Friday, February 01, 2019

Censored in 2018: The Enemy of a Pathetic Granfalloon

Censored in 2018: Julian Assange as the Enemy of a Pathetic Granfalloon

Following the lead of Project Censored, I like to do an annual column on what was (in my view) the most censored story of the previous  year. Censored 2019 (Seven Stories Press) names the "Global Decline in Rule of Law as Basic Human Rights Diminish" as the top censored story of 2018. 

In a variety of ways and at different levels of severity, millions of people around the world suffer from persecution at the hands of governments that respect neither international law nor, in many cases, the laws of their own countries. In large part due to the mind numbing propaganda spewed by establishment media that enables global power arrangements, the persecuted are often themselves thought to be oppressors, or thought to have somehow brought their misfortune on themselves. For example, many Americans today celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but they forget (or never knew) that government agents worked actively to discredit him from the mid-1950s until the day he died. While convincing evidence of a government directed conspiracy to kill King has never emerged, one need not be a conspiracy wacko to acknowledge that government forces and some in the establishment media created the hostile climate that made his assassination inevitable. And as the great writer George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Assassination in the extreme form of censorship." 

He has not been assassinated--yet--but today Wikileaks founder Julian Assange serves as a representative anecdote of how governments and establishment media can censor anyone who dares expose their crimes and mendacity. In 2018 Assange, who since 2012 has been trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy in London out of legitimate concern that he would be extradited to the United States should he leave (to stand "trial" for "crimes" that are not exactly clear), literally had his Internet access cut off. But his situation is much more dire; Pultizer-Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges likens the treatment of Assange to a modern day crucifixion: 
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has been unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London for years out of concern that leaving would result in extradition to face government persecution in the United States. 
"Julian Assange’s sanctuary in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London has been transformed into a little shop of horrors. He has been largely cut off from communicating with the outside world for the last seven months. His Ecuadorian citizenship, granted to him as an asylum seeker, is in the process of being revoked. His health is failing. He is being denied medical care. His efforts for legal redress have been crippled by the gag rules, including Ecuadorian orders that he cannot make public his conditions inside the embassy in fighting revocation of his Ecuadorian citizenship." 

Hedges cites an appeal made by Assange's mother Christine on her son's behalf: 

“Despite Julian being a multi-award-winning journalist, much loved and respected for courageously exposing serious, high-level crimes and corruption in the public interest, he is right now alone, sick, in pain—silenced in solitary confinement, cut off from all contact and being tortured in the heart of London. The modern-day cage of political prisoners is no longer the Tower of London. It’s the Ecuadorian Embassy . . . Julian has been detained nearly eight years without charge. That’s right. Without charge. For the past six years, the U.K. government has refused his request for access to basic health needs, fresh air, exercise, sunshine for vitamin D and access to proper dental and medical care. As a result, his health has seriously deteriorated. His examining doctors warned his detention conditions are life-threatening. A slow and cruel assassination is taking place before our very eyes in the embassy in London.”

And she said this: "My son is in critical danger, because of a brutal political persecution by the bullies in power whose crimes and corruption he has courageously exposed when he was editor-in-chief of Wikileaks." 
Assange and Wikileaks receive little support from establishment media, even though Wikileaks releases have been used repeatedly by said media in thousands of stories. 
In 2016 a United Nations' Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found Assange's detention to be in violation of international law, but the group's report was not even acknowledged by the global powers that be. 

Thanks in large part to establishment media's willingness to carry water for oppressive global governments, Assange's situation is either ignored or--worse--he is not at all viewed as a sympathetic figure among politically active elites whose voices could be of assistance not just in securing his release, but of all political prisoners around the globe. My guess is that even many people reading this blog post, if they know of the Assange situation at all, respond to his name with deep suspicion; among hyperpartisan Democrats Assange supposedly conspired with Putin and Trump to undermine Hillary Clinton's campaign. Among hyperpartisan Republicans he is, in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a "fraud, a coward hiding behind a screen." 

That so many establishment Democrats and Republicans, and their respective propaganda arms MSNBC and Fox News, can unite in mutual enmity against Julian Assange ought to give us pause. The situation is quite pathetic, perhaps in a way that only the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. could help us understand. 

Julian Assange as the enemy of a pathetic granfalloon

The late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s voice is much missed today. His comic yet starkly insightful works of fiction and political prose were the epitome of bullshit-detector in action. One of my favorite Vonnegut concepts is from his classic Cat's Cradle: the "granfalloon";. i.e. the "proud and meaningless association of human beings." Members of a granfalloon typically feel some kind of superiority for being members of the "in" group. 
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s  concept of "granfalloon" is a perfect way to describe the union of establishment liberals, neocons, and Republican opportunists that want to see Assange prosecuted. 
The website Changing Minds had a good summary of the basic characteristics of a granfalloon, including this aspect that's most relevant to our discussion of the censorship and persecution of Mr. Assange: "Real or imagined enemies, such as government agents or anyone who criticizes the group."

In the Trump years, the so-called "Resistance" has become a most pathetic granfalloon. MSNBC watchers are treated daily to the remarkable spectacle of former intelligence agency heads (e.g. John Brennan, James Clapper, James Comey), neoconservatives (e.g. Bill Kristol, David Frum), and "never Trump" Republicans (e.g. Charlie Sykes, Steve Schmidt) in union with the "liberal" hosts as they endlessly dissect any and all Trump/Russia connection no matter how tenuous. The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald came up with a useful list of the top-ten most embarrassing media failures that this so-called resistance has had to apologize for. 

Just to be clear: my criticism of MSNBC for giving a forum to dubious characters whose commitment to the cause of democracy and freedom is at best questionable is not meant to suggest that Fox or other so-called "conservative" media are doing anything better. Indeed, Fox and their offspring continue to represent the absolute worst of what American media has to offer and have pretty much destroyed genuine political conservatism as a serious force in American politics. The problem is that the "Resistance" media, in giving safe haven to Russiaphobes and right wing opportunists, has actually managed to make Fox and others look only slightly more unhinged by comparison. 

How does this so-called Resistance impact political prisoners like Assange? Consider this Orwellian October, 2018 letter sent to Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno by two members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: the "liberal" Democrat Eliot Engel and the "conservative" Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The letter is a textbook example of mindless granfalloon rhetoric: 

"We are very concerned with Julian Assange's continued presence at your embassy in London and his receipt of Ecuadorian citizenship last year. Most recently, we were particularly disturbed to learn that your government restored Mr. Assange's access to the Internet. On numerous occasions, Mr. Assange has compromised the national security of the United States . . . It is clear that Mr. Assange remains a dangerous criminal and a threat to global security, and he should be brought to justice." 

Mr. Moreno gave in to threats from the UK and US, and so Assange once again lost Internet access and faces the real possibility of losing his asylum status. 

As for Assange being a "dangerous criminal," he has now served what any fair and sane observer would call an eight year prison sentence, yet he's never actually been charged with a crime outside of "failure to surrender" to the British authorities when he entered the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012. Sexual assault charges against Assange in Sweden, which produced mountains of sensational headlines and unsubstantiated claims, were dropped in 2017. In 2013 the Obama Administration concluded that to charge Assange would mean having to charge other media publishers, because leaking classified documents is something that they all either have done and/or consider to be protected journalistic activity under the First Amendment. 

Perhaps the low point in the Resistance granfalloon's jihad against Assange was this recent exchange between NBC's Chuck Todd and Republican Senator Marco Rubio: 

Chuck Todd:  "Should it be a crime working with Wikileaks?"

Rubio: "I think certainly if you're wittingly doing it, it should be considered as such."

I think the appropriate follow-up question should have been, "should it be a crime working with NBC news?" Seriously, is Chuck Todd saying that if NBC had in its possession a classified document that proved Trump/Russia collusion, they would not publish it? Does Todd think that the Washington Post and New York Times should have faced criminal penalties for publishing the Pentagon Papers? 

Julian Assange is the enemy of the Resistance, a motley crew of establishment liberals, neoconservative hawks, Republican opportunists, and a wide range of academics and journalists who gleefully write about leaked documents but then lack the courage or integrity to defend the person(s) who put their lives at risk to make such documents available. In Vonnegutian terms, that motley crew is a truly pathetic granfalloon. 

Because Julian Assange is in a real sense a representative anecdote of what happens when someone doesn't just talk about speaking truth to power but actually does it, his story should be told accurately and persistently by all establishment media claiming to be defending journalistic values in the age of Trump. In 2019 Assange's story in establishment circles was told neither accurately nor persistently, making it my choice as the most censored story of 2018. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

The 2018 Tony Awards

Welcome to another edition of the Tony Awards! Annually since 2002 I've dedicated one column to naming what was, for me, some of the most outstanding journalism and/or commentary of the year. I operate from no automatic set of criteria when deciding what media to honor, but in general I am drawn to:

*insightful works that shed light on some important public issue.
*creative works that deserve a wider audience.
*informative works that provide eye-opening education on a difficult topic.
*courageous works that speak truth to power.
*humorous works that skillfully provoke laughter and thought at the same time.
*local works that promote community and civic engagement.

Over the years I've received much private feedback on the Tony Awards column. It tends to be most popular with independent thinkers who appreciate being alerted to media creations they might have missed and/or reminded of media creations they too thought were worthwhile. The column tends to be least popular with those who have little use for anything that does not reinforce their point of view and/or lend itself to being shared for partisan purposes. For them my advice is simple: make and share your own list! 

And now the 2018 Tony Award recipients. Drum roll please. 

*Best Local Journalist: Mile Maguire. For the second consecutive year, Miles Maguire earns the Tony for  best local journalist. Oshkosh is served (?) by full-time journalists working for the Gannett press and corporate television, yet when critical issues face the city few citizens trust that those outfits can be counted on to cover them completely or accurately. Instead, I constantly hear people say things like, "has Miles written about this yet?" In 2018 he debuted a space for local reporting called the Oshkosh Examiner. He also continues to edit the Oshkosh Independent Magazine, which you should subscribe to today if you have not already done so. 
Miles Maguire
For the second year in a row, Miles Maguire receives the Tony for best local journalist. Few local writers can match Miles' ability to cover important issues with depth and intelligence.
*Best New Local Media: The Oshkosh Herald. In the 21st century we've become accustomed to hearing about hard copy newspapers forced to scale back production or fold altogether. We almost never hear about successful attempts to start new ones. In 2018 Oshkosh was fortunate to welcome The Oshkosh Herald, an informative newspaper delivered weekly to 28,500 Oshkosh households.
Karen Schneider
Oshkosh Herald  Publisher Karen Schneider  says that the paper wants to "contribute to becoming a more well informed community." 
The Oshkosh Herald
Publisher Karen Schneider and the entire Herald team are working hard to prove that a quality hard copy paper can survive in this digital age. Here's hoping that in 2019 the Herald not only survives, but expands its reach. 

*Most Compelling Local Media Creation. Fit Oshkosh Color-Brave Photo Project: Black and Brown Faces, A New Narrative

Lots of people talk about making Oshkosh into a place that welcomes, treasures, honors, and recognizes its strength in diversity. Fit Oshkosh and its Executive Director Tracey Robertson walk the talk. In 2018 Fit Oshkosh worked with local photographer Colleen Bies to create a remarkable traveling exhibit of magnificent portraits highlighting personal narratives of some extraordinary people of color living in Oshkosh. The project is brilliant on many levels, from its aesthetic beauty to the way it proudly and honestly asserts the lived realities of people of color in Oshkosh. Kudos to The Wisconsin Humanities Council, Candeo Creative, The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, The Paine Arts Center and Gardens, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, First Congregational Church, The Draw, Ebony Vision, Inc., Marion University, and Esther of the Fox Valley for their sponsorship and support of the project. 
Tracey Robertson
Fit Oshkosh Executive Director Tracey Robertson is a tireless advocate for racial justice in the Fox Valley and  beyond. 
*Best #MeToo Inspired Media: 
-Ella Dawson, "To Read In Case I am Ever Murdered By A Man
-Kerry Howley, "How Did Larry Nassar Deceive So Many For So Long?"
-Maggie Astor, "For Female Candidates, Harassment and Threats Come Every Day
-New York Times Obituaries of Unjustly Forgotten Women, "Overlooked" 

The #metoo movement is rightly recognized for removing douchebags like Harvey Weinstein from positions of power and sparking necessary conversations about the connection between gender and power in the workplace, politics, relationships, and other areas. But the movement has also produced some of the most eye-opening, dazzling writing of the decade, much of which provokes "why the hell are we only learning about this NOW" reactions. 

Writer Ella Dawson's "To Read In Case I am Ever Murdered By a Man" should be must-reading in a society that is still largely in denial about the reality of men's violence against women. She writes in part:
Writer Ella Dawson in 2018 wrote a powerful piece on how we should think about men's violence against women. 
How many lives would we save if we listened to women’s fears? How many lives would we save if we taught people how to recognize the red flags of abuse and misogyny before they can escalate to domestic violence? How many lives would we save if we treated domestic violence as a warning sign for murder and mass shootings?

Kerry Howley's piece on how Larry Nassar deceived so many for so long paints a disturbing picture of how the disgraced former Olympic gymnastics team doctor got away with abusing hundreds of athletes for decades. In painful detail, Howley shows how Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics bureaucrats simply refused to take women's complaints seriously. She also reveals that had a police officer not found child pornography in the external hard drive Nassar had thrown to the curb, there's a strong possibility that he would still be a doctor in good graces with the bureaucrats and still abusing girls and women. 
Kerry Howley
Kerry Howley uncovered the bureaucratic nightmare that enabled Larry Nassar for decades as he abused hundreds of gymnasts. 
We all know that female candidates for public office get judged by standards much harsher than what their male counterparts experience. Maggie Astor's "For Female Candidates, Harassment and Threats Come Every Day" demonstrates the sheer extent to which this is true, for candidates on all sides of the political spectrum. 

The New York Times in 2018 unveiled "Overlooked," a feature that should have a positive impact in history, political science, communication studies, and a variety of additional curricula in K-12, colleges, and universities. Introducing the feature earlier this year, the Times wrote: "since 1851, obituaries in the New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now, we're adding the stories of other remarkable people." Every week the Times adds a new entry, each one featuring in-depth looks at female abolitionists, scientists, political leaders and many others who've never received the proper amount of recognition from establishment media sources. 

*Editorial of the Year: "America Needs A Bigger House," New York Times. I'm actually shocked at how many New  York Times pieces are receiving Tonys this year, as the paper disappoints more often than not. But truthfully, the paper derisively called "failing" by the POTUS really produced some remarkable pieces this year. (Note to POTUS: The "failing" New York Times now has 1,500 journalists employed compared to 1,100 in 2014. That doesn't sound like failure.). 

"America Needs A Bigger House" is an important editorial because it dares to challenge one of the most destructive beliefs in the modern USA: the belief that our government is too large. As the editorial shows persuasively and with ample evidence, our government is TOO SMALL: 

The House’s current size — 435 representatives — was set in 1911, when there were fewer than one-third as many people living in the United States as there are now. At the time, each member of Congress represented an average of about 200,000 people. In 2018, that number is almost 750,000 . . . how does a single lawmaker stay in touch with the concerns of three-quarters of a million people? The answer is she doesn’t.

Size of US House of Representatives Districts
In 1910 each member of the US House of Representatives on average represented just under 211,000 people. In 2011 the Congress fixed the number of Representatives at 435, and so today each member represents around 750,000--making a mockery of the idea of the US truly being a representative democracy. In 2018 the New York Times provided a valuable public service in trying to get some discussion going about the urgent need to increase the size of the legislature. 
Applying the "cube root law" of apportionment that's followed by most of the world's democracies and used to be followed here until the Congress fixed the amount of representatives at 435, the Times writers conclude that we should be adding 158 new members to the House of Representatives. I don't anticipate that this will happen in the next 10 years, but it will eventually and when it does the Times will be recognized for giving the matter prominent attention when few other mainstream sources would. 

*Rock-and-Roll Activist of the Year: Roger Waters. This is a new Tony Awards category, and is inspired by the great work of Roger Waters, the legendary co-founder of Pink Floyd. At the age of 75, Waters travels the globe in a never ending quest to "tear down the walls." In 2018 he was a leading voice in opposition to the rise of global fascism, putting his own life at risk to campaign against the fascist Bolsonaro in Brazil. In a great interview with TeleSur he challenges the Western obsession with wealth accumulation and says, "What makes you happy is communicating with other human beings, helping them if you can, and letting them help you." 

*Twitter Thread of the Year: Derek Johnson Bursts Our Precious Bubble. Twitter is of course a mostly horrible social medium over saturated by bots, trolls, hyperpartisan assclowns, self-serving hucksters, and assorted other forms of shitheadism. But every now and then something really important hits the screen. In 2018 my favorite tweet thread was from Derek Johnson, the Executive Director of Global Zero, an organization that advocates for the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. After Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the alleged "adult in the room," announced his resignation from the Trump Administration, Johnson put forth this 16-part thread that should be a wake-up call for anyone interested in the survival of humanity: 

1/ With Mattis and Kelly heading for the door and the myth of “adults in the room” evaporating, now feels like a good time to remind everyone that, yes, We The People really did hand a flailing, impulsive ignoramus the unadulterated power to end life on Earth as we know it.

2/ On a daily basis folks insist to me this isn’t how it works. They need to believe that someone — Sec Def, the Joint Chiefs, or a general, somewhere, surely — has to agree. Because the alternative sounds too insane to be real life. Allow me to burst your precious bubble.

3/ Everywhere Trump goes, the nuclear briefcase follows. Inside it are levers to weapons made to wipe cities off the map. At any moment he can open it up, flip through its black book of targets, pick up the phone, and tell the Pentagon which armageddon on the menu he likes best.

4/ The officer in charge of the National Military Commander Center (the “War Room”), who may not be any more senior than a colonel, will be on the other end of the line. A small group of senior advisors/commanders may or may not be patched in depending on their availability.

5/ This is where folks assume top brass has to agree. Nope! This is a "consultation" only to the extend POTUS wants to have a conversation. He can end discussion immediately. Sure, people can refuse/resign, but a disobedient officer in the War Room will be immediately replaced.

6/ Once given the order must be verified. It's the only “check” in the process. The War Room officer reads a challenge code and POTUS reads the matching response on a little card he carries w/ him always. Then, like magic, the order is imbued w/ full power of the presidency.

7/ A verified order has presumption of legality and the pressure to obey will be massive. Executing officers in the chain of command have no legal/procedural grounds to defy it no matter how inappropriate it seems. If POTUS's identity is confirmed, the order is considered legit.

8/ From there the order speeds through the system, encrypted in a message half the length of a tweet. This happens FAST. By the time it reaches its final destination — launch officers in underground silos — only a few minutes will have passed since POTUS opened the briefcase.

9/ Five launch crews w/ 2 officers each, spread miles apart underground and overseeing 50-missile squadrons, receive these orders. The 20-something-year-old officers open their safes and make sure the War Room's codes match. If they do, they unlock the missiles and target them.

10/ Each pair of officers then inserts their twin launch keys and turns them together. (The “2-man rule” is at the bottom of the chain, not the top.) Each crew turning their keys generates a “vote” to launch. 5 crews means 5 votes. It only takes 2 votes to launch the missiles.

11/ To block the launch, 4 of the 5 crews would have refuse to obey what seems like a legitimate order from the commander-in-chief, without the benefit of any outside info. If that mutiny is where you pin your hopes for all of human civilization, good fucking luck with that.

12/ When those keys turn the nuclear weapons will launch instantly. The whole process, from POTUS cracking open the briefcase to city-killing missiles climbing into the air, takes less than 5 minutes. There are no take-backs. There's no way to stop or cancel a launched missile.

13/ Bear in mind these weapons are 10-20x more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan, and travel at 22x the speed of sound. They'll obliterate target cities in 30 mins or less. Hundreds of millions of people will be dead faster than POTUS can get a big mac sent into the Oval.

14/ I don’t blame you for refusing to believe. I’m not sure I’d believe it myself, had I not heard directly from nuclear command and control experts, veteran launch officers, and the 4-star general who commanded all US nuclear forces. But this is real. This is how it works.

15/ Trump may be the most unfit person to ever hold the office, but this is the vast, terrible power we bestow on every American president. At the heart of our democracy is an undemocratic nuclear monarchy that holds the whole world hostage to one man's decision-making.

16/ The system is bonkers — but it doesn't have to be. There's a bill in Congress *right now* that would make it impossible for any president, Republican or Democrat, to start a nuclear war on their own. can fix this. Hard to imagine anything more urgent or obvious.

*Investigative Journalism of the Year: David Barstow, Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, "Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father." This meticulously researched New York Times investigation required the authors to dig through more than 100,000 documents related to the Trump family financial empire. The authors note: 

What emerges from this body of evidence is a financial biography of the 45th president fundamentally at odds with the story Mr. Trump has sold in his books, his TV shows and his political life. In Mr. Trump’s version of how he got rich, he was the master dealmaker who broke free of his father’s “tiny” outer-borough operation and parlayed a single $1 million loan from his father (“I had to pay him back with interest!”) into a $10 billion empire that would slap the Trump name on hotels, high-rises, casinos, airlines and golf courses the world over. In Mr. Trump’s version, it was always his guts and gumption that overcame setbacks. Fred Trump was simply a cheerleader . . . The reporting makes clear that in every era of Mr. Trump’s life, his finances were deeply intertwined with, and dependent on, his father’s wealth . . . 

By age 3, Mr. Trump was earning $200,000 a year in today’s dollars from his father’s empire. He was a millionaire by age 8. By the time he was 17, his father had given him part ownership of a 52-unit apartment building. Soon after Mr. Trump graduated from college, he was receiving the equivalent of $1 million a year from his father. The money increased with the years, to more than $5 million annually in his 40s and 50s.

If Mr. Trump's fraudulent telling of his own personal narrative had been revealed before the election, would he still have won? We will never know. But from this point forward, any media (including sources friendly to the POTUS like Fox) that allows him to continue spinning the false personal narrative deserves condemnation and advertiser boycotts. 

*Speech of the Year: Michelle Wolf's Address at the White House Correspondent's Association (WHCA) Dinner. Thanks to Ms. Wolf, The WHCA will no longer have a comedian perform at their annual event. Donald Trump, the most thin-skinned POTUS in the history of the universe (or as Wolf put it in her speech, Trump is "the one pussy you're not allowed to grab"), now says he might attend. What did Wolf say that got establishment types so upset? Publicly they claim Wolf went over the line in her jibes at Sarah Sanders and others--but those jokes were hardly any more pointed or cruel than what many other comics have presented at the event since Stephen Colbert's take down of Bush #43 in 2006. I think it had more to do with Wolf's insightful exposure of the pathetic nature of the mainstream press in the Trump years:

There’s a ton of news right now, a lot is going on, and we have all these 24-hour news networks, and we could be covering everything. Instead, we’re covering three topics. Every hour is Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel full of people that remind you why you don’t go home for Thanksgiving. Milk comes from nuts now all because of the gays.
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him. If you’re going to profit off of Trump, you should at least give him some money, because he doesn’t have any . . . 
And her brilliant closing line: Flint still doesn’t have clean water.
When the WHCA announced the comedian ban, Wolf tweeted more truth: “The @whca are cowards. The media is complicit. And I couldn't be prouder.”
*Best Bo Diddley Beat: Richard Thompson's "The Storm Won't Come." As someone who teaches a course on rock music, I am in perpetual search for new and creative uses of the Bo Diddley beat. In 2018 the legendary Richard Thompson (co-founder of pioneering folk-rock group Fairport Convention) released an outstanding collection of new songs called "13 Rivers." The opening track, "The Storm Won't Come," includes a raw sounding Bo Diddley beat and a searing guitar solo from Thompson. In 2019 Thompson will turn 70 and he shows no signs of slowing down. But because contemporary FM music radio sucks beyond belief, most Americans will never get a chance to hear this music. That's sad. 

*Rallying Cry of the Year: Emma Gonzalez' "We Call B.S." The young survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, FL are owed our gratitude for a number of reasons. In 2018 not only did they provoke a meaningful national conversation about gun violence that led to new laws passed in a number of states, but they also helped increase youth voter turnout, shamed advertisers into abandoning toxic media, organized a huge and successful march on Washington, and defied every single millennial generation stereotype. If these young people represent the majority of people in their age group--and I think that they do--then we do have reason to be optimistic about the future of the country. 
Emma Gonzalez' "We Call B.S." is already an iconic statement of defiance aimed not just at the elected cowards who shrink in the face of the slightest pressure from the National Rifle Association, but to all people in positions of authority who pollute our public discourse with lame, self-serving talking points designed to pacify their masters instead of address in an honest way the critical issues of our time. 

There you have the 2018 Tony Awards. For 2019, let us all resolve to create, use, and consume media in responsible ways that elevate public discourse, provoke critical reflection and positive change, and/or hold the powerful to account. In very different ways, all of the 2018 Tony recipients did some or all of those things.

Friday, December 07, 2018

From Otis R. to Lenny K.: My Top Tunes of '18

The Spotify music streaming service provides users with end-of-year data on their listening habits, including your top 100 songs based apparently on how many times you played them. Like everything else in our algorithmic Brave New World, Spotify's data sparks controversy. Apparently the listening profile for each individual user is not completely accurate. Imagine that--a corporate, profit driven behemoth like Spotify providing inaccurate data. Who would have thought?

Especially because I teach a course called "The Rhetoric of Rock and Roll" every other year, I tend to listen to a shit-ton of popular music. Spotify tells me that I listened to 23,389 minutes of tuneage in '18, a huge portion of which occurs during my walks from home to UWO and vice-versa. Below are short commentaries on 20 of my top-100 most listened to songs of 2018. In looking at my listening habits, I've noticed that I tend to be drawn to songs that meet one or more criteria:

1. The song is an especially good example of a pop music genre.
2. The song subtly or overtly makes a provocative sociopolitical comment in support of humanity.
3. The song is an excellent representation of a particular time period.
4. The song is performed by an artist making a sincere attempt to communicate meaningfully with his or her or their audience; the tune is not mere "product" to line the pockets of the artist or record label execs.
5. The song evokes positive, transformative emotions like love and compassion as opposed to toxic ones like hate and selfishness.

Against that backdrop, here's twenty of my top-100 most listened to songs of 2018 in chronological order:

Otis Redding (1966). Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song). From the classic and groundbreaking album "Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul." "Sad Song" and the entire album are probably the best example of "Memphis Soul," a brand of African-American music that was more edgy and Afrocentric than the popular Detroit Motown sound of the same time period.
The Hollies (1967). Stop Right There. Many if not most fans of the classic rock super group Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young don't realize that Graham Nash was prolific songwriter with The Hollies before joining CSNY. "Stop Right There" has got a kind of lyrical and musical maturity clearly inspired by the groundbreaking "Pet Sounds" album by the Beach Boys and "Rubber Soul" by the Beatles (both of which made it okay for rock lyrics to be reflective and for male rockers to express vulnerability.).
Eric Burdon and the Animals (1968). Closer to the Truth. Spotify tells me that I spent 15 hours listening to Eric Burdon in 2018. I've loved his music forever, but the enhanced hours in '18 were because of this review I wrote of his 1968 album "The Twain Shall Meet." It didn't occur to me at the time I wrote the review, but "Closer to the Truth" is arguably unique in the way it blends rhythm and blues instrumentation with a kind of Eastern consciousness. Others have done it, but probably not as well.
Taj Mahal (1968). She Caught the Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride). Lots of rockers in the 1960s were inspired by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and other old-time blues gods. But Taj Mahal was one of the few to compose a blues tune that became a standard in its own right. "She Caught the Katy" is from Taj's "The Natch'l Blues" album, a must listen for anyone who really wants to understand the roots of rock-and-roll.
The Kinks (1970). Powerman. The Kinks were railing against greedy music company executives, but "Powerman" could apply to certain contemporary politicians, in both Washington and Madison.
Little Richard (1970). Freedom Blues. "Freedom Blues" was somewhat of a comeback recording for Little Richard, one of the founding fathers of rock-and-roll. Stylistically the song mixes Rhythm and Blues with Nina Simone/James Brown type soul of the period. With all the activism going on this decade, it's a damn shame the rock radio stations can't find a way to revive songs like this.
Manu Dibango (1972). Soul Makossa. Anyone of a certain age will remember the excitement that the Cameroon born Dibango's "Soul Makossa" brought to music radio in the 1970s. Michael Jackson brought the song back into circulation in the 1980s when he stole the "Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-sa" hook for his song "Wanna be Startin' Somethin'." I'd forgotten about the song and then rediscovered it while doing some research for the rock music course on the use of saxophone in soul-rock fusion.
Focus (1974). Harem Scarem. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said that he could not define obscenity, but "I know it when I see it." I'm kind of like that when it comes to "progressive" rock: can't define it, but I know it when I hear it. "Harem Scarem" is IT.
Stevie Wonder (1976). Have a Talk With God. The album "Songs in the Key of Life" in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, an honor reserved for recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." "Have a Talk With God" for me is extraordinary in that it's sermonic and spiritual without the self-righteous posturing that is found in so much Christian and other religious rock.If sermons were more like this, more young people would probably think about going to church.
Tom Waits (1980). On the Nickel. Another tune that I had not listened to for many years. Early this year I just happened to read a social media post about homelessness in Oshkosh, and "On the Nickel" just popped into my head. I've always been a huge fan of wistful tunes that grab your heart, but I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it almost 40 years ago strictly because of the line "even Thomas Jefferson is on The Nickel over there." I just find that to be a remarkably creative and memorable use of language. May we all come up with at least one memorable line in our lives.

Kool Moe Dee (1989). Knowledge is King. Few musical genres are as powerful as hip-hop when it carries a socially conscious message delivered by a rapper who is credible in the social critic role. "Knowledge is King" got lots of plays from me in 2018 because I assigned it to a student to review and ended up being reminded of its power.
Primal Scream (1991). Movin' On Up. This one has another connection to the rock music class: there's a part of the class where we get into the issue of whether the late Bo Diddley should have been compensated for the scores of songs that use the "Bo Diddley beat" with no attribution to the original. "Movin' On Up" is one of the more creative and inspiring uses of the beat (though the band themselves apparently thought they were influenced by the Who's "Magic Bus," perhaps not realizing that THAT song borrows the Bo Diddley beat.).
The White Stripes (1999). Do. Jack White wrote "Do"long before social media, and it has nothing overtly to do with that, but when I found myself trolled online in 2018 I kept coming back to a line from it: "Can't take it when they hate me, but I know there's nothing I can do."
The Kills (2008). Cheap and Cheerful. I've never been a huge fan of punk, grunge, and much indie-rock that's punkish/grungeish, but one thing I find appealing about all those genres is the revulsion it expresses toward conformity, sucking up, and various other forms of human fakery. I always have a bunch of songs like that on my playlist--"Cheap and Cheerful" got the most plays this year.
Lorde (2013). Buzzcut Season. Lorde's 2013 album "Pure Heroine" for good reason made many "best of" lists the year it came out. The teen New Zealander defied all pop industry conventions and created a recording that featured mature lyrics and catchy melodies that could fit as comfortably on college radio as top-40. "Buzzcut Season" is a digital age anthem and one of the songs of the decade.
 Imelda May (2014). Tribal. In 2018 there was so much talk about American politics becoming "tribal" that I could not stop listening to "Tribal" by Irish rocker Imelda May.
The Hillbilly Moon Explosion (2015). My Love For Evermore. The rockabilly era of the 1950s is for me one of the greatest periods of rock-and-roll in terms of establishing the art form as rebellious and anti-establishment. The Swiss band Hillbilly Moon Explosion represent one of the best attempts to keep the genre alive in this century.
Jeff Beck and Bones (2016). Live in the Dark. Guitar god Jeff Beck has become a kind of elder statesman of rock, continuing to tour in his 70th decade while recording new music with a variety of younger artists. His 2016 collaboration with indie rockers Rosie Bones and Carmen Vandenberg went back to his hard rock roots to produce a socially conscious album of protest tunes. "Live in the Dark" mixes soaring guitar riffs, old-school guitar solos, and punk vocals with lyrics appropriate for a rally.
John Prine (2018). Lonesome Friends of Science. In 2018 folk singer John Prine released "The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of all new songs since 2005. Hard core Prine fans will find it to be one of the best recordings he's ever made, as it includes his trademark brand of personal narrative, humor, and the unique raspy vocals. "Lonesome Friends of Science," a kind of satirical lament of Pluto's demotion from planet status, I think is one of the funniest tunes ever recorded.
Lenny Kravitz (2018). Raise Vibration. When Lenny Kravitz released "Let Love Rule" in 1989, I found it to be one of the most refreshing recordings of that year--a rock and soul masterpiece in fact. Almost 30 years later Lenny is at it again. If you like rock-and-roll with a kind of early 1970s Rolling Stones edge mixed with homages to the great soul artists of the past, Lenny is your guy. The song "Raise Vibration" deserves nominations for song of the year, as it captures the tense moment we are in and calls for us to love our way out of the madness. It even has a cool Native American chant at the end. Great stuff.
Well there you have it. That's just some of what I have been listening to this year. What about you?

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Media Missed The Youth Wave

Media pundits love to talk about so-called "wave" elections. The wave narrative dominates coverage of congressional races. Watch this typical example: CNN's John King in 2017 musing about the possibilities for a 2018 Blue Wave.
In 2010, the establishment narrative was that the Republicans rode a wave of TEA Party generated antagonism toward the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) and thus gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives. This was allegedly a "Red Wave."

Eight years later the establishment narrative tells us of the alleged "Blue Wave": riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment and suspicion that the Republicans really have no plan to protect health care access, the Democrats gained 40 seats (and maybe 41) in the House of Representatives.

My problem with the establishment's partisan flavored "Wave Narrative" is its implication that the results of elections have anything to do with voter attitudes toward the Republican and Democratic parties. When the Republicans won those 63 seats in 2010, does anyone seriously think that it was because the GOP was perceived as willing and able to do the business of The People? As we approach 2019, does anyone outside of the most indoctrinated partisans think that the Democratic Party has now been cured of its addiction to corporate cash and will finally fight for a People-centered agenda? Sure, there will be individual Dems who will fight for such things, but they will find the establishment Democratic Party to be as much of a barrier as the Republicans. (Case in point: Rep. Barbara Lee, a tireless champion of progressive values for many years, was not able to break into the leadership ranks of the new Democratic majority because of what she called "institutional barriers.").

If not Red and Blue Waves, then What? 

By now it should be clear that Americans view the major political parties not as vehicles for change, but as impediments to it. Unfortunately those parties maintain such a tight grip on the electoral processes in each state that it is virtually impossible to gain legislative power via the route of third parties. Recognizing this pathetic state of affairs, change agents often come to the conclusion that the only real way to make new legislation is to participate in the major party structures.

Seen in that light, "waves" represent movements of people attempting to grab controls of the levers of power in what is presented to them as the most practical way to do so. Depending on the trajectory of the particular movement(s), the majority of the votes can go toward the R or D columns. As such, the midterm elections of 2010 were an "Anti-Establishment" wave rooted in the strong belief that an iron triangle of insurance company greed + pharmaceutical industry greed + government enabling of insurance and pharmaceutical greed (under the guise of "regulating" them) was a betrayal of the "hope and change" that brought Barack Obama to power in 2008. There's little evidence that the elections of 2010 were an endorsement of the Republican Party as much as a message to Barack Obama that Republican-lite endorsements of special interest lobby solutions to life-and-death issues like health care were not going to be met with enthusiasm. Many sent that message to the President simply by staying home and not voting. 

Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans--including 52 percent of those who call themselves Republicans--now support a "Medicare For All" solution to health care. That's where the trajectory has been headed all along. (I still firmly believe that if the Democrats had used their majority in 2009/2010 to create a Medicare for all system, they actually would have gained seats in subsequent elections, much as they controlled Congress for multiple generations after passing New Deal programs in the 1930s).

In 2018 the lines of a Buffalo Springfield song might be the best descriptor of where we are: "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear."  Given the record numbers of women elected, we could could easily see 2018 as a Women's Wave. Large numbers of women who ran for office this year were Generation X or Millennials. I believe we are in the early stages of a "Youth Wave," with the midterms of 2018 representing especially the Millennial generation's political coming out party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's stunning victory over Nancy Pelosi favorite Joe Crowley in a New York city congressional primary might have been the most visible symbol of something new happening: young people are no longer going to "wait their turn" or just continue to "hope" that the elders to the right thing. Some clear signs of the youth wave:
*In Rhode Island, young people are literally suing the state in an effort to get better civics education. If their suit is successful it could have dramatic and positive consequences for political engagement across the nation.

*According to the Atlantic, early voting among youth in 2018 saw a 188 percent increase compared to 2014.

*When the new House of Representatives convenes in January, 26 members will be Millennials, up from 5 at the start of departing House in 2017.

*According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 31 percent of youth turned out to vote in the 2018 midterms compared to 21 percent in 2014. CIRCLE's research suggests youth are pumped up for change; 72 percent of people 18-24 agree that "dramatic change could occur in this country if people banded together." And 73 percent agree that "we can work together to promote important political goals even if we face difficulties."

*Where I teach (the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh), students who interned for the campus American Democracy Project chapter engaged in a number of positive activities including voter registration, organizing a student activist forum, and organizing a forum for third party candidates. Voter turnout on the campus increased by 4 percent over 2014. When all the votes were counted in Wisconsin, Democrat for governor Tony Evers had a 23 point edge over Republican Scott Walker among voters under 30 (compared to only a 4-point advantage for Democrat Mary Burke four years ago.).

*Across the country a number youth led organizations are leading the way for change. One that I am familiar with is the Green Bay based Intellegere Project, an effort to raise the bar for social media discourse so as to promote civility and progressive change. The organization recently raised enough funds to support undergraduate research on the issue of why youth vote or do not vote.

*No discussion of the Youth Wave would be complete with giving major kudos to all of the survivors of the horrible massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Emma Gonzalez's now iconic "We Call BS" speech will forever be a wake-up call not only to people who want to see sane gun legislation, but for advocates on all issues who know they could and should be doing more to make change. The March For Our Lives movement shows no signs of slowing down, much to the chagrin of the NRA. Writing in the Madison Badger Herald, student Tatiana Dennis argues that "the results of recent elections in Wisconsin and across the nation show the NRA is losing its grip on the GOP and the American electorate." We have mostly high school students to thank for that.

What's special about this new generation of youth activists is that they do not seem at all interested in exploiting any kind of "generation gap" in order to motivate youth. Rather, they appear eager to work with their elders for a People centered agenda. In that regard they are very much like the American Youth Congress of the 1930s. In the 1936 Declaration of the Rights of American Youth, the AYC said:

We declare that our generation is rightfully entitled to a useful, creative, and happy life, the guarantees of which are: full educational opportunities, steady employment at adequate wages, security in time of need, civil rights, religious freedom, and peace . . . 

We recognize that we young people do not constitute a separate social group, but that our problems and aspirations are intimately bound up with those of all the people.

Declaration of the Rights of American Youth
The mainstream media in the United States so far doesn't appear to grasp breadth and depth of the Youth Wave. Today's  youth have about as much regard for the mainstream media as they do for the mainstream political parties, perhaps even less. If I am correct that we are in the early stages of a Youth Wave that's on the brink of producing some dramatic changes in our society, such changes will unquestionably upset mainstream media business models. Who knows, maybe the days of seeing readers and viewers as mere "demographics" whose only value is in being "sold" to advertisers could be coming to an end. The Correspondent, a Dutch news platform that is on the verge of becoming a journalistic force in the United States (I'll write about it in a future rant), is rooted in a unique model of interaction with readers. If the elections of 2018 taught us anything, it is that youth are demanding genuine interaction with institutions of power, not just in politics but in the press.