Saturday, 14 January 2017

Bammy Bound

It was a year ending in 7 when the President nominated a serving Senator from Alabama to serve on the US Supreme Court. To most who knew him, Hugo Black was a relatively liberal Deep South Democrat who had supported Franklin Roosevelt's 'court-packing plan' the previous year. Few, if any, outside Alabama knew that he had been in the Ku Klux Klan prior to taking his seat in the US Senate, and Black took to the airwaves to smooth over the controversy following the revelation. In any case, it was too late: thanks to the principle of senatorial courtesy, the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved Black's appointment, after which his Senate colleagues, for the most part, voted to send one of their own to the nation's highest court.

And now, here we are, in a year ending in 7, and the President-Elect has nominated a serving Senator from Alabama to become his Attorney General. No-one has suggested that Jeff Sessions was ever in the KKK, but his track record on the race issue has already proved controversial, not least because he was previously denied a federal judgeship in 1986 over similar concerns. If ever there had been KKK membership, or another explosive secret from his past, the age of mass media would no doubt have uncovered it by now. But what is known about Sessions's politics has proved sufficient for his colleague, Cory Booker of New Jersey, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to his confirmation as Attorney General.

It is an unprecedented move for one Senator to testify against the appointment of another to such a position, and one which raises questions about the very notion of 'senatorial courtesy' in the twenty-first century. In 1937, when Hugo Black was confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, senatorial courtesy was a relatively straightforward affair. For one thing, they didn't have African American Senators who might object to an Attorney General calling African American men 'boy,' nor did they have to consider such an important appointment in the aftermath of the first African American Presidency (which also involved the appointment of the first African American Attorney General). Less straightforward now is the question of how the Judiciary Committee will interpret 'senatorial courtesy' in a twenty-first century post-Obama form. 

It may be that Cory Booker's conduct is inappropriate because he should not openly oppose one of his Senate colleagues ... let's not forget that Senate confirmation hearings were relatively private affairs in 1937, and nothing like the interactive media circus that we recognize in 2017. Furthermore, it seems significant that Sessions was, until his nomination, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee now scrutinizing him. On the other hand, 'senatorial courtesy' ought to refer not only to Senators respecting Sessions over Booker's objections ... it should also refer to Senators respecting Booker's objections, as he too, is one of their own. It would be rather like the nineteenth century, when a Senator could describe a Supreme Court nominee from his home state as 'personally obnoxious' to him, and other Senators would support his position out of respect.

It could be that senatorial courtesy is no longer relevant. In any case, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham will be one to watch. As a polite man and a fellow Southerner, he may well sympathize with Sessions, but, as one of the most vocal Senate critics of Donald Trump, it is unlikely that he will relish the opportunity to use his influential position to support the President-Elect.

James O.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The End of a Lie

Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 Presidential Election provides a wonderful opportunity to re-examine some of the myths that have persisted during the Obama era. That era will now conclude, rather bitterly, with the man who supposedly 'ended' racism handing over the White House to a man who seems to have legitimised it once again for a huge number of people.

MYTH #1: Obama's election in 2008 would lead to the 'end' of racism.

This one was thought up in a moment of madness by British historian Simon Schama, who, like millions of other middle-aged people with an interest in politics, looked at Barack Obama and thought he was re-living his youth. Although most people of that generation gave up on 'the dream' back in about 1970, when they cut their hair and got into real estate and paid through the nose for their kids to go to the best schools, they were only too happy to re-claim the old ideology and pat themselves on the back for getting the ball rolling back in the 1960s. In fact, Obama's election was an even bigger lie than that. I sat and watched the television that evening, thinking I was watching the credits roll at the end of a Hollywood movie, and knew what must be painfully evident today, which is that people voted for Obama for the sake of their own consciences, and for the purposes of passing themselves off as 'decent' people. It was clear there and then that 'I voted for Obama' would soon be joining 'I'm a Christian' and 'I always send a thank-you note' in the long list of hilarious arguments offered every day in America as qualifications for being a 'good' person. Perhaps more importantly, 'I voted for Obama' also offered a Get Out Of Jail Free card for those who wished to vote idiotically in future elections. With ammunition like that, it's relatively easy to decline to support a well-qualified African American candidate because 'we did that before and look what happened' but vote for an idiotic bigot such as Donald Trump because 'we're taking our country back.' Back from what, exactly?

Whatever it is, they have achieved it. And how we have the horrifying, yet predictable sight of sweaty white men with names like 'Cory' and 'Todd' screaming with joy until their faces turn purple, while wearing that inexplicable and uniquely American combination of a suit and a baseball cap.

MYTH #2: The Republican Party is in crisis/chaos.

This became a popular one after Obama's re-election in 2012, and it is interesting to examine the evidence. The Republicans now control the Presidency, the Senate and, by a huge majority, the House of Representatives. They also have more Governors. If anything, their 'crisis' has only aided them in winning elections, and the 'chaos' seems to have facilitated their success in achieving power. In 2010, halfway through Obama's first term, the Republicans secured 242 seats in the House of Representatives (to the Democrats' 193). Six years on, according to the latest results, the Democrats have gained only seven seats. Of the twenty-one Republican Senators elected in 2010, nineteen have been re-elected. Only one has lost, and the other is in a very tight race where the winner has yet to be declared.

MYTH #3: America is not ready for a female President.

There might be some truth in this, but it can never be taken seriously if the only examples on offer are Hillary Clinton's loss to Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries of 2008 and her loss to Donald Trump in the Presidential Election of 2016. The only credible conclusion is that America does not want Hillary Clinton to be President. Furthermore, it was quite predictable that any Democratic candidate who was incapable of building on Obama's achievements in increasing turnout in 2008 was probably doomed to failure, unless of course the Republicans nominated a truly toxic candidate. As we have seen, the Republicans did nominate a truly toxic candidate but even that wasn't enough to generate excitement for Hillary Clinton.

MYTH #4: Thanks to Obama's impact, the Republican Party now has no choice but to reach out to non-white voters.

Indeed, which is why they have just won the White House and both Houses of Congress with a ticket headed by a man who has proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, referred to Mexicans as rapists, and spoken of uppity blacks being dealt with the 'old-fashioned' way. One might also wonder how he managed to win the state of North Carolina, which was secured by Barack Obama in 2008 thanks to a huge black turnout. I haven't looked at the statistics yet but it seems logical that Donald Trump won this state (as did Mitt Romney - remember him? - in 2012) thanks to massively reduced black voting but a healthy turnout among disgruntled whites. And are we to believe that Trump swept the Midwest and the South by appealing to non-White voters? 

It is also worth pointing out that MYTH #4 was alive and well at that ridiculous conference I attended in New Orleans (see blog entry from January 2015, entitled 'The Big Not-So-Easy').

MYTH #5: The Tea Party era (2009/10) is well and truly over.

All of the Senators who won election in 2010 as 'Tea Party' candidates have just secured second terms, including Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey and Marco Rubio. They will not face re-election until 2022. As noted above, 2010 saw the election of a great many Republicans in the House, and the loss of seven seats has merely dented the party's ironclad control over that body in 2016.

MYTH #6: Nate Silver is a genius.

He isn't. Someone who predicts the US Presidential Election of 2012 correctly is clearly bright. But someone who predicts a hung Parliament as the outcome of the UK General Election of 2015, and a Hillary Clinton win in the US Presidential Election of 2016 is definitely not a genius. There will no doubt be another round of semi-apologetic, semi-defensive pieces from pollsters and political commentators, similar to those that appeared after Trump secured the nomination and they all had to explain why they'd been so smug and skeptical. There will probably be comments about huge numbers of Trump voters who were not polled, or voters who said they would vote for Hillary because they were too ashamed to admit they would vote for Trump. But isn't it part of their job to anticipate this kind of thing?

Dr. James O.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The Struggle

Creative people have to struggle. Academics have to struggle. Performers have to struggle. If you've done those things without struggling, then you're probably on the wrong side of history.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

LOST: Black and white photo of Thurgood Marshall smoking, from 1967

Please help me find this photo of Thurgood Marshall at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in July 1967. The photo was taken by Wally McNamee and originally published in The Washington Post, and it seems to have disappeared because no-one knows where it is.

(Wally McNamee/Washington Post)

You're probably wondering why I am looking for something that is right here on this blog post. The reason is that, although I do have the photograph in digital form, I cannot reproduce it in my book on South Carolina's Senators and the Supreme Court nomination process, which is being published next year, because no-one seems to be able to grant permission for it. No-one at The Washington Post has it, no-one at Getty Images has it, and no-one who administers Wally McNamee's online archive has it. 

Yet it was used in Juan Williams's biography of Thurgood Marshall, published in 2007, and more recently, in a review article, written by Professor Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, and published in, er ... The Washington Post in September 2015. And, er, again last week in another Washington Post article authored by DeNeen Brown.

On both occasions, it was credited to Wally McNamee/Washington Post, but I am in the unusual position of not being able to reproduce it because no-one appears to be able to grant permission. It seems strange that these three writers were able to obtain permission to use it when no-one, apparently, can grant that permission. It is equally strange that anyone can claim ownership over a photo when no-one appears to know where it is.

So, if anyone out there can assist by helping me find the photo, or even enlighten me as to who I may approach for clarification on permission and usage, then please do not hesitate to let me know. God knows, I've tried everything else.

Many thanks
Dr James O.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Mars Drink

The poster in the surgery said, drink a pint a day
The man on the TV said, order an extra one
But the woman from the government took it away
And people hated her
Then she took away everything else
People hated her even more
But we still got the Mars drink.

My father-in-law milked cows when he was a boy
He used to point an udder at the local tom cat
And squirt a long jet into his open mouth
He thought it was for the cat
The cat thought it was for him
And I thought it was for me

And never again will I drink the Mars drink.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Welcome home, Honeysuckle

This week, I read in the newspapers that the actress Honeysuckle Weeks went missing. Naturally, her friends and family were concerned, as 'it just isn't like her' to disappear. Fortunately, Honeysuckle was found safe and well at a 'relative's home' in London very shortly afterwards. Her sister Perdita has announced on Twitter that Honeysuckle is now safe and well.

Honeysuckle the actress. Perdita the sister. Chichester in West Sussex. I do not belong in this world. In fact, I feel that I shouldn't even be reading about it, let alone commenting on it. Nonetheless, I applaud the news media for keeping us informed of what's happening in other worlds.

The last thing Honeysuckle needs right now is a bloke with a name like James, from somewhere like Devon, toasting her recovery with a cheap glass that he will probably forget to hold by the stem. Nonetheless, I wish her well.

James O.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

A Musical Interlude

The folks at the BBC love putting on these 'theme' shows of bands playing. Tonight it's 'psychedelia.' Most of these clips have been shown again and again and you can sometimes even spot the bits where Jimmy Savile has been removed, but they're still fun to watch. I have been told that I know a lot about music, and while there my be some truth in that, I have never really found an outlet for this alleged wisdom, other than some chats in the pub or a few off-the-cuff remarks at home, in my inimitable style.

I've come in ten minutes late and it's Procal Harum doing 'A Whiter Shade of Pale.' I seem to recall some court case over the songwriting royalties. Surely Bach deserved the biggest cut out of this one?

The Who doing 'I Can See For Miles.' This bizarre late 1960s trend of the fast editing with the zoom effect is intriguing ... Were they doing this to enhance the effect of the music as it was being heard by people they assumed to be on acid? Funnily enough, I've been listening to The Who a bit recently. They're one of those bands that have many 'best ofs' and greatest hits compilations but none of them seem to do justice to what the group was really about. I've always admired the way that John Entwistle really used to hammer those strings. And although I like Keith Moon's drumming, I know nothing whatsoever about how he learned to play, and from whom.

Donovan doing 'Hurdy Gurdy Man.' Yes. Donovan. Even his name sounds like doom. For me, it is hard to hear this guy without thinking of him turning up in Frank Zappa's lyrics. Although it's very famous, I don't think I've actually heard this song before. There's something quite sinister and appealing about it. The only Donovan moment I've heard previously and liked is Martin Scorsese's use of 'Atlantis' in Goodfellas.

Oh my God. The Nice doing Leonard Bernstein's 'America.' RIP Keith Emerson - another terrible loss from 2016. Brian Davsion on drums - I think he's a music teacher now. I think that Bernstein tried to ban this version of his tune because he saw it as an anti-American statement. Which is fair enough, given that they burned the American flag at one of their gigs (or a paper painting of the flag, anyway).

Julie Driscoll. I remember my Mum saying she wanted that look back then. Brian Auger always reminded me of a psychedelic Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. Here is another example of someone covering a Bob Dylan song and coming up with something that I find more pleasant to listen to than the man himself. Funnily enough, my Wal fretless bass was made in 1985 for a guy who played bass with Brian Auger, and it got stolen. Don't tell anyone I've got it, will you.

Which reminds me ... I did have the pleasure of meeting the legendary Pete 'The Fish' Stevens, one of the two guys behind the Wal business. It was late 2006 and Pete was running the business himself from his workshop in High Wycombe (Ian Waller died in 1988). I needed to get the wiring in my bass fixed so I took the train from Marylebone and he picked me up in his car to take me down to the workshop. At one point, he gave me some cash and sent me down to a shop to get batteries. He charged me a ridiculously cheap price for the repairs and even put on a new set of strings before dropping me off at the station. It turns out that it was his sixtieth birthday that day - I told him that I wished I'd known as I could have got him a card or bought him a drink but he said not to worry - he'd have a few drinks later. He had a loud smoker's laugh, which I heard when I told him the story of Alan Spenner arriving in Switzerland to play on one of Bryan Ferry's albums and being so drunk that he needed to be taken through the airport in a wheelchair. Anyway, Pete is dead now, and I was incredibly fortunate to have met one of the guys who built my bass guitar. And I think the same set of strings is still on it ...

Status Quo. With keyboard player. Apparently, he left the band by just getting off a train and not telling the others. They looked around and he was gone. Then they went on to have colossal success.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. I'm told that he lives in Lewes in Sussex. And there's Carl Palmer - later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer - on drums, his face concealed by that mask. Arthur should have been as big as Iggy Pop. He still plays, apparently.

Joe Cocker. It's difficult not to be reminded of Charlie Chuck, the eccentric Northern comedian, but that's probably just me. John Belushi was funny doing impressions of this guy, but Michael Chiklis was not funny when playing John Belushi doing impressions of this guy. This is basically a soul version of one of the less interesting Beatles numbers, with lots of shouting. Apparently, he's from Sheffield. And here we have the fast editing with zoom again. I suppose the 1960s was a very experimental decade, and there's always something to be said for that.

And now The Small Faces doing 'Song of a Baker.' It's from Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, one of the few important sixties albums I haven't heard. Having said that, I've never heard The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks, and I've only got round to hearing The Who Sell Out recently. This is a good tune but I prefer Steve Marriott's voice to Ronnie Lane's, although I'm sure that both were nice blokes. Kenney Jones miming drums - that never looks right. There's a clip of Charlie Watts doing it it, and - as with Jones here - he's forgotten the specific fills on the record.

The Moody Blues doing 'Ride My See Saw.' Ah yes, a bit of Birmingham. These guys used to meet at Alex's pie stand, which used to be just down the road from this flat. They're still going, I think, and they tour the world. I've tried hard to get into them but I don't know, it just doesn't hold my attention. Having said that, Days of Future Past is a brilliant album, and the mixture of pop and classical music works amazingly well. Justin Hayward is playing a sunburst and white Fender Telecaster, and John Lodge is playing a Fender Precision with what looks like a tortoiseshell scratch plate. Geezers, the pair of them.

The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. There was something here I just didn't get. Frank and the Mothers yes, but not this. I'm trying to spot Neil Innes - is that him on guitar? And The Incredible String Band. Never been down this road before but then I've never been into this spliff and bongo stuff. It's like Leonard Cohen but without the added attraction of it being Leonard Cohen. Still, any band that makes Leonard Cohen seem attractive is achieving something.

More Birmingham now with The Move doing 'I Can Hear the Grass Grow.' My God. Any song with a line like 'my head's attracted to a magnetic wave of sound' is worth a listen. Good harmonies. Trevor Burton handling bass duties following the departure of Ace Kefford. My uncle knows Burton, and I've seen him play a couple of times. Bev Bevan on live drums. I haven't seen this clip before - unlike so many of these others, which I've seen hundreds of times - but I've seen them doing 'Blackberry Way,' from the same performance.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Stone dead, the lot of them. I think that Noel Redding is a very underrated bass player. And here we have Mitch Mitchell, who, like John Densmore of The Doors, is a good example of a jazz drummer who made the transition to rock - I think he continued playing traditional grip on some numbers. And this is 'Hey Joe,' which had already been done by Tim Rose, who was crackers but 'Morning Dew' is a classic.

And this is Cream, and it looks like their farewell gig at the Albert Hall. Eric Clapton is the only one who looks sober. I have always liked 'White Room' but I've never bothered to figure out what it's about.

And The Moody Blues again, with Justin Hayward playing a sitar. As with the earlier clip, this is from Late Night Line-Up. God, how bizarre.

It just goes to show, doesn't it, that there's always something to talk about. I like to.


James O.