Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jerry Brown: The Chessman Cometh

Were he sympathetic, Bill Clinton might tell everybody to “chill out” and enjoy Jerry Brown in action.

It is possible that Brown is old and that his seemingly lax campaign is a sign that he is past his time, stuck in the halcyon days of 1976. One California blogging outfit refers to him as "Krusty."

He may, in fact, not know what he is doing. But Brown deserves everybody's indulgence, because he has earned it.

Too many Gov. Moonbeam characterizations have obscured the fact it was Brown's iconoclasm and independence that earned him the disdain of the Sticks-in-the-Mud Club.

So, until he demonstrates otherwise, Brown must be taken for a man with a plan. And we can expect that plan to diverge from the conventional wisdom.

Brown can’t help himself, never could. And he has been called many things, rarely "stupid," more often “brilliant.”

He’s a thinking guy. He doesn't have to be recognized for the novelty of his ideas for them to affect our existences because they have in so many facets of California, and even national, life.

His long-standing presence in government as governor of California, mayor of Oakland, state attorney general, secretary of state, and whatever else, has produced that rare bird who knows the state from basement to helipad.

All the money in the world, or even Meg Whitman's, can't substitute for total comprehension of the system in play, let alone partial responsibility for its construction.

And so we have an article in the, “Los Angeles Times,” by Seema Mehta, taking worthy note of the fact that, as the autumn beckons, Brown is essentially tied with his free-spending opponent.

The former e-bay chief executive officer has spent $104 million of her own money in an effort to blanket the airwaves and "put Brown so far behind by Labor Day that he would never catch up. That scenario has failed to materialize," wrote Meta.

"Since winning the primary in June, he has spent almost nothing, has rarely appeared on the campaign trail and has yet to air a single ad against Republican Meg Whitman."

That can't be a simple oversight.

One theory is that, with all the flack flying around the cable-sphere, maybe Brown sees a different shelf-life for a candidate than has been traditional. The longer you're out there, the more slings and arrows of misinformation you can be hit with.

Ask Whitman.

As low-key as he has played it, the attorney general has still dodged a few swift-boatings, because when somebody spends $20 million telling countless people over and over again that you're a sow-sucker, it's probably going to stick.

Another possible explanation is that the content of Whitman’s media “buys” are low-grade. It should not come as a shock that getting elected entails more than a quest to run the most commercials.

It helps, but it's not everything.

highwayscribery finds the Whitman spot that claims "Meg has a plan" for solving California's problems, pretty disingenuous.

Either it’s a big secret to be revealed after voters reward you with the bill of sale on your purchase of high office, or it's something we're entitled to weigh on its merits. Kick it around, as it were, before we decide.

Brown's early pitch already runs counter to the media-juiced "anti-incumbent" fever. And he mostly gets a pass on the charge, because you can't attack a guy as being wacky and a deadbeat officeholder at the same time.

Nobody will ever accuse Brown of the being an "old boys" network guy, and therein his lasting appeal in a state that marches to its own drum.

Brown, like highwayscribery, doesn't seem to be buying the whole anti-incumbent narrative, because he has out-and-out said his experience, the actual breadth of it, makes him better qualified than Whitman to solve the state's woes, as this highwayscribery post on an early campaign event attests to.

It's a message that has got to resonate.

The passe' notion of a "business leader" coming in to run government the "right way," Whitman's leitmotif, has been tried and tried until we've figured out business and government aren't the same animal.

Meg’s actually the second e-bay politics spin-off. Steve Westley, a former board roomer at the online retailer, crapped-out against the hapless Phil Angelides in the last gubernatorial sweepstakes.

The business-person/politician has lost its allure ever since Americans became aware of how a greedy merchant class squandered the nation's financial patrimony.

The great conservative attempt to prove self-interest and market efficiency were part of a spontaneous synthesis found in nature failed. Smart, educated people in suits can act with the same instincts the guttersnipe 100 floors below in the street shadowed by the corporate tower.

It boggles the mind that Wall St. is angry about the Obama gang’s “anti-business” policies. Proven buccaneers, they oddly expected to again be handed the keys to the economy without adult supervision.

"Salon's" Andrew Leonard cites a report by ProPublica's Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein documenting how, "even as the housing boom collapsed, Wall Street's biggest investment banks continued to furiously sell each other crappy mortgage-backed securities. No one who was paying any real attention wanted to buy collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) constructed out of imploding subprime mortgages, so the originators of the CDOS simply unloaded them on their co-conspirators. In the process, no economically useful service was performed, other than the enrichment of a small coterie of bond dealers and managers. The eventual damage caused, of course, was beyond enormous."

Says Leonard, "These jokers are annoyed at the prospect of wealth redistribution? What do they think they were doing over the last couple of decades, aside from sucking wealth out of the 'real' economy and redistributing it to themselves. And now they are are upset about higher taxes? What they should really be nervous about is the prospect of 20 years in prison."

Whitman is selling her work days in that overheated and false economy as proof she can effectively wrangle legislators from San Francisco and south Orange County alike.

Brown clearly thinks conceding the point links her to a bygone and discredited model of business star.

Mehta quotes him saying, “There are two things unprecedented in American political history. One, the $100 million plus that Whitman has paid on her campaign, most of it from her own pocket, and two, the virtually know effect it’s had.”

Whitman’s toeing a fine line between the ‘Triumphant March” from Aida, and becoming a colossal joke. The grotesque proportions of her spending demonstrate a certain overheated approach to big projects when sobriety would seem the order of the day.

The dynamic sets the table for an opponent to mark differences between herself and regular folk. Most Democrats are afraid to accept this inherent gift woven into American politics.

Brown’s not one of them.

Machiavelli, whom Sir Moonbeam has probably read inside-and-out, noted that a prince needs a certain degree of fortuna to prevail at court and with the public.

Brown has had his fair share of late.

First, the assertion his campaign has spent no money on advertising camouflages the fact other groups are running ads in his stead, narrowing the apparent gap in airwave time purchased by the two campaigns.

Second, the article pointed out how, “Notable stories -- the arrest of a suspect in the Grim Sleeper serial killings in Los Angeles and the pension and pay scandal in Bell -- allowed Brown to stay in the spotlight in his day job as attorney general."

Mystified by Brown's low-key, "rope-a--dope" campaign, pundits and opinionmakers are hedging their bets the attorney general is blowing it. They might make for more entertaining columnists and talking heads if they treated Brown's drive, or lack thereof, as interesting political chess worthy of watching.

Most media have painted themselves into a box by sowing the image of Brown as some kind of nutbox. Because who's going to listen to a nutbox?

But here he is, still toe-to-toe with a bottomless paid announcement machine named Meg Whitman. Now the real game begins and Brown can take advantage of debates, his thin coffers, the state's Democratic majority, and whatever else he has up his sleeve, to make a real run at the job he held in another, different time.

Fascinating (Maybe).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Birthday Card For Tina Modotti

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.

--Pablo Neruda

Today's is Tina Modotti's birthday.

She would have been 114, but during her short 46 years, Modotti lived a century's-worth.

highwayscribery admires Modotti, not just for an unparalleled commitment to working people, but for the rich texture she wove into her existence, and a willingness to embrace not just what came her way, but the trouble she looked for and found.

By way of birthday card for the fabulous lady, we will sketch a resume of her brief, but full-fledged, engagement with the World.

Modotti was born in Udine, Italy. Her real, first name was Assunta. Poppa was a craftsman who followed the currents of work through the western factory world, so that she spent some years in Austria before taking off, as a teen, for San Francisco.

There she worked as a seamstress in factories while Momma fed her pasta and Poppa the rantings and songs of the anarchist-inspired International Workers of the World -- the Wobblies.

Modotti liked the theater and, at some point during her development into a first-class vixen, was tapped by a Hollywood talent scout to go south and settle in Los Angeles.

There she played the exotic and foreign siren in a number of A-list productions such as "The Tiger's Coat" and "I Can Explain."

Tina married and fell in with a bohemian crowd that counted among its numbers Edward Weston, a still-renowned photography pioneer at whose knee she learned the craft, while simultaneously having an affair with him.

She was, by any measure, a seductress with a strong sexual appetite.

Her husband tempted Tina into visiting post-revolutionary Mexico. Weston followed. There she stayed and delved into that wonderful and beleaguered nation's cornucopia of colors, sounds and flavors, honing her craft into a portfolio much-admired even today.

Modotti mixed with muralist Diego River and his wife (not Frida, the first one), Siqueiros and other figures of the Mexican left until her commitment grew enough to join the communists' feeble efforts to overthrow an already corrupt regime.

When her first husband died Modotti became lover to a Cuban Marxist named Julio Mella, who was shot as he walked with her down a Mexico City street. She was accused as an accomplice in the murder.

Surviving the legal inquest, she nonetheless acquired the sobriquet, "The Bloody Tina Modotti."

Sooner than later, the revolution melded seamlessly with her own life. After somebody tried to kill the Mexican president, Modotti was tossed from the country and into a wanderer's existence served exclusively on behalf of the worker's cause.

Her art was dedicated to the same cause, but unlike socialist realism and other products of the era, Modotti never took up a cudgel. There is nothing bombastic or cloyingly heroic about her photographic subjects.

Rather than impose a communistic view onto the world, Modotti found natural instances, bits of workerist filigree that she highlighted with a Graphlex lens and whatever light was at her disposal.

The compositions are often exquisite.

Berlin, Austria, Paris...Modotti served as a spy in the service of the communist movement. Like many well-meaning progressives, she wasted her countless and life-threatening efforts on the schemes of wicked Joe Stalin.

Few knew what Stalin was until it was too late, that's what is said. Still, it was not necessary, this falling into the trap of losing God only to replace him with the leader of Russia's Communist Party, good or bad.

But we all make mistakes. The swoop and sweep of our lives can be ennobled by their smaller embellishments.

Modotti was dispatched to Spain along with her lover Ennea Sormanti, where she worked as a nurse for the international communist medical auxiliary, staying until the Spanish Republic's tragic demise, squiring beleaguered refugees across the icy Pyrenees mountain in the winter of 1939.

Tina floated the world over on a barge for a while, no country willing to take her in. Mexico finally relented. She died there in a cab a few years later, her life only partially rebuilt.

Elena Poniatowska, Mexican author of the definitive biography, "Tinisima," crafted a quiet expiration brought on by a life of high-drama and chain-smoking.

Others speculate her life on the political and romantic frontlines might have spurred someone to murder La Modotti.

Either way, the mystery befits a woman who led an uncommon existence, following her bliss, seeking a higher purpose, molding life itself into a work of art.

The Donkey Business Done

In progressive politics, no good deed goes rewarded.

(or something like that)

Carl Hulse's piece in the "New York Times" (Aug. 15) says congressional Democrats find themselves on the "political defensive" despite having done everything they promised voters in 2008, save for delivering on a climate change bill.

Republicans, the article reads, "grudgingly concede that Democrats compiled a record perhaps unrivaled since the Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson were passed during 89th Congress or the New Deal programs were pushed through they 73rd Congress by President Franklin D. Roosevelt."

And that, Hulse noted, was with considerably more opposition than those two earlier executives faced. By contrast, The Obama/Reid/Pelosi "victories were wrenching, partisan and procedurally ugly, but they were victories."

As White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel told Hulse, "He said what he was going to do, and he did it."

"He" being the president.

No wonder the American people are furious! They're not used to seeing things get done and when you throw in the fact a lot of these measures are about improving our lives long-term, rather than froth designed to deliver votes in November, they should rightly be flummoxed.

For years now, they've grown accustomed to "divided government." Having blessed the Republicans with the one guy they needed to filibuster Washington D.C. into its habitual inactivity, the words of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell should be disheartening.

He told "The Times" that he was "amused" that his caucus's endless caviling, holding, stalling, and fingers-up-their-buttings should be criticized.

"I wish we had been able to obstruct more," McConnell said. "They were able to get the health care bill through. They were able to get the stimulus through. They were able to get financial reform through."

And we didn't need any of those things. We needed nothing and lots of it!

Out on the hustings, Obama called the Republicans the "no we can't crowd" and correctly noted that they are "more concerned with the next election than the next generation."

The minority leader says the Democrats will pay for pushing such "sweeping measures" in the face of public opposition.

The GOPers often forget they represent a single region of the country and that, love Dixie though we all do, it simply does not represent a majority any more than the Republicans do.

Hulse's piece quotes Democrats lamenting that they don't know "how to celebrate" and that's why November is going to bring THE END OF THE WORLD! (as we know it).

Not sure what else the Democrats could do. It would be nice, for them anyway, if the Hulse piece, instead of being buried on page 20, were on the cover and crowned with a headline like, say... "Democrats Have Compiled Record Unrivalled Since FDR."

But there's no point complaining about the media anymore. People are either smart or stupid and that extends to their choice of news source and their literacy when it comes to consuming it.

It's a matter of cold and hard politics and with more than a year of gloom and doom forecasts, "The Times" also noted that, unlike in 1994, the Democrats are prepared and taking those steps necessary to prevent the no-nothings from storming the gates (again).

Should they fail, those of us who support the president and his cohorts might be content with the record they've pieced together and the easier task of stopping GOP efforts at repeal.

Wither goest thou America, forward or back?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Letter to China's Ambassador Zhang Yesui

August 12, 2010

650 South Sweetzer Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Zhang Yesui
Chinese Ambassador to the United States
3505 International Place N.W.
Washington D.C. 20008

Mr. Ambassador,

This letter is in response to a most disturbing article in the August 12 edition of the "The New York Times," about the impending prosecution of the Tibetan writer Tragyal.

We here in the United States know that somebody being prosecuted in China is going to jail, because you have no concept of individual rights and such politically motivated processes usually result in conviction.

Why don't you let this gentleman go? I'm not well-informed on the politics of Tibet and China, but, like Tragyal, I'm a writer who gives free reign to his thoughts about governance, and mis-governance, both in my country and around the world.

You and I, it is understood, hail from different cultures, but I'm unwilling to accept the idea that in certain places, the thoughts, emotions, and intellectual productions of a human mind have no right to expression in the public sphere.

One thing is jailing somebody for violence against the state, but to snuff them out for writing a book strikes me as beyond the pale.

More importantly, I do not understand how it is your government can destroy the lives of people who circulate their thoughts and opinions regarding the Chinese government's performance.

Is it flawless, your government? Do its many officials, to a person, never make a mistake?

I'll be frank Mr. Ambassador. I tire of reading about the torture, disappearance, summary execution, and long-term incarceration of people whose only difference from me is that they had the misfortune of being born under a system your government finds beyond reproach.

I frequently put-off letters like this, because another article, about another person with the temerity to question the Chinese government's way of doing business, is published to take its place in my catalogue of outrages against human freedom.

So while I'm at it, let me put in a good word for Hu Jia, winner of the Sakharov Price for Freedom of Thought, and Liu Xiaobo another writer for whom I feel truly sorry.

And I extend the same sentiments to other forlorn victims of your repressive state. You know their names better than I.

Your government ought to be embarrassed with the way it deprives China‘s best citizens of the fundamental right to breathe freely, and by extension, with the way it instills fear into each and every citizen.

A child is not a grown up because he wears an adult's clothes, Mr. Ambassador.

And China is neither a modern or humane country simply because it successfully shills cheap goods to people around the world.

Shame on you.

the highway scribe

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Tuesday's Results: The Dirt(y)

Another series of primaries done and highwayscribery is still waiting for the big "anti-establishment" revolt at the polls that will crush the Democratic majorities and usher in another era of shoddy governance.

Let's see, the guy backed by the president in Colorado won. Jeff Zeleny's piece in the "New York Times," noted that Senator Michael Bennett's victory, "interrupted the story line that all incumbents are doomed by voter discontent."

These damn primaries keep interrupting the same story line but the media, which can't be "mainstream" if perpetually wrong, continues to peddle it.

Some guy named Ken Buck beat up on the Republican establishment's candidate of choice, which only confirms what we've been saying about Tea Party types since the last round of primaries/elections: These people are dividing the Republican Party.

Rand Paul, the Tea Party guy from Kentucky, can't get anything right and may give the Democrats a chance at stealing a seat they have no business contesting.

Sharron Angle, the Tea Party gal picked by Nevada Republicans has done more to resurrect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's career than anything President Obama might have.

The Connecticut GOP is going with a former wrestling executive, effectively snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Dan Quayle's kid Ben, not content with the mess his daddy made of the family name, got nailed on some old posts he wrote for "The Dirty" (Scottsdale, Ariz. edition).

highwayscribery doesn't think that should disqualify Quayle fils, but that's because he's a Democrat out of the Kennedy tradition who thinks presidents and other political fauna should be allowed to have testes.

But Quayle's neither running on a blue ticket or in a blue state so he's got some explainin' ta do at the next church social.

And, of course, the shelf-life of Sarah Palin continues to grow as stale as the Democrats-are-doomed meme we've been hearing since, oh, the Republicans came up with the cockeyed idea of saying no to every Obama effort at fixing what ails the country.

"The Washington Post" has a great graphic charting the success of Palin's self-proclaimed "Mamma Grizzlies."

It is understandable that you might not click-through given her increasing irrelevance, but suffice it to say, 10 candidates she endorsed won, and eight have lost, which is mostly a wash, just as her run for the vice presidency and half-term as governor of Alaska were.

There is no difference between what the Republican Party is enduring and the trials undergone by their Democratic counterparts in the 1980s when the liberal wing, of which the scribe was an active member, forced uncomfortable and unpalatable positions on the likes of people like Michael Dukakis.

'Nuff said.

And while the Democrats have picked up baggage by adopting long-term fixes and strategies for our declining country, the Republicans offer no alternative, since there is little change to what or who they, in truth, care about and represent.

To wit: Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator ever, just died as he lived: in a plane crash on his way to a corporate junket...even though he's been out of office for a few years now.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Book Report: "Mr. Sammler's Planet" by Saul Bellow

"Mr. Sammler's Planet" (Penguin Classics)makes the case for sticking with an author's big hits before delving into their more exotic offerings.

Saul Bellow, of course, is/was a famous writer whose big triumphs were "The Adventures of Augie March (Penguin Classics)" and "Herzog (Penguin Classics)."

highwayscribery decided upon "Mr. Sammler's Planet," thanks to its being mentioned in a column by David Brooks of the "New York Times."

In "Children of the '70s," Brooks sought to put a damper on recent enthusiasms for 1970s New York as a dangerous, but freewheeling and artistically sympathetic urban landscape that, on balance, was much better than the white flight and capital disinvestment that characterized it.

highwayscribery, who grew up in that New York, indulged just such a flight of fancy in his post memorializing the recently deceased downtown poet, Jim Carroll.

Brooks noted in his piece that, when the city tried slum clearance on the upper West Side, "Crime did not abate. Passivity set in, the sense that nothing could be done. The novel, 'Mr. Sammler's Planet,' by Saul Bellow captured some of the dispirited atmosphere of that era -- the sense that New York City was a place of no-go zones, a place where one hunkered down."


"Mr. Sammler's Planet," to the extent that it is about anything, fleshes out the post-Holocaust relationships between Jewish folk in New York: their mutual aid toward one another and the friendships forged by their unique and tragic recent history.

It is, briefly, about a pick-pocket Sammler watches and with whom he later experiences an unfortunate encounter. It is about the pending death of a close friend and benefactor. It is about his wacky daughter and her personal quest to make a father whose claim to fame is a long-ago relationship with H.G. Wells relevant to fast-changing times.

But these story threads are a skimpy skeleton upon which Mr. Bellow hung a lot of issues swimming around in his mind. It almost works until he gets into a discussion with Dr. Govinda Lal from whom his daughter Shula has stolen a manuscript.

The exchange is characterized by long-winded discourses from both men on the nature of things, which, to their minds, cannot be described in elementary terms. The two gents hold court with only the rarest authorial interjections to remind us these are characters talking and not just a stream of raw, unplugged Bellow.

The author was a Nobel Prize winner whose thoughts are novel and well-expressed. There is certainly valuable currency in "Mr. Sammler's Planet," but less of a story than one might expect from someone quite so celebrated.

Bring on "Herzog."