Friday, July 31, 2009

Budweiser Light Beer: Like America Itself, A Triumph Of Image Over Quality

You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.
It is fitting that Harvard prof Skip Gates and Cambridge Police Sergeant Jim Crowley joined Barry Obama for a Bud Light at the White House yesterday to smooth over their own and a nation's bruised egos and hurt feelings.

This is because as one of the best selling beers, Bud Light is very much representative of the country that so adores it: A triumph of image over quality.

Bud Light is colored and fermented water with a trace of beer taste cosseted in gadzillion dollar advertising campaigns that market it as the way to pull frat house pranks and do the wild thing with big-boobed babes. The brew's current ad campaign promotes its "drinkability," which I take to mean that you don't need a lobster bib to imbibe it, or something.

* * * * *
Obama's teachable moment is another opportunity to flaunt my beer snobbery, which is to say I prefer beers that actually taste like beer, so here goes:

The $90 billion-a-year domestic beer market dominated by Anheuser Bush, Miller and Coors is nothing to sniff at. It's just that my taste buds respond far better to imported beers (about 7-8 percent of the market), which include Gates' preferred Red Stripe, the Jamaican brew, and craft beers (about 3-4 percent), which include Crowley's preferred Blue Moon, a Belgian-style wheat brew made in Denver.

(As it turned out, the prez did indeed sip a Bud Light, Gates a Massachusetts-brewed Sam Adams Light, Crowley a Blue Moon, and that party crashing Joe Biden a non-alcoholic Bucklers.)

American brewers did not always have to air TV commercials featuring golden retrievers wearing sunglasses to market their beers.

Prior to the advent of Prohibition in 1919, most American cities had at least one brewery with beers and ales that compared favorably to their counterparts in the Old Country, most often Germany. This is because the owners and brewmasters were direct from the Old Country, or were first or second generation Americans.

But a funny thing happened in the years after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Brewery owners who survived the shakeout as shuttered breweries began to get back on their feet realized they had a big marketing problem: There wasn't a ready-made way to increase sales.

But with millions of beer drinkers returning home at the end of World War II, brewers stumbled on an idea startling for its simplicity and ingenuity: If their products were watered down, people would drink more of them.

As Joe Sixpack, an old friend and award-winning beer blogger (it's great work if you can get it), explains:

"After the war it wasn't just beer getting dumbed down. It also was in all the food we were eating, the way we were living. This was more a product of where Americans were headed. This was the age of being bland, of TV dinners and the suburbs."

Mr. Sixpack and I share the view that what makes a beer good are the edges -- the robust flavors that vary so much from one good brand to another.

He says that post-war beer lost those edges because brewers began watering it down as well as using cheaper grains and other ingredients, in part because there was a premium on supplies.

Surprisingly, Mr. Sixpack notes that the precedent for the move toward lighter beers was in Germany, of all places, with the advent of lagers (my day-to-day staple) that are much less dense and flavorful than dark beers and ales (which I occasionally imbibe but fill up on quickly.)

Nevertheless, American lagers just don't compare to their cousins from Germany, Holland and Belgium. That can be attributed to American taste.

And what, pray tell, is American taste? Beers that are indeed watered down, explains Mr. Sixpack, but not because they are made wrong.

Playing to my contention, he says that:

"It's all based on image. It's human nature that we associate ourselves with specific brands. AB has two completely different markets for Bud and Bud Light. That's why people drive the car they drive. And some people do not like being seen with an imported bottle in their hand at a bar."

As it is, there has been a shakeout in the imported beer market.

Heineken, which ditched its traditional formula in the late 1970s for a more mainstream American taste that is reflected in its Bud Lite-like advertising, has ceded its longtime title as the best-selling import to Corona, a Mexican beer, which is ironic considering that many Americans want to tighten their southern border at a time when Mexican and Latin American foods, beers and other products have never been more popular.

Notes Mr. Sixpack:

"Sure, some Mexican beers are being consumed by immigrants, but the majority of drinkers are born-and-bred U.S. residents. Heck, sales of tortilla chips are now growing faster than potato chips. Isn't that sort of a contradiction?"

Well, yes. But what could be more moronically American that loving to eat and drink stuff made by people they fear and hate?

Having lost the cachet of being a "special" import, Heineken is trying to cash in on the popularity of Mexican brews by buying the marketing rights to Tecate and Dos Equis.

* * * * *
While many red-blooded Americans will applaud their president's choice of beers in an effort to chill things out race wise, how many know that Bud Light and the other AB brews are now owned by a Belgian-Brazilian beverage conglomerate?

You know, countries with universal health care.

I couldn't give a rat's ass, but would Frank Zappa approve?

Top photograph by Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

'Yes, Sir. No, Sir. No Sudden Movements'

Do you think that white parents have to tell their children how to act when the police stop them? No, of course not, which makes all of this so ineffably sad.

The Face Of Screwed-Up College Sports

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Bryon Zammit

Thursday, July 30, 2009

All This For A Lousy Bud Light

I was not on Skip Gates' porch when Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley arrested the Harvard prof for breaking into his own house, or something. But since the incident has threatened to sweep health-care reform into the news media gutter, we've been privy to a good deal of information.

This includes a Gates press conference, a Crowley press conference, Obama commenting at a prime-time press conference, cops backing Crowley at a press conference, and now a press conference by the nice lady who called the cops.

The 9-1-1 tape has been made public, conservative Republicans have peed their knickers over the president coming to the defense of a prominent African-American, Michelle Malkin has managed the feat of outdoing her previous name-calling excesses, and Obama has invited Gates and Crowley to the White House today for a beer. (Bud Light, according to a knowledgeable source.)


Anyhow, the story has legs -- as it unfortunately should not since this has been yet another occasion for shouting about race in America and not a mythic teachable moment.

Meanwhile, in the days since Gatesgate erupted, two things have become obvious: Gates is a bit of a hothead and went crosswise with Crowley instead of supplicating himself. And Crowley is a lying sack of excrement who wears a badge and a gun.

Now back to our regular programing.

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Jim Johnson (1941-2009)


How Do You Load 31 Porsches . . .

. . . into a cargo plane? Very carefully.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Joris

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

This Post Is Not About Sarah Palin

Nor is it about Dick Cheney having urged George Bush to illegally deploy American troops to the suburbs of Buffalo to apprehend a group of terror suspects. Or another short-lived Talbin ceasefire in Afghanistan. Or the sucky reviews that Cadillac's new crossover SUV is deservedly getting.

Indeed, the weight of the world seems a little heavier than usual this week, or maybe it's just the temperature-humidity index hereabouts, so we're going to take you to an airport in Katmandu in the tiny Himalayan state of Nepal where actress Joanna Lumley was mobbed over the weekend with goddess-like adulation and cries of "Ayo Gurkhali!," but not for her beyond ditzy co-starring role as the drunken, man-eating Patsy in the Britcom "Absolutely Fabulous."

The hero's welcome, which included an audience with Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, was because of Lumley's efforts to force the British government to reverse a policy of two centuries standing and allow Gurkha veterans of its army who retired before 1997 to settle in Britain. Her father had served as an officer in a Gurkha regiment in World War II and had inspired her campaign.

Several hundred Gurkha veterans and their families turned out at the airport where Lumley was given traditional silk scarves and garlands of marigolds. The mob scene
was so intense that it took the actress about 15 minutes to walk 30 yards or so to her waiting car.

Field Marshal Sam Maknekshaw once famously said about Gurkhas: "If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gurka," and their feats of bravery in the Indian and British armies are legendary. Incidentally, "Ayo Gurkhali!" is a battle cry meaning "The Gurkhas are coming!"

Top photograph by Narendra Shrestha/EPA

Cartoon du Jour

Glenn McCoy/Universal Press Syndicate

Did Capa Fake 'The Falling Soldier'?

Having worked with some damned fine photojournalists over the years and having taken a few thousand photos myself, the temptation to fake photographs is powerful but, it is fair to say, usually resisted.

So it is sad to read that new evidence calls into question one of the most famous war photographs of all time, Robert Capa's "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Cerro Muriano, Córdoba Front, Spain, September 5, 1936," more commonly known as "The Falling Soldier."

Photo: Estate of Cornell Capa/Magnum Photos

Merce Cunningham (1919-2009)


'Be Watchful For Mohammed's Lamp'

By Warren Zevon
Everybody's restless and they've got no place to go
Someone's always trying to tell them
Something they already know
So their anger and resentment flow

But don't it make you want to rock and roll
All night long Mohammed's Radio
I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful
On the radio, Mohammed's Radio

You know, the Sheriff's got his problems too
He will surely take them out on you
In walked the village idiot and his face was all aglow
He's been up all night listening to Mohammed's Radio

Don't it make you want to rock and roll
All night long Mohammed's Radio
I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful
On the radio, Mohammed's Radio

Everybody's desperate trying to make ends meet
Work all day, still can't pay the price of gasoline and meat
Alas, their lives are incomplete
Don't it make you want to rock and roll
All night long Mohammed's Radio

I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful
On the radio, Mohammed's Radio
You've been up all night listening for his drum
Hoping that the righteous might just might just might just come

I heard the General whisper to his aide-de-camp
"Be watchful for Mohammed's lamp"
Don't it make you want to rock and roll
All night long Mohammed's Radio

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By jojo

Monday, July 27, 2009

Book Review: 'W.C. Handy: The Life And Times Of The Man Who Made The Blues'

It was sometime in 1903-04 that William Christopher Handy was first exposed to what he later called "the weirdest music I ever heard."

This music was being played for tips by three men with a battered guitar, mandolin and bass in a club in Cleveland, Mississippi. Where the men should have played major notes they played unanticipated minors, so-called "blue notes" that sounded like mistakes to the ear of the formally trained Handy, whose goal in life was to become "the colored Sousa." The men also worried the flat notes by playing a kind of vibrato with their fingers, and filled out short measures with keening vocal bursts like "Oh, lawdy" and Oh, baby."

This primitive and deeply melancholic music was the Mississippi Delta blues.

The experience, Handy recalled, marked his birth as "an American composer" and fulfillment of the
Dvořák Manifesto, the prediction of the Czech composer that the great national music of the United States would be based on African American spirituals and folk music.

Handy was not the father of the blues, as he would endlessly claim, but he was the maker of the blues, as David Robertson explains in W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues. a fascinating new biography that will shock blues aficionados who assume that the blues trailblazers to the last man were born poor, were illiterate and died poor.

While that certainly was true of men like Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell, (the prevalence of early black woman blues signers
has been substantially ignored), Handy was formally trained, taught college and became wealthy owing to a sharp ear and keen business acumen, and in fact to an extent looked down on the rough-hewn blues pioneers.

This in turn has led to the view that Handy, like Booker T. Washington, was not black enough. The charge gets some traction when either man's life is taken out of the context of the time in which he lived. Yet as Robinson more than proves, Handy might have been erudite, urbane and liked to flaunt his wealth, but this child of former slaves also suffered the degradations incessantly foisted upon his race through most of his lifetime, including running the risk of being lynched when he traveled the post-Reconstruction South.

* * * * *

Fairly early on in his career, Handy had complained to an aunt that the white audiences before whom his minstrelsy and ragtime bands played failed to appreciate his musicians' "perfect" score-reading skills compared to those of white bands.

"Honey," the aunt replied, "white folks like to hear colored folks make some mistakes."

In the blues, the "mistakes" were those unanticipated minor notes, along with large doses of repetition and syncopation. A signal accomplishment of Handy's career was to figure out how to score the blues for the bands and orchestras that played his copyrighted hit songs. He make a small fortune selling sheet music for those songs in an era when the piano was the centerpiece of many a parlor.

Handy didn't live in St. Louis long and when he did it was as homeless person sleeping on cobblestone levees along the Mississippi in the winter, hence the opening line of his most famous song: "I hate to see that evening sun go down."

That song, of course, is "The Saint Louis Blues," recorded over 1,600 times by an eclectic range of artists from Louis Armstrong to Pete Seeger to Leonard Bernstein.

Handy's other great hits include "Memphis Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Aunt Hagar's Blues" and "Beale Street Blues."

* * * * *
Would someone else have "discovered" the blues and turned it from a regional to national phenomenon had W.C. Handy not? Of course, but that's not the point.

So great has the influence of the blues been on American culture that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby:

"All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the 'Beale Street Blues' while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor."

PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): Handy (rear center with moustache and cornet) with his Memphis Orchestra (1918); Handy circa 1893 at age 19 wearing the uniform of the Hampton Cornet Band of Evansville, Indiana; Handy on Beale Street in Memphis (1936) Handy (1941); Handy (1944); Cover of "The Saint Louis Blues" sheet music; Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole, who played Handy in "St. Louis Blues" (1958).

Cartoon du Jour

Tony Auth/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Medal of Honor For A Fallen Hero

Don't Let Those Tiny Heads Fool You

Babies have extraordinary perceptive powers, even if they're drooling and crying. Long before speech develops, infants can detect emotion in all sorts of things, such as human voices, classical music and animal sounds.

Why Kindle Sucks

Photograph by Getty Images

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

(Paris, 1925)

By Eugene Atget

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: Complex & Imperfect

Edna Medford is a professor at Howard University who specializes in 19th century African-American history. Following are excerpts from a C-SPAN interview regarding The Emancipation Proclamation: Three Views, a book she co-authored with Harold Holzer and Frank Williams.
Lincoln was very complex. He was very much a nineteenth-century man, but very much unlike nineteenth-century men as well. We do better for him and for the nation -- and for an understanding of the Civil War -- if we view him in all of his complexity. We're not willing as a nation to do that because he does embody what we believe is America. We think that America is flawless. No nation is.

If we look at him . . . what we see is a very remarkable person. We see someone who is much more powerful than we give him credit for when we say he's a saint and that everything was done correctly.

The first people to revere Lincoln were the former slaves because they did recognize the significance of the [Emancipation] Proclamation. They didn't have benefit of all that we known today about other people who were involved in pushing emancipation, as well. But they remained very much committed to Lincoln's memory for a long, long period of time.

By the time of the Depression, however, things started changing . . . African Americans, in revering Lincoln, believed that he had promised something more than just freedom. They defined freedom as full citizenship rights. When they didn't receive it, quite naturally, they have to go back to the person they says as the guarantor of that promise. Even those Lincoln had been assassinated . . . he was still held accountable for African Americans not receiving those full citizenship rights.

* * * * *
Before his assassination, on more than one occasion, [Lincoln] had indicated that he wouldn't have a problem with seeing the "more intelligent" blacks get the right to vote, [along with] those who were veterans, and those who had supported the Union during the war.

He was not for universal suffrage, however. He may have gotten to that point [eventually], but we know that Lincoln did everything very cautiously. The fact that he was even willing to suggest that perhaps the soldiers and the more intelligent should have the right to vote was a step in the right direction.

I'm always bothered by the fact that he was not calling into question unintelligent white men, who had been voting all along. He did indicate, however, that he had a debt to pay to African American men. He said at the end of the war there would be some black men who could hold their heads high because they helped to preserve the Union, and there would be some white men who would have to hang their heads because they helped hinder it. . . .

Lincoln was a nineteenth-century man with some of the same prejudices of nineteenth-century men. The thing that distinguished him from other men of his era was that he believed very strongly in equality of opportunity and that people had a right to benefit from their labor. So he was antislavery.

* * * * *
Today what I would say about the African American belief about Lincoln is that he was a great president, but not because he freed the slaves. Most people see him in a much broader contest than that.

He was one of the great presidents because he was a president during a war, because he preserved the Union, and yes, because he was the person who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which brings the country toward the final ending of slavery throughout the nation.

He's important for all those reasons, but he's not revered by African Americans in the way that he is by some other Americans. I must say that he's not revered by all white Americans, either.

The celebration of the Lincoln Prize was held in Richmond a few years ago, and there were people picketing, because they felt that Lincoln was a murderer, that he was responsible for the 620,000 people who were killed as a consequence of the war.

There are some Southerners who still feel very negatively about Lincoln. I don't think that African Americans feel negatively about him. African Americans just don't have an opinion about him one way or the other except that he was a great president. There's no special feeling for Lincoln, perhaps, as there was when the slaves were emancipated.

[Today, there typically are not large numbers of African American tourists and visitors going to Lincoln historical sites and museums.] I don't want to speak for all African Americans, but I think I understand it. It's because African Americans feel that those places are not for us.

We don't go to national parks, [and] we don't go to presidential libraries because we really don't feel that we're welcome at those places. Right or wrongly . . . we don't feel that we are totally included in America, even today, after all these years.

The Bottom Is Out Of The Tub

27th of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
"The Prest. is an excellent man, and, in the main wise," Attorney General Bates recorded in his final diary entry of 1861; "but he lacks will and purpose, and I greatly fear he has not the power to command." That judgment by one of the most cautious and conservative members of the Lincoln administration represented a widely held opinion. Nearly everybody thought the President was honest and well meaning, and almost everyone who met him liked him. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, who visited with White House with Senator Sumner in January 1862, was not put off by Lincoln's homely appearance, and his awkward movements and gestures; he found the President a "frank, sincere, well-meaning man, with a lawyer's habit of mind, . . . correct enough, not vulgar, as described, but with a sort of boyish cheerfulness." But few thought he was up to the job.

He seemed unable to make things go right. Huge armies, raised at immense expense, lay idle in winter quarters. As the costs of the war mounted, the Treasury lived on credit, and banks throughout the country had to suspend specie payments. In the Northwest farms were suffering as laborers went off to the army, and there was no market for farm produce because the Mississippi River was closed. "The people are being bled and as they believe to no purpose and will not long submit to it," warned one Illinois Cassandra.

So desperate did things look in early January that Lincoln for the first time thought that the Confederates might be successful, and he spoke "of the bare possibility of our being two nations."

At the heart of the problems was the failure of the armies to advance and win victories. Lincoln's general-in-chief was still recovering from typhoid fever and unable to work. When the Committee on the Conduct of the War met with the President on January 6, its members were appalled to learn that neither he nor anyone else knew McClellan's plans. Lincoln told the congressmen that he "did not think he had any right to know, but that, as he was not a military man, it was his duty to defer to General McClellan" (photo, above).

When the informal council of war reassembled, the commanders agreed that a move on Manassass was the best operation at this time, but [Quartermaster General] Montgomery Meigs and [Postmaster General] Montgomery Blair, who had joined the group, vigorously opposed this strategy because it would certainly lead to another Bull Run. Unsure how to resolve the conflict, Lincoln again adjourned the meeting.

On January 13, McClellan rose from his sickbed to join in the discussion. Clearly regarding these meetings as a conspiracy against him, the general-in-chief was suddenly and uncommunicative. When Lincoln again rehearsed the urgent reasons for actions and asked what would be done, McClellan replied scornfully that "the case was so clear a blind man could see it" -- and then diverted the conversation to his perpetual fear that the Confederate forces outnumbered his own. Eventually [Treasury Secretary] Salmon Chase (photo, below) asked him directly what he intended to do with his army and when he intended to move. The general sat silent. When Meigs whispered to him that the President had a right to know his intentions, McClellan responded with a voice inaudible to the rest of the group: "If I tell him my plans they will be in the New York Herald tomorrow morning. He can't keep a secret." After further urging, he said that "he was very unwilling to develop his plans," because he believed that in military matters the fewer persons who knew them the better, but "that he would tell them if he was ordered to do so." All that Lincoln could get from him was a pledge that he did have a specific time in mind for an advance, though he was unwilling to divulge it. With that the President declared he was satisfied.

He was not, in fact, at all satisfied. His unhappiness grew when he discovered a few days after these meetings that a planned expedition to seize the mouth of the Mississippi River would be indefinitely delayed because army authorities had failed to prepare the necessary beds (or racks) for the mortars the ships were to carry. Exasperated, he told [Assistant Secretary of the Navy] Gustavus Fox that he now believed "he must take these army matters into his own hands."

An Index To Abraham Lincoln Posts

Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president because none faced such enormous challenges, none grew more in office and none reinvented the United States to the extent that he did. All of that and the fact that 2009 is the bicentenary of his birth is reason enough to publish posts each Sunday on the great man.

Series highlights so far:
THE BOOK THAT CHANGED LINCOLN & AMERICA (7/19) Uncle Tom's Cabin shook the U.S. like an earthquake when it was published in 1852. LINK.

SLAVE COLONIES (7/12) Lincoln believed that he found a way to deal with the problems caused by slavery in sending blacks back to Africa to colonize Liberia, but hee was wrong. LINK.

A TRUE GENIUS (6/28) Historian Shelby Foote says that there has never been a president who functioned like Lincoln did, and despite having no executive experience, he was a miracle at it. LINK.

(6/21) Historian Harold Holzer leads an intimate walk-through of the very different presidential mansion of Lincoln's time. LINK.

EVEN LINCOLN NEEDED A GOOD EDITOR (6/14) Guest blogger Michael Reynolds imagines how the Gettysburg Address might have turned out had the president had a good editor. LINK.

MOST HANDS-ON COMMANDER IN CHIEF (6/7) The outcome of the Civil War in all likelihood would have been different had Lincoln not cajoled, taken over for and in some cases dismissed the generals who lacked his vision and courage. LINK.

A SKIMPIER RESUME WOULD BE HARD TO FIND (5/31) David Herbert Donald, the recently deceased Lincoln biographer, writes that an inexperienced chief executive can cause the country immense heartbreak, but that with time and good common sense can grow into greatness. LINK.

NOW ALIEN TO THE REPUBLICAN PARTY (5/11) Pete Abel writes in a two-part guest blog that while there are a few common traits between Lincoln and today's GOP, the differences are far more substantial. PART 1, PART 2.

THE ASSASSINATION (4/22, 4/29, 5/4) It is rather amazing that so little is known about basic aspects of the assassination of John F. Kennedy while there is virtually no aspect of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a century earlier that remains a mystery. PART 1, PART 2, PART 3.

(4/5) It took fewer than three minutes to deliver the famous speech, but it was an afterthought on the day it was given and remained so into the next century.

HOW VALID THE COMPARISONS? (3/29) With the nomination and election of Barack Obama, the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln have come fast, thick and furious. But do they hold up? LINK.

A PATENTLY CLEVER PRESIDENT (3/22) That Lincoln was the only president to get a U.S. patent is not surprising when you consider that he was an inveterate tinkerer and had a lifelong fascination with mechanical things. LINK.

A PRESIDENTIAL SCHOLAR ON LINCOLN (3/15) A wide-ranging interview with James Hilty on Lincoln's greatness, frailties and innate conservatism. LINK.

A BUMPY RIDE TO HIS REWARD (3/8) There was a controversy over a photograph taken of Lincoln's open coffin, an attempt to steal his corpse and his body was exhumed an extraordinary 17 times. LINK.

WAS THE GREAT EMANCIPATOR GAY? (3/1) No revisionist history of a famous person would be complete without a book on whether they were gay, or if they were gay whether they were bisexual, or if they . . . LINK.

PRESIDENTIAL POWER GRABS (2/22) The infringements by Lincoln on civil liberties arguably were greater than during any period in American history, including the last eight years. LINK.

EARLY ASSASSINATION PLOT (2/15) A March 1861 assassination plot was never carried out, but Lincoln's response to it sullied a carefully cultivated image of dignified courage. LINK.

(2/8) Beyond Lincoln's opposition to slavery there was no aspect of him more controversial than his spiritual bona fides

THE BOHEMIAN BRIGADE COMES THROUGH (2/1) Modern journalism can trace its roots to the Civil War, which because of the telegraph and steam locomotive was the first instant-news war, something of which Lincoln was very much aware. LINK.

(1/25) His metamorphosis from a frontiersman who always opposed slavery but like most white Americans felt that blacks were unequal into the Great Emancipator was as complex as the man himself. LINK.

LINCOLN'S CAUTION (1/18) Guest blogger Robert Stein writes that Barack Obama can learn much from the 16th president, who perhaps even more than wisdom and moral strength needed a highly developed political sense of the possible. LINK.

THE FIRST TECHNOLOGY PRESIDENT (1/11) Arriving in Washington at the dawn of the age of the telegraph, Lincoln embraced this new technology of instantaneous communication with a passion and used it not just to communicate with his generals in the field during the Civil War, but to bend them to his will. LINK.

LINCOLN LINCOLN BO BINCOLN (1/4) A substantial Lincoln mythology had taken hold in the American imagination even before his assassination in 1865. This canon of broad brush strokes and tall tales gave Lincoln his historic due but overlooked or willfully ignored the myriad complexities of our greatest president. LINK.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Absurdity Of Racial Discourse In America: Stupid Is As Stupid Does

A reason -- although not the biggest reason -- that a racial gulf persists in the U.S. is the defensiveness of whites like Police Sergeant James Crowley, who is now on the record as saying that he is not a racist. (The biggest reason is that some whites are racists. As are some people of color.)

Crowley, of course, infamously let an unpleasant situation escalate into a bad one when when he confronted Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates in the act of breaking into
his Cambridge home, Gates got crosswise instead of submissive and Crowley arrested him on a disorderly conduct charge that was dropped thisfast when word of the absurdity of the collar got out.

President Obama's characterization of the affair as "stupid" summed things up nicely, while Crowley's defense that he's not a racist because he once tried to save a black man's life is . . . well, beyond stupid when you consider what the consequences might have been had he let the man die.

As it turns out, that man was Reggie Lewis, and not even the administration of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation could restart the Boston Celtics superstar's heart.

I'm inclined to give Crowley some slack because police work is dangerous. He may well not be a racist, merely a hot-headed cop, and many of us would grab onto something from their past like he did to prove that we believe that we're all brothers and sisters on the surface of the planet earth. But the fact of the matter is that by many white folks' lights, one positive gesture to a black person over a lifetime is enough to qualify as not being a racist.

I once pulled my car over on the narrow shoulder of a busy Philadelphia expressway after I spotted an African American woman and her three young children, one of them holding a black Raggedy Ann doll, standing in harm's way next to their broken-down minivan. I got them into my car and drove off the expressway to the
nearest police station where a white desk sergeant let the mother use a phone to call for help. The littlest of the three children was sitting in my lap, still clutching her doll, by the time help arrived

You see, this makes both the desk sergeant and I not racists, because he could have refused the mother a phone call or taken offense at the little girl climbing into a white man's lap. And I could have left the mother and her brood on the highway where they might have been filleted by an eighteen-wheeler, a not infrequent occurrence on the mean highways of Philadelphia.

* * * * *
It gets absurd pretty quickly, doesn't it? Yes it does, but that's nuttin' compared to the wails of outrage from white conservatives over Gatesgate.

While Obama has been unafraid to confront the broader issue of race in America, you
would have thought that he'd bent Kay Bailey Hutchinson over his Oval Office desk and not merely called the Cambridge incident for what it was. (And the president's wee walkback yesterday after he telephoned Crowley was unnecessary. The clarification, not the call.)

While none of these conservatives can be considered racists themselves (cough, cough), it is ironic -- no, make that bitterly ironic -- that they have no time to address let alone deal with racial discrimination as it applies to non-whites, including a
criminal-justice system that routinely convicts innocent African Americans, but flip out when the president defends one who happens to be especially eminent unless you're one of those conservatives, in which case Gates is an elitist who played the race card.

* * * * *
The spitstorm over Gates took me back to hands down the best speech Obama has ever given. That would be his address in Philadelphia last year in the heat of the presidential primary in which he refused to shrink from his relationship with his throwback pastor and elaborated with candor, forcefulness and eloquence about why the black church has been so important to him while stressing that it was time for America to stop licking its racial wounds:

"I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," Obama said of Jeremiah Wright. "I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother -- a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in the world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."

Now let's deal with health-care reform, okay?
Top photo by Christopher Evans/Boston Globe