Saturday, December 21, 2013

Krauthammer, Christie and the Way Forward

Although it is a passion of mine and it also usually garners more response than most other category of post, I’ve avoided politics here at GNABB of late. It is not due to a lack of interest on my part. And this past year has definitely presented some important topics for discussion. Perhaps I find it easier to talk about music or Christmas television specials than to unravel the complexities of the world. Perhaps it is also that I am constantly evolving, politically, constantly considering and reconsidering my stances. My views on the greatness of Springsteen are pretty set in stone by this point, regardless of the mediocrity of his recent output. But how do I feel about possible Syrian intervention? I’m not so sure.

I think I did set out a fairly consistent political ideology in our epic discussion/debate over on ANCIANT’s site awhile back. While I do listen to talk radio rather frequently in my car on the way to and from work most days, I don’t necessarily agree with them. Michael Medved comes across as the most reasonable to me out of all of the nationally syndicated guys that I listen to. If you had to peg me somewhere, I guess you could call me Center-Right. Deep down, if they really understood their own beliefs, I think you would find that most of the tax-paying country is there too. That’s why Reagan was so popular. That also explains our success as a country.

But I am excited now because I think that I have found someone who really reflects my own beliefs and presents them in the most brilliant way that I have heard in a long time. I was listening to talk radio one afternoon last month (I don’t even remember which show), and the guest was columnist Charles Krauthammer. I listened to a rather long segment, and found myself nodding and agreeing with almost everything he said, even saying “yes!” out loud in my car to nobody in particular. This is who I have been looking for. I also was immediately drawn into the way that he made his arguments. He was promoting his new book ‘Things That Matter,’ which is a sort of Greatest Hits collection of his columns from the past 30 years or so that have appeared in Time, The Washington Post and The New Republic. Most are relatively short editorials (a couple of pages), although he also includes several longer essays adapted from lectures that he’s given over the years. Needless to say, I rushed out and grabbed a copy. What a brilliant book.

It is divided into four sections, “Personal,” “Political,” “Historical” and “Global.” The personal essays are fun and good, ranging from heartfelt obituaries, to reflections on his former career as a psychiatrist, the intricacies of chess, dog shows, astronomy and the joys of being a fan of a mediocre sports team (in his case, the Washington Nationals, in an editorial entitled “The Joy of Losing”). There was only one essay where I disagreed and felt he was off base, the one where he is a bit dismissive of the natural childbirth movement (both of my children were born naturally), and uses an extreme case to make his point. But that aside, they were all enjoyable.

The meat of his writing, though, deals with politics and history. He tackles topics such as the legacy of the French Revolution, Angry White Men, affirmative action, Newtown, immigration policy and social security reform (in “Of Course It’s a Ponzi Scheme,” where he argues for its importance, but also makes crucial suggestions to keep it solvent, saying “When FDR created Social Security, choosing 65 as the eligibility age, life expectancy was 62. Today it is almost 80. FDR wanted to prevent the aged few from suffering destitution in their last remaining years. Social Security was not meant to provide two decades of greens fees for baby boomers.”) He also tackles euthanasia, stem cell research, religion in public life, 9/11, Middle East policy and the Iraq wars (arguing convincingly in several columns that Obama has squandered a historic opportunity in Iraq with his withdrawal. Regardless of the wisdom of entering the conflict, we were in a hard fought position to really influence the Middle East for the better, but Obama lost all of that opportunity. Why did Obama let it go? A mixture of wanting to fulfill a campaign promise, an inability of the Left to make a decision that might shed some positive light on anything initiated by George W. Bush and Obama's own ideological worldview, which I will address in more detail below). All of these topics he tackles with sharp reason, compassion and rock solid logic.

There are 85 total editorials/articles in the book, so obviously I cannot discuss in depth all of them or even many of them here. But I will discuss two of them that had a particular effect on me.

Krauthammer is Jewish, and he has about six or seven essays relating to being Jewish and the state of Israel. I found these to be particularly interesting, especially the 15 page essay, “Zionism and the Fate of the Jews,” where he traces the entire history of the Jewish people, argues for why the diasporas have actually saved them historically as a people, gives grim demographic data showing why Jews are soon to be an endangered species, and makes the best argument I have ever seen for supporting and sustaining Israel against Middle Eastern aggression. It is an absolute must read.

But I guess the most prescient essay/article is the final one, appropriately entitled “Decline Is a Choice.” Here he brings together many of the points he has made over the years, both dealing with foreign policy and domestic policy, and makes a fascinating argument for how they are inextricably connected, and how what Obama has been doing both with health care and internationally makes perfect sense due to his ideology. I agree with Krauthammer that Obama has done long term damage to this country, but it is not due to him being stupid or him “hating America,” as so many ignorant Tea Partiers and loud talk show hosts argue. It is due to what Krauthammer calls Obama’s worldview of Liberal Internationalism (and he goes into much detail as to what that means), and therefore a withdrawal of American hegemony and simultaneously the building up of the welfare state are ideologically and logically (for Obama) connected. Krauthammer (and I) disagree with that ideology, and the requisite destiny that must follow from that ideology, but it has an internal logic nonetheless, and Krauthammer explains it. American decline is actually the goal, but not out of hatred of America or even being unpatriotic. It entails some arguments that I intuitively have felt for some time now but have never been able to articulate to my satisfaction (and some additional arguments that never occurred to me), but once again Krauthammer lays it out here, as well as the reasonable, conservative alternative.

What I like about Krauthammer is that he seems to be the Center-Right, “reasonable conservative” voice that I argued for so passionately in our debates on ANCIANT’s site. I knew they were out there!

His ideas and arguments offer a way forward, not the decline of Obama’s agenda and not the shrill, suicidal cliff-jumping of the Tea Party either. (I think, ironically enough, the likely candidate that would follow a Krauthammerian worldview is Chris Christie, which is why the “elephant in the room” has my early support for 2016).

It is not that some Tea Party darlings like Ted Cruz are idiots. Cruz is no Palin. Cruz graduated cum laude from Princeton, attended Harvard Law School and has argued multiple cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is a lot brighter than I am. But he is either wrong or dangerous or both. He knew that his faux filibuster and spearheading of the government shutdown would not kill Obamacare. So why did he do it? Why is Cruz dangerous? He shut down the government of the United States to position himself in the primaries for 2016. That is utterly Nixonian. Cruz is dangerous, smart and an ideologue (Nixon was also dangerous and smart, but crucially he wasn’t an ideologue, he was the ultimate American practitioner of realpolitik). Do not underestimate or sleep on Cruz. Our path to national recovery and continued international hegemony (and I do not use that word in the negative), our path in between the equally dark futures of Obama liberalism leading to European social democratic malaise and the harsh Cruz Tea Partiers (who may be correct on some of the most crucial issues, but their tactics are uncompromising and counterproductive), is the way of Krauthammer and Christie. I firmly believe that.

‘Things That Matter’ by Charles Krauthammer, 2013: ***** out of *****

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2014

I was a bit off in my predictions this year (only got three), but the Class of 2014 is pretty solid, although it could have been better considering the nominees to choose from. Nirvana was a no brainer and everyone knew it. I’ve never been a fan, but I cannot deny their impact or credentials. It has been a given all along that they would be inducted in their first year of eligibility.

While I still question her Rockhall credentials, I have softened my stance on Linda Ronstadt somewhat. I still think that someone who makes their mark as a vocalist singing versions of other peoples’ songs is a bit suspect as far as a Hall of Fame induction goes. The Innovation is nil, she did not take these songs in wildly different directions (making her different from, say, an Ella Fitzgerald or a Janis Joplin, who also primarily sang songs written by others but they took them to entirely different places). She just had a great voice and did the songs well. The Influence may be there in some form, but she did not stand so far apart from other very talented female pop vocalists to really singlehandedly influence generations of singers. The Quality can be good (to occasionally great). Just a weak Hall case based on their criteria, even if she is a talented singer with some great songs. Alright, never mind. I have not softened my stance. She does not deserve induction.

I was surprised that Cat Stevens made it, considering the competition. But then you have to consider the genre breakdowns. He had no singer-songwriter competition in the field (Ronstadt had no genre artist to compete against either) and the Hall traditionally likes singer-songwriter types. So in hindsight, perhaps he should have been given a better chance by me and almost every other Hall watcher than he was given. There were few experts predicting his induction this time around. He’s on the border as far as worthiness, but I don’t feel too strongly about it.

Great to see Hall & Oates make it. While slight on the Innovation (and perhaps Influence), the Quality is strong and while the powers that be do not officially consider sales and chart success, that had to be a factor amongst the voters. Hall & Oates are one of the most commercially successful duos in pop music history. A great group and deserving.

At long last, one of the biggest snubs has been rectified with the induction of Peter Gabriel. In relatively short order, Gabriel went from criminally neglected to joining the rarified air of the Clyde McPhatter Club (artists with two inductions, named by Hall watchers after the first artist to accomplish it…there is only one artist with three inductions, and that is Eric Clapton). With a 2010 induction as a member of Genesis and now for his solo work, Gabriel joins that elite group of artists. Not only is he unquestionably deserving for innovative, influential and quality work, he is also a personal favorite of mine, making his induction all the better. And unlike with the Genesis induction, he claims that he will show up to the ceremony this time.

And then there is KISS. I love KISS from a deep place of childhood. Their influence on other hard rock/metal artists is well documented through testimonials and they also influenced the business of rock and roll as well. Innovation, musically speaking, not a scintilla. But again, they innovated in a business sense and as showmen. Quality of work? Well you can decide that for yourself. For many, KISS has been one of the biggest snubs (inspiring petitions, angry letters to the Hall and even a “protest march” on the Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland by the KISS Army).

Few people felt more strongly about this than KISS themselves, not surprisingly. Simmons especially has slagged the Hall for years (last year threatening to just “buy it and fire everyone”). The tune has changed this morning, though. Paul Stanley, through Twitter and other social media, has been basking in his induction. Now, apparently, The Hall is a legitimate and respected institution. Stanley says that “they finally see things our way.” Yes, there is reality and then there is KISS-reality. In contrast, KISS champion/That Metal Show host Eddie Trunk called Peter Criss this morning to congratulate him on the momentous news, but only spoke to his wife because apparently Peter was “still asleep.” (My favorite line from a Rolling Stone interview with Gene Simmons today was when asked about less than glowing critical reviews over the years, he replied that "Jesus also had people who did not like him.")

The E Street Band was inducted as part of the Musical Excellence category, as the Hall rightly continues to try and rectify past wrongs of inducting artists without their crucial backing bands. They need to continue to do this, and I applaud them for admitting a mistake and fixing it over the years. Bob Marley’s Wailers should be next. It is a little nepotistic as Little Steven Van Zandt is on the Committee, so did he play a part in inducting himself? Deserving nonetheless, although too bad Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are not around anymore to enjoy the honor. The band should have been inducted with Springsteen himself in 1999, not 2014.

Early Beatles manager Brian Epstein and early Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham were inducted in the Non-Performer category. Solid picks. This category needs to be used more, as there are many individuals who were not musicians but that were nevertheless crucial to rock and roll’s history and development. Dick Clark and Alan Freed are in (I believe), but there are a host of other crucial DJs who deserve induction in this category. Wolfman Jack, anyone?

As for those left on the outside, I think it ridiculous that Yes is still not inducted. Whether you like their brand of pompous progressive rock or not (and I most definitely do), they may be the most important band in that entire genre. That very fact should make them a shoe-in. It was ridiculous that this was the first year they were nominated, and it is ridiculous that they were not inducted this time around. I have grown to appreciate Link Wray immensely during the past few months, and am now disappointed he did not make it in. That is eight strike-outs for Chic. I think they are deserving, but the voters have spoken. Eight times. Let’s give them a rest for awhile (although it took Black Sabbath an absurd eight times before they got inducted, and then without inducting Ronnie James Dio to boot).

Should be a fun ceremony to watch this year, with several potential dramas. Dave Grohl and Courtney Love do not like each other. How will the Nirvana induction go down? Who will perform with the living members of Nirvana? Are Peter Criss and Ace Frehley going to watch Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley perform with their hired guns in the Catman and Space Ace make-up? Or can they bury the hatchet for one night and have the four original members of KISS up there once again? If all four are accepting the award, how awkward will that be at the podium? Can’t wait to hear Gene Simmons tell us why KISS is the most important thing to have occurred in all of American history.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Kings of Jingaling

One of the joys of fatherhood is that I get to revisit the pop culture of my own childhood in my attempt to brainwash my children into liking the things that I used to like. This has been a fun holiday season so far because it is the first Christmas where my oldest daughter really has a grasp of what is going on. She has been incredibly excited about all things related to Christmas (well, at least the secular commercial version). We put up the tree and decorated it over the weekend, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her have more fun. Granted, about 80% of the ornaments are in a small quadrant near the bottom of the tree, but she was having so much fun decorating that I just kept them there.

I have been introducing her to the classic Christmas TV specials of yore. In my mind there are six essential ones: ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,’ ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ and the four canonical shows from Hankin/Bass: ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ ‘Santa Clause is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘The Year Without Santa.’ Now, having viewed them all in recent weeks (and some of them over and over and over again), some thoughts (and of course, judgments)…

‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’:

This is clearly the king of them all. It has everything magical about nostalgia and the holidays. The primitive stop motion technology merely adds to the charms. My daughter is obsessed with all things Rudolph, and I’ve got to say that I enjoy watching this with her every time, even if it is the 86th run through it. Part of its charm, for me, is the anachronistic attitudes and the 'Mad Men' world in which it was made (1964). Check this scene out: when Rudolph runs away, and his father Donner decides to go look for him and Rudy’s mother wants to come too, Donner says sternly “no, this is man’s work.” Another nugget, after fighting off the abominable snow monster, Yukon Cornelius has supposedly gone over the cliff with the monster, thereby saving Rudolph and his family and friends, the narrator (Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman) says that although they wanted to stay and see if they could find Yukon, they “knew they needed to get the women back home.”

And Santa is a real jerk. He comes to visit Donner and wife to meet the new baby, and once Rudolph’s nose glows Santa recoils ("Great bouncing icebergs!") and tells Donner that he needs to take care of the situation asap. Then he turns around and sings a happy song about Christmas to Rudolph. Later, when Rudolph’s fake nose pops off during the reindeer games, Santa scolds Donner “you should be ashamed of yourself.” When the elves sing their song for Santa (“We Are Santa’s Elves”), he looks visibly irritated and bored, slumping in his chair, sighing and covering his eyes, and says “oh well, it needs work” and then storms off. The song was delightful, what the f**k, Santa?

ABOVE: Wonder what happened to the stop motion puppets used in the show? Sure you do. Apparently Rankin/Bass had no idea how popular 'Rudolph' and their other shows would be, and so when production was over they gave the puppets away to employees, secretaries, etc. Apparently one lady got Rudolph, Santa and others and gave them to her nephew as toys. Some of the puppets "melted in the attic," but as you can see above the nephew brought Rudolph and Santa to be appraised on 'Antiques Roadshow.' They were estimated to be worth about $10,000 at auction. Which I think is actually a little low, considering the pop culture value, and the Christmas collectors market is pretty big. But they are damaged (Rudolph doesn't have his nose and Santa is missing half of his mustache.)

My favorite character, by far, is Boss Elf. He’s the elf overseeing the toymaking process who is always shouting orders and who gets all over Hermey the Elf for wanting to be a dentist instead of making toys. “Now you get to elf practice and learn to wiggle your ears, chuckle warmly, say ‘hee hee’ and ‘ho ho’ and important things like that!!” I shout that at my daughter at least once a day now and she enjoys it.

ABOVE: Boss Elf scolds Hermey

All of that aside, it really is the gold standard. With timeless songs, a classic story of misfits who join together and end up saving the day because of their oddities…it doesn’t get any better. The primitive stop motion techniques are strangely effective and evoke a warm nostalgia for simpler times and simple messages that are incredibly powerful (mid-60's gender role attitudes aside). And such a cultural touchstone too. I was reading the Lou Reed remembrances in Rolling Stone, and Michael Stipe references the “Island of Misfit Toys” (with no explanation). Most people of my age, I think, would instantly know what he was talking about and what he meant to say regarding Lou Reed’s appeal to outsiders.

***** out of *****

‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

Confession: I’ve never been a huge fan of the Peanuts gang. I have never (and still don’t) get why everyone picks on Chuck. He seems a nice enough guy and tries to do the right thing, yet everyone thinks he is an incompetent idiot. I don’t get it. Even their beloved holiday specials are overrated. The Thanksgiving one is just OK, and the Halloween ‘Great Pumpkin’ sucks. That being said, the Christmas special has a real magic that is lacking in every other Peanuts special. It has a languid but pleasant pace that just couldn't be pulled off today, accentuated by the absolutely wonderful jazz score from Vince Guaraldi. The story is simple, with the only things at stake a Christmas pageant and a rather pathetic tree. But the message tries to cut through the commercialism of the holiday and find real meaning. It does so effectively.

**** out of *****

ABOVE: Boris Karloff and The Grinch

‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’

The original animated show is absolute perfection. It is Dr. Seuss at his most witty, and to have the voice of Boris Karloff as both narrator and The Grinch was a masterstroke. Other than as the iconic Frankenstein monster, it is Karloff's most lasting work. The prose is great (since it is Seuss) and the story is a wonderful lesson about what Christmas should be about. Although even my daughter has picked up on the fact that The Grinch violates multiple animal cruelty laws in his treatment of his poor dog, Max.

ABOVE: Look closely at the still from 'The Grinch.' A little dog should not have to carry a sleigh of that weight. Uphill. In the snow.

***** out of *****

‘Frosty the Snowman’

This took a few modern viewings to click with me again, but it really is fantastic. One of the things I enjoy is that many of the voices sound like Sopranos actors. Jimmy Durante narrates, and his voice is so warm yet rough that it sounds like he is telling the story of Frosty while you are seated next to him in some mob-run bar in Jersey over some bourbons and cigars. But the story is great, the message good, and Santa is actually quite kind in this one, and disarms the villain by threatening not to ever bring him any presents ever again.

***** out of *****

ABOVE: A young Santa

‘Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town’

Like all modern comic book heroes who get the big screen treatment, Santa Claus needs an origin story. This is it. Narrated with class by Fred Astaire (with Santa voiced by Mickey Rooney), it actually presents an interesting story of Santa’s roots. But the pace is a bit slow and the music forgettable. It did not hold my daughter’s interest, nor mine.

*** out of *****

‘The Year Without Santa’

Mickey Rooney is back as Santa, and in this one the Red One has a cold and decides that since nobody remembers the real meaning of Christmas anyway, he’s done. It is up to Mrs. Claus to save Christmas, sending two bumbling elves and a reindeer down to find traces of Christmas spirit. The music sucks, and the story is slow. The only cool thing is the Miser brothers, Snow Miser and Heat Miser, who are competing with each other for global weather dominance. In doing some research, I found that the Misers have become minor cult figures. Needs much more Misers, less everything else.

ABOVE: Considering global warming (or 'climate change'), it appears that Heat Miser has gained the upper hand

** out of *****

Did I miss any crucial holiday shows?