Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin – Occupation: Exquisite Fool

Even in this age of over-the-top celebrity worship, which is all the more irritating because so many of today’s celebrities are an incarnate homáge to mediocrity, there are still some artists/ entertainers/ Stars who feel like personal loved ones and when they die, it is very much a death in the family. I felt that way about John Lennon and Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Pryor, and I feel that way about George Carlin. I loved him dearly and I’m heartbroken that he’s gone.

Some of the public comments about his death have noted that George Carlin was, with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, the Holy Trinity of American Comedy. Indeed. Like Bruce and Pryor, Carlin had a uniquely spectacular comic voice that used goofy humor, intellectual humor, shock and awe to speak the truth, express our shared rage, and embody our sorrow. I’m so grateful that in addition to his many albums, there are his 14 HBO specials, which comprise a priceless body of recorded work that spans his stand-up career from the late 1970s to this past April.

I was up in the middle of the night last night and when I checked my email at going on 4:00 this morning, there was a New York Times Alert waiting for me, saying that George Carlin had died from heart failure on Sunday evening in a California hospital at age 71. My mother was 71 when she died from a heart attack 13 years ago. That was a life-altering event. This one has left me feeling sad and anxious and rather disoriented all day. I never got back to sleep. I went right to the full obituary and posted a comment, then re-posted it here in the Tower. I’ve been online all day, reading obituaries, interviews, talk-show transcripts and public comments from around the country and around the world.

George Carlin played a major role in shaping the mindset for many of my generation. From the first to the end he was smart and sharp and a master of wordplay. He was totally cool, always the hipster (never a hippy, he was straighter than that). He was a fascinating blend of innocent, infantile, cynical and incensed. “Scratch any cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist,” he once said. He voiced the unthinkable, the unspeakable, the sage, the silly. He was not timely (he rejected timely, said it didn’t have enough shelf life), he was pertinent; not political so much as sociological. He didn’t want the burdens of leadership (he had burdens enough of his own) but he accepted the responsibilities that come with knowing what’s in people’s hearts and saying it out loud.

I visited George Carlin’s Web site, which hadn’t been updated yet, so his calendar of events came up as “Upcoming Carlin Appearances as of June 23, 2008” and listed club dates from July through December. What a melancholy “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” moment it was, seeing that. On the home page, there’s a crawl of Carlin quotes, some funny, some cute, some profound:

Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.

I almost don’t feel the way I do.

Some nights the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.

We’re all fucked. It helps to remember that.

Another Carlin quote I found (I can’t remember if it was in an obituary or a review of one of his comedy specials) said this: “I don’t have a stake in this adventure now — the cultural, historical adventure of America and the biological adventure of this species on the planet. I don't care what happens to this country. There’s no changing the way this planet is headed. So I kind of watch it as entertainment.” I feel that way so much of the time, but bigmouth that I am, it’s hard even for me to say that.

I’ve heard it said that when loved ones die, we lose the witnesses to our lives. We’ve just lost one of the greatest witnesses of our time.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Do We or Don’t We Want the Change We Can Believe In?

Now that the news media and the blogs don’t have Hillary Clinton to kick around anymore, they’re picking at Obama like a crusty scab. During this past week, Obama decided to forego conventional public financing of his campaign and also met with key members of the religious right (excuse me: leading Evangelicals) to explore common ground. Obama has promised to offer a new style of campaigning and a new era of egalitarian leadership. Is this something Democrats/Independents want or not?

Whatever your opinion of Obama as a man and a politician may be, you have to admit that he’s not same old, same old. Obama and his team have brilliantly used the Internet and saturated grassroots organizing to bring millions of new people into the political process and have successfully raised millions of dollars, largely in small contributions from a huge base of everyday people. Is this not the essence of public financing?
I’ve no doubt that there are some individuals and Special Interest Groups with big bucks and none-too-hidden agendas who are investing in Obama, but the lion’s share of his campaign war chest is made up of scads of tiny investments from ordinary folks with little money and much affection and enthusiasm – and there’s a lot more where that came from. When Obama originally advocated public financing (that $1 we all check off on our tax returns), he had no idea his efforts would unleash a torrent of broad scale support. Now that he knows he can fund his campaign by his own efforts and without relying on major contributions from a handful of bigwigs, why shouldn’t he? This is a good thing, isn’t it? So why is he getting such flack for successfully emerging as the People’s Candidate?

As for Obama’s outreach to Evangelicals, who number 30–50 million in this country: this is not pandering, this is smart politics aimed at getting at least a portion of a massive voting block that prides itself on not thinking outside the Biblical box to take a deep breath and entertain a new thought – like maybe someone other than a Conservative Republican can share a few of their core values, chiefly the importance of family and religious faith as key ingredients of the Good Life. Obama is not pretending to be anti-abortion/contraception, or to disavow the theory of evolution, he’s just trying to wrest some of the Values Vote away from the Red Team, which has been masquerading as the sole party of morality since the creation of the Reagan Democrat.

Obama is also unwilling to tie up his campaigning options by agreeing to McCain’s request for countless joint Town Hall Meetings. Unlike McCain, Obama can draw and galvanize huge crowds; it’s McCain who prefers the smaller, more cozy gatherings. Why should Obama agree to be restricted by his opponent’s limitations? He’ll participate in a few such gatherings – then he wants to go back to working in the Big Top. It falls to McCain to rise to the greater challenge.

In addition, we’re hearing new “outrage” about Obama’s past illegal drug use. Where was this outrage about Dubya’s boozing and tooting; he claimed to be Born Again so all was forgiven (and look where that got us)? Obama came of age in the 1970s, when anyone with an ounce (or even a gram) of smarts and hipness tried to feed their heads, at least a little. He acknowledges he did this – and that he’s left it behind. Personally, I don’t quite trust anyone age 60 or younger who’s never gotten high on anything except liquor and rage. If Obama makes it to a second term, perhaps he’ll advocate the decriminalization of marijuana, thereby freeing up millions more in public funds to fight a meaningful Drug War against truly dangerous drugs (remember heroin, crack and meth?).

Maybe if we stop nitpicking, stop being small and stupid and literal and so eager to make campaign mountains out of political molehills, we’d have a chance to believe in the change we can believe in. Believe me, I’m ready for something new. Aren’t you?

This post is illustrated with the Tarot’s Eight of Wands. Wands represent fire and the daily processes of life. The Eight is essentially about life coming at you fast and furious: new events, trends, activities, options and yes, problems. It’s about change on a grand scale – and in a largely-positive reading could definitely be interpreted as Change You Can Believe In.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Black Or Bi-Racial – Pick One?

Now that Barack Obama is officially the Democratic Presumptive, the media is starting to talk about race in earnest. This morning, CNN began a discussion they promise to continue about the difference between black and bi-racial and what that difference means in how people perceive Obama (“Wow, do you think we’ll ever really be color-blind!?,” gurgled the pretty blonde anchor). MSNBC, which on Morning Joe really gives Fox a run for its right-wing money, is not troubled by esoteric distinctions; to them, it’s a simple matter of Black is Black, they see Obama as such, and they ask What Role Race Will Play in voters’ decision-making. Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times says Obama couldn’t have come this far if America hadn’t already greatly changed its racial attitudes; we’re a better and far more “deracialized” nation than we used to be, he says.

As a bi-racial person, I find this social conversation fascinating and unsettling and bitter-sweetly long overdue. When I was a teenager (after a peculiar childhood during which I encountered several extraordinary instances of entrenched racism), I believed I was put on this earth to be a communicator and a conciliator, to represent the positive aspects of Ultimate Integration and hopefully to articulate the merger of races, to show that in blending there is unity. But except for writing a college sociology paper on “The History of the American Mulatto” (imagine my chagrin when I discovered that mulatto, the only word that describes exactly what I am, is considered a derogatory term), I never did write about race in any meaningful/extensive way – and still haven’t.

Early on, I realized I was very racially confused and didn’t know what I wanted to say about race, except that I could have done without the whole dilemma – but I didn’t care to admit that politically embarrassing fact. The difference between bi-racial and black always comes down to appearance, regardless of one’s experience. Barack Obama heartily acknowledges his mixed heritage, but he identifies as African American because that’s how he looks. Identifying as bi-racial is, one might say, an elite privilege only enjoyed by bi-racial people who look white – as I do. It was in my teens that I started describing myself as Beige or Gray or Mulatto (linguistic convention be damned); we didn’t yet have the terms bi-racial or mixed race. Indeed, there was little language or daily example for me to connect with when I was young. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, racial intermarriage was still illegal in many states and, in any case, was an extremely rare occurrence.

To this day, it frankly surprises me whenever black people genuinely like white people. It’s also hard for me to believe that white people ever really accept blacks as just Other Regular Folks. Whenever white people use the term African American (a term I dislike, but that’s another post…), I think they must feel pressured into doing so; it rings forced and false. It’s been my experience that most people generally prefer to “stick to their own kind” – in social circles and on the job. Now, with Barack Obama, it remains to be seen what’s been racially transcended or not. He’s probably not black enough for some black people – and probably a little too black for many whites. But perhaps the future I once imagined, one in which races blur and important human qualities hold sway, is finally upon us. Wow, do you think we’re really about to become color-blind?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

How To Embrace Barack Obama Now That He’s The Democratic Nominee For President

It’s going to be hard for many of us who were rooting for Hillary to turn on the proverbial dime and immediately get behind Obama. But whether it takes us a few days, a couple of weeks, or the full five months between now and the General Election, Democrats and Independents will have to bite the bullet and do what’s necessary to end the crippling Bush era and institute important change. Here’s what I recommend:

Get a Grip – We simply cannot allow another Republican to hold court in the White House for four more years. John McCain says he is not a photocopy of Bush. Okay, let’s take him at his word. But he still believes that the War in Iraq can be “won” in the military sense of the word. He still believes that Roe v Wade should be reversed. He still can be counted on to fill future Supreme Court vacancies with conservatives. He still rejects the idea of universal health care, still refers to it as “socialized medicine.” He still believes that Americans are better off with less government support and assistance of all kinds. If you are middle class, working class, or poor, John McCain is not your friend.

Be Fair About the “Experience” Thing – It is indeed reasonable to say that a few years in the Chicago State House and another few years in the U.S. Senate do not comprise sufficient experience for the presidency. But Obama’s opponent is John McCain, a man with many years of experience – and still no clue about what life is like for most people in this country. We’ve also endured nearly eight years of “leadership” by a man who gave new meaning to the word unqualified, a moron who learned nothing from his C-average Ivy League education, his numerous failed business ventures, or his Governorship of Texas. He’s taken no counsel and has regarded all disagreement as treason. Obama is intelligent, well-intentioned and apparently willing to take seasoned advice. We should have faith that his best efforts will be to our advantage.

Focus on the Issues Instead of the Personalities – As a planet, a nation and a people, we are in crisis. Inflation/recession/the mortgage crisis, health care, the War, an energy crisis, education, climate change, immigration, Social Security/ Medicare/ Medicaid, civil rights, human rights, veterans benefits, the revival of the Gulf Coast, national security and other issues are coloring our lives and clouding our future. Do we want another conservative addressing (or ignoring) these challenges?

Enjoy and Participate in the Historic Aspect of Obama’s Candidacy – It’s no small matter that Obama will be our country’s first African American president. White privilege and perspective have guided America from the beginning, often with disastrous results. As a bi-racial person myself, I can assure you that the experience of a mixed heritage constitutes a wealth of insight into all sorts of persons, places and things. The time is right for a different perspective in American leadership. For this reason alone, Obama wants to do well, to do better than most others have done over the past 50 years. He wants to be what used to be called “a credit to his race.” We should give him the chance to do just that.

Consider How We’re Perceived Worldwide – Millions of people around the world and scores of foreign governments know about Obama, admire him and would regard his election as a sign that the idiocy of our foreign policy will be taken in hand and radically changed. We no longer have to be the Ugly Americans. Obama will have a unique opportunity to heal many wounds and open many doors.

Don’t Worry, Israel Will Still Be In Safe Hands – The Far Right doesn’t support Israel because they like Jews. They support Israel in an effort to protect Christian holy lands and maintain a secure and formidable democratic base in the most unstable region in the world. Obama knows we need Israel as much as Israel needs us. Whether or not he’s able to help resolve ancient animosities, I don’t believe he’ll throw Israel under the bus.

Join the Civic Renaissance – Obama has successfully engaged millions of previously disengaged people in the process of active citizenship. Now that having Hillary is no longer an option, we should support this new wave of political enthusiasm, especially if it’s in our best interest.
And a President Obama will be in our best interest, given the actual alternative. It would serve us to get used to that idea.

Monday, June 02, 2008

End of the Line

According to an assortment of today’s news sources, Hillary Clinton will suspend her campaign tomorrow night after the results of the final two primaries (Montana and South Dakota) are revealed. Apparently, it is being called a suspension, rather than a cessation, so that she can continue fundraising (to pay the bills) and keep her options open (like challenging the Florida/Michigan decision with the Rules Committee at the Convention), but it’s pretty clear: this is the end of the line.

Hillary fought a good fight – albeit an old-school style political fight. At the start of all this (when did the campaign begin – 1906??), I didn’t particularly care for Hillary, since I’d never much liked her before (I used to describe her as a “cold fish”). However, as the campaign-without-end inched forward, I came to see that she is quite the opposite of cold, she’s a house afire – passionate, courageous and more than able to play with the big boys on their turf. But she rubs people the wrong way and she remains unforgiven for her perceived misdeeds, like forgiving her husband for his indiscretions and being mean to the people in the White House travel office.

I think the We Despise Hillary movement has a lot more to do with her being a smart, uppity woman than anything else. And even though Hillary has become a successful, highly effective Senator, I believe many folks still see her as a former First Lady and will never see her in any other way. As Michelle Obama will learn if she and Barack make it to the White House, much of America doesn’t like an Equal Woman as First Lady; they hated Eleanor Roosevelt for the same reason. It bears noting that the most popular contemporary First Ladies – Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, in particular – were smart women in positions of considerable power, but they were extremely circumspect about it. For example, we now know, decades later, that it was Jackie who really wrote President Kennedy’s acclaimed Profiles In Courage and it was Nancy who was the…brains…behind Ronnie.

Would things have worked out differently for Hillary if this hadn’t been the year that Obama emerged? I wonder. I think she would have been fighting several lesser contenders, right up to the end, because this country isn’t ready for a woman at the helm. Sexism trumps racism, because most people know in their hearts of hearts that racism is wrong and steeped in stereotypes and ignorance. But sexism is about differing views of womanhood at odds with each other, both of which appear to be legitimate and respectful. Would things have been different if Bill Clinton weren’t part of the package? Maybe. But would Hillary be who she is today if she hadn’t spent her political youth (and middle age) pushing him forward?

I’m prepared to switch my allegiance to Obama, because he is clearly preferable to McBush. I’m also ready to get excited about the First Black President. And I’m beyond ready to have a new President confront the horrendous damage Dubya has done and begin to make things better – if that’s possible. I hope Obama is as good as his pretty words; he has five months to show us what lies beneath his rhetoric. I sure was looking forward to seeing the formidable Mrs. Clinton as Madam President, and I wanted to see what precedent Bill would set as America’s First Gentleman. But that’s all in the past now – and I’m prepared to focus on the future. Congrat-ulations on a strong effort, Hillary, and best of luck to you in whatever comes next. Barack, the ball is in your court. Please don’t fuck it up.