Thursday, March 31, 2016

Are We Finallly Waking Up To The Damage We Do To Our Planet?

Maybe.  This article seems to suggest that we are.

But waking up to the existence of the problem is one thing.  There's been awareness of the problem in the media going all the way back to at least 1989, when Ted Koppel hosted an episode of ABC's "Nightline" focused on the warming of the planet.  At the time, according to the experts featured on it, warming was not expected to be a serious problem until well into the middle of the 21st century.

But we are just into the second decade of the 21st century, and it is becoming painfully clear that the problem is, if anything, accelerating at an alarming rate.  And so it is completely fair to ask a question, if knowledge and acceptance of the problem's existence is in fact growing.  To quote former Senator Bob Dole, in a different context:  Where's the outrage?

The forces behind climate change--specifically, the fossil-fuel industry and its enablers in government--are simply too powerful to be opposed with anything less than a full-scale public assault, at the level of (for example) the opposition to the Vietnam War.  Yet, when it comes to advocacy of taking steps to combat climate change, it rarely gets beyond the talk-show, Op-Ed level.

It may be somewhat hypocritical for a blogger to say this, but it's time to stop talking and writing, and time to get out into the streets.  Make ourselves visible to the fossil-fuel industry.  Find peaceful ways to get in there way, and remind them that we're not getting out of the way, until the only planet we have is safe from our own narcissistic, misguided efforts to destroy it.

When that happens, I'll believe we're finally waking up.  Antarctica is telling us it can't happen too soon.

Where Are The American Workers Willing To Take Jobs Back From Immigrants?

Nowhere, as it turns out.  Certainly not in Pennsylvania, whose farmers have a rather disturbing message for Americans:

You're lazy.

Well, of course, they don't exactly put it that way.  But that's the essential message of the farmers quoted here, who say that, despite good wages and the supposed existence of American citizens willing to do back-breaking, hours-long manual labor, gosh darn it, they just can't find these people who supposedly exist.  Turns out they'd rather work at McDonald's, where they can stay indoors, enjoy the air conditioning, and (perhaps) occasionally snack on the food.

Or, in other words, they're as lazy as they are apparently racist.

Because immigrants are quite literally dying to do this work, if only we'd let them.  And the bottom line is quite literally that the work needs to be done.  So that we can eat.  So that at least some of the food that gets picked ends up in a McDonald's salad or two.

Why not let them?  Would it help if they were from Canada?  Would it, in other words, helped if they, er, looked and sounded more like "us"?

It's time we got over ourselves.  The economy is global.  Money has long since learned to move around the earth at the speed of light.  It would be nice if people could be allowed to move around the world at the speed of a McDonald's drive-through line.

Is A "Non-White" Theater An Open One?

Even though I've reached the age (I'll be 60 later on this year, G-d willing) at which casting opportunities are fewer and much further between, I still look at casting calls that come my way via the Internet or e-mail.  One never knows, after all, unless one looks.  And so I did see the recent casting call for the current Broadway musical hit "Hamilton," which proudly and boldly announced that they were looking for "NONWHITE ACTORS ONLY."

Well.  Far be it from me to go where I'm not wanted.  Actually, I did not have a problem with the basic intention behind this specification.  I have known for a long time that, for purely artistic reasons, race can be an is a bona-fied occupational qualification (to use the legal language).  And I completely get what Lin-Manuel Miranda is trying to do in telling the story of Alexander Hamilton in rap music.  And the principles of non-traditional casting have no greater advocate than me.

In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, I have not only been an advocate of non-traditional casting, but an actual non-traditional actor.  Sixteen years ago, in a community-theater production of Craig Lucas' "Prelude To A Kiss," I played three minor roles:  a bartender, a clergyman, and a Jamaican waiter.  I did not, repeat NOT, play the role in "blackface," nor did I make any attempt to simulate an African accent.  For the sake of simplifying the demands of the production and its casting, we simply hypothesized the existence of a white Jamaican waiter, and had me play the role (which lasted less than one scene, as did the other two roles).

Still, I have to wonder.  The "Hamilton" casting call controversy makes me think back not only to my own earlier experiences as an actor, but also to an even earlier controversy:  the one involving the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon," in which the mixed-race role of the Engineer was cast with a Caucasian actor, Jonathan Pryce.  There were protests from members of the theater community, especially Asian members, but those protests led to counter-protests that ultimately allowed Pryce to go on in the role (and win a Tony award, to boot).

I think that this was the right outcome, for a number of reasons.  To begin with, the role that Pryce was playing was, as I mentioned, a mixed-race role.  Such a role all by itself raises the disturbing question of whether only a mixed-race actor should be allowed to play such a role.  Perhaps more disturbingly, it raises the question of why such a role should only be played by an Asian actor.  If the argument is that only an Asian actor can give a true artistic interpretation of an Asian character, isn't it fair to say that an Asian actor is, at best, only interpreting half the character?

Ultimately, however, the real point is this.  Freedom is freedom.  It means the freedom to cast "non-white" actors in "white roles," as "Hamilton" does.  But it should also mean the freedom to cast white actors in non-white roles.  So long as it is done within the framework of an artistic vision that is not based on the portrayal or perpetuation of stereotypes and other forms of racial slander, there should be no objection.  In fact, it has already happened:  Patrick Stewart once played "Othello" as the only white actor with an otherwise all-black cast.  And did so without adapting the text of the play to the casting.  It would be hard to be more race-neutral than that.

The minute I read the "Hamilton" casting call, I knew they were going to be hammered.  And rightly so--not for their intentions, but for the obliviousness of their approach.  One can argue for and practice non-traditional casting without using the type of discriminatory language that was once routinely and unjustly used against people of color.  That's what the people behind "Hamilton" should have done.  Let's hope that they've learned that lesson.  And let's all hope for a theater one day in which the only thing that truly matters in casting is whether a given actor is right for the part as an individual, and not as a member of any group, unless artistic demands say otherwise.

Why Does The Future Belong To The Democrats?

In two words:  single women.  Put simply, there are more women than men--there always have been--and there are now more single women in the United States then their have ever been.  What does the modern Republican Party have to offer them?

No reproductive rights.  In fact, no access to family planning and related health services at all.  No increase in the minimum wage.  No paid family leave.  No rights in the workplace whatsoever.  No protections against gender discrimination in any form.  No financial security in their retirement years.  And, increasingly, not even the ability to vote.

The Republican Party's message to women is this:  "Sorry, honey, you're not the demographic we're interested in chasing.  At least not politically, heh heh heh."  No, they're interested in chasing a much different demographic--one that is dying, even as we speak.

The future belongs to Democrats because the future belongs to women.  That's where "a woman's place" truly is.  The Republican Party will discover that or die.  I'm fine with either outcome.

What Makes A Landmark A Landmark?

When I was at Oberlin, I was fortunate to have as one of my professors Ellen Johnson, arguably the most respected scholar and critic of modern art.  During my college years, she was interviewed for a campus publication by one of her colleagues (and another one of my professors), Richard Spear.  He asked her at one point about how she went about evaluating a new work, posing the question of whether it was as simple as asking "Do I like it?"  She responded by saying that it was more a question of "how long do I like it?"

That's a quote that's stayed with me over the years, partly for its simplicity and partly because of its essential truth.  So much of what makes a work of art a true classic is, very simply, how long do we like it.  It has come back to me as my interest in historic theaters has evolved over the years, and it was brought to mind by this article by the historic movie theaters of Cuba.

These buildings are early 1960s, jet-set, "Mad Men"-era buildings, a far cry architecturally from the miniature Neoclassical palaces I worshiped in my younger days (and still do).  But I have found, over time, that I have fallen in love with them as much as I did with their predecessors.  The style is different, as is the history they evoke, but each are powerful and real in their own way.  They deserve to be saved, along with much of historic Havana (which I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting in 2003).

I worry that the eventual lifting of our embargo against the country (which is now inevitable) will probably destroy much of Cuba's history.  But I hope I'm wrong.  In any case, now that travel restrictions have been lifted, get there as soon as you can, before their is a Starbucks on every corner.

The Republican Party Is Interested In Nothing--Except Power

Mitch McConnell's ludicrously dishonest and unconstitutional attempt to hijack the Supreme Court nomination process has taken me to a place that may not be obvious to most people.  Specifically, it took me back to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as "expressed" in the conservative media.  With the nation in shock and two of America's greatest cities bleeding and broken, the members of the right-wing chattering class did the obvious thing, at least to them:  blame Bill Clinton, who hadn't been in office for almost eight months, as opposed to George W. Bush, the then-sitting President who had been warned the month before about an attack on the U.S. by Osama bin Laden, and used the month to clear brush on his ranch.

Why?  Because they didn't care about the dead.  About the broken cities.  About the loss sense of innocence and invulnerability.  About the chickens coming home to roost from more than six decades of bipartisan manipulation of the Middle East for the sake of its underground dead dinosaurs.  No, what they saw in our nation's misery and fear was an opportunity to rally American around a new international bogeyman, something they hadn't been able to do since the end of the Cold War.  In short, they were only concerned about power.  Their power.  Over everything else.

This pattern asserted itself throughout the Bush years, as they torched any concern for balancing the budget, believing in the power of perpetual tax cuts and perpetual war, and led us into the financial disaster of 2008.  Didn't matter.  Washington bailed them out. Then Barack Obama and the Democrats won, tried to bail the American people out and, lo and behold, suddenly the authors of the financial disaster were "job-creators" who required a balanced budget to feel secure about creating jobs.  Inconsistency?  Of course.  Doesn't matter to the hypocrites behind the inconsistency. They will do and say what ever they have to do in the short run, as long as it means that they can hang onto power.

Even Obama's re-election only fazed them for a little while, as polls told them they could win the second-term midterms if they stood stone-cold against immigration reform, regardless of what that did for their long-term electoral prospects.  Long-term?  Who's even going to be alive then?  (Only our grandchildren, knock on wood, but that's another story.)  This is all about today.  This is all about hanging on to those positions of power that make them part of the "Washington elite" they love to castigate to their followers.  This is all about, for now, hanging on to power.  Even if it means doing absolutely nothing in order to do it.

Now, they are doing it again.  Or, rather, Mitch McConnell is doing it again.  I strongly suspect, based on media accounts, that the majority of the Senate would at least want to give President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, at least a hearing and a vote.  And that's not surprising, given that a majority of the American people agree.  You have to wonder exactly how far even McConnell is willing to go with this, given that he's already told his up-for-re-election caucus members that they can say what they want if they have to separate themselves from Donald Trump as a presidential nominee.

But make no mistake.  McConnell's blockade of Garland is as unconstitutional as can be.  The Constitution gives the advice-and-consent power with regard to Supreme Court nominees to "the Senate."  To the whole Senate, not its majority leader.  The only thing worse is McConnell's oily characterization of his actions as being motivated by "principle."  The only "principle" that motivates McConnell is his desire to hang onto his very cushy job--the one he refuses to do.

Why has modern conservatism come down to this?  Why are they unable to do anything, even when they've been given power.  Simply put, they have fallen victim to the malaise that befalls other empires, be they nations or political parties.  They can no longer adapt.  Life is all about change, and, regardless of one's politics, one must adapt to that change or cease to exist.  Conservatives in Canada understand this:  they gave their nation universal health insurance, and are now giving it carbon taxation.  But not in the United States, the richest, most powerful nation in the world.

At least Barack Obama has shown he can adapt.  As pointed out by one commentator, his nomination of Garland, who may never sit on the Court, at least shows that he has learned that reaching out to Republicans as useless.  Better to show that you are determined to do their job, give them a nominee they've already approved in the past, and let them punch themselves to death over it.

That's why Obama's reputation is on the rebound, as shown in polls and the press.  Because he and the Democrats have learned to adapt.  Which is why the future belongs to them.  And not to Senator Turtle.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Global Leadership Can Come From The Smallest Places

Take the tiny island of Palau, a nation the size of Philadelphia and policing a portion of ocean the size of Texas. You can read about its efforts here.

The author points out the obvious, of course:  that what Palau is doing needs to be replicated all over the world if the efforts to save our oceans, and our planet, are to have any chance of succeeding.  But it also notes how Palau's efforts are inspiring other nations to take similar steps.

That fact alone should serve as a reminder that apathy is our greatest enemy, when it comes to fighting climate change or taking on any problem humans face anywhere.  It's easy to say that one person, or one country, can't solve a national or international problem.  It's harder to take the leap of faith that is required to get past the apathy of being "one person," and remembering that every worthwhile human endeavor has always started with "one person."  Or group. Or nation.

Somebody's got to start in order for the rest of us to finish.  Let's all strive to finish what Palau has started so magnificently.

Exposing The "Bread And Circuses" Strategy Of The Republican Party

Panem et circenses.  Bread and circuses.  That was the ancient Roman Empire's way of keeping the people--or, as they more likely thought of them, the "rabble"--at bay, so that they could go on and play in splendid and seemingly indefinite isolation.  Except that history--the very thing that modern conservatism has attempted to stop dead in its tracks--long ago decreed that nothing in the affairs of humans was ever intended to be indefinite.  People die.  Empires die.  And political movements die--all the more quickly, if they have nothing more to offer the people than bread and circuses.

Sometimes, it takes an avatar of a movement to publicly face the fact that it has not only run its course, but that it was never anything more in the first place than a grand distraction for the benefit of the privileged.  In this regard, meet Joe Scarborough, former Republican congressman from the age of Newt and current MSNBC host.  After decades of fealty to the grand cause of Ronald Reagan, he effectively admits that Reaganomics was a cruel hoax, a gambit to distract the middle class so that Wall Street could effectively loot it of its post-New Deal gains.

Even more impressive, he explains the role that "social issues" play in this process.  Republican attention to "social issues" is merely dog-whistle politics, designed to get the middle class to look the other way while they are being looted.  Scarborough mentions abortion, guns, and gay marriage, although he doesn't mention what I would call the ultimate social issue.  But I'll save that for a future post.

Scarborough's surprising admission should be seen that the nation, like California ahead of it, is finding its future on the left side of politics.  And the right has no business griping about it.  It has pushed the nation every step of the way in that direction, with policies that offer plenty of bread for the 1% and little more than circuses for the rest of us.  Its moment has come--to gracefully step off the stage for a time, or to be thrown off by the people whom it has betrayed.  I've got a pretty good idea of what the choice is going to be.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

California, Once Again, Leads The Way--To The Left

Over the past few years, I've posted on this blog frequently about the progress California has made during that same period.  Once a state that seemed to perpetually exist on the edge of the insolvency, California has run a series of surpluses that have enabled it to plan proactively for its future and the challenges it faces.  Not coincidentally, all of this good news has been generated during a period in which California has not only had a Democratic governor--Jerry Brown, in one of the greatest second acts in the history of American politics--but a Democratic legislature with a two-thirds majority. I guess that proves how much you can accomplish when you don't have Republicans getting in the way.

California was not always like this.  True, in the 1960s and 1970s, it helps to launch a major countercultural revolution.  But its statewide politics during that period were resolutely and reflexively conservative.  In fact, it was in California in 1978 that the anti-tax mood of the nation first began to gather steam with the passage of Proposition 13, a property-tax cut measure that helped to launch the fiscal problems that bedeviled the Golden State for much of the past 20 years.  It's fair to say that the so-called Reagan Revolution was launched in the state governed by the Gipper for eight years.

Indeed, during Reagan's subsequent presidency, conservative commentators like George Will were fond of citing California as the nation's bellweather, and viewed its launching of the tax revolt as the harbinger of a conservative revolution that would dominate national politics for decades to come.  As Will is fond of saying, in contradiction to commonly-received wisdom, "Well."  I would agree with him that California is a bellweather of national trends, including political ones.  But I think that California's recent history suggests how quickly trends can change.

Why did California suddenly flip in politics from red to blue?  Some have attributed it to then-governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigration crackdown of the 1990s.  Some have also attributed it to the Rodney King assault by police, documented via television for a national audience.  Some have attributed it to the threats presented by climate change to a coastal state whose economic and social life depend so heavily on proximity to water (including drinking and irrigation water piped in from other states).

I don't think there's any one factor that explains the change.  But I do think there's one thing to which all of the factors are related, and that perhaps binds them together conceptually as well.  We have lived for the past four decades in an era in which our ability to live with a reduced level of government involvement in our lives has been tested severely.  In the process, we have discovered that perhaps less government is not all by itself better government. We need strong government at all levels of our federal system to ensure that the freedoms promised to us by the Framers of our Constitution can be exercised in a meaningful way.

Government should provide us with a floor through which we cannot fall, and a ceiling through which public menaces cannot reach.  As long as it does those things, and otherwise lets us have the freedom to move around as we wish, it doesn't matter how "big" or how "small" government is.  All that matters is that we, the people, have the ability to keep it headed in the direction we want it to go. Sometimes, the nature of our problems may push us to the right but, other times, it may lead us back to the left.

We are in one of those times in which the problems we face--changes of a global nature, involving diverse populations and world-wide upheavals--are best dealt with by governments attuned to the nature of those problems and the best ways to solve them.  By definition, those problems are not ones that lend themselves to market-based solutions.  They lend themselves to those with the knowledge and experience to make government work as effectively as possible.  That's why our national politics, and California's politics, have shifted leftward.  They have done so in response to the specific challenges America faces in the early 21st century.

And, as long as the problems we face remain ones that are best addressed by government at all levels, you can expect more stories like this one to come out of California.  And you can also expect the things California tries to not only work, but to spread across the nation as well.  Sorry, George.  That's the problem with bellweathers.  Bells can swing in both directions and, right now, California is helping to swing America to the left.

Building A Baltimore Transit System, One Tunnel At A Time

This article about putting restaurants and other retail establishments in the Columbus Circle station of the New York subway system made me think, once again, about the state of public transportation here in Baltimore, where we have two rail systems--a light-rail line that runs north-south and connects the city as well as the  northern and southern suburbs, and a subway system that connects the city with the northwestern suburbs.

Trouble is, they don't directly connect with each other.  And there's no reason that they couldn't, as each system has a station that is only a few hundred feet from the other.

Why not build an underground tunnel to connect those two stations (State Center on the subway, and Cultural Center on the light-rail), and fill it with retail, restaurants, and even London-style buskers? Why not use the revenue generated by such a tunnel toward reviving the Red Line, and using that revenue to pay for the state's portion of the project?  Why not then find ways to use the Red Line to generate more revenue, say, by installing solar panels at each station, with the money to be put toward further expansion of the rail system.  In time, Baltimore could stop being the largest city in the Northeastern United States without a public rail transit system.

This is the kind of thinking that needs a William Donald Schaefer, not a Larry Hogan.  If only we had someone who could say "Do it now!"  And get it done.

Drugs Have Won In More Ways Than We Thought

As I have said previously, in the so-called war on drugs, drugs have won, hands down.  When I wrote that, I was referring, of course, to deal with the scourge of drug use in our society with a military response--one that has simply escalated the amount of money needed by the sellers to sell their "products," and, correspondingly, the price that desperate people are willing to pay in order to get them.  It has devasted whole neighborhoods, incarcerated millions of people who could otherwise have been law-abiding citizens, and taken billions of dollars away from othe public priorities.

And, as it turns out, none of this was by accident.  According to one of Richard Nixon's chief henchmen-in-office, John Ehrlichman, it was all a plot to stigmatize African-Americans and the anti-Vietnam-war effort, to delegitimize their grievances so that they could rally the conservative white vote to their cause.

The veracity of this story has been disputed in the media.  But, honestly, how unlikely is it that the gang responsible for Watergate would have come up with something like this?  For that matter, how unlikely is it that the acknowledged authors of the so-called "Southern strategy" would have done so? It fits right in with their overall thinking and tactics.  And, given the fact that those incarcerated by the "war on drugs" are overwhelmingly African-American, one would have to conceed that it has been devastatingly successful for conservatives--and deadly for everyone else.

Perhaps Ehrlichman's admission should be the last nail in the coffin of the war on drugs.  It's time to end this war once and for all, before it ends us.  Deal with drugs as we should deal with all public health issues, with treatment and therapy, and not with guns and bars.

ALL Lives Matter, Chris Rock

Even though it's been a while since I've posted on here, there's something that's been nagging at me for a while, and it's worth discussing in any case.  And that's last month's Academy Awards ceremony, and its handling of the controversy surrounding the lack of African-American nominees.

In the context of controversies such as this one, I'm not a huge fan of boycotts.  To me, boycotts only have power when they have the effect of taking power out of the hands of the people whose actions you are protesting.  That's why, for example, economic boycotts are the most effective kind, because they hit people where they can hurt the most--in their pocketbooks.  On the other hand, boycotting an event, such as an election (Bernie Sanders fans, take note), simply means that you're not there to influence an outcome you may have to live with for a long time.  It's less of a meaningful protest and more of a temper tantrum.

So I was glad the Chris Rock was going to host this year's Oscar telecast.  Better to have someone there who can take on the controversy with no-holds-barred jokes and satire, than to have someone who would try to largely paper it over, so that the only meaningful sign of the controversy at the event is a few empty seats.  And, on that count, Chris Rock did deliver.  And, for the most part, the live audience at the ceremony loved it.

Unfortunately, with Chris Rock or, for that matter, with any comedian who lives to push the proverbial envelope, the envelope sometimes gets shredded.  Take, for example the segment in which he interviewed moviegoers coming out of a multiplex in a largely African-American neighborhood, and asked them about various nominated movies and people.  The joke was supposed to be that none of these people had ever heard of them, based supposedly on the larger "truth" that blacks go only to "black" movies, while whites only go to "white" movies.

Really, Chris?  You've been to every screening of "Brooklyn" and found not a single African-American? You've been to every screening of "Straight Outta Compton" and not found a single white person. When it comes to our moviegoing, we're all just trying as hard as we can to re-create South Africa in the old days?  Says who?  Based on what?  Do you even understand that you're just doing more to divide us?  Aren't we divided enough without that?

And, as if that wasn't enough, there was that ridiculous skit involving the introduction of "auditors" from Pricewaterhousecoopers--three Asian children, one with a Jewish name.  Great.  Not only do we have, trotted out for our amusement, the stereotype of super-smart-in-math Asians, but we get the Jewish "moneychanger" stereotype thrown in for good-or-bad-measure.  And Chris, seemingly aware of how squirm-worthy the moment was, made it more so by saying that, if you were uncomfortable with the joke, just remember that kids like these build your cell phones.

Which made his shouting out of the "Black Lives Matter" slogan at the end of the telecast utterly powerless.  Black lives matter, ultimately because all lives matter.  You can't fight the hard bigotry that African-Americans face with the soft bigotry of so-called "positive" stereotypes about other ethnic groups.  Stereotypes of any sort demean and debase us all, by preventing us from looking at individuals and treating them with individual respect.  Not all Asians or Jews are good at math, just as not all African-Americans are good at basketball.  And yes, we do watch movies outside of our experience--because we are all hungry to learn more about the experiences of others.

Shame on you, Chris, and the writers who thought that these jokes and skits were funny.  They were not.  They did not bridge the awful divide in this country that only seems to get bigger with each passing day.  I fear that they may only have helped to make it larger.

But come back next year and try again.  And next time, try to find ways to make all of us laugh at the same time.