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.

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.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Alan Vega's Dead

I must pay tribute to Alan Vega, the legendary singer of Suicide. I've been listening to his music since I was about eighteen, and I remember fondly my high five with him when I was in the audience at their show at The Garage in London back in 2000. Vega was punk before punk, and punk during punk but he was so punk that he didn't even like the term 'punk' - for him, being called a punk was hardly a compliment. For him, the punk was the guy who runs away from a fight. Perhaps this reflected the thoughts of an older generation, but then that was the most punk thing about him - he was 39 in 1977 and he'd been doing his thing for years. As with Can, Wire, Robert Quine and others, Vega is a man before, during and after his time.

Punk did that. It discovered and scooped up many people who had been on the fringes of the creative world for some time. In the creative world, as in any other world, there is a tendency toward tribalism, and some people don't belong in tribes, nor do they thrive in them. Vega knew this. I remember an interview with him, where he and Martin Rev (the other half of Suicide) were talking about their free jazz influences, and Vega said something of the order of 'who the f*** listens to Cecil Taylor now?' That interview is the reason I found out who Cecil Taylor is, and why his albums are in my collection. One might ask, 'who the f*** listens to Alan Vega now?' I remember how underwhelmed I was by ARE Weapons, as their sound was so obviously modeled on that of Suicide, and they didn't care. Vega didn't care, but he was original with it.

I suppose the man himself would probably sum up all this up by saying:

Alan Vega's dead
Vega Vega Vega Vega Vega baby
Alan Vega's dead
Vega Vega Vega Vega Vega baby yeah
He's up in the sky
Ah why why why
He's up in the sky - ugh!
Awww because he's a dead guy
Alan Vega's dead
Vega Vega baby
Aw listen ... listen ... listen
Vega Vega Vega Vega Vega baby

And so on. Rest in peace.

Bestest wishes
James O.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

My Father-in-Law, the Marxist

 When I was a boy, my father had told me:
‘Take a woman by the waist and a bottle by the neck’
He knew about this because he was a builder
And furthermore … a builder from Penge

My first Sunday lunch with my future in-laws
They lifted their glasses so I did the same
The booming Shostakovich (or someone) surrounded the five of us
Then my father-in-law told me to hold my glass by the stem
Otherwise only four of the five glasses would clink
I was the only one who couldn’t sing in Russian
I was the only one not holding the stem

Standing outside in the semi-detached air
The swelling in my gut subsided and I rolled a cigarette
After a meal … the best time to have one
I think it was Marx who said ‘you don’t strike a match on butter’
I inhaled smoke and stared at the house across the road
And then it hit me …
Take a woman to the opera and a glass by the stem
My father-in-law knew about this because he was a Marxist
Albeit a Marxist from Penge

Sunday, 10 July 2016

New Stock

The young man was leafing through a sports magazine when the bell rang. He looked up and examined the strange man entering the store but the man didn’t notice and approached the counter. The owner stood up.

‘Morning. Haven’t seen you before. What can I do for you?’

‘I need some aspirin.’

‘Aspirin, oh gee. Gee, I don’t know, we’re kind of out of aspirin. I’ve never been too good on the drug stuff. We’re more of a convenience store than a drugstore, I guess.’

The owner smiled but none was forthcoming from the customer. The young man continued looking through the magazine, casting his eyes over a comprehensive review of new golf clubs.

‘New in town, huh? Well, it sure is nice to meet new people.’

The young man glanced up briefly, then turned the page to see an interview with the English golfer, Colin Montgomerie.

‘You know, I’m real sorry about the aspirin. Usually, we've got you covered. We got whatever you need right here. Take a look at these guys, they came in today.' He pulled a small stack of colorful boxes over to him. 'They're cookies, I guess. Or treats. Whatever you wanna call ‘em. To tell you the truth, I don't know what I should do with them. A friend of mine brought them in and said I should try them in the store. You in town for long?'

‘Sure. I moved in yesterday.'

‘Well, we got whatever you need. I guess I'll be seeing you around. I don't know. What do you think?'

The three of them looked down at the boxes.

'I'll take six.'
'Alrighty then.'

The man purchased the candy and left the shop, leaving the bell ringing behind him. The young man put down the magazine and approached the counter. He leaned forward to speak to the owner.

‘How did you do that?'

The store owner looked back at him, quizzically.

'Come on,’ said the young man. ‘Tell me your secret.'