Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The perilous fight

How quickly we forget our appreciation of Muhammad Ali.

News and sports observers so quick to praise, upon his death, the life and lessons of Ali are tearing into Colin Kaepernick for his principled refusal to stand for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner before San Francisco 49ers football games. If you’re my age or younger, I suspect this uproar you’ve been hearing for the last three days is something akin to what Ali stared down when he refused an army stint in Vietnam during the 1960s on the grounds that African-Americans had too few rights at home and that he had "no quarrel with the Viet Cong."

For his stand, Ali was stripped of his championship belt. Kaepernick’s employer, to its credit, has stood behind its quarterback, as now have several of his fellow NFL players, but we’ve been treated to online videos of 49ers fans burning their Kaepernick replica jerseys. Many players have publicly criticized their colleague, who says he is motivated to this public protest over the United States’ oppression of black people and people of color.

The jabs directed at Kaepernick would certainly sound familiar to Ali if he were still alive-- How ungrateful can a person be to thumb his nose at a country that has made him rich? Because, you see, in America, if you’re poor and black, you don’t work hard enough, but if you’re rich and black, the country is responsible for your wealth. Ali heard this argument as a refrain a half-century ago. Billie Holliday probably heard it too when she recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939. White Americans have a hard time appreciating human action that is not selfish in motive.

Another argument is that Kaepernick isn't "specific" about what needs to change for him to end his protest, or additionally, that he has offered no solutions. That is misdirection. Kaepernick has been quite specific. He referred to "bodies in the street" and "people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." That is a reference to police killings for which there has been no justice. Government-sanctioned violence has been a tool of relentless assault upon the black community. If you want solutions, which is not a professional football player's responsibility to give us, check out 25 good solutions from columnist Shaun King. They include more female police officers, required college degrees for officers, routine police drug testing, and independent citizen review boards of police conduct.

They have also argued that protesting the flag is the wrong way to voice your anger, but his is a peaceful method of protest. He has used his platform to create awareness and he has done it at the risk of greater personal loss, including that of life and limb, than any other public personality in recent memory.

Within conservative circles, it’s permissible to many for Donald Trump to proclaim that America’s prisoners of war are unheroic, but a black man projecting ungratefulness for the privilege of living in this country is a bridge too far for their standards of patriotism. Stand between Americans and their red, white, and blue nylon fabric, and you will get burned.

When Ali died earlier this year, this blog made the argument that most Americans didn't understand the true legacy of the Champ. This latest episode is damned proof of it. Like Kaepernick, Ali saw the larger struggle beyond just his individual life as a man of color. The irony of an Ali comparison is that Kaepernick's protest is actually more justified. Why? Because it's the same struggle and 50 more years have now passed.

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Now, about the anthem itself-- and this was certainly not even part of Kaepernick’s agenda. It has a profoundly racist history. The Intercept was first with this-- the re-examining of the song's third verse, and a celebration of the American war machine at conflict with its own people two centuries ago. The song's author, a slave owner, rejoiced in the death of slaves that had recently freed themselves to fight for liberty alongside the British in the War of 1812. The stanza that sees no apparent contradiction between the existence of slaves in the land of the free...

No refuge could save the hireling and slave 
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, 
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave 
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

Black people were not considered to be of consequence in Francis Scott Key's land of the free. Kaepernick's point also.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cabin fever

I just returned from a four day-three night stay at a remote cabin in west-central Minnesota. My phone didn't work and the only television was a wicker basket full of DVD movies. It was a marvelous time until our five-person party was pulled over in our taxi cab and robbed by armed men with police badges. They commanded us at gunpoint to sit on the sidewalk and demanded payment for alleged vandalism.

Next up is a trip to St. Louis this weekend and the induction of four new members into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame-- Sam Breadon, Terry Moore, Joe Torre, and Chris Carpenter.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Duke of the Dead-Ball Era

If you're a baseball fan, then run, don't walk, to read Charles Leerhsen's book Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. Leerhsen lays out the case that Ty Cobb was not really, as the author phrases it, "Ty Cobb," the Devil's child you know from several different historical tomes, from Ken Burns' PBS miniseries Baseball, or from the character spoken of in such nasty terms by a character in Field of Dreams.

While quite possibly the game's most hard-nosed player-- then or now, a man who played the game "something like a war" (on way to becoming still arguably its greatest player ever), and a man who went through periods of great loneliness and depression late in his life, Leerhsen explains that Cobb was viewed entirely differently in his day than he is now. He says that Cobb actually had many friends in baseball, participated in rage episodes that were actually not unusual at the time (such as brawling on the field or even going into the stands after fans that hurled insults). Most importantly to Cobb's long-lasting reputation of hideous thoughts, words, and deeds, the author explains that there is virtually no record of racism in Cobb's public record, relative to his time, and in little-known fact, he was even a defender of integration.


To the last point, Leerhsen believes that Cobb got saddled with the reputation he has in 2016 partially because he was the most famous Southern white man in American popular culture for decades, perhaps the most well-known prior to Elvis Presley. (Blogger's note: the author is from New York City.) It seems a mystery as to how skin color got attached to stories of Cobb's off-the-field brawling when the skin color of these people was not reported in the newspapers of the time-- and be mindful that this was a time when newspapers were not in the habit of suppressing the fact when a black person was involved in a scuffle. He investigates census records to confirm that many of these "victims" of Cobb's admittedly-violent outbursts that have been reported to be black were not at all. We just started accepting stories as facts. Cobb was not a man born of low birth, or of parents without means, and in fact, his scraps with teammates were more a product of his prideful bearing as a Southern gentlemen. He was standoffish and a voracious reader, which initially rankled his predominantly-Northern working-class teammates, many of whom were illiterate. His demeanor made him very susceptible to their Southern stereotypes early on, and his style of play made that reputation difficult to combat.

There is no public record of Cobb making any statements on race prior to the 1950s, by that time a man in his 60's, and when he finally did, it was to praise Jackie Robinson and all the Negro Leaguers that he felt were improving the game of baseball. His private attitude seemed to be even one of feeling grateful as the Negro League influence on the National and American Leagues was bringing back, to some degree, the "Cobb"-style of play that had been overwhelmed by the slugging exploits of Babe Ruth. Throughout his almost three-decade playing career, Cobb barnstormed in games against black teams. He grew up around black people, counted them as boyhood friends in Royston, Georgia, and employed black men as valets and domestics his entire life. While that last point is no indication of either a presence or lack of racist attitude, the men and women he employed expressed great admiration and even love for him before and after his death. So the world turns, however, and modern-era baseball fans are fascinated to contemplate the changing face of baseball and America, and to, as Leerhsen puts it, "imagine a racist psycho (once) at large in the major leagues."

I'm telling you that you need to read this book, and re-think everything you were ever told about Ty Cobb when you were growing up on the game of baseball. There are terrible ways in which one can depart this life-- violence, torture, pain, but high on that list has to be having Al Stump ghost-write your autobiography when you're in the late stages of terminal cancer. That man, who spent likely no more than a few days with Cobb between 1960 and 1961, really did a number on him after the baseball star's death occurred midway through the literary project. He wrote a fabricated history that is only now-- hopefully-- starting to be re-written. Stump wrote three different books on Cobb (each now discredited), and his fictionalized version of his time spent with Cobb became a motion picture a year before the writer's death in 1995. It starred Tommy Lee Jones as a bitter, penny-pinching, violent Cobb, and Robert Wuhl as the put-upon, altruistic author.

Babe Ruth was the first person to have a negative impact on the historical legacy of Ty Cobb. It was not purposeful. The Babe helped the game evolve away from Cobb's "scientific" approach beginning in 1920 by hitting prodigious and plentiful taters. From that year ever after, baseball has been a game for the mashers. Then, in the following sequence, the golden age of tabloid newspapers and lazy historians did the rest, imprisoning Cobb in hate-filled innuendo and misrepresentation that made for a more-colorful story than the real thing.

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Leerhsen leads us to the following clip on YouTube. AND IT IS MAGNIFICENT. It's Cobb appearing on the CBS television game show I've Got a Secret in 1955. Notice, first, how everybody smokes. Then, how the women are not blindfolded because it's automatically assumed that women, even with the benefit of sight, will not know who Ty Cobb is. (This is sexist, but... well, ultimately accurate.) None of the panelists recognize the elderly, heavy-set Cobb, and that's a solemn commentary on how far the Duke of the Dead-Ball Era had slipped in the public consciousness almost three decades after his final game, even as he was still the big leagues' all-time leader in hits, runs scored, and batting average.

Finally, notice his most-pronounced baseball characteristic on display, his pride, at the conclusion of the broadcast. As he exits, he has words, seemingly "corrective" ones, with the panelists Bill Cullen and Henry Morgan, who have just uttered to a TV audience, alternately, that Cobb "spiked a lot of second basemen, too," and "he was a mean one in his time." We can't hear what Cobb says to them as he greets them, but they appear repentant because we hear Morgan say, "Well, you're still okay, then."

There's no documented evidence that Cobb ever sharpened his spikes in order to inflict injury on his opponents, as has been often alleged, but his competitiveness was undeniable.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Coliseum kick-off

Have you been following the Los Angeles Rams' first season?

A "Rams Legends" alumni flag football game scheduled for last night at Carson, California's StubHub Center was cancelled at the beginning of the month because of low ticket sales. Their first preseason game of the year, against the Dallas Cowboys Saturday night on ESPN, drew a 6.9 TV rating in the L.A. market. Last year in St. Louis, the average TV rating for the team's four preseason games was 9.4, with the worst single game being 7.9.

In the first play of their first preseason game, the Rams special teams gave up a 101-yard kick-return touchdown to the Cowboys' Lucky Whitehead. On their first offensive drive, Jared Goff, their new quarterback, the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft after the Rams traded six draft picks for him, and a man who, less than a year ago, threw five picks in a game against the Utah Utes, threw an interception. Later, a brawl broke out in the stands.

You gotta feel bad for the players. Stan Kroenke pulled them out of St. Louis, but he left part of his iceberg heart behind. In March, he was caught red-handed attempting to apply Missouri labor law to their individual contracts.

Southern California fans are in for a rough time-- until they lose interest.

Friday, August 12, 2016

How to Watch a Movie

A captivating book is film critic David Thomson’s “How to Watch a Movie,” released a year ago. These are some choice passages for contemplation upon the film-going experience, focusing on movies I have consumed. Juicy stuff…

On Hitchcock’s Psycho, “…You can praise the film technically, as screen storytelling. But that won’t convey what has happened in the thirty minutes: we like Marion Crane and are rooting for her, but we also want to see her get some sexual delivery and satisfaction. We have become accomplices in the film (this is Hitchcock’s most cunning and intimate skill) so that we can feel for the victim and the killer at the same time. This is far more than a conventional play upon the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality in most of us. It has to do with the structure of the film as an experience, the marriage of intense actuality, and magical detachment, so that we have a truly divided self. It is the way in which information can hardly exist without being emotional. And it is why the greatest test in watching movies is to respond to the plot or the characters, while observing film process, too.”

On Daniel Day-Lewis, “It’s easy to say that (he) was outstanding in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, though that may be undercut by the certainty that he would be good in advance. To this day, however, despite the skill and dedication with which Day-Lewis made himself a version of Lincoln, I believe the still pictures from the 1860s are more moving. Day-Lewis may be more impressive, or spontaneous, as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood-- because he is the original Plainview, unhindered by questions of resemblance. One hundred and fifty years after Lincoln, it’s easy to believe the man was playing himself in life. But Plainview is fresh, insane, and dangerous. On screen, I think I prefer him (though it’s better that Plainview was not president)."

On accidental film-making,“Think of the home-movie footage Abraham Zapruder shot in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963. He was not skilled, his camera not refined, he had no artistic ambition. But his single-shot (486 frames) is not just the best record of what happened in those few seconds, it has been the template for explaining the event. It is chance cinema, documentary, humble, rough and ready, but maybe the most significant and reinterpreted film of the twentieth century.”

Thomson’s focused observations and theories got me thinking about the moving image and the way our ability to record moments in time have allowed us to manipulate memory. I recently visited Old Faithful and witnessed a fascinating social reality of modern times, aside from the impulse humans have to physically applaud performances by the natural world. You know where I’m going. A large number of people are watching the geyser’s eruption through the lens of a video camera, much as a cinematographer would, but it’s much smaller and it’s part of their telephone.

A less celebrated consistency than Old Faithful in the United States is the annual hot air balloon festival in Indianola, IA, which I attended last Friday evening as the balloons touched the earth and then were individually lit to reveal a beautiful tapestry of colors and light. I may have been the only person in the gathering of adult age, out of hundreds, that made no attempt to capture the images of the light display on his or her phone. Yes, I may have also been the only one without a video option on their phone, but if that was something that was important to me, I would have a video option on my phone. The eye captures the images, that’s my method, but it doesn’t play back. The obligation falls to memory.

I thought of another concept too, as a I read: We are returning to some characteristics of book-reading without even knowing it. Every time you read a book, you know precisely where you are in the story, because you hold it in your hand. You are roughly a quarter of the way, or half way through the book, whatever. I read a lot of non-fiction history and those books usually arrive in my possession with pages of notes and reference following the body of the book, so it’s not immediately clear at first glance how much is left. Notoriously, I look ahead and have the distance figured in my head at all times. I'm anal-retentive. When I’m at the picture show, though, I usually have no idea where I am in relation to the beginning and end of the movie. Certainly many Hollywood offerings are formulaic enough to give you a good idea, but I don’t usually investigate the run-time of the film before it begins, and even if I did, I’m an inconsistent judge of how much and how little of it has transpired. The most that I can recall being off in time, in my head, was when I first saw the David Mamet-directed Glengarry Glen Ross. That movie absolutely flew by. I was upended by it probably because it had the stage pacing of the play that the story was in its original form.

Now that we’re all hooked on home video, though, we’re back in book mode, in a way. Our modern display graphics show us how far into the movie we are. When I watch a movie on my dual-screen computer, and I’m fussing away at something mundane like an online puzzle on the other screen, my mouse inevitably runs over the movie-side screen, and the time elapsed bar comes up from its resting status even without me clicking on something. I always know how much time is left. And increasingly, I must know.

Back to Thomson, with a first chapter passage that passes as a synopses of sorts of our movie obsession (made clear by the first four words in the text): "It comes to this: a hundred and fifty years ago, people lived a life and referred it to books, games, and works of moral instruction. But in the time since then we have acquired this mechanism that mimics the way we attend to the world as a whole. Often enough, it supplants living, to say nothing of moral instruction. So we watch, and we watch ourselves watching.”

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

One night in the fight

It's been a brilliant summer for the Democrats. You have to give them credit. They can read political tea leaves, as one would expect of the leaders of a major party. They hear the voter discontent. They hear the boos of their own convention delegates. They witness the spectacle of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's convention speech being drowned out by a chorus of "No more war." They see the size of the populist Sanders rallies in their own party, the reactionary Trump rallies, the street protests, all of those indicators that the establishment is crumbling.

And they double down on it.

Smart. They put on a prime-time television show for a week promoting the party establishment and the Washington status quo. They make a figurative vow to usher us back to the 1990s. They make a show of their naked disenfranchisement of millions of young voters. They nominate a candidate that's mature enough to recognize that there are tough decisions that need to be made in the world, and that's why Wall Street banks could do with less regulation, and Palestinians should be caged in an open-air prison that recalls the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940. They appreciate the truth behind that often-misconceived notion that political expedience and private enrichment are actually courage in disguise!

There have been some brilliant surprises. The McCarthy-ite attacks by a supposedly-liberal party against Americans that align too closely with Russia. I admit I didn't see that one coming. The party chairwoman being served with a class action lawsuit for alleged fraud, negligent misrepresentation, deceptive conduct, and breaking legally-binding neutrality agreements. I didn't personally predict it.

And it's working. The polling gap in the top ballot race is widening. They're running against a Republican presidential candidate inspired by Max Bialystock that may yet be revealed to be a Democratic Party agent, and they're finally starting to get some traction against him. Barring an unforeseen debacle during a televised debate or a late-breaking criminal indictment, their candidate is going to return Bill Clinton's junk to the halls of the West Wing and make this country just as prosperous or not so prosperous as you think she's going to.

Of course, it's been a good year for my party as well, the one for which I ran as a candidate for state representative in 2008. Green presidential hopeful, Dr. Jill Stein, along with her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, the founding director of the US Human Rights Network, are currently polling at 6% despite an almost complete blackout by corporate media. That number is more than 12 times what Stein drew at the ballot in 2012-- and among voters under 30 years old, the current number stands at 16%. 

Just a snapshot moment in time during the Revolution.

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The Jill Stein "anti-vaccine" controversy and the Barack Obama "birther" squabble have a lot in common. They're both bullshit and they were both dreamed up by a Hillary Clinton for President campaign.

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Was that really the father of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen standing behind Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally on Monday? Political news items just get crazier and crazier as the empire sinks into collapse. Somebody needs to coach this guy on the art of political savvy.

For one thing, if you wind up participating in the Democrats' primary process, there's a good chance the party won't count your vote.

And now you know why Hillary's preferred campaign event is the closed-door private fundraiser.

Monday, August 08, 2016

What is it exactly that radicalizes terrorists?

The news media really loused up the story of the Omar Mateen shooting. It can't help to have members of the military state whispering in your ear, but Mateen was not connected to ISIS in any way. We know this now that the investigative avenues have led to dead ends. What we know see in this killer is a wife beater that was more than likely a closeted homosexual acting out his anger against the impulses that terrified him.

Mateen called in ISIS as a justification for his shooting, but any unstable person that consumes American media could easily do the same. What has been more enlightening still about this individual's background are these new documents that show the verbal abuse the future shooter was forced to endure regarding his Muslim faith when he worked with the St. Lucie County (FL) police department.

Court documents filed prior to his death allege extreme harassment by police deputies when he served as a law enforcement intern. Among the slurs Mateen claims he endured:

Don't you Arabs sleep with goats?

We need to kill all the fucking Muslims.

Regarding a dirty floor mat in the county courthouse: Isn't it your prayer time? Take your magic carpet and pray to your Allah and make sure it's in the east.

You guys had your Arab spring, now it's time for our redneck spring. 

Omar, you look like a Haji I killed in Iraq... If I hear you say "Allahu Akbar," I will shoot you in the head.

Mateen, who hoped to become a police officer, says the abuse was relentless. How is it that the media can obsess itself over the motivations that cause shooters to commit these unspeakable acts, and then when public information like this becomes known, they ignore it?


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The Israeli construction company behind Hillary Clinton's border wall in Gaza is weighing in on the feasibility of Donald Trump's wall on the U.S./Mexico border.

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Michael Brown has now been dead for two years, but he did not die in vain.

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This is an insightful review describing how NBC has ruined Olympics television coverage. It's been unwatchable since 1996.

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How worthless is the penny? It would take 540 of them to pay for the coffee I drank this morning.