroso, Maud Newton, and M.A. Peel, and the Siren, and a legion of other fine voices, Wolcott's seminal Vanity Fair blog has often been the spigot that provides the attention and conversation that is the real currency we strive for in a world that undervalues both the written word and the earnest discussion. Indeed, he's served as a genial giant of the literary set, the indulgent rich uncle with a checkbook of links and kind words of encouragement.
God help the evil-doers of course. Birthers, neocons, hate-bloggers, Tea Party patsies, war-mongers, and every flavor of fake right-wing "everyman" Bill O'Reilly type known to man has suffered at the point of his pen - as the likes of Richard Ford and Jay McInerney famously have, the latter once splattered with this bloody buzz-killer: "Beware of a novel built upon a catch-phrase. A flip curl eventually loses its hold."
"I sometimes wince at the nasty incisions I inflicted on writers when I cross the line between cutup and cutthroat," Wolcott admits near the book's conclusion - knowing of course that his readers (and his editors) like a bit of blood in their dueling scenes. There are no regrets about his late political work, which has gored all manner of conservative blog wannabes; indeed the Wolcott blog drew so many of us to his virtual side in those gauzy early pre-Dean Scream days when DailyKos was in beta and everything seemed possible.
But this is a book about the 1970s, and there too, I came across James Wolcott. Well, the latter part of the 70s anyway - the dawn of the decade found me in late single digits. Actually, I barely caught the cultural wave that powers Lucking Out, the salty tsunami of music and grime that washed the florid ponderous rot out of rock and roll. But catch it I did, and the back pages of the Village Voice were where we pored over the black and white listings for Max's, CBGB, Hurrah, the Peppermint Lounge, Trax, Mudd Club, and the Ritz. Plans laid, bridges and tunnels thoroughly mapped, there might be time to read the articles and Wolcott's acerbic reviews often provided out-loud teenaged readings, "Hey Maude, listen to this!" moments in the shotgun seat of the old Buick on the FDR Drive or the Broadway IRT.
There's a malign force closing in on Wolcott's black and white 1970s - you feel it throughout the book - and its color is green. The 80s of Donald Trump (whose name doesn't stain this epic - no accident) ushered in a New York obsessed with real estate and wealth, and turned houses and apartments into the "outward constructs of your identity that required Hamlet-style agonizing for fear that at the root of your being, you might not be an 'uptown person.'" Money plays little role in the sweaty corners of CBGB or the back row of the screening rooms; all that matters is commitment to the written word and to a form of honest criticism that values the creation of art (widely defined) so highly that finely-sliced prose meant for reading is the only respectful way to respond. "Hanging tough is what divides the long-range dedicated from the dilettantes," writes Wolcott, recalling a ballsy and unbowed Patti Smith and her reaction to a serious career setback.
Patti is one of the many heroines in the rare I-was-there rock memoir that actually values women as real people, which discounts the studded leather jackets, sexual abuse, and back alley urination of typical 70s punk tales. Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth is another: "My crush on Tina was instantaneous. It was the only correct way to respond." And the stars of early mainstream porn are given their tender due as elegant actors in the grimy (but addictive) world of pre-Giuliani Times Square.
There are girlfriends, actresses and glammy femme rockers galore in Lucking Out, but there's only one true love affair. Jim creates a portrait of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael that is tender and deeply personal. Matt Haber asserts that "it's one of the dirtier tricks in Lucking Out that Wolcott uses Kael to voice some of the book's most dismissive asides," but I rather think Wolcott has another goal - a second, post-millennial public life for Kael's caustic wit and rock-solid view of what makes a good flick, and what doesn't. It's true that Kael has some of the book's best lines - "I didn't want him to think I was using his racist talk as an excuse to under-tip him" says Kael about an Archie Bunker cab driver - but she's more important as the guiding muse of criticism, as the person who constructed the right literary box for Wolcott to work his four-decade magic act. His long and, it must be said, vastly entertaining story about Kael and her crowd is more than an appreciation of one the decade's great critical voices. It's a public thank you note.
Lucking Out is not the story of the 1970s. There's a lot missing: Ed Koch, the Son of Sam, the Yankees (the Mets!), black people, the outer boroughs, disco and Nixon. But it captures the creative true grit of the small town that existed within a big city so beset and grimy that "entire neighborhoods were considered no-go areas where you never knew what the hell might fall from the fire escapes." There's a wistful quality that long-ago decade of my own adolescence, but Wolcott doesn't lay on the sentimentalism and it's unlikely that Lucking Out will add too much to popular 70s lore. Which is a good thing in my mind, because we live in a society where the thin veneer of the ever-widening "creative class" has created a manufactured version of alternative lifestyle and consumption that passes for critical thought; every hipster manque with 500 clams can grab an iPad and feel like a downtown denizen, both funky and chic. As Wolcott notes, "all that lore is what made CBGB's compelling long after it became a raucous shell, and what has kept the myth of the Algonquin Round Table alive, no matter how mid-range the achievements of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, and Robert Benchley appear today."
There is much in Lucking Out of what made popular culture today, but it's not a guidebook. It's a story, Jim Wolcott's story. And it did take part of me back to where I once belonged.
A month into this, all became clear - and not just because Occupy Wall Street set up camp three blocks from where Jason Chervokas and I ran a small news operation that covered digital start-ups in the 90s (though it helped).
Occupy Wall Street is a start-up. And it is deeply entrepreneurial. Indeed, if Silicon Alley venture capitalists like my friend Fred Wilson - who is publicly intrigued by the protests - are looking for proven talent in attracting a crowd online behind a product that is lithe, broad, and ripe for vast adoption, they could do worse than surf the crowd of social entrepreneurs sleeping under tarps in Zuccotti Park.
Unlike the bankers and Wall Street firms, who rely on fixing the game in Washington and public bailout money to lock in their billions, the scraggly and gritty start-up team at Occupy Wall Street steers much closer to the idealistic self-improving America of Ralph Waldo Emerson - and even to the capitalist penny passion plays of Horatio Alger. Who has done more with less? The young organizers of Occupy Wall Street - or Jamie Dimon? Who gets a higher return on capital (both social and the green variety) - the marchers on Broadway or Lloyd Blankfein? The bankers are essentially oligarchist socialist types these days, looking for handouts from the government. The protesters? They've got their wits, their sleeping bags, their energy, and their American dream.
Where's the better ROI?
Now, Occupy and its sister spin-offs do not lack in advice after a month of stunning success in spreading their story. Get a message. Get public leaders. Join organized labor. Work for Democratic candidates. Get a message (this is the most popular). But all this sounds exactly like the early days of Twitter to me. Do this, be that, fit into our idea of what you should be. And this is where Fred Wilson's longstanding advice to Internet entrepreneurs is instructive: time and again, he's urged startups to focus on building usership and serving customers. The revenue model will be there, if you do those things right.
And in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the "revenue model" is - broadly stated - changing public policy.
But that's a question for father down the road, much like Twitter in 2006. The focus on growth is the right one. And right now, Occupy continues to grow. Micah Sifry has been tracking social media metrics; on Friday he posted that OWS had doubled in size over the previous eight days, while also noting that the spike in original attention had moderated somewhat.
I think it's also clear that the Occupy movement has moved beyond its "early adopters" - protest-ready young people, online activists, anarchist hacker types, alternative media, and the social media chorus for distributed protest movements. Combine Micah's Facebook metrics with some anecdotal experience and I think the picture is of a startup that is close to its mass adoption moment.
But to carry the startup analogy a step farther, Occupy is also at the point where the sharks begin to circle, sensing a potential hit in the marketplace. This is where things get tricky for successful startups: do you go for that round of capital (in this case, human and social capital from unions, nonprofits, and existing political organizations)? Are you tempted by merger or acquisition? How long is the runway? Because Occupy is so decentralized and leaderless, these questions will undoubtedly have to wait. Yet it was troubling this past weekend to see Wikileaks founder Julian Assange attempt to co-opt the London version of Occupy with a speech that smacked of his unfortunate cult of personality; such an event would clearly not be allowed by Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly tacticians. Who will attempt to "be the leader" of the Occupy movement?
These are not minor questions. There is still every chance that Occupy Wall Street goes down as an interesting moment, a nice story for the grandkids, rather than a real movement that changes American policy. Very few startups get their IPO, and really, there's no substitute for winning, as veteran organizer Al Giordano advises in an elegant essay that recounts another generation's Wall Street march against nuclear weapons (one that peripherally involved your humble blogger, who admittedly, was into it for the Springsteen concert).
Winning a civil resistance, a social movement, a nonviolent struggle, a community organizing campaign profoundly changes the participants. It turns them into winners and transforms them into people who can never, ever be conquered by fear or despair ever again. That is why it is called revolution. It turns everything around, upside-down, and inside, out. It is the motor that evolves the species.
Last night, we had dinner in midtown before the Richard Thompson show at Town Hall. On Sixth Avenue, the police were staging a massive show of force - all riot gear, billy clubs, and vehicles. It was if al Qaeda had announced it was marching to Times Square instead of a couple of thousand protesters. Yet NYPD's gross over-reaction showed clearly that Occupy's success extends well beyond its core physical membership, its boots on the ground. It was reacting like Google to the challenge of Facebook - all inelegance, ham-handed action and almost no strategic thought. Meanwhile, the tourists were a little afraid of getting penned in by the cops. And it was really hard to tell the protesters from the - you know - "regular people." Which is to say, the 99 percent - which is the market potential for the Occupy movement.
Fueled by outrage (and empowered in part by the innovative use of technology and communications) Occupy Wall Street has burst out of the founders' garages. It embodies a real entrepreneurial spirit, even as it attacks the worst excesses of big-box, the fix-is-in capitalism. And its brand is going wide. I was standing along Sixth Avenue waiting for the cops to let us through their armored phalanx, when I overheard a midwest-tinged conversation to my right.
"What's going on?" said the older women to her spouse. They were clearly dressed for the theater. The husband answered quickly, and no malice or cultural judgment in his voice.
"Oh you know who it is, hon. That's Occupy Wall Street."
The news of Steve Jobs' death at 56 flashed on the television screen above my head in a neighborhood bar on Fulton Street, about five blocks from the spot where cops were swinging their truncheons at the subset of protesters who were trying to invade the holy shrine that is the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets, a symbolic corner that represents the American public stock markets that made Jobs a billionaire.
Many of those taking a blast of pepper spray and a crack on the head from the dreaded "white shirts" of the NYPD - the pot-bellied, middle-aged ranking officers - are too young to care that this corner has been in lockdown mode since the day after September 11, 2001, when downtown New York and its public markets came under attack. They're also too young to realize that they can't do what they're doing: that they need leaders, and a cohesive strategy, and tighter messaging, and structure, and hierarchy and consultants like me.
And because they realize none of those things, they and their nascent Occupy Wall Street movement are succeeding - wildly, improbably, uncontrollably succeeding - in shaking and bending the iron chains of low expectations and gray conventional wisdom that makes us hunker in our cubicles, thankful every few months for a new gadget launch or sitcom to distract us from society's slow-motion fall.
The juxtaposition of Jobs' death, tragic at a young age with much still to be achieved, and the mosaic mob I'd just marched with from Foley Square down to the now-iconic encampment at Zuccotti Park was so obvious, so seemingly contrived as to seem like a screenwriter's wastebasket filler. There was CNBC announcing the sad death of America's most successful (and indeed, truly beloved) capitalist, the man most responsible for an explosion in portable digital entertainment. In the watering hole of the neighborhood that can safely be described as the backyard of the New York Federal Reserve, our gaggle of technophiles gasped aloud at the news. At the table there were a couple of iPhones and one majestic iPad - that sleek George Jetson consumer device that seems straight out of Vonnegut to me - along with the usual sad copycattish Android screens (including my own). To Twitter we did go, like we're supposed to.
I was thinking about the famed '1984' Apple Super Bowl ad that helped launch the Mac, a spot credited to Jobs as if he were the actual creative ad director (a role played in real life by another visionary, Jay Chiat, and his team) and I couldn't help but think of the rows of minions all watching the big screen. We didn't know then that the screens would be legion (and smaller and cooler) but the futuristic vision often seems pretty apt, and not just because Apple is the exceedingly rare corporate entity with hordes of cultish fans who treat retail shops like churches and product launches like encyclicals. We're the zombies lined up in rows and the firehose of digital media is the constant lithium drip, at least to some of the Occupy Wall Street revolutionaries.
Their vision of technology is far more utilitarian and radical. They look up from their screens. They unplug their earbuds. They keep the message short and wide. Chants and drum circles, cardboard signs and masks. Tiny performance art pieces and costumes. Derided as spoiled trustafarians stinking of patchouli, they don't seem to care. Radically, they're using decentralized digital technology to power a massive amplification of their movement. Twitter and Facebook are just the glaze on their sweet profiterole network, with hashtags used to effectively lure tens of thousands of more casual supporters and hangers on. Anonymity is given real currency in this crowd, and its leaderless quality is taken seriously. As Nick Judd effectively illustrates in TechPresident (which may have to change its name to TechOccupy shortly), anonymous messaging services like Vibe blast the messages out to smartphones. As in the recent Middle East and North African uprisings, direct text messages are an old school standby. Twitter and its hashtags are for amplification outside the zone of conflict.
As is video: the use of LiveStream images from the park and from the marches, highlighting brief but violent clashes with police, has been as brilliant an example of live mobile video catalyzing involvement as I've ever seen. The crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend numbered perhaps 2,000. There were 700 arrests. And at any given time, 20,000 people watched the LiveStream, which was cannily set up to repeat the juiciest bits of conflict when the "streamer" lost a signal.
Personal stories - single individual tales - are told in simple, effective photos on the brilliant Tumblr site, We Are The 99 Percent. To flip through this site any day this week was to surf down the jagged, steep front of our economic collapse - an emotional and moving trip through what's left of the middle class. This is close-in, user-generated journalism and a real model for how to tell a vastly complex story through hundreds of individual contributors.
Then there's Facebook. Much derided by the techno-commentariat, the most social site in the world is once again at the center of public organizing (remember Egypt), the creation of local hives of activity around the general Occupy theme. As Dave Winer said, "occupying Facebook is every bit as good as occupying Wall Street." Micah Sifry has cannily focused on the Facebook activity over the past week, and picked up the sheer velocity with which OWS-themed groups took off:
Of the original 201 "Occupy X" Facebook groups that we had identified as of 4pm EST Tuesday October 4, two days ago, the number of people signed up has vaulted from 384,889 to 480,079 as of 6am this morning. That's a 25% growth rate, matching what we've seen since we starting monitoring the explosion of Facebook groups last Saturday. Our larger dataset of 461 groups (which leaves out any group with less than 6 members) shows 633,606 "likes" in all, up about 20% from yesterday.
Clearly, Occupy Wall Street is tapping into something far deeper than just the energy of its core group of organizers. And by remaining open and not trying to control the message, it is encouraging thousands of people to paint their own version of what the Occupy movement means. It's also fascinating (at least to me) to watch the evolution of groups like Anonymous, the hacking collective that has previously engaged in a form of activism that included silencing speech online by taking down websites. There are Guy Fawkes masks in Zuccotti Park, but they're few - and they're coming off. The Occupy movement was partially stoked by the young technologists of Anonymous; this may be their moment of change and maturity - when boldly acting in public comes to mean more than long-distance dilletantism.
I have no idea where Occupy Wall Street is going, but I'm impressed so far. As Allison Fine says, it's "a delicious and irresistible idea." And I think a mass expression of anger and outrage - even without specific demands, although as Bruce Bernstein noted their crowd-sourced Declaration of the Occupation is "coherent, insightful, and moving - is both appropriate to our times, and needed to get others off the sideline. It's the advance unit of what may come next: the kind of economic and social reform that can heal this democracy of ours. As Harold Meyerson wrote this week: "Here’s hoping the disparate groups of protesters come together, grow and stay in the streets. It will take a massive, vibrant protest movement to bring America’s subservience to Wall Street to its overdue end."
And on the day when the last beloved CEO died, the use of media and technology was changing - not in the labs of Silicon Valley, but on the streets of New York.
Lance Mannion (who I marched with, gaining a cherished Teamsters cap in the process), is filing a series of reportorial impressions at his place, which are well worth catching (including a short interview with an iron worker we conducted together).
Lindsay Beyerstein's photos are here, and she's filing posts at the spiffy new Clear It With Sidney blog of the Sidney Hillman Foundation (disclosure: a client, and it was great to march with executive director Alexandra Lescaze, the documentary filmmaker).
Deanna Zandt says I'm known as a curmudgeon (I'm cool with that) but her post earlier this week does a great job of laying out the right reasons for her own skepticism.
Finally, two must-follows on Twitter:
When "new wave" was a newly-minted but short-lived record sales category, Elvis Costello & the Attractions shared a bill at the old Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey with Rockpile of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds partnership and blew the doors into the nearby flood zone with a nuclear version of "Pump It Up!" one of the big hits off This Year's Model, a record that belongs on anyone's 70s playlist. Costello and his band were all crooked angles, bouncing and veering to the swirling keys of the bent, trapezoidal Steve Nieve who sent trills into the rafters while Costello's twangy Fender chords hung around down by the stage, bouncing off the wasted kids doing the pogo in the aisles. The experience remains front and center in the musical mind thirty-odd years on.
Last night, we finished a pre-concert libation at La Casa Del Mofongo before repairing to excellent orchestra seats in the cavernous United Palace Theater on Broadway at 175th Street in Washington Heights - better known in previous years as the earthly home of the Reverend Ike and his United Church Science of Living Institute (an outfit that also rocked, on occasion). Ike has departed for the kingdom above, but the show in his palace got the soul stirring last night, courtesy of the skinny Anglo-Irish lad from Birkenhead, and his Imposters, a tight outfit that features the slightly less-angular Nieve on the swirling killer keys. It may well have been the setting and the hometown crowd (Costello has lived in New York for decades). But two hours and 45 minutes of non-stop songs, enlivened by caged go-go girls (including Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker, who shimmied in the cage while the band blasted through "Monkey to Man") and audience members who spun a huge wheel of hits to create a unique setlist, left us buzzing like it was 1978.
Of course, we didn't have these handy Internet blogs and boards to track setlists back then - nor were we particularly interested in the librarian side of rock in those New York days. But I was amazed last night with the breadth of work that Costello managed to cover in (at least) 34 songs, some of them spontaneously called to the band. The hits were there of course - and the clever covers (I particularly enjoyed the conjoined version of Prince's "Purple Rain" with a bit of the Beatles' "Rain"). But it was the catalogue that wowed, and the artistic energy poured into every song; "Clowntime Is Over," for example, had all the anger and lyrical lashing out it deserved, with Costello's vocal range on full, audacious display.
We're not completists as a usual rule, but this setlist deserves some attention - it'll have me scurrying to download or stream a bunch of B-sides and album cuts.
Watching The Detectives
Everyday I Write The Book
Cry, Cry Cry
I Still Miss Someone
Monkey To Man
His Latest Flame
Waiting For The End Of The World
I Can Only Give You Everything
You Little Fool
New Lace Sleeves
Clowntime Is Over
Man Out Of Time
Out Of Time (Jagger/Richards)
I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea
Pump It up
Heart Of The City
Purple Rain (Prince)
I'm In The Mood Again
I Still Have That Other Girl
The Stations Of The Cross
Watch Your Step
What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding (Lowe)
Wheels (Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman)
It's no accident that the ugliest moment in last night's Republican Presidential debate centered around Texas Congressman Ron Paul and his extremist anti-government views.
"What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn't have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? "Are you saying society should just let him die?" Wolf Blitzer asked.
"Yeah!" several members of the crowd yelled out.
The question by the CNN anchor - and by the way, how disgraceful was CNN in "partnering" with the fanatical hate-mongering Tea Party Express on the production? - was aimed squarely at Paul's hard-core conservative libertarianism, a deeply corrosive, amoral force in today's Republican Party. Paul attempted to soften his response (and the audience's evident blood lust) by pulling back to the 30,000-foot "Founders" level, the usual 18th century refuge for scoundrels and hypocrites who seek the to run the very government apparatus they'd like to abolish. They selectively divine the intentions of Jefferson and Madison (often skipping over Hamilton, the nation's first great liberal crusader) in a naked attempt to create a laissez faire playground for big business, a kind of giant mainland Cayman Islands.
And every four years in this sad era of never-ending wars, Ron Paul pulls in a few suckers on the civil libertarian left with the shiny penny of vast cuts in defense and military spending (hint: it's isolationism, folks), while tossing all entitlements and infrastructure and regulation out with the bathwater - along with civil rights, of course.
I agree with Adele Stan on AlterNet: "There are few things as maddening in a maddening political season as the warm and fuzzy feelings some progressives evince for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the Republican presidential candidate. The anti-war Republican,' people say, as if that's good enough." She details Rep. Paul's radical record in the post, but here's the gist:
But Ron Paul is much, much more than that. He's the anti-Civil-Rights-Act Republican. He's an anti-reproductive-rights Republican. He's a gay-demonizing Republican. He's an anti-public education Republican and an anti-Social Security Republican. He's the John Birch Society's favorite congressman. And he's a booster of the Constitution Party, which has a Christian Reconstructionist platform. So, if you're a member of the anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-black, anti-senior-citizen, anti-equality, anti-education, pro-communist-witch-hunt wing of the progressive movement, I can see how he'd be your guy.
This is the man who gave the keynote speech at the 50th anniversary gala of the John Birch Society. Yet many progressives automatically bestow most-favored Republican status on Paul every four years. In one respect, Glenn Greenwald (undoubtedly the preeminent civil liberties blogger on the left) is right: Paul is neither a "fruitcake" nor a "whackjob." His ideals and ideology are deadly serious, and the product of many years' labor. He should not be dismissed as "weird" because he doesn't have Mitt Romney's hair or Rick Perry's chest-thumping bluster; both of those guys are essentially professional actors. Ron Paul's the real deal.
But that real deal is a vision for America that guts the very society created (imperfect and always-challenged, especially in a nation where nearly 50 million people now live in poverty) by our representative democracy. Yet the liberal web is chock-a-block with appreciations for Paul. Dig this from Charles Davis at Counterpunch, who claims Paul "is more progressive" than Barack Obama. (Well yeah, if by "progressive," you mean "wants to do away with almost all domestic social spending.") It's textbook liberal Paul love:
Ron Paul is far from perfect, but I’ll say this much for the Texas congressman: He has never authorized a drone strike in Pakistan. He has never authorized the killing of dozens of women and children in Yemen. He hasn’t protected torturers from prosecution and he hasn’t overseen the torturous treatment of a 23-year-old young man for the “crime” of revealing the government’s criminal behavior.
Can the same be said for Barack Obama?
Let’s just assume the worst about Paul: that he’s a corporate libertarian in the Reason magazine/Cato Institute mold that would grant Big Business and the financial industry license to do whatever the hell it wants with little in the way of accountability (I call this scenario the “status quo”). Let’s say he dines on Labradoodle puppies while using their blood to scribble notes in the margins of his dog-eared, gold-encrusted copy of Atlas Shrugged.
So. Fucking. What.
I'll admit it does have a ring. And yeah, people are angry and rightfully so. But to answer that final question: imagine the demolition of the entire Federal government, back to a level would barely sustain a loose agrarian federation of competing states. Think of the pain, the anarchy, the tribal and regional disorder. Think of the crowd at the GOP debate lustily cheering death among the uninsured. That's Ron Paul in charge. So applaud the anti-war talk all you'd like, but pass on the politician and his twisted ideology.
Last fall when the news broke that WikiLeaks was in possession of a quarter million U.S. diplomatic cables, I wrote that the putative pro-transparency organization was in fact a detriment to a serious movement aimed at more openness in government. Mine was among the few voices on the left at the time to take this position, but I believed in my bones that WikiLeaks founder and leader Julian Assange was more interested in fame and power (and money, as it later turned out) than he was in a true democratization of government secrets and data. Further, I came to believe that the flamboyant and outspoken Assange was WikiLeaks - that his voice, his decisions, his direction, his personal politics, and his personality were fused permanently to the organization.
Finally, I asserted that openness by force in a democratic society without the consent or participation of the governed isn't really openness at all. "Wikileaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace, " I wrote last December. "And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic."
The events of the last few days prove that my 2010 assertions were entirely correct, but there's not much joy in the realization. You see, WikiLeaks could have been a contender.
Releasing the full database of unredacted cables has exposed scores of U.S. information sources to the world (and to the intelligence services of regimes that would do them harm). WikiLeaks' original media partners in the carefully redacted and researched initial tranche of limited releases - The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel - excoriated the organization in an extraordinary joint statement today:
We cannot defend the needless publication of the complete data – indeed, we are united in condemning it. The decision to publish by Julian Assange was his, and his alone.
I believe my friend Micah Sifry, author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency and one the most important voices for more transparent government data, correctly sketched the epitaph for WikiLeaks in his TechPresident post today.
WikiLeaks has now indiscriminately dumped the whole cable set into the public arena, and in doing so it has tossed away whatever claim it might have had to the moral high ground. The argument that others were doing it already, or that bad actors were already getting access to the leaked master file and thus this was a mitigating step to reduce coming harms, or that it's somehow The Guardian's fault for publishing what it thought was a defunct password, doesn't absolve WikiLeaks of its large share of responsibility for this dump.
People are human; to err is human. But refusing to admit error, that is hubris. Assange, like Icarus, thought he could fly to the sun.
And in doing so, Assange may well have set the cause of more open public sector data on a backward path. Do we need an independent international organization to safely traffic in verified secrets, and responsibly see that those documents are distributed to journalists and the public, while at the same time protecting whistleblowers who often risk all to tell vital stories?
Yeah. We do. WikiLeaks promised all of that - and delivered none of it. And in failing so spectacularly, WikiLeaks almost assuredly discouraged those who would come to trust others with secret information.
Tonight, the Guardian's James Ball finally told the inside story of his three months as a WikiLeaks staffer during those tumultuous months after the cable leak was first made public. It's bravely told; Ball understands that he will come in for a tidal of opprobrium from the cohort of hard-core Assange fans who prowl Twitter and other forums. But even for this WikiLeaks completist (I find the entire story fascinating) Ball's tale is pretty shocking:
I joined WikiLeaks last November as a staffer for a three-month stint. Culture shock came just a few days in, when Julian Assange gathered core staff and supporters at Ellingham Hall, a manor house owned by the Frontline Club founder and WikiLeaks supporter Vaughan Smith.
Around the dining table the team sketched out a plan for the coming months, to release the leaked US diplomatic cables selectively for maximum impact. Phase one would involve publishing selected – and carefully redacted – high-profile cables through the Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. Phase two would spread this out to more media organisations.
But clearly a large volume of cables would remain, of little interest to any media organisation. Several at the meeting – myself included – stressed these documents, which would probably number hundreds of thousands, could not be published without similar careful redaction. Others vehemently disagreed.
Johannes Wahlström, Swedish journalist and son of antisemitic WikiLeaks activist Israel Shamir, shouted: "You do realise the idea of not putting ALL of these cables up is totally unacceptable to people around this table, don't you?"
Julian took Wahlström's their side. One way or another, he said, all the cables must eventually be made public.
Ball goes on to detail financial misdealing, psychological pressure, an atmosphere of total personal domination by Assange, allegations of providing assistance to interior ministry of the repressive Belarus regime, and "a growing cultlike ethos at the centre of the group." Finally, he recounts conversations with activists and aid workers fearful that their cooperation with U.S. diplomats or other actors would come to light and endanger their work, and their lives.
Before the first publication of carefully redacted cables, human rights activists, NGOs, and organisations working with victims of horrific crimes contacted WikiLeaks begging us to take steps not to publish any names. To be able to assure them details would be protected was an immeasurable relief.
These cables contain details of activists, opposition politicians, bloggers in autocratic regimes and their real identities, victims of crime and political coercion, and others driven by conscience to speak to the US government. They should never have had to fear being exposed by a self-proclaimed human rights organisation.
Indeed. This is the end of WikiLeaks. The story of Julian Assange and his downfall of his organization remains a fascinating one - but it is not a story of transparency, of openness, or of an informed and empowered society.
So, you don't see why the insidious influence of Rupert Murdoch's far-right media empire matters? Tonight only the blind could miss it. The Murdoch-fanned Tea Party falange owns the debate on the phony debt "crisis" - indeed, Fox created it.
No Fox, no Tea Party.
No Rupert Murdoch, no Tea Party.
No Tea Party, no disgraceful surrender on the part of the weak-kneed Obama Administration.
No insanely unbalanced "balanced approach."
No flight from Munich, paper-waving, "peace in our time" appeasement moment tonight from a man I admire personally but whose timid Presidency is slip-sliding away.
No rollbacks in Social Security and Medicare. No abandonment of long-held principles. No spitting vile facist gobs on the New Deal and Great Society.
This is why the events in Westminster over the last few weeks matter greatly to future of free nations.
This is a Roger Ailes triumph. A Grover Norquist win. A Rupert Murdoch special. They win.
The Democratic Party lies in ruins tonight. It no longer stands for the poor and the middle class and the workers. It has lost without a fight. A true policy of spineless appeasement.
And Murdoch smiles.
It was a bonnie weekend for Tom Watsons in various corners of the British empire. Craggy, 61-year-old Tom Watson from Kansas City aced the sixth at the British Open at Sandwich, made the cut and played very well through the final round, exuding the class and gentlemanly behavior for which he is known (this is a man who once publicly quit a Missouri country club for excluding Jews, it will be remembered). On these shores, a certain blogger known to you all witnessed an act of British musical noblesse oblige by taking in the Paul McCartney concert at Yankee Stadium with his family, a celebratory act marking 25 years of happy marriage. Maybe I'm amazed, but Macca can still bang 'em out, and even the pro formist of pro forma Billy Joel guest appearances couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of rockers like Jet, one of the great post-Beatle tunes.
But for real accomplishment, it's hard to beat the achievement of a much younger man, the youthful Tom Watson of West Bromwich East, which is to say, the midlands of Birmingham, the MP son of a labor organizer and human thorn lodged fatally in the haunches of the Murdoch leviathan.
When I last saw Tom in London he was in government, carrying the cabinet duties for Gordon Brown. But as the brilliant weekend profile in the Guardian recounted, he was falsely accused by The Sun (oh, irony!) of a role in a campaign to smear prominent Tories and received a retraction only on the day he left the confines of Whitehall.
"I took a quality of life decision. I didn't want to be part of this any more. It was taking too much toll. I had an interest in sport and the arts, so told Gordon [Brown] that at the next reshuffle I wanted to stand down as a minister."
And where did Watson end up? Why, the culture select committee, with its role in press oversight (a strange beast to Americans, I'll admit). The tale from there is pretty riveting, and my friend gives an honest accounting - here's a bit, but read the whole thing. Tenacity has its place in government:
"Two days later Nick Davies broke the story in the Guardian on the extent of the phone hacking, and John Whittingdale, the culture select committee chairman, to his credit, extended the inquiry."
At his very first hearing, on 21 July 2009, Watson found his presence on the select committee challenged by Tom Crone, legal manager on News Group Newspapers, on the grounds he was in litigation with News Group. Speaker's Counsel effectively told the Murdoch group to get lost.
"What was clear from the first hour of evidence given that day was that the executives were incredibly nervous. The interplay between Crone and the News of the World editor Colin Myler was curious. I was just trying to find out whether they'd told Rupert Murdoch about the payments, to silence people like Gordon Taylor with a £700,000 payment. They went defensive and said they had never told Rupert.
"But then they admitted that James Murdoch had authorised the payment, and from that moment I knew there was much more to this than met the eye. As soon as Myler said that, Crone looked very tense and suddenly realised a body blow had been delivered.
What's not in the Guardian profile is Tom's reliance on social media to keep the embers of this story burning. Through his blog, Facebook, and especially Twitter, Watson was able to ask public questions outside the House of Commons - questions that invariably got picked up by the cadre of journalists, bloggers, and observers who were closely following the story. It was a small but committed built-in audience for anything related to the widening (but still mainly quashed) phone hacking story. It helped the have the Guardian, England's most important news outlet, on the case, with investigative reporter Nick Davies running the story.
So tomorrow, the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks will face the committee. The story gets stranger, sadder, and more cinematic every day. Watson cautions against predicting too many fireworks but as James Wolcott slyly notes, this showdown has all the elements of the old Sam Ervin days on Capitol Hill. So much the better, because this story is not merely the tittle tattle of tabloid culture - it's the tale of an elected government and the national force in total thrall of a single multinational corporation and its hegemonic claws. As Watson says, the mess that the Murdochs find themselves in "is of their own making, in both conducting the hacking, and then failing to clear it up."
"Their response until the middle of last week has been dumb insolence, but they are now in freefall. I don't think they have a strategy. They are just slashing and burning everything, and anyone who was there at the time. The difficulty they have is James Murdoch was there at the time, and we know he authorised the payments to buy the silence of a victim of crime.
"It is still hard to believe what has happened over the past 10 days. It is just beginning to sink in what together we may have found out."
UPDATE: Via Jim Wolcott just now, this:
Mr. Murdoch was attending a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in early July when it became clear that the latest eruption of the hacking scandal was not, as he first thought, a passing problem. According to a person briefed on the conversation, he proposed to one senior executive that he “fly commercial to London,” so he might be seen as man of the people. He was told that would hardly do the trick, and he arrived on a Gulfstream G550 private jet.
I'm writing this from the Acela quiet car (look there's Joe Biden - hiya pal!), which is zipping in whispers past the clear summer beauty of Newark backyards and the Thomas Eakins version of the Schuykill en route to Washington - where, it seems, the Beltway crowd of voices (ever-evolving, always wrong) still doesn't get it.
Latest example: MSNBC's Chuck Todd, who reacted this morning to the metastasizing Murdoch hacking scandal by comparing what News International has done in Britain to the TMZs and National Enquirers in this, our American nation. Surely, posited Todd, the unrolling of Murdoch's empire in the UK was a warning shot across the bow of tabloid culture.
But it's hardly tabloid culture that provides the most shocking elements of the Phonegate horror. The pursuit of sensationalism isn't on trial - nor should it be, to my thinking.
What's on trial is the illegal and immoral encroachment into private data by a hegemonic organization with the evident and sickening power to tell a democratic government exactly what to do.
That this should be lost on Todd isn't surprising, I guess, in the cozy confines of a Washington "journalism" culture that values relationships in the permanent governing class - the willingness to, ahem, play ball - above almost everything else. It's access baby - the location, location, location mantra of political talking heads.
Then too, there was perhaps a frisson of - oh, I dunno - professional courtesy in the conflating of the tabloids with the egregious and more frightening elements of the Murdoch scandal. It was almost like throwing TMZ and the Enquirer into the commentary was a not-so-subtle misdirection play. Yeah, we don't dig the tabs - but they're our black sheep cousins, and it's not ever going to change. Shrug. Sigh. Back to Bachmann.
While you'd expect MSNBC to be going wall-to-wall over Phonegate and Murdoch's hackers - and the implications on these shores, particularly for erstwhile arch-enemy Fox News or the Wall Street Journal - such isn't the case, at least from what I've been able to see over the past couple of days.
Yet it's that corrupt partnership with political actors that's so slimy in Britain, and clearly available for muckraking here in the U.S. Digby quickly recounts three episodes where Roger Ailes sought to use the power of the Murdoch empire to attack political enemies (including MSNBC), and then concludes:
There is a ton of stuff that we already know about Fox News' intrusion into the political process and blackmailing rivals and political foes. That's what's at the heart of the UK scandals as much as the criminal hacking. There's very little reason to believe that an ethos that so closely tracks in the one way isn't likely to have tracked in the other.
Exactly. So where's the fuss among the biggest liberal voices outside the independent and uncorrupted blogosphere? Could it be that Parliamentary inquiries into multi-national media conglomerates puts a pit into the stomachs of even "the liberal media's" overlords. Does an ebbing tide beach all boats? Or to put it less gently: too much face time with ole Rupe in Sun Valley?
And why did it have to be Patrick Buchanan, of all people, who told the Morning Joe zoo yesterday that "this Murdoch crisis is gonna leap the Atlantic like it's golden pond?"
Tom Watson, the Labour MP from West Bromwich East, is an old friend of this TW by now, the two of us having met years ago by virtue of being early bloggers with the same name, and similar world views. For more than two years, the honorable Mr. W has pursued the phone-hacking scandal in Britain like a terrier, through a voice-in-the-wilderness period when neither Labour nor Conservative nor Metropolitan Police wanted to face off with the world power known as Rupert Murdoch.
The allegations now finally coming to full light are both stunning in the depths of cruelty, impunity and arrogance displayed by the Murdoch empire - and shocking in the clear peril that once-impervious empire now faces. At 80, Murdoch faces his existential corporate moment. He has shuttered the 168-year-old News of the World and his multi-billion deal to create a cable cartel in the UK may well be dead on arrival. His stocks are sagging. His family's reputation is shattered. Still, Mr. Watson is pushing the pols and the police to stop their foot-dragging - because there remain many fruitful avenues of investigation, alleys of inquiry that certain powers would prefer remain darkened forever. Though he's no longer a lone wolf, Tom's Guardian post of only a month ago is worth revisiting, if only to consider where the story has gone since then ... and to realize just how on point his words were:
It is extraordinary that the alleged plot to target a sitting prime minister was not immediately investigated. I can't think of a single country where this would be the case. Since getting on the trail of the hacking scandal, I've had to pinch myself to check I haven't landed in a John Le Carré novel.
On top of this failure, there's also the failure to investigate the alleged targeting of the girlfriend of an heir to the throne. Ask yourself what the prime minister would have publicly said should the allegation have been made that the BBC hired a criminal private investigator to conduct such activities.
Yet it's not just the Conservative prime minister who could do with a spine replacement. It's the former Labour ministers who were allegedly hacked by News International's private investigators who have made secret, out of court settlements with the company. I want to be clear to my parliamentary colleagues (in the Lords and Commons): if you were the target of a News International private investigator you have a democratic duty to speak out. You owe it to yourselves to put an end to a toxic media culture that allows journalists to think it acceptable to hack the phones of the families of murder victims.
That toxic media culture is resident in the deepest hallways and studios of Murdoch's American venture, Fox News. Yet for all its ideological extremism and attachment to gross untruths - of which the sad and sickening birther "issue" was the peak on a mountain of slime - there is no indication of the phone hacking scandal jumping the pond...yet. Tom Watson MP has grown fairly expert in using the digital network to nudge his case along, to bring attention directly to this issue from the citizenry, and to push the press to cover it. Last night, he nudged me with a link to an article in the Daily Mirror: Phone hacking: 9/11 victims 'may have had mobiles tapped by News of the World reporters'. Clearly, this is big news. Hell, Gawker's got it now.
What's particularly interesting to me is the timing.
Check your calendars, folks. The somber 10th anniversary ceremonies marking the attacks of September 11th are exactly two months away. So the questions are these: Should the Murdoch hacking scandal spread to 9/11 victims and their families, will Shepard Smith resign in protest? Will Sarah Palin defend the media empire reportedly paying her $1 million for her analysis? Will Chris Wallace deposit his checks in good conscience? Will Michele Bachmann stamp on the American flag by appearing on Fox? Will Mitt Romney condemn Rupert Murdoch? Is Roger Ailes a patriot?
UPDATE: Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff told CBS News: "The News of the World has lots of reporters at any given time on the ground in the US. Many of its stories, particularly many of its celebrity stories, are dateline here. So, I think that's the next step."
UPDATE II: The Guardian's expose, by the crack investigative of Nick Davies and David Leigh, widens the scandal signifianctly by revealing the Murdoch scandal goes well beyond the News of the World tabloid, and involves breaking into private medical records of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his family.
Tom Watson spoke in Parliament today about the "institutional criminality at News International." He didn't mention the institutional cowardice of his former party leader. Apparently former PM Tony Blair asked Brown to get Watson to back off the hacking scandal. To his ever-lasting credit, Brown refused and my friend Tom kept digging - and, I might add, kep the story buzzing the back channel via Facebook, Twitter and his blog.
Here it is: the parade of the accused known for a century or more among cops, prosecutors and reporters as the "perp walk" is fine by me.
Sure I know the arguments against the perp walk, highly charged into an international debate about how the rights and figure of accused sexual predator Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading French politician, were debased by the Manhattan District Attorney and the NYPD. The pro-elitist writer Bernard-Henri Lévy argued in the Daily Beast that DSK's perp walk "could only degenerate into globally observed torture—high punishment for a crime, which no one, at that point, knew whether or not he had committed. This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter—this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic."
Yet there's a liberal's view of this that goes beyond the culturally instinctive side-taking with a poor, immigrant maid against a wealthy and powerful man (the real circulation-based bias the tabloids, by the way). Of course, it helps that this particularly liberal spent a decade as a print report in the Bronx, and - uh - participated in several prominent perp walks of the borough's corrupt political establishment, London Fog-over-handcuffs style. I offer three points in favor of the perp walk:
- The accused is alive, generally un-abused, and in good health. (Though in the case of one history's most infamous perp walks, that of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, that condition didn't last long).
- The alleged perpetrator moves publicly from the status of police detainee - the arrested - to the jurisdiction of a court, as a defendant legally entitled to a liberal and long-test web of rights and privileges. (Transferring defendants from holding cells to arraignment in public - with a tip-off to the press - is basically the essence and necessary origin of the perp walk).
- The rights of the free press to witness the operations of the justice system (including police agencies and prosecutors) are enhanced, banishing any hint of prior restraint or secret extra-judicial proceedings. This matters deeply, especially to this free speech absolutist; we are entitled to see the accused and see, through the news media, the turning of the gears of justice.
Inelegant, old school, and staged as it might be (and obviously serving the purpose of a victory lap for police and pre-trial leverage for prosecutors), the perp walk is part of the public's participation in the justice system. Much of the argument against hauling DSK before the cameras on the way to his arraignment focused on his status as an accomplished person, a liberal politician, an important man. In this country, we perp walk all the top accused felons, from the Son of Sam to corrupt cops and once-powerful politician to drug dealers and rapists. As Jay McInerney put it: "New York's a tough place. Deal with it."
As I recall from my days on the beat, the system is simple. In practice, perp walks are reserved for major violent crimes, large-scale busts (like organized crime or drug operations), or anything approaching strong public interest. When a suspect was due to be arraigned, an advisory would be sent: such and such a Precinct, this time, side door. And that'd be it. You'd race over there with a photographer to "make the perp" (I never shouted questions - some things are beyond the pale - but sometimes defendants would make statements on their own, usually defiant).
For all its evident faults, the perp walk is part of system of justice that is deeply at odds with the U.S. response to crimes of terrorism. Since 9/11, we've sadly moved toward a secret system of tribunals, torture, rendition, and deep secrecy. When Glenn Greenwald writes of "the always-expanding National Security State," it makes you yearn for the simple, public prosecution of terror suspects in open court. In a more confident, less frightened justice system, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have been perp-walked in New York on his way to trial by the citizenry the 9/11 killers attacked. Instead, he's hidden away and headed for tribunal; he and four other 9/11 terror suspects will face a military trial at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, under orders of the Obama Administration.Their images are closely controlled by military authorities. This is secret justice and, in my view, comes close to no justice at all if the quality of judgment and punishment is directly linked to the will of the people.
So call me crazy you lovers of the elite, I'd rather see the criminal defendants in a democratic society wedged between two burly detectives enroute to arraignment, cameras whirring and flashes lighting up the justice system like daylight itself.
Marriage is much on my mind of late, as it should be with tomorrow's 25th anniversary of our own nuptials. On Saturday, we rode the stately and elegant MV Commander up into the Hudson Highlands, as we did a quarter century ago in that summer of 1986. Farther in in Albany, of course, the definition of legal wedlock was shifting - frankly, something that would have not been imaginable in the 80s. And while laurels for political bravery are rightly laid on the noggins of Governor Cuomo (whose father held the State House when the Artist and I tied the knot) and the legislators who crossed the aisle, but I think it's also important to credit a movement for gay rights that grew every broader and more organized.
From my vantage point (which is partly formed by the factors of my age and work), this is the story of classic long-tail organizing - and of the successful evolution of a tenacious movement. Forged not so much by the Stonewall riots as by the scourge of the AIDS epidemic, the coalition was once narrow, angry and poorly focused. Yet it grew, in savvy and professionalism - and it also surfed the breaking waves of real societal evolution, the demographic shift to a younger generation that lacked ingrained prejudice against homosexuality.
I'm filled with joy at this development - for my gay and lesbian friends, certainly. But also for New York, and for society. This is real change; the dying embers of a legalized prejudice hissing in a final smoking spark.
Sure, there will be a reaction. "For every person who said after Friday night’s vote, “Hooray” or “Thank God” or “It’s about time”, there was at least one person screaming in rage," noted Lance Mannion, and he's right. But here's a prediction: New York's sheer audacity as a big state - the Empire State - will help to normalize this broadened American view of marriage. As James Wolcott wrote, "it is a victory for fairness, equality, tolerance, enlightenment, conscience and integrity."
And as I rode the Commander into the Highlands with my bride of 25 years, whose flashing eyes stir my soul even now (no, especially now), I thought a fine thought: 25 years from now, some other New Yorkers will be celebrating their silver anniversary.
"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
"Basically the price of a night on the town!"
"I'd love to help kickstart continued development! And 0 EUR/month really does make fiscal sense too... maybe I'll even get a shirt?" (there will be limited edition shirts for two and other goodies for each supporter as soon as we sold the 200)