Category Archives: Popular culture

I’m going to be in a book about Dylan. How cool is that?

The grainy photo I took of Dylan and The Band at that show in 1974.

The grainy photo I took of Dylan and The Band at that show in 1974.

Well, this was kind of a fun email to receive today:

Hi Brad,

I’m working on a new book called Bob Dylan – I Was There which will contain around 350 accounts from people who saw Dylan live in concert as well as people who worked with Dylan.

I’ve just come across this article on your site  http://www.bradwarthen.com/2015/02/my-grainy-picture-of-bob-dylan-and-the-band-1974/

Would it be possible to use your account in the book? And would you like to add anything to the story?
We would give you a full credit in the book.

Please let me know if this would be possible,

Kind regards,

Neil Cossar
Red Planet Publishing

I said sure, go ahead — and let me know when the book comes out.

Dylan, The Band and me, all going into the annals of rock history together. How cool is that?

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Eight: ‘The History of the World’

Now that I’ve watched all the episodes, it’s getting a little difficult to remember details from one a couple back. But here are some points, just as conversation starters:

  • There’s a lot about our experience in Vietnam that appalls me — and of course, many of them are not the same things that appall Doug or Bud. But My Lai is one where I think our disgust is in synch — even though I’m sure we extrapolate different lessons from it. That Calley served so little time — and in house arrest, the gentleman’s form of punishment administered to a monster — makes a mockery of all that’s holy. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but someone should have shot him in the act, and saved some of those people (and I deeply honor helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who intervened to stop it, threatening to open fire on his fellow Americans if they did not cease the killing). Worse than Calley’s case is that no one else even served time — not Medina, not his NCOs, not anybody. Of course, neither of those things is the worst thing. The worst thing is the killing itself, all those innocents…
  • This episode also includes one of Nixon’s worst lies: When he said Thieu had told him the ARVN were doing such a great job that Vietnamization could proceed apace so we could start pulling out American combat troops — and Thieu had said no such thing. It’s one thing to start pulling Americans out — that, at least, was something Nixon had promised to do and we knew he was going to do, and by and large the country (this country that is) was behind him on that. But to claim that the ally you’re deserting had told you that was fine by him when he hadn’t is slimy.
  • The contrast between horrors of war and what was going on back stateside is often disturbing to me. A segment in which Marine Tom Vallely was engaged in particularly intense combat — an action for which his was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry — after which he is talking about the things one’s grandchildren will never understand about what you did in the war… shifts jarringly to Country Joe and the Fish performing “Fixin’ to Die Rag” at Woodstock. It was two days after the battle we’d just been told about. The camera stops on the face of one long-haired kid after another in the audience grinning and smirking at the mocking lyrics, singing along to this hilarious song about dying in Vietnam. I’d never minded that song very much before, but seeing people so tickled by it just after looking at dead and dying men on a battlefield sickened me. And it should do the same to my antiwar friends. People think they’re so damned cute, don’t they? Give me cursing, angry, rock-throwing protesters in the street rather than this.
  • Kent State. I’ve always felt the loss of those kids keenly. I read Michener’s book about the shootings not long after it happened and learned a lot about each of them, felt that I got to know and care about them. What happened there was inexcusable, indefensible. To start with, why were those kids in the Guard uniforms issued live ammunition? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song about the tragedy gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. All of that said… I don’t feel exactly about the incident the way my antiwar friends do. As horrific as the shooting of those protesters was, I wish I could be like antiwar folk and applaud their protest with uncomplicated approval. But I’m not able to do that. To me, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that their cause made no sense to me. Of course you go into Cambodia if that’s where the enemy is — especially when there’s a new government in that country that approves of your doing so. Anything that could be done to strengthen the position of the South Vietnamese when we’re preparing to pull out should quite naturally be done. That’s what I thought at the time, and I see no reason to think differently now. I wish I could. It would be nice to have the blessing of uncomplicated feelings.
  • There was one thing I can feel pretty good about, in an uncomplicated way, and that was the practice back here of five million Americans wearing bracelets to remember the POWs in Hanoi. As the narrator says, “Despite what their jailers had told them, the prisoners had not been forgotten by their country.” There’s nothing political about it. It’s neither approving nor protesting. It’s just remembering, caring. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Just two more episodes to discuss. Then we can go back to arguing about things happening in this century…

marching

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Five: ‘This is what we do’

OK, I’m an episode behind in posting about this. I should have used the two-day R&R we had Friday and Saturday to catch up, but I had a lot of other stuff going on. I’m going to post this now (from Thursday night), and try to get to Episode Six before the day is out.

Several thoughts from this episode:

  • Are we “killer angels” or not? In the clip above, Marine Karl Marlantes disputes the notion that military training teaches young men to kill. He maintains that we are a species born to such aggression, and training merely serves as a “finishing school,” polishing our skills for what we already tend to do. Not a new idea, of course. But it flies in the face of what military psychologist Dave Grossman argues in that book I cite so often here, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman presents considerable evidence to indicate that most men (although not all — we get our special forces soldiers from the tiny minority) have a deep-seated aversion to killing, and that it takes a lot to override that. So which is it? Are we natural-born killers, or do we have to be schooled to become that?
  • On a related point… The title of the episode comes from the opening clip above, in which another Marine talks about how he adapted to combat. At first, he questioned some of the things he saw fellow Marines doing. He’s not specific, he just refers to “some interesting things that happen” — although he had dropped the word “atrocities” in setting up the segment. Anyway, he was told, and he eventually internalized, “This is war. This is what we do.” This strikes me on a couple of levels. First, there’s the point I’ve made for 50 years to people who thought there was something especially immoral about our involvement in Vietnam, something setting it apart. No, this is war. Be against war if you choose, and that’s fine. But most (not all, but most) things that horrify people about Vietnam are things that happen in other wars. This is just the first war in our history in which folks at home had an inkling what happened on the battlefield. Second, I’m reminded of Grossman’s book: One of the factors that overcomes men’s aversion to killing is seeing their comrades doing it around them. In fact, one point that I don’t think has been made overtly in this series yet is this: Most soldiers don’t fight for causes, or nations, or any of the usual things we talk about. They fight for the guys next to them. If their comrades turn and run away, they’ll run away. But if his comrades stand and fight, a soldier is too ashamed to do anything else himself.
  • MusgraveOne of the most startling stories thus far in the series is the one told by Marine John Musgrave. He was shot in the chest, and had a hole “big enough to put your fist through.” He was triaged three times, and each time given up for dead — by a corpsman on the battlefield, again in the evac helicopter, and finally by a doctor at the hospital. Each time, he was shoved aside so the medical personnel could try to save the men who had a chance. The third time, the doctor only asked him his religion so he could call over a chaplain for him. Finally, a surgeon says, “Why isn’t somebody helping this man?” As they anesthetized him for surgery, he assumed he wouldn’t wake up. But they saved him, and he survived to tell his story to Burns and Novick.

That last item was one of those things that we should all pay more attention to. The moral is, Don’t ever assume you know what’s going to happen. This has many applications in life. Sometimes, as in Musgrave’s case, it means “Don’t give up hope.” Other times, we should not get complacent thinking we know things are going to be OK. For that reason, I’ve been pretty irritated at news stories I’ve seen the last two or three days saying that Graham-Cassidy is dead. As Yeats wrote (in the same poem quoted by Bobby Kennedy in last night’s episode):

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

On this, Lindsey Graham has thrown his lot in with the worst — even acting like he’s proud that Trump is backing his effort. And he will pull out everything he can to succeed in passing this abomination…

this is war

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode 4: ‘Resolve’

I’m a day behind here, but I want to have a post about each episode, so I’m posting this a day late, after I’ve already seen Episode 5. But here goes…

First, if there was an episode, of all those thus far, that was going to turn me into the Vietnam war protester that Bud would like me to be, it was this one. From start to finish, practically every point made, every interview, every video clip, added up to a powerful message that whether we should have been in Vietnam or not, what we were doing was not working. The Johnson administration was fooling itself as well as the American people, and each escalation added to the sense of desperation that the episode conveyed. These points were made again and again, eloquently.

A person watching that episode would naturally wonder, why did we continue to fight? Why didn’t the American people demand that we withdraw immediately? And my answer, as I expressed earlier in a comment, is that the concentrated way that these arguments are presented in the episode was NOT the way life was experienced at the time. First, if you were a stateside civilian, little of your average day was spent thinking about the war. And when it was, the antiwar message was a much smaller chunk of what we were taking in about the war — and no, that was NOT because the POTUS was a big, fat liar.

Most of the journalism we saw was NOT by David Halberstam or Morley Safer. We did not have the experience that this series affords of hearing at length from young men who went over enthusiastic about the mission and became disillusioned. (So far, every single young man we learn of in

I was just a kid at the time, which makes me unreliable, but I have no memory at all of the Fulbright hearings, much less of the calm, articulate, intellectual arguments of George F. Kennan and other witnesses arguing against our involvement.

In fact, if you were alive at the time, most of what you saw of the growing antiwar movement was people chanting such things as “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” I know that such “arguments” are persuasive to many people, but they turn me right off. Such approaches aim to engage the emotion and shut down rational faculties, and I’ve always held them in contempt.

Anyway, I was impressed by what Kennan had to say, because of who he was — or who the series told me he was. My ears perked up immediately when I heard that he was sort of the father of Cold War strategy of containment. I had heard his name, and I was familiar with the strategy, and I was eager to hear more.

As y’all know, I have frequently written here about Vietnam as an application of that policy of containment. So hearing that Kennan said Vietnam was a wrong-headed misapplication of the strategy really made an impression on me.

Bud thinks I should “just admit the hippies and draft dodgers were right,” which ain’t gonna happen. Nor is Muhammad Ali or Dr. Spock going to knock me over. Nor John Kerry. In fact, definitely not John Kerry. But if a guy like Kennan says something, I’m thinking as I watch this, I’m paying attention.

The next morning, seeking to know more, I googled Kennan. Wikipedia’s not the same as reading a serious book about him, and I stand ready to be corrected by someone with deeper knowledge, but it’s what I had time for so far. And I read this:

Soon after his concepts had become U.S. policy, Kennan began to criticize the foreign policies that he had seemingly helped begin. Subsequently, prior to the end of 1948, Kennan became confident that positive dialogue could commence with the Soviet government. His proposals were discounted by the Truman administration and Kennan’s influence was marginalized, particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. Soon thereafter, U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more assertive and militaristic quality, causing Kennan to lament about what he believed was an abrogation of his previous assessments….

In other words, Kennan wasn’t exactly what the series suggested. He had disowned the way the U.S. government applied his containment idea to the entire Cold War, starting LONG before we got involved in Vietnam.

Which puts his testimony in a very different light from what I heard Wednesday night. It’s not like he was a guy wedded to the overall strategy who had a specific problem with Vietnam; he was a guy who disowned the whole policy.

The way it was presented on the show was that here was Mr. Containment himself, and he was against our involvement in Vietnam. But apparently, that description was off.

Maybe that was acknowledged at some point when I got up to get a glass of water or something. But if it wasn’t, the omission bothers me. It’s one of the few flaws I’ve spotted in the series thus far, though, which testifies to the excellence we’ve come to associate with Burns and Novak.

One other small thing that speaks to something huge…

The episode told of how in the last year of his life, Martin Luther King struggled with whether he should take a stand against the war. And as we know, he eventually decided to do so.

I deeply respect his prayerful process of discernment, and was as always impressed by the rolling power of his eloquence in the speech the program showed a clip from.

But something jumped out at me. Like so many other opponents of our involvement, he called upon our leaders to “end the war.”

Well, y’all know how I tend to react to that phrase. It is spoken by so many good, decent, kind, caring people who just want all the bloodshed to stop. It was spoken during that war, and later with regard to Iraq, and to this day about Afghanistan.

But it was not in our power to “end the war.” It was only in our power to get out of the way and let it proceed without us. This is not some small linguistic quibble. The difference between ending a war and pulling out to let the other combatants fight it out is a big as between night and day.

As we would see in 1975…

Kennan

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Three: ‘The River Styx’

flowers

There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the war in Vietnam, and I’ve been hoping Ken Burns’ new series would help me sort out.

One is North Vietnam’s complicated relationship with, on the one hand, the Soviet Union, and on the other hand with China.

It would be so easy to explain the North as the Russians’ client state, and at times as I’ve read about the war, that has appeared to be the case. Other times, China seems to have played that role. And over the years, I’ve thought, how can both be true, given the bitter split between the world’s two biggest communist countries back in the ’60s?

And yet, I’m learning from the series, apparently the answer was indeed “both.”

Both poured considerable resources into helping the North — the Chinese sending 320,000 people (I’m saying that from memory — I didn’t write the number down during the show), and the Soviets sending vast amounts of materiel along with advisers.

How did Hanoi maintain that uneasy balance? With great difficulty, apparently.

And the split in those two nations’ attitudes toward Marxism’s inevitable march through history was reflected in North Vietnam’s leadership. Ho Chi Minh subscribed to the less aggressive, more accommodating approach pushed by Moscow. (He, for instance, was very upset that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on Americans in the Tonkin Gulf.) Le Duan, who increasingly gained greater sway over Hanoi at Ho’s expense, favored the more extreme, violent, approach of the Maoists.

One thing about the commies: They weren’t monolithic. Which takes us back to my Unified Field Theory of human affairs: People are complicated, regardless of how they try to boil things down into simple ideologies.

Here’s a detail that particularly struck me last night: The part where China sent those 300,000-plus people to help with the war effort. They did it in a way that marked a profound contrast to the American approach: They send them to take on rear-echelon jobs to free North Vietnamese soldiers to go to the front.

In doing that, they embodied Donald Trump’s notion of international relations (reiterated in his speech to the U.N. yesterday): That every nation looks out for itself, that it’s all about self-interest.

Meanwhile, LBJ was sending entire American combat units over to fight, bleed and die for the Vietnamese.

The clip below shows the reaction of one Vietnamese woman to that. And there were many others like her. Key excerpt:

We’re such a small and poor country, and the Americans have decided to come in to save us — not only with their money, their reseources, but even with their own lives.

We were very grateful…

As I’ve done the last couple of days, my intention here is just to share a thought or two from the episode, something that jumped out at me, as a conversation starter. There was enough in last night’s episode to fill a book with.

Perhaps you would like to make other points based upon it…

Sorry to hear about Devo’s injury

There was the usual small talk about the weekend at the Monday morning meeting today at ADCO. And in the middle of some football talk — which, as you might expect, caused my mind to drift away a bit — I heard someone say “Devo” and “broken leg.”

So I perked up for a second — I hadn’t heard anybody mention those guys in years — then drifted back into my reverie…. But I was yanked back a couple of times by hearing “Devo” again.

I’m still not sure what happened. Which member of Devo was injured? How did it happen? And why did I keep hearing the name in a football context? My hearing might not be great, but one thing I’m sure of, based on pictures such as the one below: Those guys never played football. You can’t fool me — those are the wrong kind of helmets.

Anyway, whomever was hurt, I’m sorry to hear it and hope he’s up and around soon. The thing to do is to shake it off. Are we not men?…

MI0000924808

 

Mind you, the folks on ‘The West Wing’ aren’t perfect…

In this scene from the episode, Leo should be saying, "Who forgot to pay the light bill?" Folks, I've been in the West Wing. It's not this dark.

In this scene from the episode, Leo should be saying, “Who forgot to pay the light bill?” 

This morning while working out, I watched an episode from the first season of “The West Wing” (so early in the show that they hadn’t figured out yet that the “Mandy” character just didn’t work at all).

The overriding plotline of the episode, “The Short List,” was the nomination of a new associate justice to the Supreme Court. Everybody starts out excited that they’ve settled on Peyton Cabot Harrison III, a painfully stereotypical WASP with all the right credentials — Exeter, Harvard, editor of the law review, etc. (The moment you know for sure that he’s not actually going to get the job is when he finds himself alone in a room with Charlie, and says Charlie looks familiar, and Charlie says yeah, I used to caddie at your club.)

But just as they’re about to announce their pick, with all the absurd excess of ceremony that attends such nominations, a paper written by the judge three decades earlier surfaces. And in this paper he noted the fact that there is no blanket right to privacy guaranteed in the Constitution.

Which, of course, there isn’t, Griswold notwithstanding.

At this point, Harrison looks so much better to me, even though he is filled with pompous self-regard. But for White House senior staff, this is a deal-killer — so much so that, after months of deliberation that led them to Harrison, they decide, during one five-minute meeting with another guy from the short list, to offer him the nomination.

This is a happy ending on so many levels. Not only is the new nominee, Roberto Mendoza, Hispanic, but he went to public schools and came up the hard way. A very Capraesque ending. All the main characters are lined up outside the Oval Office to applaud as Mendoza exits — even though they couldn’t possibly have known that he would be offered the job in that meeting. (In fact, I think Harrison may still be waiting in another room of the White House, unaware that he’s no longer the guy.)

But it bugs me that the clincher for Mendoza was that he affirmed his belief in the “right to privacy.” Such faith is necessary since only faith gets you there — since there is no such right spelled out in the Constitution.

Apparently trying to enlist a larger share of the audience in applauding the decision, Sam Seaborn says:

It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the next twenty years. The twenties and thirties it was the role of government, the fifties and sixties it was civil rights, the next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. Moreover, in a country born on the will to the free, what could be more fundamental than this?

Well, several things, Sam. The right to freedom of conscience repeatedly affirmed in the First Amendment, for one.

Of course, you could say Sam’s completely right. He arrived at that conclusion before the Patriot Act (something that never happened in “The West Wing’s” 9/11-less universe), or the hysteria engendered by Edward Snowden.

But if he is, well, I suppose that helps explain that sneaking suspicion I sometimes have that by some cosmic accident, I was born into the wrong era…

Anyway, I think I’ve noted before how wistfully painful it can be to watch shows such as this, and, say, “Madame Secretary,” which assume that all the people running the country are serious, experienced, knowledgeable people earnestly striving to do the right thing.

Episodes such as this one, though, remind us that, as wonderfully lovable as the cast of “The West Wing” was (which was why Mandy had to go; she just didn’t meet that prerequisite), they weren’t perfect.

Still, I’d definitely take them over what we’ve got, in a skinny minute…

Can I watch ‘Game of Thrones’ for free? (And should I?)

OK, I've heard that Winter has finally, FINALLY come. Beyond that, no spoilers, please.

OK, I’ve heard that Winter has finally, FINALLY come. Beyond that, no spoilers, please.

Stop pointing at me! That was my anguished cry when I saw this headline this morning:

Meet the sometime-streamer: TV watchers who sign up for one show — then cancel

Well… yeah. Why on Earth would I keep paying 15 bucks a month for HBO NOW once I’ve watched the latest season of “Game of Thrones?” What else of value does it offer? “WestWorld?” Gimme a break. If I see one of those “hosts” run through the same loop one more time, I’m going to have a serious programming malfunction.

The only other thing HBO NOW is good for is watching excellent past series, such as “The Sopranos,” “Band of Brothers,” “Boardwalk Empire” and such. And I get all of those at no additional cost for subscribing to Amazon Prime.

I’ve waited for the “GoT” season to end — which it just did — so I can sign up for a month, zip through the new episodes during my morning workouts on the elliptical, and cancel. And why would I do anything else?

The only question is whether HBO will extend to me the first-month-free introductory offer, since I’m a past subscriber. Well, not the only question. There’s also the ethical one of whether it would be OK to watch the latest “GoT” season for free, then cancel (if they even let me do that). I’m thinking I wouldn’t feel too terrible about it, since I’m very mindful of the two years or so that I paid $15 a month in exchange for practically nothing, before it hit me that I should cancel when not watching “Game of Thrones.”

On the whole, I feel like I’ve been bled fairly dry over the years by television and on the overall scales of justice, they kind of owe me. Of course,  that’s mostly the doing of the cable companies, not HBO. And, well, I think the HBO NOW model is a vast improvement over the old bundling ripoff. So maybe, in the name of rewarding something of which I approve, I should at least pay out $14.99 to watch a season of a show I want to see.

Yeah. Probably.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. And your practices. What are your habits in the age of streaming, and what are you willing to pay to support them?

If I want to rewatch "The Sopranos," I've got Amazon Prime.

If I want to rewatch “The Sopranos,” I’ve got Amazon Prime.

Dr. Strangetweet or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Don

Nothing. I just wanted to use that headline.

What a week.

Do you remember in the movie, when Peter Sellers as the President has his phone conversation with the Soviet premier?

Hello? Hello, Dimitri? Listen, I can’t hear too well, do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little? Oh, that’s much better. Yes. Fine, I can hear you now, Dimitri. Clear and plain and coming through fine. I’m coming through fine too, eh? Good, then. Well then as you say we’re both coming through fine. Good. Well it’s good that you’re fine and I’m fine. I agree with you. It’s great to be fine. laughs Now then Dimitri. You know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The bomb, Dimitri. The hydrogen bomb. Well now what happened is, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well he went a little funny in the head. You know. Just a little… funny. And uh, he went and did a silly thing. Well, I’ll tell you what he did, he ordered his planes… to attack your country. Well let me finish, Dimitri. Let me finish, Dimitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn’t friendly, … you probably wouldn’t have even got it.

The source of the comedy is that he is SO reasonable, so measured, so like a supremely patient elementary school teacher in his effort to calm the drunken Russian. Deferential. Diffident. Studiously unprovocative.

That doesn’t seem quite as funny now…

Dr-Strangelove-3-1

Keep him WAY down in the hole….

This morning while working out on my elliptical trainer, I rewatched an episode of the second season of “The Wire,” and rather than skimming through the opening credits — something a bit harder to do on the Roku and have it stop where I want it — I listened to the song.

Guess which part of the words grabbed my attention, in light of current news?

… He’s got the fire and the fury
at his command.
Well, you don’t have to worry
if you hold on to Jesus’ hand.
We’ll all be safe from Satan
when the thunder rolls;
just gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole.

Yikes. Suddenly lyrics I’d heard a hundred times grabbed me in a whole new way….

How would Bunk and McNulty deal with North Korea?

How would Bunk and McNulty deal with North Korea?

Top Five Things Wrong With This PBS Quiz

decade

As y’all know, I dig PBS almost as much as I do NPR, and it’s basically the only broadcast outlet I ever watch. (Mostly I have a TV for Netflix and Amazon Prime, and occasionally, when I’m feeling retro, a DVD.)

So I have high expectations when I see the PBS logo. Which is why I was so disappointed by this lame “Which Decade Do You Belong In?” quiz.

The whole thing was phoned in for the shallowest of purposes — promotion of three “Masterpiece Mystery” series. Nothing is offered that would provide a serious time traveler with helpful insight into which decade he would be most at home in.

Here are the Top Five things wrong with it:

  1. The individual questions force you into ridiculous choices. Such as “Choose a Women’s Hairstyle,” and the options are “Beehive,” “Poodle cut” and “Shag.” In other words, you have to have a fave among the most extreme, least appealing, hairstyles of three decades. (The worst: “Who’s your biggest critic?”, with the choices being “The Establishment,” “The Church,” and “Your mother.” Y’all know me: I’ve got no beef with any of those parties. But I chose “The Establishment” because I knew that would make me cool in at least one of the three decades on offer.)
  2. Even if the individual questions offered minimal guidance, there aren’t enough of them to add up to anything helpful. There are only seven of them! I mean, why even bother inventing a time machine to begin with? With info like this, even if I fell and hit my head and thought of the flux capacitor, I wouldn’t bother to build it, because I’d have no idea where I wanted to go!
  3. Crass commercialism. Or, since this is technically not commercial television, crass… I don’t know… promotionalism! There have been loads of fine “Masterpiece Mystery!” shows over the years, set in many very fine decades, but this is all about three that were currently showing or about to have a season premiere. About as shallow as you can get, and strangely trapped in the current moment, considering that the point is to appeal to people who presumably want to live in other moments.
  4. Lack of truly cool decades. Forced to choose between the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, I of course ended up in the 50s, which will surprise few of you. But that’s because the decade of 1800-1810 wasn’t even offered! And you would think that PBS, if it exerted itself even slightly, would be able to manage that…
  5. One of the three shows that inspired this insipidity was a show that I haven’t even watched,
    No Annie Cartwright.

    No Annie Cartwright.

    from lack of interest: “Prime Suspect: Tennison.” I tried watching it one night, but quickly lost interest, mainly because it takes us back to the Metropolitan Police Service in 1973. In other words, it covers ground already covered far more entertainingly by “Life on Mars.” The central character is a young WPC trying to make her way in a service just beginning, reluctantly, to take female cops seriously. And I’m sorry — I’m sure she does her best, but she is no Annie Cartwright! Anyway, I lived through the 1970s; I became an adult in the 1970s, so show me something more interesting.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, such quizzes are beneath the dignity of PBS, which is probably why the person who contrived this just gave it a lick and a promise. But if you’re going to try to engage my appetite for quiz clickbait, then make it worthy of the PBS name!

That is all…

50s

Check out program about Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark! Now!

tiger

Dang! I had meant to tell y’all about this in advance:

But it’s on right now! It’s the first of three episodes.

I’ve told y’all about Joel and his amazing project before. He and I worked together at the Wichita paper back in the ’80s, and he’s been a photographer for National Geographic for the past 25 years.

For the last 11 of those years, he’s been working on his magnum opus, the Photo Ark: He has undertaken to photograph every endangered species on the planet. He figures it will take the rest of his life. May he live far more than long enough to accomplish it…

Avoiding ‘Game of Thrones,’ or trying to for the moment

Last season's climactic battle.

Last season’s climactic battle.

Hey, did you watch the season premiere of “Game of Thrones” last night? If so, Don’t tell me about it!

Everyone seems to be trying to do that. The newspaper apps I read each morning now include coverage of the show as though it were an actual news event. It’s a new news category: There’s local, national, world, politics, sports, business and Westeros.

At least they’re not putting spoilers into the headlines I’m seeing. Not yet, anyway.

I do want to see it, but I haven’t figured out how or when.

For the last couple of years, I watched it via HBO Now. But eventually I admitted to myself that I wasn’t using the service for anything but this one show, so after last season ended, I cancelled it — saving myself $14.99 a month.

And I’m loathe to start it up again. I mean, the season will take more than a month, and is it really worth 30 bucks for me to be up on what everybody’s talking about? I mean, $14.99 is more than I spend a month on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and I get so much more out of those services.

Here are the options, as I see it:

  • Go ahead and cough up the 30 bucks over this month and next, and watch in more or less real time, and not worry about inadvertently reading a spoiler Tweet or something.
  • Delay gratification drastically and just wait a couple of years until it’s all on Amazon Prime at no additional cost, the way other completed HBO series such as The Sopranos and Band of Brothers are.
  • Scam the system. Wait two weeks and sign up for the free trial month of HBO Now, and then cancel after the last episode on Aug. 27. If they’ll let me (I’m not sure whether former subscribers are eligible for the deal). This option seems sleazy to me. It’s like something Littlefinger would do.
  • Act like a grown man and stop letting myself be manipulated by the hype. Live the rest of my life without seeing Season 7, and have no regrets. Even though I think maybe this is the season when Winter finally comes. And I’ve got so much time invested already.

I haven’t decided.

How about you? What’s your strategy? Are you subscribing just for Game of Thrones, taking the grownup route and not caring, or something in-between? And how’s it working for you?

Editing the Declaration of Independence

I spent part of the long holiday weekend rewatching an episode or two of HBO’s John Adams.

Of course, being me, I love the scene that depicts the editing of the Declaration of Independence.

If you’ll recall, Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were appointed as a committee to draft the Declaration. Then, Adams had talked Jefferson into doing the actual writing, citing his skill with the written word and the fact that Adams himself was far too busy (aside from sitting on various committee, Adams was bearing the greatest share of the burden of arguing for independence, while Jefferson never opened his mouth during the debate).

In this scene, Adams and Ben Franklin are getting their first look at what Jefferson has written, and reacting to it, and offering changes. Having been in this situation myself so many thousands of times with writers who sometimes regarded their words as perfect, I enjoyed watching the dynamics.

First observation: Adams starts out by praising Jefferson’s work to the skies — a fitting approach given the document he’s editing, but one that is wildly at odds with my own approach. As Dave Moniz used to say when he worked for me, the highest praise I ever offered of writers’ work was “pretty good.” Maybe I should have tried this approach; it seems to have led to a good result.

Then there is Jefferson’s unnerving passivity through most of the process — an almost autistic lack of emotion. I’ve had writers fly off the handle at my changes, or be philosophically diplomatic about it. But never anyone with this staring, shrugging apathy. Change to “self-evident?” Yeah, whatevs…

Even when Adams says some of it might not be the way he would have said it, but he will still defend every word, Jefferson has no gratitude, but shrugs, “Well, it’s what I believe…”

Nevertheless, Jefferson proves he’s not an automaton when Franklin (being a newspaper editor himself, Ben had a knack for this) finally gets a rise out of him, and Jefferson says, still in that cold-fish voice, “Every single word was precisely chosen. I assure you of that, Dr. Franklin.” To which Franklin, unfazed, essentially says yeah, that may be the case, but you don’t get the final word; we’ve got to get this thing through Congress.

Adams was (in an unaccustomed role for him) cheerleading the document, while Franklin was determined to edit it. Normally, I’m an Adams fan, but in this case, it’s Ben I identified with. You can’t let writers get an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What do they think they are, editors?

Anyway, this is my belated Independence Day post…

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It’s not the CNN-bashing; it’s the pro ‘wrestling’ thing

I don’t know about y’all, but I took off Monday and had a lot to do over the long weekend, so I more or less disconnected from the madness, aside from an occasional Tweet.

So I was just barely aware of the Trump tweet that pushed out memories of his Morning Joe childishness last week:

It is now, by the way, his most reTweeted post ever. So you think he’s going to stop doing stuff like this? Not likely.

But here’s the thing for me: Of course, of course, this embarrassment provides further proof — as if anyone needed it — of Donald J. Trump’s utter and complete unfitness for the job he defiles each day he holds it.

But it’s not because it shows him cartoonishly beating on CNN. There’s nothing new about that sort of anti-media demagoguery, or about Trump inciting violence, or about Trump-affiliated politicians actually committing violence against the press.

What this does for me is forcefully remind us that we have a president of the United States who is in the professional wrestling Hall of Fame — and is not even slightly embarrassed by that fact.

Trump Tweeting out a clip that reminds us of his affiliation with pro “wrestling” — something anyone with any sort of position of responsibility would want to bury — is like… it’s as if George W. Bush had Tweeted old video of himself on a bender before he sobered up and started demonstrating the kind of seriousness that used to be a prerequisite for the office.

The Tweet says, How low has America sunk? This low…

All hail President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho!

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Today, all celebrities are more than 50 years old

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Harry Harris brought up AARP, which reminded me of something I noticed on the way out the door this morning.

All of a sudden, all truly famous celebrities, all the big names, are over 50.

That hit me when I noticed the latest AARP magazine on our kitchen table, with Steve Martin on the cover. Of course, we all knew Steve Martin was old — he was white-headed when all the world was young.

But the more I’m exposed to this magazine — I never pick it up, but I do notice the covers — the more I’m convinced that everyone famous is now older than 50.

Look at the recent covers above and below.

  • Dustin Hoffman — We boomers think of him as the ultimate exemplar of youthful angst. If he made a move on someone Mrs. Robinson’s age now, she wouldn’t give him a second glance.
  • Bruce Springsteen — OK, I get it: Everyone called “boss” is a white guy over 50, right? Except in this case, he’s more than 60.
  • Michael J. Fox — Yep. This time Marty McFly has traveled way, WAY into the future.
  • Diane Keaton — OK, we saw this happening over the years. What can be said about it? That’s life. La-dee-dah, la-dee-dah
  • Kevin Spacey — Again, not surprising.
  • Dennis Quaid — I remember when “The Big Easy” came out, and a review called him something like “our best breezy young actor.” I’ll always picture him with that crewcut, playing the brash young Gordon Cooper in “The Right Stuff.”
  • Brad Pitt — OK, I’m not sure this was actually a cover. I think this was something AARP does when they’re calling out a celebrity for crossing the line. Anyway, I read something recently about him and other big-name actors not getting the great roles any more, as Hollywood turns away from big names and relies on interchangeable young actors named “Chris.” I’d link to the story, but I can’t find it now.
  • Kevin Costner — Remember the goofy, gawky gunslinger in “Silverado?” Now he might have to turn to playing the crotchety, grizzled prospector, à la Gabby Hayes.
  • Ron Howard — Opie! I see Opie on those reruns now and I think of my grandson — not someone old enough to be a grandfather himself.
  • Denzel Washington — We’ve watched him get gray, but did you know he’s 62?
  • Cyndi Lauper — Now you know why she keeps dyeing her hair those crazy colors. It’s not just to have fun.
  • Sharon Stone — Which, of course, is why you don’t hear about her any more.

Sure, there are some recognizable celebrities who are under 50. There’s um, Taylor Swift! And that little Bruno Mars guy. And maybe one or two others. Dave Matthews? Nope — he’s 50. All those superhero actors named “Chris” don’t count, by the way. A celebrity needs to stand out distinctively.

When I was young, not even the OLD stars my parents liked were over 50. Take 1965, which I have written about in the past as the most fevered time American popular culture (it was for me because I had just returned from years in South America without TV, and soaking up pop culture was like overdosing on a powerful drug — but I don’t think it was just me).

Dean Martin was 48. Frank Sinatra didn’t turn 50 until the end of that year, and he seemed ancient! Kirk Douglas, father of the now 72-year-old Michael, was only 49. James Garner, who was born looking like somebody’s dad, was 37. Nat King Cole, who died that year and whose daughter now graces the cover of AARP, was only 45.

While all the celebs we kids were interested in were in their 20s, if not teens.

Anyway, that’s the way I remember it. Your mileage may, you know…

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Why wasn’t there a Bond girl named ‘Reality Winner?’

Reality Leigh Winner, from her Instagram page.

Reality Leigh Winner, from her Instagram page.

“Who is Reality Winner?” is today’s most popular headline. Here are versions of that story from:

Her own self-description on her Instagram page simply says, “I lift, I eat, I have a cat.” That’s followed by lots of pictures of herself lifting weights, of food, and occasionally of a cat (although at first glance, there seem to be more dog than cat pictures).

Me, I’m just impressed that there’s someone at the center of a spy story with such a perfect Bond girl name, the sort that might cause James himself to say, “I must be dreaming.” First Anna Chapman (“From Russia with Va-va-VOOM!”), now this.

But I thought it was kind of odd that most of the coverage this morning was about her being charged with the NSA leak. I sort of thought the bigger news (and maybe this was played up bigger last night when I wasn’t paying attention) was what she had revealed:

Russian intelligence agents hacked a US voting systems manufacturer in the weeks leading up to last year’s presidential election, according to the Intercept,citing what it said was a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) report.

The revelation coincided with the arrest of Reality Leigh Winner, 25, a federal contractor from Augusta, Georgia, who was charged with removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.

The hacking of senior Democrats’ email accounts during the campaign has been well chronicled, but vote-counting was thought to have been unaffected, despite concerted Russian efforts to penetrate it.

Russian military intelligence carried out a cyber-attack on at least one US voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than a hundred local election officials days before the poll, the Intercept reported on Monday….

You know how a lot of sticklers (particularly of the pro-Trump sort) have protested that it’s wrong to say the Russians “hacked the election,” when they didn’t actually break into our polling system, but just hacked party emails and leaked them and let the chips fall?

Which was true, which is why “hacked the election” was never the best way to say it.

Until now.

Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t some hacker “artist” operating on his own initiative, the way Putin tried to suggest the other day (channeling Trump with his “400-pound hacker“). This was the GRU

Top Five Performances of All Time by Black Actors (1st draft)

Weirdly, the movie wasn't in black and white -- but I remember it that way, for some reason.

Weirdly, the movie wasn’t in black and white — but I remember it that way, for some reason.

I hesitate to put this out there because I KNOW I’m doing this rather randomly. I don’t think in those terms (best black this, best white that), so when my brain tries to run a report based on such criteria, it doesn’t operate as efficiently as it ought.

But I had to react to this piece in The Guardian about all-time top film performances by black actors. The story is from way back in October, but I just saw it, and now is when I’m reacting.

It’s headlined “Sidney Poitier’s Mister Tibbs voted best performance by black actor in public poll.” And that’s what I’m reacting to.

Don’t get me wrong. I thought “In the Heat of the NIght” was pretty awesome, one of the greats of the decade. It was groundbreaking, with talented actors skillfully depicting characters groping their way through unfamiliar roles and relationships. This was done, in 1967, with better understanding and fresh open-mindedness than we usually see today. Everybody was good, from Poitier and Steiger down to Warren Oates.

I also enjoyed the sequel, the title of which was the most memorable line in the original.

But I’m sorry — I’m going to have to go with “To Sir, with Love” as Poitier’s best performance. OK, so bits of it were mawkish and I first saw it at an impressionable time when high-school themes were particularly appealing (when I had yet to attend high school). But the character was unique, and drawn with masterful nuance. And the song still kind of gives me chills. (OK, guys, go ahead and give me the business, but I think it was better even than when Jim Brown threw those grenades down the vents to fry the Nazis in “The Dirty Dozen.” So there.)

Anyway, here are the top five from the British Film Institute poll that The Guardian was reporting on:

  1. Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night, 1967)
  2. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown, 1997)
  3. Michael K Williams (The Wire, 2002-08)
  4. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, 2013)
  5. Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994)

As much as I dug Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown,” the only one I can put on my list is Michael K. Williams in “The Wire.”

Here’s my initial stab at a personal list — which I will no doubt amend when y’all remind me of performances I’m forgetting. (I wish The Guardian had linked to the 100 performances on the list the poll respondents chose from — that would have helped.)

I’m not going to rank mine — I’m just going to list five, and see what y’all think:

  • Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, with Love” — I already explained this above. Sort of.
  • Michael K. Williams in “The Wire.” — You could pick Idris Elba’s Stringer Bell, or any of a dozen or so powerful performances by black actors in this series. But Williams steals every scene in which he appears. Best scene ever — when he traipses to the grocery to pick up some Cheerios early one morning, and on the way back a dealer tosses his goods out the window at him, because the cry of “Omar comin’!” strikes such terror. (“They don’t have the honey-nut?”)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor in… wait for it… “Serenity.” Nope, not “12 Years a Slave” or anything else most people would cite. I thought his portrayal of The Operative was practically hypnotic. Have you ever see such a thoughtful, sensitive, really bad guy? And the sword thing appealed to the 12-year-old in me.
  • Danny Glover in “Places in the Heart.” — Yeah, he’s great in lots of things — his cold-hearted cop-gone-bad in “Witness” was amazing. But I loved the way his character stuck to the role that society assigned to a black man in Texas in the ’30s, while showing his intelligence and experience in guiding helpless widow Sally Field to grow the crop that saves the day — even though his tactful assertiveness nearly costs him his life. Love the scene when he distracts the grieving boy by making a fuss over what bad luck it is to rock an empty chair.
  • Butterfly McQueen in “Gone With The Wind” — Yes, I’m being a bit perverse here, overlooking Hattie McDaniel’s much larger role, for which she rightly received an Oscar. But “Prissie” was just so… inventive. What a weird character, played so convincingly! When she meanders through the gate singing to herself just before the famous “birthin’ babies” line — was she tripping, or what? (OK, I admit it. I’m deliberately refusing to choose the obvious performance lest Barry in “High Fidelity” mock my list.)

I consider this to be a start on a good list. I’m eager to see what y’all suggest…

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We have public libraries. Why not public broadcasting?

Last night's reception at the library.

Last night’s reception at the library.

Last night I was pleased to attend a reception unveiling the remodeled portions of Richland Library, which also served in a way as a celebration of the fact that the library was recently named one of the nation’s best.

The library is indeed something that we have to be proud of in this community, even though some of us (ahem!) aren’t allowed to check books out because we sleep across the river. Seriously, though, it’s awesome. (At this point I must note that ADCO did the library’s rebrand awhile back, and my daughter-in-law works there.)

Anyway, this came back to mind this morning when I was reading George Will’s Sunday column harrumphing about funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (“Public broadcasting’s immortality defies reason.”)

He trotted out all the usual libertarian, market-oriented objections, such as:

  1. It might have been all well and good in the 1960s, when it was started as part of LBJ’s Great Society (about which, as you’d expect, Will has snotty things to say). Back then, it increased most people’s TV choices by 33 percent. But if it were gone today, it would reduce folk’s choices from, say, 500 channels to 499.
  2. The elite snobs who like it are generally affluent enough to pay for their chosen recreation and edification themselves, without forcing Joe Sixpack to cough up taxes for it.
  3. If Big Bird et al. have value (and Will is willing to stipulate that they do, in a market sense, which to him is what counts), advertisers and broadcasters would line up to eagerly purchase them and take over would CPB cease to be.

Here’s how I answer those:

  1. That’s like saying we don’t need libraries because there are (or used to be) bookstores, and Amazon. Well, yes, those things are fine enough for those who can afford them, but they have a tendency toward the lowest common denominator — reality TV and other garbage. Occasionally, commercial TV has started to do what CPB does — remember how A&E and Bravo started out, before sliding into what Will would term inanition — but the market has yet to produce anything that regularly airs such material as “King Charles III” or “The Civil War” (just to name a couple of personal faves; you may have others.)
  2. Sorry, but even if everyone doesn’t want it, public amenities — from parks to libraries to public schools — are there to better our communities in ways that the market will not. And Joe Sixpack has the same ability to vote for what he wants our tax money to be spent on that I do. Not everyone will agree with every expenditure, but these are the little trade-offs involved in living in communities rather than as hermits. The government (in this country) is not some separate thing out there doing things to us. It is us, and every one of us has the right and the obligation to express what we want it to do — which I am doing at this moment. (Oh, and not all elite snobs are made of money, just as an aside in response to an assertion that is neither here nor there.)
  3. Yes, they may, and then we’d have to watch commercials every 10 seconds. And eventually, all that we would get would be the content that maximized profits, and we’d lose other things that might make a little money but not enough, things that very well be the best of the lot. The marketplace gives us all sorts of wonderful things, from iPads to, um, iPhones (if I had more time, I’d surely think of something else), but I think an important function of the public sphere is to give us good things that the market will not. And if you wonder what sorts of things those might be, go watch some PBS or listen to NPR.

Finally, Will makes a point that in the abstract is devastating and unassailable, especially if you’re a journalist:

America, which is entertaining itself to inanition, has never experienced a scarcity of entertainment. Or a need for government-subsidized journalism that reports on the government. Before newspaper editorial writers inveigh against Mulvaney and in support of government subsidies for television and radio, they should answer this question: Should there be a CPN — a Corporation for Public Newspapers?

Well, no, of course not. But then, we’ve long made a distinction between the press and the use of the public airwaves. The Fairness Doctrine and so forth.

Still, it’s a powerful argument: Government-run news, globally, is the mark of the totalitarian, repressive state.

But then we have the actual fact, right in front of us, of PBS and NPR news programming. And to any objective observer (especially a professional one), they are of such such vastly higher quality than commercial broadcast news that it’s stunning. They are every bit as fair and impartial if not more so, and the depth and quality puts everything (except the better print outlets) in the shade.

It shouldn’t be so. But in reality, it is.

I’m reminded of something The New Republic published a few years back: “Enough Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, except when it does not.” (Of course, some of my friends will object that the magazine said so in support of the Iraq invasion, so there’s that — but it was still a very true observation, a warning against overgeneralization.)

Government-backed media is a scary thing. Except PBS news is so very good. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know that — as an informed observer of news — I’d be sorry to lose that source. (Also, consider — this is news that gets a subsidy from government. As disturbing as that sounds, it’s a far cry from government-run news, which is something I do take an absolute, Actonesque stand against.)

And ultimately, that’s what I have to say about public broadcasting overall. At our house, except for maybe the weekly cold open on SNL, PBS is the only broadcast TV we watch at my house. We use our TV for that, and Netflix and Amazon. That’s it. And the reason why is that the rest of the broadcast universe offers nothing else as good.

And whatever the abstract arguments presented pro and con, I don’t want to lose that. So, to the extent I get a vote, I say let’s keep it.

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