Archives for category: Journalism

Last week I mentioned Maddow and O’Donnell, Penfriend’s Attention Engineer, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and BBC Radio 4’s Friday Night Comedy. This week I look at more music, some food, and more politics.

Martyn Ware’s Electronically Yours. Ware was a founding member of the Human League and Heaven 17, and his British Electrical Foundation project relaunched Tina Turner’s career in the early 80s. He mostly interviews his own contemporaries (Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Vince Jackson), but he’s gone farther afield with Sandie Shaw, and Tony Visconti. Sometimes he’s a little too fond of his own self, or he hasn’t yet decided to edit out his own meanderings, but in general the interviews are fascinating. In his interview with Tony Visconti, Ware admitted early on that Visconti had produced 12 of his 20 all time favourite albums, but he generally did a good job of letting Visconti tell the stories.

Home Cooking with Samin Nosrat (author of Salt Fat Acid Heat) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I learned of this great podcast from Hirway, I’m guessing – I think he must have mentioned at the end of an episode of one of his other podcasts, Song Exploder (which I also love). I didn’t know anything about Nosrat and her amazing cooking journey. The two of them started this podcast at the beginning of the pandemic with the idea that they’d do four episodes talking about their favourite foods and answering listener questions. Four has so far turned into 15. Really delightful and sweet. And mouthwatering.

I said I’d mention a political podcast, but in the last couple of weeks, I’ve not listened to much beyond Rachel and Lawrence. But in the category of longer form political discussion, I really like Stay Tuned with Preet Bharara. Bharara was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, fired at the beginning of the last administration. He is both articulate (not unexpected in a trial attorney) and an astute interviewer. His discussion with conservative columnist David Frum at the earlier this year was especially interesting.

Many podcasts ask you to rate and review in the various podcast places, but I thought I’d use this post to point to some of the stuff I listen to when I’m out on walks and the like. If I put it here, trust that I recommend it highly.

Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are my go-to folks for left-wing outrage. Capable journalists and engaging hosts. The podcasts are just the audio versions of their TV shows, but that’s fine. I used to listen to both of these just about every weekday, but I’ve dialed it back to two or three times per week, because times are hard and my outrage needs more effective channels. Back when times weren’t so bloody fraught, Maddow would make cocktails on air every now and then, and punctuate some shows with a segment called ‘Best New Thing In The World’ which was always nice. And then we got DJT and it’s not like that anymore. (about 45 minutes each)

Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4 Alternate series of The Now Show, The News Quiz, Dead Ringers and random BBC audio comedy. The Now Show is topical political humor with sketches, music, and pointed commentary. Skewers both left and right. The News Quiz is a scripted panel game show. Kinda like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, but shorter with a UK focus, natch. Dead Ringers is comedic takes on a number of British radio shows and a lot of the humor assumes you recognize the source material. I’d listened for several years before I actually knew who Diane Abbott was. (30 minutes)

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is NPR’s weekly news quiz – I’ve been listening to it for most of the 20+ years it’s been on the air. Obviously a US bent on these things. (45 minutes)

Attention Engineer – Musician Laura Kidd (formerly She Makes War, now Penfriend) interviews mostly other musicians about the creative process and being creative in these times. The first episodes were recorded in late 2019 and didn’t predict how crazy stuff would get. Check out one of her gorgeous new tracks, Black Car (The list of her podcast guests is on the right).
(Usually over an hour)

And if I have my act together, I’ll do another one of these next week.

 

I thought I would discuss this Atlantic article in the context of political love languages, but there are so many other problems with Conor Friedersdorf’s Take the Shutdown Skeptics Seriously that I’m just going to get into it as a political discussion.

Friedersdorf argues several points:

  • That the discussion isn’t as clear-cut as pro-human and pro-economy. However, he goes on to argue the pro-economy stance much of the way through.
  • That because we don’t know how long a solution will take, or if we will reach a solution, “Americans should carefully consider the potential costs of prolonged shutdowns lest they cause more deaths or harm to the vulnerable than they spare.”
  • That supply chain interruptions and a prolonged depression are equally great risks to life and not to be discounted.
  • That crashed healthcare and education systems are also hard to recover.

He cites Michael Klare’s warning in The Nation that “Even where supply chains remain intact, many poor countries lack the funds to pay for imported food,” he explained. “This has long been a problem for the least-developed countries, which often depend on international food aid” This is not new. Starvation and poor access  to food has always been a hazard because of (among other things) how international trade and exploitation are arranged now and have been since the admitted colonial times. (These places are still colonies – of multinationals now, not other countries, but still.) When we talk about developing/developed countries, there’s often the assumption of dependence on foreign assistance. The problem here is that there are so many internal and external forces at play that keep such countries in the ’not developed’ column. Using this as an excuse not to work on those issues is just a continuance of the problem.

And note the absence of discussion of the plague of locusts in Africa – no global locust watch dashboards but the problem still exists, and people will starve because of it.

Note, too, that there’s currently enough food gin the US supply chain if we’re processing it carefully and not sending it to China. The web of trade can’t be brought back but government stimulus – paying a fair wage for fair work harvesting the food that’s rotting on the vine right now and planting for the next season will feed more people. But again, it seems to be a matter in American politics and the US media that dividing people works in some folks’ favour, and bringing people together to support the effort and each other runs counter to that. This might be a dream that free people will do manual labor in the absence of other labor to do, or in the interest of the country not going underfed in a land of plenty.

The part of the article that really got my blood boiling is the assertion that this crashing economy won’t leave the healthcare systems standing, sourced to Esther O’Reilly’s Arc Digital article Economic Costs Are Human Costs. In the West, this is mostly a problem in the US where a large portion of the economy rests on a fragile but very lucrative system of people paying large sums of money to insurance companies on the slim chance those companies will take care of them in the event of catastrophe. Those companies have a bottom line dependent on not covering care in the event of catastrophe. This is the big hole in how the US economy works that Obama and many before him were trying to fix and now we’re seeing how that affects the rest of society. In the context of the pandemic, we find that we had an opportunity to meet the disaster head on by working with manufacturers to build up the stockpiles of ventilators and PPE that were going to be necessary. See above about the ease of dividing people rather than bringing together to meet the challenge.

Healthcare systems running out of cash on hand is one of the symptoms of poorly run healthcare (and a poorly run country, in my opinion) – or healthcare run on a for-profit basis. We can fight the virus and put the economy on hold if the money we’re borrowing to shore up the economy goes into fighting the disaster and to the people it needs to help. It’s the same with giving tax breaks at the top rather than minimum wage increases at the bottom. That wage increase gets plugged right back into the economy. But a few more people are fed first.

Stimulus works a lot better when it’s effectively directed as well. Hospitals (nursing homes, prisons, food processing plants), three months into this disaster, should have all the PPE they need. There were hundreds of ways to reconfigure our manufacturing base temporarily to address the situation in testing as well as equipment. We (the executive branch of the US government) simply didn’t and made excuses for not doing so. And continues to. Gracious, DJT. You can’t blame the system for that – you can, but we saw disaster on the horizon and decided not to prepare and identified who we’d sacrifice and which corporations would reap the benefit of stimulus packages that should have supported humans in need.

A final point in the article that made me scratch my head was this: ‘The shuttering of auto manufacturing plants led to an 85 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in the surrounding counties over seven years, according to a recent study.’ (The referenced article by Heather Mac Donald in The Spectator – https://spectator.us/consider-costs-coronavirus/ doesn’t cite a source for this statistic.) Friedersdorf is trying to argue about the social costs of a depression should this shutdown last too long. There’s a leap of logic here that I can’t fathom. Opioid deaths are also associated with the companies pushing the opioids, other healthcare issues associated with manufacturing and the holes in our healthcare system and the generally accepted disposability of workers in general in the US. Topic for another blog

And finally, I found this related sentiment on Facebook, but am having a time sourcing the original tweet:

medically-informed

We absolutely can do much better.

Rob Cox in Reuters argues that ‘China Does It’ is a bad antitrust argument (6-minute read). But before I get into the arguments the biggest companies in the US and Europe make for maintaining their monopolies, I want to talk about how we are able and not able to occupy space in society.

I’ve had two discussions in the last few days that I want to connect. In one, my friend was complaining about nudity at Dutch spas. Nudity is generally the norm at spas in the Netherlands unless it’s a rare kledingsdag (clothing day). My friend complained that one should be able to wear a swimsuit or not. The issue is not one of prudishness, but that my friend has a surgical scar that a swimsuit hides. It’s not even that the scar is problematic. It’s the threat of unwanted intrusion in what should be a relaxing space that gets tiresome.

Another friend is an expert in her field and occasionally gives free practical courses associated with it to the public. And what is the first question raised in a recent class? Something about how and where she gained her expertise, or her interest in the subject at hand? No. It was ‘Where are you from?’ The adult child of Japanese immigrants born and raised in Los Angeles. Not that that part matters. Again, it’s the impertinence – and the unspoken question of whether my friend had a right to occupy the space at the front of that classroom.

These two experiences play into a larger narrative of how the spaces occupied by people are no longer personal. They probably haven’t ever been, really, but we had a couple of decades where it seemed that they might be. If one wasn’t paying very close attention.

Where to I fit into this narrative? As a cisgender, adult, heterosexual presenting (I’m out as bisexual in most areas of my life, but you can’t necessarily tell that by looking at me) white male, my right to occupy space is rarely questioned. Nor is most expertise I claim. I’m also Jewish which you can probably tell from my physical profile. I’m somewhat removed from the racism I’m about to discuss, but only just. It’s a topic for another entry.

On a good day, however, I might classify as an ally to those who face harassment and verbal and physical violence simply for being.

The right to occupy space. I read a tweet sometime in the last few days that read something like ‘A survey of transgender people asked “What is the one thing you would do if you had a day during which no one would judge or comment on your appearance?” The majority of respondents said “Go swimming.”‘ This Vox article (approx. 5-minute read) on a 2016 survey doesn’t have that nugget, but it tells quite a lot about how difficult it is to be trans and occupy space.

All of this is leading up to a connection I want to make to that Reuters article on big business in the west and China, but I’m going to toss in one more thing about swimming and occupying space. About twenty years ago I dated a black man who grew up in Detroit in the 70s. In response to a suggestion we go to the beach, he laughed me off, saying “Negroes don’t swim.” He didn’t share any of the history of the difficult efforts to integrate swimming facilities that continues. The New York Times ran a long article on the subject just last summer. In short, the right to occupy space unharassed in America is tenuous, and far more extensive than even some close followers of the news guess.

I could stop here and say, ‘look how enlightened I am for acknowledging my privilege’ and all the blah blah blah attendant to such a claim.

The Reuters editorial linked at the top of this entry has nothing to do with occupying space, except insofar as Facebook policies turn a continuing blind eye to the racism on its platform – not within the editorial’s scope. It has nothing to do with how we as a society address or don’t address our responsibilities to each other. It has nothing, really, to do with respecting the privacy and autonomy of people in their private and professional spheres. What struck me reading the arguments of people like Sheryl Sandberg (CEO, Facebook) and European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is the distance between how we look at business and how we look at humans. Both of these people argue competition policy as it relates to the Chinese.

It might be that financial reporting is always like this. If I read Reuters’ Breakingviews and the Economist as assiduously as I do popular news assessments of social policy, this wouldn’t surprise me. But reading Cox’s look at how large corporations address competition got me thinking about how to decrease concern with monopoly power and increase respect for each other in our common spaces. More to the point, I started thinking, again, how little discussions of monopoly power have to do with how humans interoperate in the world. I’m not arguing anything here that five millennia of (mostly privileged white male) philosophers and teachers (not to mention three seasons of The Good Place) haven’t argued better. But the question remains:

How do we get where we need to be?

There’s a collision of autonomy and respect and privacy and intrusion from so many different areas that any conclusions I draw are either meaningless, or pablum. The social media waters that we swim in constantly invite – and foster – invasion and misunderstanding. And outright hostility. Note again my generally unchallenged white male expertise. I know that I can step up and say that the status quo is untenable and quietly slip back into enjoying my position with respect to it. In my What If Future, the status quo is that no one is challenged in their right to occupy space, but gracious, that future is bloody far away.


And entirely unrelated: The one-two punch of The Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part Two on King Crimson’s Meltdown: Live in Mexico (Spotify link) is superb. To be played at maximum volume.

I’d not read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in at least twenty years and I’m not sure if before this week I’d ever actually finished the thing. Now I have, and on a certain level, I think I might be too old for it. It’s one of those books like Catcher in the Rye and possibly On the Road that are best enjoyed before the sheer irresponsibility of the story in the telling is too obvious. In the heart of Thompson’s drug-addled tale of not reporting on two events for which his alter ego Raoul Duke is paid, he makes a stunning indictment of what has become of the American Dream™.

In one of the novel’s more cogent paragraphs, Thompson spells out the moment when Hell’s Angels faced off on the Oakland/Berkeley border with anti-war protesters in 1965, somewhat to the detriment of the nascent anti-war movement and to the greater detriment of the American Left in general. Later, he starts discussing those Timothy Leary took down with him, followers ‘who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit’ , certain that some one or some thing was ‘tending the light at the end of the tunnel’ (p. 178).

He goes on to gather several leaders together who followed in the failure of Leary to unite the movement: Jesus, Manson, Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger, and concludes with the book’s most potent idea, ‘…no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now…?’ Whatever we’re going to do, we have to do it, rather than bemoaning that we haven’t.

While I put Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s tales of their American nightmare in an unfavourable bucket with Kerouac and Salinger (both of whom wrote some brilliant, long-lasting work, just not those novels for which they’re best remembered), another comparison that comes to mind is Sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. In a similar way to Sterne, Thompson invites us into a series of vignettes that insist to the reader that they’re actually going somewhere, but don’t ever really make it there. Whereas Sterne’s volume ends without ever getting to Italy (as promised in the title), and possibly in the middle of a sentence, Thompson ends his without ever producing (as far as the reader can tell) the articles his character promised. The expectation from a book that is at least tangentially about writing is that there will be a submission and maybe even a reaction to it. Thompson subverts this by his alter ego barely attending or participating in the events he goes to Las Vegas to cover. To be fair, there is one extended sequence in which Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, attend one of the presentations of the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (thoroughly ripped, as the two characters are for the entirety of the book), so our expectations are only partially subverted.

FandLinLVSubtitled A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, what strikes the reader (or at least this reader) about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the savagery with which Thompson/ Duke treats primarily the female characters and really most of the book’s secondary characters. One way of looking at the nastiness of the interactions with the waitress in the chapter ‘Back Door Beauty & Finally a Bit of Serious Drag Racing on the Strip’ is that Thompson wants to implicate all of us in the nastiness that America became after the “Main Era” ended. The Main Era is what he names that time in the 60s when ‘You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning’ (p. 68). He continues, ‘We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’ (I love the idea of a ‘steep hill in Las Vegas,’ a place in the middle of a desert and nearly as flat as The Netherlands.)

So that moment of mind-altered optimism was undone, or undid itself through subverted protest, Nixon’s treachery, an unwinnable war, and the crackdown of the original war on drugs that Nixon instigated with the help of Elvis Presley. But in the retelling, Thompson says, yes, it all fell apart and to a one, even me, we became nasty and crass.

Thompson shares that, beyond the Strip, you find ‘the shoddy limbo of North Vegas…out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers,’ and here Duke and Gonzo drop into the North Star Coffee Lounge for late night eats. Their waitress, extensively described as, ‘large in every way, long sinewy arms, and a brawler’s jawbone…A burned out caricature of Jane Russell: big head of dark hair, face slashed with lipstick and a 48 Double-E chest that was probably spectacular about twenty years ago…but now she was strapped up in a giant pink elastic brassiere that showed like a bandage through the sweaty rayon of her uniform, (p. 158)’ finds herself on the receiving end of a pass from Gonzo, a napkin with ‘Back Door Beauty’ scrawled on it. On receipt, she lays into our heroes with vitriol. Duke just watches while Gonzo deflects the waitress’ accusations and cuts the receiver off the pay phone with a switchblade when she threatens to call the cops.

Duke understands that Gonzo has struck a nerve, ‘The glazed look in her eyes said her throat had been cut. She was still in the grip of paralysis when we left,’ but doesn’t comment or dissuade Gonzo from his behaviour. We as readers follow along, but Thompson not only lets his narrator off the hook, he relates the events that follow as being drawn verbatim from a tape recording transcribed by the editor. He doesn’t give Duke the opportunity to respond and lets himself off the hook at the same time.

From a wider perspective, Thompson’s after roping the reader into some kind of complicity. The more you enter the heads and the behaviours of the main characters the less you can say that you’re not part of the great destruction being wrought. Thompson attempts, through the excess of his protagonists, to separate the freaks – the ones who stepped out of the mainstream before that wave receded – from the normals who flock for whatever reason to Las Vegas’s casinos from the rest of the country. However, through that excess, he implicates all who see themselves on some version of the correct side of that divide. To what we now call coastal elites as well as those citizens of flyover states, Thompson seems to say: ‘You’re all in on this. We’re all in on this. Through silence or engagement. And I’m in on it as well.’

I’m not sure that this is what the man who famously asserted, ‘I wouldn’t advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me’ meant to imply.

I wanted to add something about how Thompson’s anti-Nixon stance (against all hypocrisy propounded and promoted by the Nixon White House) had come back to taunt him when George W. Bush was selected for a second time, and might have contributed to his suicide a month into Shrub’s second term, but this doesn’t seem to be borne out by a suicide note which indicated that 67 was ‘17 years more than [he] needed or wanted.’ On the other hand, In October 2004, Thompson wrote: ‘Nixon was a professional politician, and I despised everything he stood for—but if he were running for president this year against the evil Bush–Cheney gang, I would happily vote for him.’ Six months after Thompson’s death, there was a hell of a memorial.