Monday, June 17, 2019

Ten Bold Cover Tunes, Part I

In the history of popular music solo artists and bands have probably recorded thousands of cover tunes. There exists no completely accurate accounting of the most covered songs in history, though rock standards like the Beatles' "Yesterday" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" tend to rank high on most lists.

What makes for a great cover tune?  Like anything else related to the arts, it might ultimately just be a matter of personal taste. Talk to members of any local cover band in your town, and they will tell you that audiences pressure them to sound as much as possible like the original artist and tune being covered. In other words, audiences want karaoke versions of the songs. A lead singer of a local band once told me that she decided one night to perform AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" as "Highway to Heaven" and got met with a HELLISH response from the crowd. I'm guessing that's typical.

For me, a great cover tune has to be BOLD. By that I mean a few different things:

*In choosing to cover a song already identified with another artist, the cover artist risks professional humiliation. Just DARING to cover certain songs is an act of boldness.

*Taking the original version of the song and performing it in a unique way is one of the boldest moves an artist can make. When done well, the cover version takes on a life of its own and almost sends the original into obscurity.

The opposite of boldness when it comes to cover tunes are situations in which the cover artist merely mimics the original or simply records the cover for commercial reasons. That's called "selling out"  or exploitation and gives the whole business of covering other artists' tunes a bad name.

I know everyone reading this can name dozens if not hundreds of cover tunes that meet my boldness criteria. Here I'm only going to name ten (in no particular order):

#10: Elvis Presley's cover of Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right Mama". I'm fully cognizant of how racism in the music industry and the USA at-large resulted in phenomenal singer/songwriters like Arthur Crudup never getting proper recognition or royalties for their compositions. A good summary of the relationship between blues, rock-and-roll, and racism--written by sociologist David Szatmary--can be found here.

The reality of racism, however, does not diminish the impact of Presley's version of "That's All Right Mama." Of all the songs mentioned in this blog post, Presley's "That's All Right Mama" is actually the most karaoke-ish in the sense that Elvis is clearly channeling Crudup's attitude and style. But try to appreciate how RADICAL that music must have sounded to uptight white youth of the 1950s. Top hits in 1954 included sentimental ballads like Sinatra's "Young at Heart" and Eddie Fisher's "Oh! My Pa-Pa." When put in that pop-music context, Presley's "That's All Right Mama" was a kind of caffeine boost in a youth culture not quite awake yet.





#9: Peggy Lee's cover of Little Willie John's "Fever". "Fever" was written by R & B giants Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell, and recorded originally by Little Willie John. The song's  been covered extensively, including by Elvis, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Beyonce. Most of these artists perform the tune as an expression of lust; a raunchy tune designed to get the crowd rowdy during live performances.

Peggy Lee I think was the only artist who grasped that "Fever" is really about DESIRE, an emotional state that when experienced in a fully human way sees the object of said desire as an equal person. Pure lust, in contrast, is about seeing the other as strictly someone to fuck. To put it in terms of the song's lyrics, desire more than lust is a "lovely way to burn." Peggy's performance revived her career in 1958 and became her signature song.



#8: Nirvana's cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World". In the early 1990s a myth developed around grunge-rock bands that they somehow had a contempt for earlier progressive rock. Pearl Jam's embrace of Neil Young and Nirvana's spectacular cover of one of David Bowie's more esoteric tunes effectively destroyed that myth. Nirvana introduced the tune to a new audience in a way that honored the original while signaling the obvious pain that would lead to singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain's suicide not too long after the recording.

 

#7 The Mamas and the Papas cover of Ozzie Nelson's "Dream a Little Dream of Me". This pretty ballad of love and longing is deceptively easy to sing, making it ripe for covers. I would advise readers not to listen to too many versions of it, because the butcheries of it can almost ruin the song. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's 1950 cover of the song is first-rate outstanding, but Cass Eliot's rendition in 1968 is for me the definitive version against which all others should be judged. I'm especially partial to this version of the tune as a tribute to Mama Cass, who was the victim of some vicious, Trump-style misogyny and trolling decades before the Internet. (The lie that she "choked on a ham sandwich" for many years took attention away from her powerful vocal legacy and also the fact that she was a beautiful person.).



#6: Eric Burdon and the Animals cover of the traditional "Rising Sun Blues". The Animals'"House of the Rising Sun" was released in June of 1964, and fifty-five years later the opening guitar licks, eerie keyboards, and Eric Burdon's soulful vocals keep you hooked. The Rolling Stones are usually given credit as representing the grittier side of the British invasion in contrast to the cheerful pop of the Beatles, but I've always thought that credit should be shared with Burdon and the Animals. "House of the Rising Sun" proves the point.



 #5: Dick Dale and the Del Tones cover of the traditional "Misirlou". Dick Dale died in March of this year, just shy of his 82nd birthday. Some would argue he was the original guitar hero, known for soaring surf riffs and pioneering the use of the loudest amplification possible. He was a big influence on Jimi Hendrix and many others.

"Miserlou" was and is a remarkable example of how to take a Middle Eastern folk tune and rock it into another world. When Quentin Tarantino put "Miserlou" in his 1994 "Pulp Fiction" he exposed a new generation to the tune, and demonstrated how an audio track can grab a film audience's attention as much as a shocking visual.




#4: Linda Ronstadt's cover of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas "Heat Wave". In some ways Ronstadt's 1975 cover of a 1963 Motown classic is the boldest of the bunch. Imagine the audacity of even trying to cover such an acclaimed tune, sung with searing intensity by Martha Reeves, and backed up instrumentally by the Funk Brothers--arguably the greatest rhythm  section in the history of the world. But sometimes audacity is necessary for great art and, while Ronstadt does not surpass the original, her "yeah yeah! . . . yeah yeah!" shouts come off as her simply saying "I just love this song and I aim to sing it as best I can!" Andrew Gold's guitar playing does not try to upstage the Funk Brothers' horns in the original, but it gives the song a mainstream rock twist that perfectly complements Linda's vocal.

Heat Wave became Ronstadt's most requested song at concerts, to the point where she pretty much got sick of singing it. Sadly, she developed Parkinson's disease in the 2000s and since 2011 literally cannot sing at all. Even though she cannot sing, she still gives voice to human rights causes, including her passionate advocacy on behalf of migrants.




#3: Ike and Tina Turner's cover of Creedence Clearwater's "Proud Mary". I don't think there's a guitar playing storyteller alive who does not owe a debt to Creedence's John Fogerty, and one could also argue that there's some Tina Turner in pretty much every major female pop/rock artist of the last twenty years. So when Tina Turner tackled "Proud Mary," it was like one giant paying homage to another.

Due to legal hassles, Fogerty did not perform his own songs for many years. He claims that a conversation with Bob Dylan changed that. Dylan told him that if he did not start performing the songs again, the world would forever think that "Proud Mary" was Tina Turner's song. That's probably true, as Tina's version is so dynamic and unforgettable that it's almost hard to believe someone else wrote it. Fogerty and Turner did tour together in the year 2000 and performed "Proud Mary" as a duet.



#2: Richie Havens' cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun". Beatles' songs are notoriously hard to cover, in large part because the band's recording studio innovations and distinct vocal styles make it difficult for even the most talented artist to tackle a Fab Four tune without bringing it down a notch. Richie Havens' cover of "Here Comes the Sun" is a dramatic exception to that rule.

Written by George Harrison, "Here Comes the Sun" is an extraordinary song both lyrically and melodically, one of two Harrison classics on the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album (the other was "Something"). The only way to cover successfully an extraordinary tune is to counter it with something at least equally extraordinary. Havens actually pulled that off, stripping the song down to guitars, bass, and conga drums from the Beatles' orchestral arrangement. Havens sings the song with such raw emotion and plays his guitar so free-wheelingly that the original song almost comes off as over produced. I love both versions of the song, but Havens' does strike me as a remarkable artistic achievement which really set a high bar for anyone attempting to cover a Beatles' tune.


#1: Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." I think I'll let Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails front man and writer of "Hurt," do the talking on this one:

"[Johnny Cash's producer] Rick Rubin has been a friend for a long time, and he called me asking how I felt about Johnny covering "Hurt." I was flattered, but frankly, the idea sounded a bit gimmicky to me. I really didn't put much thought into it, as I was working on something at the time and was distracted. A few weeks later, a CD shows up with the track. Again, I'm in the middle of something and put it on and give it a cursory listen. It sounded... weird to me. That song in particular was straight from my soul, and it felt very strange hearing the highly identifiable voice of Johnny Cash singing it. It was a good version, and I certainly wasn't cringing or anything, but it felt like I was watching my girlfriend fuck somebody else. Or something like that. Anyway, a few weeks later, a videotape shows up with Mark Romanek's video on it. It's morning; I'm in the studio in New Orleans working on lack De La Rocha's record with him; I pop the video in, and... wow. Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps... Wow. I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore. Then it all made sense to me. It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. Some-fucking-how that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning-different, but every bit as pure. Things felt even stranger when he passed away. The song's pur-pose shifted again. It's incredibly flattering as a writer to have your song chosen by someone who's a great writer and a great artist."




There you have it, Part I of Media Rants' identification and interpretation of ten bold cover tune. Part 2 will appear when and if I get inspired to come up with another list!

Saturday, June 01, 2019

For Profit Scams: Media and the Democratic Party Primary Season

Democratic Massachusetts Senator and candidate for president Elizabeth Warren made waves recently when she rebuffed an invitation to appear at a Fox news town hall forum. In a tweet, Warren said that Fox executives run a "hate-for-profit" racket and that she was not going to allow them to use her to raise advertising dollars. Appearing on The View, Warren expanded on her decision, calling what Fox does a hate-for-profit "scam" while arguing that Fox executives invite Democratic candidates to forums so that they can demonstrate to advertisers who don't want their brand tarnished by being associated with hate that they (Fox) are in fact "balanced." (Ironically, Fox's Tucker Carlson praised Warren's economic plan.). 
A few years ago I wrote about how Fox magnifies the worst tendencies of American news media while twisting political conservatism into little more than hyper partisan trolling. So I completely understand where Senator Warren is coming from. Where she misses the mark is in her inference that executives at all other cable and broadcast outlets are not also scam artists. Execs at CNN, MSNBC and other establishment mouthpieces may not be pushing HATE-for-profit scams (although the families of innocent victims of our regime change wars might beg to differ with that assessment), but it's difficult to see their approach to the presidential race so far as being guided by anything other than PROFIT. To put it bluntly, a for-profit scam is only marginally less offensive than a hate-for-profit scam, and it's still a scam. 

The Democratic Party Primary Season Coverage Scam 

As I write, there are over 20 declared Democrats running for president, with a distinct possibility of more getting into the race. And why wouldn't they? Anyone who declares seems to at a minimum get a cable TV town hall forum, interviews on the cable and broadcast network shows, some write ups in national publications, numerous podcast invitations, and some social media buzz. For the rest of their lives they get to put "presidential candidate" on their resumes. 
Ladies and Gentlemen: Your declared Democrats running for president in 2020
If most of these candidates were serious about running for president, they would be hunkered down in Iowa and/or New Hampshire (two predominantly white states that have an over sized impact on selecting the nominee due to the major parties unwillingness to divorces themselves from a tradition that insults the diversity of the modern electorate), building a grassroots network of enthusiastic supporters, and making a mature decision to LEAVE the race if said network fails to materialize. 

Keep in mind that the Iowa caucuses do not start until February 3, 2020. But thanks to the establishment media scam artists (who have been hyping presidential politics since January of 2017) most of the declared candidates don't even have to visit Iowa or New Hampshire. Some candidates (Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke might be the best examples) seem to have as part of their overall strategy an effort to channel national media attention into local organizing in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other states, but for many of the others running for president appears to be more about: 

*building or reinforcing a personal brand that can be marketed for other opportunities 
*auditioning for a cabinet position or VP
*auditioning to be a future Democratic National Committee chair 
*laying the groundwork to become a featured pundit or media source 
*simply getting the adrenaline rush that comes from 15 minutes of fame 

The scam goes fully national later in June, when there will be two nights of televised "debates" featuring all of the 20+ candidates who've met the Democratic National Committee's arbitrary threshold of polling numbers and fundraising. The DNC's threshold has been a boon for social media platforms, who profit handsomely from the frantic, nonstop ads placed by candidates pleading with us to "donate even a dollar so I can bring my uplifting message to the debates." 

From a civic perspective (note: presidential campaigns are supposed to have something to do with civics, right?), the only way these national "debates" would make sense is if we had a National Primary Day. That is, instead of 50 individual primaries and caucuses spread from February - June, we would simply do them all on one day. The main argument against a national primary day has been that it inherently favors wealthier candidates who can afford to expend resources in many states. There's obviously some truth to that argument, but on the other hand the wealthier candidates already dominate the current system. That will be even more true in 2020, as California--a state which is virtually impossible to campaign in without spending vasts sums of money--is now an "early primary state" that will be dominated by well financed candidates. 

Besides the major political parties, you know who else doesn't want a national primary day? If your answer is, "the executives running for-profit scams at the establishment media corporations," you would be correct. In 2016 these characters milked what Matt Taibbi called the GOP Clown Car Republican primary for months. Turned out that Donald Trump was good for the media business. The nonstop hostility aimed at Bernie Sanders is, I reckon, at attempt to try and turn the Democratic primary season into a circus like the Republicans in 2016. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, an op-ed columnist with establishment Democrat leanings, has already taken to calling Sanders the "Trump of the left.

My point is that national campaign coverage has little to do with informing voters and everything to do with enhancing the media bottom line. It's a for-profit scam that reduces politics to a kind of Netflix series featuring a handful of A-list stars surrounded by a gaggle of B-listers looking for ways to upstage them. 

An Alternative to Scamming 

Imagine with me a hypothetical world in which establishment media, when it comes to presidential primary campaign coverage, where guided more by a for-profit ethic, but a for-the-people one. What would that look like? 

First, the major establishment media would greatly LIMIT the amount of campaign coverage until a month or two before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. No more automatic televised town halls for any billionaire, governor, mayor, etc. who announces an intention to run for president. Town halls and/or debates would begin shortly before Iowa and New Hampshire, and they would be limited only to those candidates who are generating a serious buzz on the ground in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. 

Serious buzz on the ground does NOT mean poll numbers or how many campaign offices opened in each county--those are things that any well-financed campaign can pull off quite easily. Rather, serious buzz on the ground means attendance at rallies, unpaid volunteers, unsponsored social media activity, and other signs of a campaign connecting with the average voter. Yes, it would take some REAL JOURNALISTIC EFFORT to go out and find which candidates are actually having that kind of impact. 

Second, all campaign journalism should use a "citizens agenda" approach to coverage. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has written and spoken extensively on this topic, and he provides a nice summary here. At its root the citizens agenda approach is simple: instead of focusing on meaningless horse race coverage and stupidity ("who's ahead in the polls?" "Can Sanders catch Biden?" "Is Warren likable?"), media should actively find out FROM VOTERS what they want candidates to be talking about as they compete for their votes. It's pretty certain that not many voters are going to say, "I want the candidates to tell me how much money they can raise." 

Third, independent or third party candidates deserve equal time in campaign coverage. However, the coverage of such candidates in the national press should begin ONLY after the candidates are on the ballot in enough states so that they in theory could receive enough electoral votes to become president. In most states, getting a third party or independent candidate on the ballot is a herculean task (because of state laws biased in favor of the major parties) requiring lots of grassroots support. Candidates able to generate that level of support at the grassroots level have earned the right to be in the national debate. Failure to include them only builds more cynicism within the electorate and further depresses voter turnout. 

In summary, I think Senator Elizabeth Warren's decision to refuse to appear at a Fox News town hall event on the grounds that the execs are running a "hate-for-profit" scam provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the values that guide major media as they cover the presidential campaign. It is my contention that while Fox's competitors may not be as bad as them, still they are involved in a for-profit scam that calls into question their ability to play a meaningful civic role in the election of the president of the United States. 

The fact that millions of Americans rely on media that are engaged in a for-profit scam to learn about presidential candidates is not a problem easily solved. Yet it's a problem that major media should try and solve soon, as their protests against Mr. Trump's calling them "fake" have limited credibility when it turns out that media moguls are themselves Trump-style grifters and manipulators. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Oshkosh City Council: 2007-2011 Version

On Tuesday, April 16th my spouse Lori Palmeri was sworn in as mayor of Oshkosh. When I served on the Oshkosh Common Council from 2007 - 2011, now Mayor Palmeri was a constant source of encouragement, wisdom, and sanity. During those years she was studying at UW Oshkosh and UW Milwaukee to be an urban planner, and being able to observe up close how City Hall worked (or did not work) was very helpful to her as she pursued her degrees. We often had marathon length discussion of city issues.
Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri
When Lori decided to run for the City Council herself in 2016 I was thrilled not just because I knew she would do a great job, but because I felt that city government had started to move away from the high standards of accountability that, in my humble opinion, the 2007-2011 Council had established.I felt that Lori could play a major role in returning to a high accountability standard; judging by the fact that she's now been elected twice to the Council and just got elected mayor, I think it's clear that the majority of voters agree.

Why even bring up the 2007-2011 council? Why not just move forward? Indeed, Lori's election was a sign that thousands of people in the city want the city to be future oriented in the best sense: they want government to strive to leave future generations a city that respects but does not fear differences. A city that is open, transparent, welcoming and inclusive, and meets the World Health Organization's definition of healthy city: "A healthy city is one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and and developing their maximum potential." 


2007 Council
The 2007-2009 Oshkosh Common Council: Jessica King, Tony Palmeri, Burk Tower, Mayor Frank Tower, Dennis McHugh, Bryan Bain, Paul Esslinger
So why bring up the past?  Two reasons. First, during the campaign season it was very irritating and offensive to listen to most of the candidates--especially those who would eventually lose on April 2--talk about prior city councils. Listening to them, you would think that local government in Oshkosh did nothing good before 2010/2011 (the years in which the losing 2019 candidates first got elected to the Council.). I said nothing during the campaign season because I did not want to take any attention away from Lori. 

Second, while the city council from 2007-2011 was far from perfect and suffered from some dysfunction (as do ALL governmental bodies), the council in those years made some MAJOR strides in raising the bar for governance in Oshkosh. Indeed, much of what later Councils took credit for were actually initiatives of the 2007-2011 councils. Examples (in no particular order):

*Long Range Finance Committee. Almost every member of the City Council since 2011 has praised the Long Range Finance Committee for the way it assists the council and city staff in coming up with creating ways to address budget issues. Guess what? The Long Range Finance Committee was proposed soon after the 2007 Council was sworn in and created not too long after.

*Sustainability Advisory Board. Today it's fashionable to talk about sustainability in local government. The 2007-2011 City Council went beyond lip service and created the Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB). In 2019 the SAB still does not have enough power to impact public policy in Oshkosh (I argued during its creation that it should be at the same level of influence as the Parks Advisory Board or Plan Commission, which still is not the case unfortunately), but they do vital work and serve as an important reminder that we cannot continue to do business as usual and expect to create a healthy city.

*Hiring a New City Manager: For years before I got elected in 2007, there was a sense that City Manager Richard Wollangk, though a pleasant person and deeply committed to Oshkosh, was not showing the leadership necessary to move the city forward. The 2007-2009 city council made it clear that major changes were needed, leading to Mr. Wollangk's retirement. We then hired Mark Rohloff as the new manager. All subsequent Councils have given Mr. Rohloff very favorable reviews--and some individual councilors have given him the lion's share of credit for economic development projects that have taken place--yet the city council that made his hiring possible almost never gets credit.
The 2008 City Council hired Mark Rohloff as City Manager and created the annual State of the City Address in the interest of openness and transparency.
*Other Personnel Moves:The Oshkosh City Council has no formal power to hire or remove city department heads. However, the council can make its displeasure with departments known clearly to the city manager and create conditions under which changes will be made. Pressure from the 2007-2011 council allowed for changes to be made in the planning, inspections, legal, and other departments. 

*City Manager Evaluation: It's now widely accepted that the council's evaluation of the city manager should be thorough, rigorous, and transparent. The 2007-2011 council began the process of investing the deputy mayor with significant responsibility to make sure that the evaluation process meets those criteria. We also started the trend of writing up specific sets of annual goals for the city manager to give special emphasis to. In my view the evaluation still lacks sufficient public input and transparency, and councils have not done a great job at making sure the stated goals are being met, but overall the process is much better than it was pre-2007. 

*State of the City Address: The 2007-2011 councils established the principle that the city manager should be a visible member of the community, and should provide the taxpayers with an annual update as to the major priorities being acted on. We thus created the "State of the City" address. Another small but significant victory for transparency in government. 

*Meaningful Debate on Issues: The city council from 2007-2011 was often bashed in the local press for having long meetings. I once wrote about how the meeting length criticism was largely a myth, but we unquestionably did sometimes have long discussions. The main reason was because the council in those years actually had a majority of members, ranging from those who would define themselves as progressives to those who would define themselves as conservative, who saw it as their responsibility to provide reasons for why they were voting the way they did. The diverse mix of ideologies and personalities on the council in those years seemed to provoke longer council statements and more citizen involvement.  

*Special Event Ordinance: The 2007-2011 council took the issue of special events seriously, and had the administration prepare data on how much the events actually cost the taxpayers. While the ordinance is still a work in progress and has been interpreted as covering events that most of us on the council did not anticipate at the time (block parties, etc.), I don't think anyone can doubt that the ordinance was necessary to produce some public accountability for organizations that need city resources to make events happen. 

*Flood Control: The city in 2008 faced some of the worst flooding seen in years. The council responded by empowering city staff to come up with aggressive plans for flood control. Though we have a way to go, much progress has been made in this area over the years. 
In 2008 the city of Oshkosh suffered from historic flooding. The city council moved aggressively on flood control efforts, establishing an ethic of infrastructure improvement that each succeeding council had kept in place.
*Neighborhood Revitalization:  Today the council talks about the city's neighborhood revitalization efforts as if they are new. The 2007-2011 council brought in Neighborworks out of Green Bay to help us create a model for rebuilding neighborhoods in Oshkosh. Neighborworks ultimately did not work out, and we did not make enough progress overall in this area, but we set down a foundation that gave future councils something to work with. 

*TIF District Procedures: Before 2007 it was pretty much a given that the city of Oshkosh would create Tax Incremental Finance districts for pretty much any developer project. As a result, Oshkosh had created more TIFs than just about any city its size in the state, without providing any kind of user friendly citizens' guide for understanding the cost of the TIF, the metrics to determine success or failure, or even why TIF is necessary for most projects. We still are not close to where we need to be in creating more accountability on TIF, but the 2007-2011 councils began the process of demanding more rationale for TIF projects, and using the "Pay-Go" method which is of less risk to taxpayers. 

*Reviewing the City's Fee Structure. In 2009 Mayor Paul Esslinger requested city staff to provide information on the city's fee structure. Esslinger was a political lightning rod, and so his request was immediately framed as him looking for ways to reduce fees on his own business venture, but the fact that got lost is that anyone serious about small business development in a municipal setting has to come to terms with the cost of doing business. To this day the city has never done a sufficient, rigorous accounting of fees or come up with a solid reform proposal. At least the 2009 council put this important issue on the map. Hopefully the new and future councils will revive the idea. 

*Reviewing Board and Commission Membership. Esslinger was also the first mayor that I am aware of who tried to tackle the issue of how to make sure the city's citizen boards and commissions were open to new membership. Because he proposed the idea, it was framed once again as something nefarious: he somehow just wanted to replace board members he didn't like. Today just about every member of the city council agrees that we need to find ways to expand and diversify the membership on boards and commissions. Hopefully Mayor Palmeri will be able to make some progress in that area without having it framed as some kind of vendetta.  

*Agenda Revision To Monitor Spending: Much of the taxpayer money that gets spent in the city is approved during council meetings in the "consent agenda" portion of the meeting. For most of the city's history, the consent agenda items would be published without any dollar amount. It was as if major projects were being accomplished for free. The 2007 council actually was the first one to require that dollar amounts go on the consent agenda so that citizens can literally calculate how much is being spent at a given meeting. I consider that to be a small but significant victory for transparency in local government. 

*Divided Votes: I moved to Oshkosh in 1989, and probably watched every city council meeting from 1989 until my own election in 2007. What I noticed and was disturbed by all those years was that on virtually every issue, the vote was 7-0, 6-1, or 5-2. The perception was that many councilors were just automatic yes votes, and others were automatic no votes. I didn't get the sense that any of the councilors were actually listening to each other. The 2007 - 2011 council was extremely unique for Oshkosh in that we often had 4-3 votes! For the first time since 1956 (the year the council-manager form of government came here), outcomes of votes were not predictable. The Oshkosh establishment, which had grown accustomed to getting its way with little substantive debate over those years, all of a sudden had to--gasp--try and make some persuasive arguments to get that fourth vote. The late Ken Bender, a legendary gadfly who spoke at pretty much every city council meeting for decades, publicly told the 2008 council that he thought it was the best he had ever seen--BECAUSE the 4-3 votes indicated that the views of the entire city were being listened to and represented.

Conclusion: Media should do a better job of providing history of local government

I'm the first to admit that the 2007-2011 city council did not go near far enough in moving the city forward. We did not produce enough reform in critical areas like budget transparency and innovation, diversity and inclusion, rental inspection and other housing issues, and a variety of others. When city manager Rohloff made it clear that he was not interested in moving the city in any dramatic new direction, we did not sufficiently insist on anything different. We offered little resistance to the creation of the "event city" brand, when we had at least one compelling alternative to choose from (Nellesen and Associates suggestion that we brand ourselves "healthy, sustainable, and green."). We did serve at a time of what was probably the most severe recession in the history of the United States (the 2008-2009 crash), but that can't be an excuse.

One of the beautiful things about the United States of America is that millions of average, everyday people serve in a variety of local government roles. Most of those people will never be known, and their honorable service will be mostly forgotten by all except those closest to them. Media sources should do a better job of reminding communities of how they got to where they are now. Such historical writing not only serves to respect and honor the prior service offered by citizens who took the time to make meaningful contributions, but it also helps make better decisions in the present. By doing a better job of showing the historical roots of current issues, media can help current officials get a better sense of when they are reinventing the wheel, slowing the wheel down, or inventing a whole new one. 

Monday, April 01, 2019

On Vertical Triangulation

In representative democracies across the globe, candidates for public office spend much time trying to figure out how to "position" themselves vis-a-vis their opponents and the voters. In mainstream American politics, the positioning historically occurred on a left-right axis. For example, in the most stark form, the "left" candidate was allegedly pro-union and  the "right" candidate allegedly pro-management. Or the left candidate favored higher taxes on the rich to support social programs while the right candidate wanted low taxes on the rich so that their wealth would "trickle down" to the rest of us. Etc. Etc. 

Today the ground has shifted: thanks in large part to the way in which Occupy Wall St. and other populist movements provoked a reframing of our political language, the horizontal left-right axis no longer sheds any light on civic life. Occupy shifted the language from horizontal to vertical: in the 2010s left-right has slowly but surely given way to bottom-top as the framework that makes the most sense as we try to understand the policies and positioning of the major players impacting our political life. 


In the old days, mainstream political players were never really comfortable positioning themselves as purely left or purely right. "Transcending" the left-right axis became known as "triangulation." Today there's a similar discomfort with being labeled purely bottom or purely top, and what we're seeing in response is a kind of vertical triangulation. 


In the remainder of this post I want to briefly summarize key moments in the history of left-right horizontal triangulation, then refer to the gaggle of Democrats seeking to gain the 2020 nomination to face Donald Trump to identify what is fast becoming a case study in 21st century vertical triangulation. 


On Horizontal Triangulation


Some of the most consequential parts of US history can be framed as the triumph of a restrained middle over more a more radical left and/or right :


*In 1787 those calling for the creation of a Constitutional Republic saw it as a middle ground between the pro-slavery fiefdoms represented by the then existing Articles of Confederation and the armed supporters of Shays' Rebellion who thought the values of the 1776-1783 revolution had been betrayed. 


*Abe Lincoln running on a platform of "non-extension of slavery" in 1860 was a middle ground between the northern abolitionists and the southern slave-holding aristocracy that wanted to extend the evil from coast-to-coast. 

*While the Republicans from the time Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office in 1933 called his New Deal recovery program "Socialist," the New Deal was in fact a middle ground between the GOP's inaction in the face of mass economic depression and actual revolutionary socialism on the left. 


Post World War II, positioning in the middle became a more strategic, public relations industry style of re-branding a politician so that he seemed to "rise above" the left and right. This is what the political "professionals" mean by triangulation,  and it's probably best exemplified by the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. 


The Nixon campaign of 1968 emerged in a context in which President Johnson's "Great Society" programs opened up Democrats to being branded as the party of "big government" and "Washington solutions" to local problems. To his right, Nixon was challenged by segregationist George Wallace, the Alabama governor whose third-party campaign represented a complete rejection of the civil rights movement. 


The Democrats in 1968 fielded Vice-President Humphrey as their candidate--an old school liberal fully on board with the Great Society. Nixon cleverly situated himself in the middle of Humphrey and Wallace, running on a platform of respect for "states rights" and for greater "law and order" as a response to urban and campus uprisings of the time. The Nixon campaign even ran some ads explicitly targeting African-American voters in an effort to show a middle-ground between the Dems' espousal of government programs to assist historically oppressed groups and Wallace's nostalgia for the pre-civil rights era America. 

In 1968 Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon ran ads explicitly targeting African-American voters. The ad is an example of political triangulation that's been used in many campaigns since. 
It's not an exaggeration to say that the Nixon 1968 campaign forever changed the Republican Party; from that moment on they could run against any government action at all as being part of some kind of left conspiracy, while sounding out dog whistles to those fearful of progress on the right. 

In a real sense, the Trump 2016 campaign was the natural outcome of many decades of triangulating. Finally, the most extreme elements of the Republican base found a candidate they could rally around, a man who channeled George Wallace with his overt racial appeals and call for the wall to keep "them" out of the country. In the Republican primaries, the more traditional triangulating of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and others was no match for Trump.  


Probably the most extreme form of political triangulation occurred in Bill Clinton's runs for the presidency in 1992 and 1996. Clinton represented the "New Democrat," an ideology of "centrism" that attempted to rebrand the Dems as pro-business, competent technocrats. In Mr. Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination in July of 1992 we can find triangulation in its most pristine form: 


We meet at a special moment in history, you and I. The cold war is over; Soviet Communism has collapsed, and our values -- freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise -- they have triumphed all around the world. 


The Republicans have campaigned against big government for a generation. But have you noticed? They've run this big government for a generation, and they haven't changed a thing. They don't want to fix government, they still want to campaign against it, and that's all.


But, my fellow Democrats, it's time for us to realize that we've got some changing to do, too. There is not a program in government for every problem. And if we really want to use government to help people, we have got to make it work again.


Now, I don't have all the answers. But I do know the old ways don't work. Trickle down economics has sure failed. And big bureaucracies, both public and private, they've failed too.


That's why we need a new approach to government. A government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement, more choices for young people in the schools they attend, in the public schools they attend. And more choices for the elderly and for people with disabilities in long-term care they receive. A government that is leaner, not meaner, a government that expands opportunity, not bureaucracy, a government that understands that jobs must come from growth in a vibrant and vital system of free enterprise. I call this approach a New Covenant, a solemn agreement between the people and their government, based not simply on what each of us can take, but what all of us must give to our nation.


An America where we end welfare as we know it. We will say to those on welfare: "You will have, and you deserve, the opportunity, through training and education, through child care and medical coverage, to liberate yourself.


But then, when you can, you must work, because welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life. That's what the New Covenant is all about.

Somehow "New Covenant" does not have the same ring as "New Deal" or "New Frontier," but that's really the point. Why? Because the language of triangulation is designed not to get a nation to conceive of ways to get a handle on urgent crises, but to get politicians through election cycles. "New Covenant" for Clinton, like "Law and Order" for Nixon, was about meeting the personal political needs of the moment. "New Covenant" allowed Clinton to say "I'm not like those big government liberals or those mean conservatives." "Law and Order" allowed Nixon to act out socially acceptable "toughness" as opposed to the permissiveness of the liberals and neo-fascism of the Wallace segregationists. 

Left-right triangulation has an addictive quality to it, and even though the ideological ground has shifted we find partisans doggedly reaching for the traditional middle ground. The best (or worst, depending on your point of view) examples are the "Never Trump" Republicans still in denial about how grassroots level frustration with their triangulated nonsense created Trump in the first place, and the dickhead plutocrats like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg who imagine some middle ground that might make them look like something other than brazen billionaire opportunists. 

On Vertical Triangulation

We've come to a point in the United States where it is slowly but surely coming to full acceptance that we are not divided by Left and Right but by Bottom and Top. That we have a government--in Washington and most state capitols--of, by, and for the one-percent is no longer in any kind of serious dispute. Donald Trump's pledge to "drain the swamp" was a recognition of the problem. That he never really had any intention of draining said swamp, and that he has been, continues to be, and will always be the ultimate swamp dweller himself is something lost on his core supporters. Sad. 


Given that the swamp does in fact rule Washington, we have no shortage of candidates literally in debt to the one-percent. But as the rest of us (the ninety-nine percent) become more aware that our division into left and right camps has been a sham orchestrated by one-percent interests, we begin to find populist ideas and candidates attractive. This presents a quandary for the one-percent candidates: how do they continue to serve their wealthy masters while simultaneously positioning themselves as great friends of the rest of us? 


The answer is a new kind of triangulation. Just like Nixon and Clinton looked for ways to transcend the left-right axis, today we've got candidates trying to find a middle ground between the one-percent and the ninety-nine percent. Today, the best place to find vertical, top-down triangulation is in the Democratic Party contest for president. Bernie Sanders' surprising performance in 2016, helped along by the fact that he tends to be in a rhetorical war with the one-percent, looks poised to repeat itself in 2020. Many other Democrats, especially Joe Biden,  Beto O'Rourke, and Kamala Harris, appear to be setting themselves up as the "anti-Bernie." 


Anti-Bernieism is vertical triangulation; it's a way of saying "sure our system is designed to benefit the uber-rich, but if we just tinker around the edges we can fix it! We don't need democratic socialism!" 


Vertical triangulation can best be illustrated in the way Democrats talk about health care reform. Sanders' Medicare For All plan, a true single-payer plan that would cover all Americans and eliminate the private health insurance industry, has a high amount of support from Democratic base voters and even large numbers of Republicans. It is of course bitterly opposed by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, both of which benefit immensely from the status quo. Because those industries wield huge influence in the political system, it is difficult for candidates to break free from them. So what the candidates do is triangulate: look for some kind of middle position that can somehow solve the health care woes of the ninety-nine percent while simultaneously pacifying the very interests that are creating the woes in the first place. 




Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is already writing talking points for Democratic triangulators on health care, arguing that there should not be a "purity test" in the primaries and that a "Medicare For America" plan that preserves private insurance might be just as good as a real national health care plan. As the campaigns go on we are going to see more and more attempts to protect one-percent interests under the guise of actually helping the population at large. Expect to hear many of the candidates find ways to defend trade, tax, health care, jobs, environment, and other policies in ways that offer platitudes to the population-at-large while not offering any serious threat to the donor class. 

Within Democratic Party circles, Bernie Sanders most offends those who see the one-percent as fitting under the Party's "big tent." That is, he offends the top-down triangulators. I don't think offending those folks will hurt him with at-large voters. 


I'm not sure if Bernie Sanders is the best candidate to face Donald Trump. But I firmly believe that if the Dems nominate a vertical triangulator they will fall into the same trap that caught them in 2016: being perceived as the "business as usual" party and once again allow a swamp dweller like Mr. Trump to frame himself as the true reformer. A race that should be a landslide for the Democrats will once again become winnable for Trump in the antiquated Electoral College system. 


So if not Bernie, then at least someone who stands clearly on the side of the ninety-nine percent in word and deed. Left-Right triangulation was a disaster for Democrats that led to huge losses in governorships, state legislatures, and the Congress. Left unchecked, top-down triangulation will be a similar disaster. 


Friday, March 01, 2019

Sineading at the Summit

On October 3, 1992 Irish rock/pop singer Sinead O'Connor almost wrecked her career during a live performance on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Instead of the typical SNL musical performance--instrumental energy coupled with obtuse and/or bland lyrics--O'Connor belted out an impassioned a cappella version of Bob Marley's "War" reworked to draw attention to child abuse:

Until the ignoble and unhappy regime
Which holds all of us through
Child abuse, yeah, child abuse yeah
Sub human bondage has been toppled
Utterly destroyed 
Everywhere is war . . . . 

Children, children 
Fight! 

We find it necessary. 
We know we will win. 
We have confidence in the victory of 
Of good over evil. 

Fight the real enemy! 
If she had just stopped there, the performance probably would have been pored over by pundits wondering who or what O'Connor was blaming for child abuse and who was the "real" enemy. Instead she left no doubt: in one of the most spectacular moments ever to enliven live TV, she tore apart a picture of Pope John Paul II. In just a few years she went from covering Prince to (symbolically) cutting the Pope. 

To understand how truly radical this act of papal picture mutilation really was, you have to remember a few things about America in 1992: (1) the issue of child abuse in the Catholic Church had barely registered a blip on the mainstream media radar; (2) Pope John Paul II possessed icon status in the United States at the time (not so much for his representation of Christ on Earth as for his enmity toward Communism); (3) in that pre #metoo era outspoken women were much more likely to face condemnation when demonstrating that they did not "know their place." The fact that actor Joe Pesci, hosting SNL the next week, received loud applause when he showed up with a taped up picture of the Pope and announced he would have given O'Connor a "smack" says about all we need to know about the state of the country circa '92. Sinead's act of icon defiance sparked what could be called the first social media shit storm--a few decades before anyone even knew what social media was. 
There's a rhetorical trope called "anthimeria" in which one part of speech is used to substitute for another. For example, if I say "they were sad and needed a good cry" I am using the verb "cry" as a noun. When Clint Eastwood famously addressed an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, it became known as "Eastwooding" (in anthimeria terms, it is a noun being used as a verb). 

What O'Connor did on the SNL stage is what I call "Sineading": the calling out of child abuse, child abusers, and child abuse enablers on the global stage.  

Under increasing pressure to make clear that abuse in the Church is seen by the Vatican hierarchy as an issue of social justice as opposed to a mere public relations crisis, Pope Francis recently hosted a historic summit on the "Protection of Minors in the Church." The event was held many decades too late and--from the perspective of every major survivor advocate organization--woefully inadequate in terms of righting past wrongs, rooting out current ones, and guaranteeing an abuse-free future. Yet the summit was not merely an exercise in papal propaganda, in large part because victims were allowed to speak and the summit attendees witnessed two courageous acts of Sineading: speeches by Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo and Mexican TV journalist Valentina Alezraki. 

On the third day of the summit, Sister Veronica  Sineaded the patriarchs in the audience: 

"We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church. We pause to pray, Lord have mercy on us!"

 

She called out the Vatican hierarchy for not acting on a range of abuses due to obsession with public relations: 

"Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently. e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the hierarchical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?" 

She closed with a clarion call for change moving forward: 

"I hope and pray that at the end of this conference we will choose deliberately to break any culture of silence and secrecy among us, to allow more light into our church. Let us acknowledge our vulnerability; be proactive not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society." 

Valentina Alezraki's speech is one that ought to be required reading in all journalism schools. Her remarks can be read as a rallying cry for a journalism of integrity that puts the profession squarely on the side of truth and justice. Speaking directly to the Pope, Bishops, and other Vatican bureaucrats, she sent out this warning: 

"If you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies . . ."
 
"We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role. Stealing, for example, is wrong, but if the one stealing is a police officer it seems more serious to us, because it is the opposite of what he or she should do, which is to protect the community from thieves. If doctors or nurses poison their patients rather than take care of them, the act draws even more of our attention because it goes against their ethics, their professional code."

The idea of a journalism that on principle holds power accountable and sides with decency in the manner argued by Alazraki is so far removed from what is typically practiced in the mainstream United States press as to be depressing. One could imagine an American journalist speaking at the papal summit and saying something like this to the assembled pope-arazzi: "as portrayed in the movie 'Spotlight,' the Boston Globe did some great work exposing child abuse in the Church. But I want to assure you that we do not set out to look for abuse, and while we sympathize with victims we never, ever take sides. As long as you provide us with your side of the story in a timely manner, we will never be your worst enemies.That's not our role." One can imagine those remarks getting a standing ovation from the 'razzi.

Will the stirring testimony of victims and the speeches of Sister Veronica Openibo and Valentina Alezraki, along with other acts of Sineading, be enough to provoke real change in the Church? The true test will be how long it takes the hierarchy to adopt the five very reasonable reform policies advocated by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP): 

  1. Fire any and all bishops or cardinals who have had a hand in clergy sex abuse cover-ups,
  2. Impose “dramatic and punitive consequences” to deter any future cover-ups,
  3. Eliminate any directive for church staff to report abuse to bishops and instead direct all church staff and officials to make reports to law enforcement, and
  4. Compel bishops around the world to turn their files over to law enforcement for independent investigations into their handling of clergy sex abuse cases, and
  5. Order bishops and other hierarchs to cease lobbying efforts against legislative reform that would benefit survivors.
If the Church is seriously interested in justice for victims and a just future, one would think these reform policies would be "no brainers." The fact that the Vatican hierarchy, after now decades of proven abuses and coverups, is still taking baby steps is not a good sign. Watch Judy Woodruff's PBS News Hour interview with SNAP's Becky Ianni for more insight as to why the summit was mostly disheartening. 

After her daring act in 1992, Sinead O'Connor said "I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one." How tragic that after so many years and acts of Sineading the issue of child abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions of power still does not carry the sense of urgency necessary to end it. Shame on all people with public platforms who spend more time shucking responsibility than Sineading.