The ongoing protests in Egypt, which follow protests in other repressive Mid East countries, are yet another reminder of how difficult it is for most politicians and pundits to divorce themselves from the notion that the planet revolves around Washington.
The Al Jazeera-fueled protests have unleashed the inevitable spate of charges that President Obama has "abandoned" the Arab world, typically from the very neocons who dragooned the Bush administration into the Iraq war, the single most destabilizing regional event in decades.
While I wish well each and every Arab brother and sister who thirsts for democracy while choking back teargas, there is nothing that Obama in particular and the U.S. government in general will do -- let alone can do -- to hasten this change. Washington will not overtly support the protesters by asking Egyptian President Mubarak to step aside.
Egypt is a particularly tough nut because the likelihood of Mubarak going voluntarily, as did his counterpart in Tunisia, is slim, although he is making symbolic concessions like ordering the resignation of his cabinet and appointing a vice president (who in reality is little different than he is), which will be more of a sop to his Western allies than the protesters. And if Mubarak survives, it will be through brutal repression.
Meanwhile, the opposition has coalesced around Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei but remains grassroots and young in the extreme, which is to say not nearly well organized and seasoned as it was in Iran. A conspicuous exception is the transnational and ultra-conservative Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Egypt and is staying in the shadows for the time being, although it has endorsed ElBaradei as a negotiator for the protesters.
Then there is the fact that the U.S. and its foreign aid largess has, to a great extent, kept Mubarak in power. He makes nice with Israel, the U.S.'s all-important regional ally, while Egypt has been a reliable bulwark against terrorism. And although the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced more violent expressions of Islam, the group arguably would be the U.S.'s worst nightmare if Mubarak were to go and it came to power.
Then there is the biggest question of all in this hall of mirrors: Is the U.S. support of democracy in the Mideast at its heart a sham? And if democracy were to be possible in, say Egypt, which I have grave doubts about, would it encourage radical Islam, replacing one kind of tyranny with another?
I don't think we'll find out anytime soon. But when and if we do, the payback could be a bitch and a half.Photo by Scott Nelson for The New York Times
Monday, January 31, 2011
Saturday, January 29, 2011
After an exhaustive, three-year probe, featuring 100,000 document pages and interviews with 80 Bush administration officials, an independent oversight agency reports that the Bush team repeatedly and routinely broke the law by politicizing a slew of government agencies, making them subservient to the electoral needs of the White House. . . .More here.
The federal Hatch Act, enacted in 1939, prohibits federal employees (who work for all taxpayers) from engaging in partisan politics while on the job. According to the Office of Special Counsel, the Bush administration broke this law at least 75 separate times. Among other things, the administration decreed that federal workers, during work hours, shall attend mandatory briefings, in which White House officials gave instructions on how they could help elect Republican candidates. The briefings featured PowerPoint slides detailing the 'GOP ground game,' the 'Republican offensive,' and the 'Republican defense' in key races nationwide. (The Bush team said these briefings were merely "informational discussions," but the OSC didn't fall for that one.) . . .
All told, at least 10 federal departments and agencies participated in the illegal behavior, including: Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Energy, Small Business Administration, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The guy who headed the whole scheme was Bush's top political guru, Karl Rove. (I know, you're shocked. By the way, Rove surfaced for an interview on Fox News earlier this week, right after the report was publicly released. Fox host Jon Scott didn't ask the paid Fox contributor to comment on the report, because Scott took care not to mention the report at all.)
Friday, January 28, 2011
As anyone who has spent time on the other side of a fast food counter knows, the ingredients that go into burgers, fries, chicken nuggets and such can be pretty scary. Michael Pollan said as much in his marvelously instructive Omnivore's Dilemma, but now comes what may be the hands down grossest substitution for the real thing: Taco Bell's Taco Meat Filling, which purports to be beef but contains a mere 36 percent of the real thing.
The other 64 percent?
How about water, isolated oat product, salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, oats (wheat), soy lecithin, sugar, spices, maltodextrin (a polysaccharide that is absorbed as glucose), soybean oil (anti-dusting agent), garlic powder, autolyzed yeast extract, citric acid, caramel color, cocoa powder, silicon dioxide (anti-caking agent), natural flavors, yeast, modified corn starch, natural smoke flavor, salt, sodium phosphate, less than 2 percent of beef broth, potassium phosphate, and potassium lactate.
Truly "a clustermass of disgust," as one blog termed it.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JUY 2009)In a recent email exchange with Dave Schuler of The Glittering Eye, he summed up beautifully why the illustrator of the late great Pogo comic strip was such an endearing yet powerful cartoonist.
"We could use Walt Kelly about now," Dave said. "Criticism without cruelty."
Pogo, for you younguns, was a possum-like character created by Kelly in 1941 that was the eponymous name of a comic strip that ran in many newspapers from 1948 until two years after his death in 1975, as well as in a steady stream of paperbacks, several of which always graced my parents' living room coffee table.
Pogo was set in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia. It included the all-wise Pogo and a cast of bumbling characters -- some 300 in all over the years -- through whom Kelly good naturedly poked fun at venality and greed, as well as the politicians of the day.
In the early 1950, those politicians included the Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom Kelly pilloried as a wildcat (below, right) named Simple J. Malarkey. It was a gutsy move because the powerful senator could scare off subscribing newspapers. Indeed, Pogo was considered so controversial that some papers moved it to their editorial pages.
When the Providence Bulletin threatened to drop Pogo in 1954 if Malarkey's face appeared again, Kelly had Malarkey throw a bag over his head that appropriately resembled a Klansman's hood as Miss "Sis" Boombah, a Rhode Island Red hen, approached him.
"No one from Providence should see me!" Malarkey huffed.
A generation later, Kelly spoofed Spiro Agnew and George Wallace, among others, and was an early supporter of Earth Day and the environmental movement.
Probably the most famous Pogo quotation is "we have met the enemy and he is us," which was in response to Pogo and a pal coming upon a dump in the swamp. Those nine words beautifully sum up Kelly's view of the human condition.
Pogo succeeded brilliantly because, as Dave noted, the strip was trenchant but always gentle. Better still, it could be enjoyed by both children who were pretty much clueless about the ways of the world and the affairs of the day, and sophisticated adults.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
As forgettable State of the Union speeches go, Barack Obama's turn last night was perhaps slightly less so. The president has caught a wave, how big or sustained we don't know, as his approval ratings tick up, the comity he engendered in his Tuscon rampage memorial speech percolates through the body politic, the economy shows signs of life, and the Republican opposition finds itself being co-opted, a la Bill Clinton, on some of their own talking points.
But as my blogging friend Ron Beasley perceptively notes, what gets said at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week ultimately will be far more important than what got said on Capitol Hill last night:
"We have had a silent coup in the United States that has made our elected officials irrelevant -- they don't set policy or create laws, that has become the responsibility of the heads of a few multinational corporations and bankers.
"Yes, there may appear to be some differences between the two major parties but these differences have little to do with the big picture. This is allowed and encouraged to create the illusion that we still have a democracy. The health care bill which was written by the health care industry is an example. While it was far to the right of a plan put forward by Richard Nixon and blocked by Teddy Kennedy it was labeled as socialist. Propaganda of tribal warfare. While the plutocrats who could really care less about abortion or gay rights conflict on social issues was encouraged because it strengthened tribalism without really impacting the economic goals of the plutocrats. While the balanced budget argument is encouraged the plutocrat's interests would be harmed -- closing the lid of their Federal cookie jar. It can be part of the tribal warfare because it won't happen.
"We should not pay any attention to what Obama says in the SOTU -- we should learn as much as we can about what goes on at Davos. It was a quiet coup but a coup none the less. Your elected representatives are employees but not your employees. They work for the folks at Davos."
* * * * *
A keystone of Obama's speech was jobs creation, but that simply isn't going to happen in sufficient and sustainable numbers.
Because corporations, which are swimming in record profits in the wake of record layoffs, have no incentive to create jobs. And try as they might, the president and Congress can't wave a wand and make it so.
* * * * *
We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the worst Supreme Court ruling since the Dred Scott decision in 1857. I speak, of course, of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in which the court's nihilist justices gave carte blanche to corporations to buy politicians out in the open, as opposed to the various forms of big business bribery that already grease the skids of many a campaign and legislative initiative.
Being a thoughtful sort (most of the time anyway), I eventually channeled my deep anger over the decision away from what it meant for American democracy (that's pretty obvious since the justices ludicrously equate buckets of money with free speech) to whether I had missed some larger point.
I indeed had and this is it: I and my liberal kin doth protest too much because Citizens United was an inevitable outgrowth not just of a high court that has lurched to the right but a society in which corporations and government, as Ron notes, move ever closer to a big fat corporatocracy.
We have no one but ourselves to blame for this devolvement from what the Founding Fathers intended to what the motherforkers in Washington and their board room puppet masters have wrought. This is because, truth be known, Wall Street and Washington have been hammering away at the intrinsic virtues of democracy for decades and that has been okey dokey with Main Street, which every two years dutifully elects -- and more often re-elects -- legislators whose hands are in every pocket but their own.
The Founding Fathers made it clear that people had rights but that when it came to corporations rights could only be conferred. Those five conservative Supreme Court justices, of course, see things radically differently and in the kind of pretzel logical that made Dred Scott such an abominable ruling declared that corporations should be unfettered because of their contributions to the dissemination of the ideas that the First Amendment seeks to foster. Given this kind of "thinking," the obeisance to corporate power by five men who have masqueraded as advocates of judicial restraint came as no surprise.
The Founding Fathers put an awful lot of stock in the Wisdom of the People and we have miserably failed both them and ourselves.
Photograph by Agence France Presse
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Verizon has a love-hate relationship with Net Neutrality. The company professes its love of the open Internet, but then tries to smother it with a pillow in the middle of the night.~ TIMOTHY KARRThe next time you go online, pause for a moment and listen closely. Very closely, and you should be able to hear the sounds of long knives being sharpened by Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and the other major telecom players who understand that Net Neutrality is a threat to their all-consuming thirst for bigger profits through greater control of Internet access.
The concept of Net Neutrality is simple: That the Internet as it applies to broadband residential use is a level playing field. There are no restrictions on content or modes of communication, no information should have a higher priority than any other, and users should be able to connect to each other in an unfettered manner.
But from there Net Neutrality gets incredibly complicated, notably the role of government in enforcing neutrality versus Internet providers' proprietary rights, as well as the vexsome question of whether Net Neutrality actually is a wolf in sheep's clothing because it might hinder the growth of the Internet, including the development of new networks.
If your eyes already are glazing over, that's understandable. Any serious discussion of Net Neutrality is freighted with layers of social, legal, commercial, political and technological issues. And the willfully deceitful tactics of Verizon, to name just one megacorporation that wants to ride the wolf.
Verizon, which piously proclaims its support for Net Neutrality, has asked a federal appeals court to overturn a Federal Communications Commission rule protecting Net Neutrality, a rule that the FCC adopted in December that is modeled on a policy framework drafted by . . . attorneys for Google and . . . uh, Verizon.
The reason is a real rib tickler:
"[Verizon] simply doesn't require pesky rules to stay honest," as Timothy Karr, campaign director of savetheinternet.com, puts it. "Like Comcast before it, Verizon is arguing that we simply need to trust that it will keep its promises and protect the Internet's democratic nature.
"It's the same kind of trust that BP asked for when the oil company spent millions to lobby Washington for regulatory leniency in advance of last April's Deepwater Horizon disaster. It's the same kind of trust that Goldman Sachs wanted when it spent millions to lobby Washington for regulatory leniency in advance of the 2008 mortgage meltdown."
Oh, and Verizon claims that Net Neutrality violates its constitutional rights.
What Verizon and its brethren really want to do, of course, is impose tiered service on you and I in order to reduce competition, block certain services, force subscribers to buy their own services no matter how uncompetitive they may be, and impose premiums for heavy use and bandwidth hungry peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent.
Comcast, for its part, has twice been caught red handed trying to choke off peer-to-peer traffic. It backed off both times, but is now suing the FCC for the right to control the Internet tap as it sees fit. And lurking in the background is the aforementioned threat to innovation.
The prospect of next-generation wireless networks undermining the broadband duopoly is sublime. But if the effect of Net Neutrality is to tamp down competition between Comcast and the other telecoms who make up the duopoly by throwing up barriers to new business models, let alone inhibit newcomers who have the Next Big Thing, then the supposed altruism of Net Neutrality begins to look kind of tainted.
See, I told you that this was one complicated critter.
Monday, January 24, 2011
The announcement that Steve Jobs is taking another medical leave of absence has generated a tsunami of speculation about whether Apple will continue to be a dominant high-tech force without him. Long answer short, you bet it will. Less remarked on is why Apple continues to be the pace setter in personal computing and the smart phone and music industries year in and year out despite formidable competition.
Long answer not quite as short, it is not because Apple necessarily makes superior products. It because Apple markets its products in a superior way and offers nonpareil customer service at the retail end and when, heaven forbid, there is a problem with a product.
Looking at this equation another way, Apple has profitability and market share beyond its relatively modest size because it makes buckets of money by engineering great stuff that a goodly number of people believe they must have. Compare that with General Motors, which never forgot how to make money but forgot how to make cars, the upshot with which was a decade-long death spiral that was checked only because of federal loans.
My own experience is instructive.
I bought my first laptop in 1992 and had a series of PC-based systems until 2009. While the functionality and reliability of PCs grew by leaps and bounds and their prices went down, I never liked the various Windows operating systems. Meanwhile, every one of the graphic artists and photographers I knew had migrated to Macs and would nod knowingly when I would complain about my laptops.
Then on St. Patrick's Day 2009 the DF&C and I walked into an Apple store to look for a replacement for her not particularly old Dell Inspiron, which had been making strange noises before the hard drive seized up and died. An hour later, we walked out with a 15-inch MacBook Pro, a gorgeous little machine sculpted out of a slab of aluminum that going on two years later has performed flawlessly. We added a 13-inch MacBook last year and it too is a thing of operational beauty.
We have not had to avail ourselves of Apple's customer service, although the DF&C has signed up for several tutorials, and there is no question -- none whatsoever -- that when our Macs start to get a little long in tooth they will be replaced by newer Macs. Not because Apple makes a better product than everyone else, but because they have convinced us that they do.Portrait of Steve Jobs using Apple products by Charis Tevis
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Dogs have been very much on our minds lately with the adoption of Jackson and Nicola, three-year-old brother and sister Chocolate Labradors, so we read with more than passing interest of the discovery of a skull fragment and possibly a foot bone from the world's oldest known domesticated dog from the Americas.
What's left of the dog -- a skull fragment and a possible foot bone -- strongly suggests that the canine was cared for by humans before being butchered, cooked and consumed, according to a post at Animal News.
"This is an important scientific discovery that can tell us not only a lot about the genetic history of dogs but of the interactions between humans and dogs in the past," according to University of Maine researcher Samuel Belknap III. "Not only were they most likely companions as they are today, they served as protection, hunting assistants, and also as a food source."
The discovery was somewhat unintended, because Belknap wasn't trying to dig up old bones from dogs. He was instead conducting thesis research on ancient diet and nutrition of humans during the Holocene Era in the Lower Pecos Region of Texas.
“I didn’t start out looking for the oldest dog in the New World,” Belknap explained. “I started out trying to understand human diet in southwest Texas. It so happens that this person, who lived 9,400 years ago, was eating dog. It just goes to show that sometimes, great scientific discoveries come not when we are looking for specific answers but when we are thorough in our examination of the evidence and open to what data it provides."
Dogs were first domesticated 15,000 or more years ago in Europe and Asia, while New World dogs arrived as a species of Eurasian wolf that crossed the Bering land bridge into North America when people first began to settle the Americas. Sometime after that, the wolves were domesticated and wound up in South America, Texas and other locations.
While we remarked early and often about how smart Jack and Nicky are, evidence suggest that their forebears were much smarter and dogs are now so dependent upon people that they fail basic intelligence tests that wolves and wild dogs pass with flying colors.The findings provide evidence that humans, through domestication of canines, have caused dogs to lose their non-social problem-solving skills. The loss in skills appears to be "hardwired" genetically into dogs, helping to explain why homeless dogs struggle to survive.
"Often feral dogs survive by taking advantage of human leftovers or domestic livestock," lead author Bradley Smith told Discovery News, adding that the "leftovers" could be things like garbage scrounged from dumps or the occasional food handouts.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Back in September at the outset of the academic year, I bloviated about why, despite the fact that U.S. universities are the best anywhere, its students are ill prepared for the world that they will encounter beyond ivied campus walls, let alone that they certainly will not make that world less tumultuous -- kinder, gentler, and more equitable and prosperous -- than I and my classmates four decades earlier.
Now comes a study that concludes most undergraduates don't learn squat by way of broad-based skills and knowledge.
The study's authors conclude that:
No actors in the [higher education] system are primarily interested in undergraduates' academic growth, although many are interested in student retention and persistence. Limited learning on college campuses is not a crisis, because the institutional actors implicated in the system are receiving the organizational outcomes that they seek, and therefore neither the institutions themselves nor the system as a whole is in any way challenged or threatened."
Sad, isn't it?
Friday, January 21, 2011
(Portions of this story were originally posted in April 2006)I've never quite understood the fascination with all things Mafia, but the huge media coverage of the latest FBI-led assault against seven Northeastern crime families shows that this phenomenon, pickled in Hollywood brine, is alive and well in contrast to many of the mob's victims.I would be disingenuous if I claimed that I have not fallen prey to occassional bouts of fascination with the Mafia, which is more formally known as La Cosa Nostra, or "this thing of ours." Then there is the global fascination with "The Sopranos," which was routinely referred to as the best TV series ever before it ended its eight-year run on HBO in 2007.
My own connection came in the form of a longtime working relationship with Kitty Caparella, a former Philadelphia Daily News reporter who was one of America's premier organized crime journalists. Kitty reported. I edited. That is, when we weren't fighting over her reporting and my editing.
The Daily News was the perfect vehicle for Kitty's stories: Savvy, street smart and with a huge blue collar readership. It covers the mob like the Washington Post cover the White House, only with a flair. When a mobster was gunned down in the parking lot of a South Philadelphia diner, the headline the next day read:
A SIDE ORDER OF LEADAnyhow, Kitty covered the mob with the same passion with which the subjects of her stories shake down, extort, smuggle, traffick, assault and murder. They are a mutual admiration society of a sort.
Most of the mobsters really dug Kitty. Some relished seeing their names in print and call her with tips and to correct the occasional error. ("No, Kitty, Joey ain't sleepin' with Rocco's wife. It's the other way around." And so on and so forth.) When they went off to prison, which an awful lot of them have done in recent years, they got Daily News subscriptions by mail and some of them wrote to Kitty regularly. And still do.
Kitty has a fondness for these goons that is kind of like how you'd feel about a bunch of crazy uncles. But only up to a point. She has never lost sight of the fact that while they have a certain charm, they're not very nice. After all, they kill people. The death threats that she occasionally got also serve as reminders of that.
* * * * *
I never miss an opportunity to note the overarching hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church, and there are few better examples of its relationship with the mob. In Philadelphia, the church's priests baptize, bless and bury mobsters. They give their children their first communion.
The mobsters, in turn, give lavishly to the church, and in the case of one particular goon used to throw fabulously expensive Christmas parties for his Catholic parish where hundreds of bicycles and other goodies were distributed by a Mafia Santa Claus and elves. The parties ended when he went off to prison.
As regularly as the seasons came and went, the church and Italian America groups would complain to my bosses at the Daily News about its portrayal of these goons. But not once in all of my years in the City of Brotherly Love did I ever hear the archbishop, let alone a priest or officer of the Sons of Italy or Christopher Columbus Society, utter a harsh word about the mob.
* * * * *
I got to know one mobster in particular. Actually, he was a mob "associate," to use law enforcement parlance, and never could become a made mafioso (an initiated and full-fledged mobster) because he was Irish. You know, like Frank Hagen (Robert Duvall) in The Godfather.
Patrick O'Casey (not his real name) shook down local merchants for mob tribute payments, supervised a mob-run nightclub, did troubleshooting (pun intended) for the mob's consigliere (top lieutenant) and babysat the mother of the don (godfather) of the Philadelphia Mafia, a man who bore no resemblance to Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) physically or intellectually.
Pat had tired of life in the fast lane and threw himself at the mercy of the authorities, who turned him around and sent him back onto the street as a mob informer. Over time, Pat's usefulness to the authorities waned and he found himself in increasing danger, so he was put into the Federal Witness Protection Program. This is a program whereby informers are giving new identities and sent to Omaha, Nebraska, where they toil in hoped for anonymity as clerks at shoe stores.
Okay, I'm exaggerating. Not every informer ends up selling shoes in Omaha, but Pat did. Until the day one of his former mob buddies walked in. You can bet that the guy was not shopping for shoes. Furious, Pat rang up his Witness Protection Program contact and quickly learned that he and his wife had been compromised by the very people who were supposed to protect him. He then turned to Kitty, who handed the story over to me to assign to another reporter because she was too busy chasing other mob intrigues.
I found myself drawn to Pat during the sitdowns that the reporter and I would have with him at South Jersey motels and diners where he would ruminate about life in the mob. Our only disagreement came over his "packing heat." I insisted that Pat come to our meetings unarmed. He eventually agreed.
Pat O'Casey could have been a teacher, a coach or even a philosopher. (He was indeed quite philosophical about his career choice.) At the end of our sitdowns, we'd talk about books and art. I'd have to pinch myself when I walked back out into daylight and remember that while Pat did have a certain charm, Kitty was right. People who kill people are not nice people.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Contesting the last will and testament of the rich and famous has long been blood sport for unhappy and greedy heirs, but the battle over a trust worth hundreds of millions of dollars established by W.L. Gore Sr., the brilliant chemist and inventor of Gore-Tex and founder of the high-tech firm bearing his name with his wife, may take the cake for invention and intrigue.
W.L. Gore died in 1986 and his wife Genevieve W. in 2005. Under the terms of W.L.'s Pokeberry Trust, shares of the trust were to be divided according to the size of the couple's five children's families. The more children in a family branch, the more money each of those children received.
While that seemed simple enough, one of their daughters, Susan W., and her three sons clamored for more -- tens of millions more. But after Genevieve refused entreaties to change the trust before her death, they conspired secretly among themselves to get more.
Their solution was simple and fiendishly clever: Because Susan Gore had three children, as opposed to her siblings, who each had four, she adopted ex-husband Jan C. Otto to equalize trust shares under the formula.
To no one's surprise, Susan's siblings contend that the adoption should not be considered valid under the trust because it was accomplished through deception and that Genevieve Gore would not have allowed such a move to proceed without changing the terms to nullify the results. Lawyers for the Gore-Otto branch of the family have argued that adult adoptions done for economic gain are permitted under Delaware case law.
In three days of testimony earlier this month in the highly regarded Chancery Court of Delaware, the state where W.L. and Genevieve Gore lived and ran their company, grandson Scott Gore testified of his grandmother's fears that family members were working behind her back to undo the trust.
Scott said that duuring a 2002 visit to his grandmother's home, she abruptly changed the conversation while preparing some food in the kitchen, stating that "The vultures are circling, waiting for me to die.''
The court has not said when it will rule on the dispute. More about it here.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN DECEMBER 2009)While the provocative thesis of How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music is obvious from its title, fans of the Fab Four will be relieved to known that author Elijah Wald does not make that claim in apocalyptic terms, but rather as a statement of fact in his fascinating chronicle of how one genre superseded another -- ever building on what came before and laying the groundwork for what came next -- in the incredibly rich tapestry of 20th century American music.
Like Wald, I knew that the musical world had changed forever when I put on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band for the first time and snuggled up with my summer love of 1967 on her parents' rec room couch. (Boy was it ever not make-out music!)
What I didn't know then but have learned since because of a voracious appetite for music and books about music, is that just as the Beatles knocked rock 'n' roll heroes like Chuck Berry and James Brown off their pedestals, those stars had delivered a similar coup de grace to balladeers, balladeers to Dixieland, Dixieland to swing, and so on and so forth all the way back to the dawn of the 20th century when ragtime was ascendant.
Wald recounts that history in an iconoclastic and spare 254-pages (plus copious footnotes) with a depth, wit and contrariness that would send many music critics -- virtually all white, male and stodgy beyond their years, as he accurately notes -- howling for the exits. In fact, reviews of How the Beatles have been decidedly mixed with some critics complaining that Wald's entire approach is disingenuous.
How wrong those critics are because Wald argues convincingly that while the Beatles' ambitious later work, including Sgt. Pepper, was hailed as revolutionary it helped turn rock into art music for white people, leaving Berry, Brown and their rowdy, mostly black peers in a sort of oldies purgatory from which they never escaped:
"If early rock was already the sound of the past, then what interest could we possibly have in the popular styles that preceded it?" writes Wald. "The idea that we might have tossed a Glenn Miller record on the turntable was ridiculous: That music was already thirty years old! So it feels very odd to me when I ask my twelve-year-old nephew what he and his friends dance to at parties and the first band he names is the Beatles. He also listens to the Black Eyed Peas and other present-day groups, of course. But kids, at parties, are putting on forty-year-old records! Much as I love a lot of older music, I find that incomprehensibly strange. After all, if kids in the 1960s had been dancing to the most popular band of forty years earlier, they would have been dancing to . . . Paul Whiteman."
One of the biggest kicks of How the Beatles is the way it twisted and stretched my musical brain.
I happen to have listened to Whiteman, a hugely popular big band leader for three decades beginning in the 1920s, who did or did not play real jazz according to one's bias, because George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which Whiteman had commissioned, was part of a box set that I bought with paper route money in the late 1950s when I was in my early teens.
Wald points out that Whiteman was a much bigger star than Louis Armstrong, who most definitely played real jazz, but is disparaged today as being "commercial" by purists although he was dubbed as the "King of Jazz" in his heyday.
Wald discards terms like "jazz" and "rock" that tend to lock listeners and critics into musical straitjackets, while discrediting the notion that the progression from ragtime to rock to rap occurred in a straight line.
"If one accepts that continuum, then the Whiteman orchestra and the Beatles played very similar roles; not as innovators but as rearguard holding actions, attempting to maintain older, European standards as the streamlining force of rhythm rolled over them. Within the small world of music nuts, there have always been some who regard the Beatles in just this way. . . . By the time the Beatles hit, still playing the rhythms of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, that style was already archaic and their contributions were to resegregate the pop charts by distracting white kids from the innovations of the soul masters, to diffuse rock's energy with effetely sentimental ballads like "Yesterday" -- paving the way for Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Elton John, and Billy Joel -- and then to drape it in a robe of arty mystification, opening the way for the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In other words, rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock 'n' roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension."
Provocative, but hard to argue with because Wald backs up his assertions with copious research. Oh, and he happens to be a pretty good musician in his own right.
Wald also wades into the socioeconomic trends that underpinned musical trends. This includes factoids such as that while the U.S. population grew at a robust 43 percent from 1910 to 1940, the number of professional musicians, singers and music teachers fell by 7 percent. This was because of Prohibition and a bunch of technological trends over the course of the century that included the player piano, studio recording breakthroughs, radio, sound motion pictures, the jukebox, LPs, downloading, burning and file sharing, and, of course, television, notably the Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, which is the most famous performance by a band in history.
But notes Wald:
"[I]t was the last time that a live performance changed the course of American music, and when [the Beatles] became a purely recording group, they pointed the way toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles, as bands can play what they like in the privacy of the studio, and we can choose which to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or finally, our heads. Whether that was liberating or limiting is a matter of opinion and perception, but the whole idea of popular music had changed."
Wald is not a lamenter, but he shares my concern over the shrinking number of live music venues, which is where many a musician toiled four or five hours a night six or seven nights a week in getting the education necessary to become accomplished, let alone great. As it is, I know far too many young musicians who can't be bothered with learning the fundamentals of music, let alone going on the road.
At the end of the day, Wald is not likely to change many minds. After all, those music nuts are hard to crack. But How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll certainly opened mine.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): Chuck Berry, James Brown, Glenn Miller, Black-Eyed Peas, Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Carl Perkins, American Bandstand (1960), Simon and Garfunkel, Velvet Underground with Nico, The Beatles and Ed Sullivan.