Monday, November 02, 2009

Over and out

If you've come here for smart-ass, counter-intuitive, stick-it-to-The-Man commentary for the past three and a half years, you'll now have to go elsewhere to waste time.

PoliScope is now officially on hiatus, as I am now getting too knee-deep into my research project on jazz, race and the African-American civil rights movement to have the time I'd like to write for my blog. From time to time, I plan to post essays and comments on this subject through Facebook. If you are not yet fake-friends with me on Facebook, you can find me there and keep up with my occasional comments that way.

Thanks for all the support.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Red State update

Jackie and Dunlap discuss the conservative Bible, prepare for Halloween, suggest the music that should be used for torture at Guantanamo Bay, and offer their take on the "Drunkest Guy Ever" You Tube video.

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

That's why air is free . . .

Two South Carolina Republican party chairmen remarked in a recent op-ed piece in a local state newspaper, the Times and Democrat, that Senator James DeMint (R- S.C.), was simply following the good example set down by the "wealthy Jews" by refusing to earmark funds for pet projects. Jews came into their money, according to these estimable historians of economics, religion and cultural development, by "taking care of the pennies and [letting] the dollars taking care of themselves."

Don't these outstanding modern 21st century men know why Jews have such big noses? Because air is free!

I'd suggest clicking here, here and here to learn more about how Jews control pretty much everything that is worth controlling.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Red State update

Jackie and Dunlap prepare for Halloween, and worry that Obama's efforts to find health care for all Americans is "un-American."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reefer madness, revisited

Marijuana, like homosexuality, strikes many conservative cultural warriors as a late 20th

century phenomenon. Just as there were no gay people until the Supreme Court outlawed state-sponsored school prayer in the early 1960s (and yes, there are people who really do subscribe to this view), marijuana use is often portrayed as an unfortunate consequence of the Beatles transition from lovable moptops screaming "yeah, yeah, yeah" to sweater clad pre-teen girls to psychadelic pseudo-druggies no longer fit for anyone's daughter who made mysterious references to "tangerine dreams and marmalade skies."

"Someone was smoking something when they wrote those songs," my friend Michael's mother used to tell us when she would hear us listening to Abbey Road, usually the side 2 medley. It definitely wasn't what she was smoking, which was usually a Salem Menthol cigarette. "And it was him," she would say, pointing to a picture of John Lennon that Michael kept over his dresser. "I don't think the other ones wanted to do it. He was the bad influence."

How did she know someone was smoking "something" if she had never smoked marijuana herself? That was always the question we wanted to ask and never did. And she was wrong about John introducing marijuana to the Beatles. It was Paul; John introduced the Beatles to LSD. But at 12 or 13 years old, it's best to hold that information close to the vest.

By the time I started high school in 1975, marijuana was easier to find than beer, even though the drinking age in Georgia was 18. Like now, people who used marijuana operated under code terms. They "partied or "partook," were "cool," or were "into expanding their horizons." The common refrain when discussing a pot smokers went something like this:

"Hey, do you guys know anything about that new kid who just moved in down the street," someone would ask.

"Not much, but I did notice he was wearing an (Pink Floyd) Animals concert t-shirt the other day, so he must be 'cool.'"

So, in other words, he probably smoked pot. No word on whether he drank beer or mixed liquor with coke, sprite or some other soft drink to mask the taste. But, in my high school, drinking was assumed of everyone, with maybe the exception of the National Honor Society or Math Club members, until proven otherwise. Marijuana smokers, on the other hand, consituted a completely different class of people. High school high society-types -- jocks, cheerleaders, yearbook editors, student government geeks, the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes -- always made it a point to let you know that they did not smoke dope.

"No fucking way I would get near that shit," I remember our star soccer player saying to me, breathing the remnants of Jack Daniels and Coke into my face before heading into the stands for a football game. "Do you know that you can kill, like, thousands of brain cells every time you take a hit? Do you think I want to end up in shop class making bongs like the rest of the freaks?"

And, of course, as soon as the coast was clear, the same lunkhead would seek me out behind the concession stand. "Ivers, do you know where I could buy a joint?"

"Why would you ask me?"

"You seem like the partying type, you know, since you're into Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis. Aren't you friends with that guitar player?" A concert t-shirt does indeed make the man. And, by the way, my friend the great guitar player did not smoke dope.

"Can't help you," I'd say. "Dry myself."

"All right, but don't tell anyone we had this conversation," like we were Cold War spies floating a prisoner swap out of official view.

For as long as marijuana has been around, which is a lot longer than the last 39 years (Sgt. Pepper was released on June 1, 1967), it has carried a negative reputation. Marijuana, depending upon the era, has been the choice of Communists, 20s swingers, early porn merchants, African-American jazz musicians, white beatniks, 60s pop celebrities, misguided professional athletes, contemporary rock stars and other undesirables. Cool, smart, together, fun, attractive people do not smoke pot.

They drink. And drink. And drink. And drink.

Doctors tell us and the wine industry reminds us that red wine is good for your cholesterol . . . and your heart . . . and stress . . . and will make you incredibly hot and desirable, especially after you kick your Jimmy Choos off in your $65,000 kitchen and hop up on the buffet counter holding your Reidel glass. Scotch is the choice of the sophisticated, affluent professional. Who doesn't want to sip Johnny Walker Red sitting in an Adirondack Chair in the front lawn of a glorious Tudor home, while a fleet of Mercedes sit gleaming in the circular driveway? Laugh, smile and frolic by the beach while enjoying a glass of Italian Pinot Grigio?

But nothing says "U.S.A." like beer, the choice of the slacker, dumb guy sports nut who just wants to hang out with his buddies, wear his jersey, eat potato chips and pump his fists, except, in the case of "upscale" brews, when it's the choice of an impossibly good-looking, single, and presumably white collar professional man. A martian who sat through an hour of any televised sports event in the United States (with the exception of golf, which turns its nose up at such debauchery, preferring to bombard you with hedge fund and luxury car ads) could come to no other conclusion that the average viewer is a male alcoholic who suffers from erectile dysfunction. Drinking beer, and lots of it, holds the keys to the promised land for the demographic target -- the male loser who is crashing on someone's couch or still living in his parents' basement. Drink beer and women will dig you. Bring designer beer to a party and women will not only dig you, they will demand a turn with you right then and there.

Pot smokers are not so lucky. Advertisements directed towards them are not intended to glorify their lifestyles. No, not at all. The point of national drug control policy is to persuade pot smokers and anyone thinking of taking a hit off an herbal jazz cigarette not to do it -- at all. The little, bitty language at the bottom of beer ads on television and in magazines encourages people to drink responsibly, not to drink and drive and so on. But you can rest assured that no one is paying attention. If you can swig a few Heinekens and have a shot at Heidi Klum, what good is moderation?

Our national anti-marijuana policy assumes that anyone who smokes pot is incapable of moderation. Even the best of the anti-marijuana ads produced for the Office of National Drug Control Policy refuse to concede this possibility. I've seen two so far: Pete's Couch and Whatever (click here to see them). Give the ads credit for laying off the "if you smoke marijuana now and then, pretty soon you'll be dropping acide and craving heroin" approach. The prohibitionists seem to accept the medical evidence and pyschological research that rejects the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug to more evil doings. But they perpetrate the stereotype of marijuana smokers as chronically stupid, lazy and incoherent because they are always and without exception stoned to the hilt. In Pete's Couch, a high school age boy talks about his experience smoking pot. No, he didn't kill anybody or think about using heroin. Like his friends who did not get off the couch for the entire commercial, the boy just didn't want to do anything but just sit there and presumably stare into space. Perhaps his parents were lucky enough to have surround sound, and they broke out the 5.1 SACD version of "Dark Side of the Moon." Our hero learns his lesson: he doesn't want to be lazy. He wants to be a productive member of society, meet girls and ride his bike. Someone should have warned him to shy away from any hacky sack games in his new found enthusiasm for exercise. We all know where that would lead -- back to Pete's Couch. In Whatever, the good guy is a street-smart, clean cut African-American teenager who tells the camera that he has ambition for a real life -- college, a good job . . . the works. Unlike his stoner friends in the bag, who appear not to know where they are, our hero in this ad lets the world know that once he's gone his buddies won't have anyone to drive them around and get them through the day. Let his friends toke it up . . . he's moving on.

Okay, let's, for a moment, suspend our sense of disbelief and imagine a beer commercial that portrays drinkers as drunks, sans the occasional designated driver. A camera beams in on a group of guys at a baseball or football game. They're drunk as hell, courtesy of the vendors who have no problem selling them beer after beer as long as the cash keeps flowing. One is cursing up a storm while grabbing his genitals, oblivious to the little kids who are sitting in front of him. Another, having neglected to establish his food "base" before the game, is throwing up on the seat in front of him, while screaming at the hapless usher to "let me enjoy the fucking game you goddamn rent-a-cop" (I saw this once at Camden Yards). A third guy has stripped to the waist. And despite having failed his unsolicited audition for America's Hottest Bachleor, he demands that every woman around him "show me your tits." Then the camera isolates the responsible member of the group who says, "These losers can keep on truckin' after I leave for medical school next year. Let somebody else put them in a shopping cart and wheel them home after a night on the town."

Uh, no, that's not happening anytime soon.

There is something strange about criminalizing a drug that, when used in moderation, has never been shown to carry the health risks and social consequences (alcoholism and related illnesses; spousal and child abuse; chronic fatigue, to name just a few) of excessive drinking. And cigarettes? It's the only product on the market that, when used as directed, will either kill you or make you really sick.

People who smoke too much dope will turn to mush, no doubt. But there are millions of people making good grades, planning a future, paying taxes, mowing their lawns, staying involved in their communities, raising families, and living a productive life who prefer marijuana to alcohol as the relaxant of choice. They're no threat to anyone or themselves. In our current culture, it's perfectly fine to tell a friend at the office that you're looking forward to unwinding with a glass of wine or stopping off for a "pop" to brush back the day. You can't say in polite company that you're looking forward to sitting on your porch and taking a hit off a joint to take the edge off. Of course, if you did, your friend might well want to join you -- that is, unless the cool kids were looking.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap join the Gay Equality march in Washington this past weekend, and suggest a modest proposal to reduce health care costs.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Constitutional stupidity?

As the Supreme Court kicks off its week hearing two interesting but not terribly difficult First Amendment cases -- one involving the display of a cross in a public park (unconstitutional) and a federal statute banning animal cruelty videos (unconstitutional) -- my former state of Georgia (no, not the one in the former Soviet Union) offers up its own entry into the free speech debate.

Students sometimes ask me how I make up some of the case hypotheticals I use in class. I don't -- instead, I just read the papers.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week and next . . .

Thursday, October 8th, Gaffney's, 7141 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, Md. Three sets of straight-ahead jazz from 7.30-10.30 p.m.
Saturday, October 10th, Clare and Dons, 130 N. Washington St., Falls Church, Va. Three sets of straight-ahead jazz with the Pablo Grabiel Quartet. 7-10 p.m.
Wednesday, October 14th, Epicurean, 4250 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. Three sets of straight-ahead jazz with the Duff Davis Trio. 6.30-9.15 p.m.
Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.

Thanks for your support.

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Red State update

Jackie and Dunlap review President Obama's failure to persuade the International Olympic Committee to land the Olympics for his adopted hometown of Chicago and get started on Halloween.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Bumper sticker bozos

Like a lot of kids, I had a dog growing up. Her name was Sandy, after Sandy Koufax, and we brought her home from the Humane Society when I was seven years old. In those days -- by the way, is there any other phrase as damning as "in those days" to confirm that you are moving well past middle age into AARP territory? -- there were no leash laws where I lived, so dogs were free to roam the streets. Our neighborhood was full of dogs, and, as best as I can remember, they came and went -- and sometimes crapped and went -- as they damn well pleased. My dog, at first, was less social than most of the others -- shy, withdrawn and fearful of people not familiar to her. We were told when we adopted her that she had been abused -- hence, the limp -- and I wanted to give her a home where she would feel protected and loved. Sandy turned out to be a great dog -- smart, curious, loyal and friendly. She even buddied up to the cat my sister demanded after I refused to share custody of Sandy with her, insisting that she was "my" dog in the same way that my sister claimed that our mother bought the Count Chocula cereal for her and not me, and that if I ever thought about eating any she would tell all my friends that I used to practice my pitching motion in front of the TV in my footie pajamas, which wasn't completely true, but neither was it completely false.

As much as I loved my dog and, admittedly, my sister's cat, it never occurred to me to pester my mother to put a bumper sticker on our car informing all other drivers, pedestrians, meter-readers, construction workers and gas station attendants -- yes, "in those days," no one pumped their own gas -- that we (a) owned a dog; (b) owned a dog of a certain pedigree or (c) owned a dog of a certain pedigree that was smarter than dogs of other, presumably lesser pedigrees or (d) owned a dog that was smarter than a human being, much less an honor student at a nearby public school. Asking my father was absolutely out of the question, since he already had two huge magnets advertising his business on the driver and passenger-side front door panels of our Chevrolet Kenwood station wagon. Riding in that car was embarrassing enough, so there was no need to compound the humiliation we already felt when confronted by strangers and friends with the entirely reasonable question of why my dad's clothing stores were named "Out of Sight" and "The Cat Bag." And, no, I still don't have an answer, other than it was the late 1960s and early '70s.

Nor, despite spending the years between the ages of 8 and 18 playing baseball, football, street hockey, soccer, basketball and tennis or running cross-country did we ever have a sticker or magnet of any kind on our cars sharing my modest sports accomplishments with the broader public. No magnets with an outline of a pitcher holding a runner on, no sticker with a black runner striding through the woods against a white background, no sticker with my name and number framing the community sports organization to which I belonged and absolutely no sticker or magnet that proudly defined my mother or father's adult identity as a "BASEBALL MOM" or "CROSS-COUNTRY DAD."

Thinking about this not even a little more, we did not have any publicly displayed proof that we vacationed in exotic places, belonged to an exclusive club of some sort, thought that people, not guns, killed people, that my sister and I attended our local public schools (which we did) and excelled in them (which we didn't), or that I was loved unconditionally despite not excelling in school. And this was not just us. Bumper stickers of any sort were a rare occurrence when and where I grew up. Growing up, I knew my fair share of good athletes, honors students, cat and dog owners and people -- although not many -- who vacationed in places more than 15 miles from their houses and were generally loved and supported by their parents. I just never knew anyone who felt compelled to share their children's activities and accomplishments through bumper sticker boasting. To this day, I still don't get it.

Take, for example, a car that I sat behind at a stop light last week in the affluent Washington, D.C. suburb of Bethesda, where I live. Not one, not two, not three, but four -- FOUR -- bumper stickers adorned the back of the driver's car testifying to his dog's brilliance ("smarter than your honor's student"), athleticism ("faster than your soccer player"), attractiveness ("hotter than your girlfriend") and, finally, political prospects ("Greyounds make better presidents than people"). Frankly, I don't even get why a Black Lab owner needs to place a "WOOF" sticker on the rear window of her car. Silly, yes; creepy, no. But a grown man with four stickers on his bumper going on about his dog's perceived academic abilities and hotness quotient? That's just plain bizarre. There was part of me that wanted to follow him to see where he worked to make sure that if I ever came into contact with him in any professional context I would know to just get up and leave. Regardless of what he did -- fix my car, prepare the meal I ordered in a restaurant or lead the triage team in the ER closet to my house -- I don't want some guy so hung up on his damn dog that he thinks is smarter than me or more attractive than my wife having anything to do with me.

Vanity license plates are, to me, an extension of bumper sticker exhibitionism, which is, of course, a further extension of the real American exceptionalism, which is the constant need to engage in child-like, "look-at-me" behavior just to let anyone who might be watching know that, in a nation of 300 million people looking to stand out from one another, you . . . "LUV GLF," or "LUV WINE," or have "GRT KIDS," or believe in "NO YNIN," or have multiple degrees, "PHD JD," or have morphed from a "PTY GRL" into a "MILF," or feel the need to confirm publicly that you love your children or husband or wife or dog or gerbils by placing their initials on your license plate (I've often wondered if these public displays of affection are linked to family therapy of some sort, or the need to convince a reluctant parent/husband/wife that, yes, you do love your children and your spouse -- perhaps akin to the more recent alternative punishment movement of having shoplifters wear sandwich boards in public that say, "I STOLE FORKS FROM MACARONI GRILL").

And on and on it goes. Years back, my family spent an extended vacation driving through Eastern Canada, and the one thing I noticed right off the bat while navigating the roads and highways of our cleaner, more polite and generally more enlightened northern neighbor was the complete absence of bumper stickers and vanity license plates. My guess is that the Canadian aversion to self-promotion and braggadocio has more to do with the absence of this visual pollution than any law banning their use.

But I must confess that there is some social utility to these misplaced cries for attention. Any time either of my children misbehaves or does something to piss me off, I always come back with the same threat, "Do you want your name and number on the back of the car?" or "Do you want us to put one of those stick-figure families on the back of our rear window?" Shuts 'em up.

Every single time.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Liberal pets

An organization called Liberty Counsel is sponsoring an outreach program called "Adopt-a-Liberal," which calls on all right-thinking conservative Christians -- there are, apparently, no other kind -- to save liberals from themselves through prayer and support. If this sounds suspiciously like an "Adopt-a-Puppy/Kitten/Hamster/Gerbil/Pirates Fan" pity program, think again. "Adopt-a-Liberal" is a registered trade mark of the Liberty Counsel, which means that everything time I mention the "Adopt-a-Liberal" program I have to remember to use quotation marks around the words or risk infringing on their legally protected name.

Clever . . . clever . . . clever.

Liberty Counsel was kind and thoughtful enough to provide a list of those "leaders" most in need of prayer and counseling. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg heads the list, followed by the "pro-homosexual" Barney Frank and Hillary Clinton, whose support for gay service in the military will mean that servicemen and women will bring their "unnatural" sexual preferences into combat with them. And since these armchair warriors are determined to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq for as long as possible so that we can convert them to our natural, Christian and democratic way of life, it is more important than ever to weed out the weirdos. Can you imagine what kind of strange sexual poses gay soldiers might demand of their enemy combatant detainees that managed to escape our fair-minded, natural heterosexual soldiers at Abu Ghraib?

You can? Holy shit. I guess someone has to place those ads in the back of the City Paper.

Naturally -- as opposed to "unnaturally" -- I was disappointed not to see my name anywhere on the "Adopt-a-Liberal" Most Wanted List. There is, though, at the bottom, an "Unknown Liberal" category that allows participants to pick their own "unique liberal" for prayer and salvation.

What's the old expression? "Takes one to know one." But that doesn't apply here. How about this? "It doesn't matter how you get invited to the dance as long as you get invited." Actually, that's not true either. Assuming you don't live in West Virginia, the panhandle of Florida or southern Mississippi, getting invited to the dance by your cousin, sister or brother doesn't quite hold out the same possibilities as getting invited by someone not related to you.

Oy, veh!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap discuss whether President Obama is a racist, and whether not liking the president makes you a racist.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The amazing Ringo Starr

The release two weeks ago of The Beatles version of Rock Band and the remastered versions of their 12 album catalogue in mono and stereo has, once again, reinvigorated interest in the greatest band that has ever walked the face of the Earth. Of course, few people, if any, question the unsurpassed legacy of The Beatles' multiple gifts to popular music -- the songs (real quick: has any band ever produced as many memorable lyrics to accompany the mind-blowing sophistication of their music? Some bands or artists produce great lyrics and modest music; some produce great music with lyrics that say little. The Beatles did both), the arrangements, the production values, the creativity, the stunning growth from album to album and the absolutely perfect chemistry between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And time has cemented among the civilian population what musicians have known for 40 years -- that Paul McCartney is easily the most influential bassist in the history of popular music, and that George Harrison deserves his place among the most important guitarists of the founding generation of modern rock music. John Lennon is justifiably never really discussed as an instrumentalist of any real import, since his major contributions came as a songwriter, singer par excellence and visionary. As a rhythm guitarist, though, Lennon is much better than people are willing to give him credit for.

So that, of course, leaves Ringo, who couldn't really write music or sing very well. For many years, I would hear know-nothings suggest that Ringo's vocal take on "With A Little Help From My Friends" was his best because he was singing from the heart -- here was this average drummer fortunate to ride the wave of his much more distinguished colleagues. Good 'ole Ringo, just tapping out those simple beats while Lennon, McCartney and Harrison weaved their magic spell.

If only this were true.

Let me be real clear about this: Ringo Starr is among the greatest drummers to ever sit behind a drum kit, regardless of genre.


What makes Ringo just so damn incredible is that was, above all, a musician first and a drummer second. The Beatles were a band that wrote and produced songs. They were not a shredders collective in which the musicians competed to see who could play the fastest, longest and most meaningless solos. No Beatle ever produced a recorded solo of more than 16 bars. In fact, the most commonly quoted George Harrison solos were eight bars over the bridge. There wasn't room for much more in songs that rarely exceeded three minutes and only three times exceeded four minutes ("A Day in the Life," "Hey Jude" and "I Want You [She's So Heavy]"). But in every single case Ringo created the perfect pattern for the song, and, most importantly, never overplayed just to show off. Compare, for example, the Dave Matthews Band -- a true song band and a great one -- with The Beatles. A DMB song just starts to get going by the time that "She Loves You," (2.15 minutes) "Day Tripper," (2.58 minutes)"Fixing a Hole," (3.16 minutes) or "Let It Be (3.50 minutes) are all done. So, sure, a drummer like Carter Beauford -- whose playing gives me a headache and gets in the way of some really great songs that would benefit from a chance to breathe -- gets a chance to show you everything he has in just about every song. But I wonder how Carter would fare if were asked to come up with the drum pattern in "In My Life." I don't think he could top Ringo. And I bet if you asked Carter, he would agree that you just leave Ringo's stuff alone.

Just the other day I had to explain to a pretty good 15 year-old drummer why Ringo is so great. (Proud parent moment: I have never had to explain this to my son, a good drummer, who gets it, and one of his best friends, an exceptionally good drummer, Ringo's greatness). Indeed, as I drove them to and from the DMB concert this summer in Hershey, we spent a great deal of time listening to different Beatles recordings at their request. And they weren't just listening, but explaining why such-and-such a song was so amazing (neither can get over Ringo's playing on "Strawberry Fields Forever).

To the point: here is what I told the young drummer who "doesn't get" Ringo.

1. Ringo was the drummer for The Beatles. The two greatest pop/rock songwriters ever, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, could have picked anyone on the local music scene to play their songs. They picked Ringo, who was the most sought-after drummer in Liverpool and even points beyond.
2. Ringo was the first pure rock drummer to appear on the world stage. Most drummers that played on pop, rock, rockabilly tunes before Ringo were trained in jazz, big-band and other kinds of traditional music. Ringo was the first real drummer to hit clean and hard, use a matched grip and really push a band. He also brought the "rim shot" into rock drumming so you could hear the snare drum above the amplified instruments. Remember, Ringo's drums were not miked in the early days of The Beatles' live performances.
3. Ringo was the first rock drummer to play a "swishy" hi-hat. Drummer before Ringo played the hi-hat tight. Ringo opened it halfway and filled up the sound. Listen to "She Loves You" and you'll get the point.
4. Ringo had perfect time while keeping a loose feel. Listen to "A Hard Day's Night," "Rain," "Drive My Car." "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "Fixing a Hole" just for starters. And he had an unmatched knack for choosing the right tempo. Remember, too, that these were long before anyone knew what a click track or loop was.
5. Imagine what "A Day in the Life," would sound like with any other drummer. You can't. No one can play like that. I can play Steve Gadd's solo in "Aja" note for note. I can play "Tom Sawyer" by Rush (and Neil Peart) note-for-note. I cannot play "A Day in the Life."

6. Ringo was the first drummer to close-mike the bass drum. Listen to how the bass (kick) drum sounded before "Sgt. Peppers." Listen to it on the that recording and on most rock recordings after "Sgt. Peppers." The standard boom-snare-boom-boom-snare" definition you hear? All Ringo -- his idea. He also "standardized" much of the muffling and tuning techniques that are now the norm in rock drumming.
7. Ringo picked perfect patterns for every song. He never overplayed or felt the need to show off. Moreover, his dynamics -- his understanding of when to play loudly or softly or not play at all -- was peerless. Take all the instruments away and you would still know it was Ringo.
8. The backwards roll with that hi-hat "clatch." Drummers will know what I'm talking about.
9. The drum solo on "The End," one of the few quotable rock drum solos ever.
10. Finally, and most important, you know who Ringo is after the first bar -- not first few bars, even. There are dozens and dozens of rock drummers (and jazz drummers) with amazing technical proficiency but no stamp of individuality.

Sure, Ringo benefited from a little help from his distinguished friends. But he gave them as much as help as he got, and, in some cases, a bit more.

Nobody plays like Ringo, and no one ever will.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week (and next)

Thursday, September 24th, Gaffney's, 7141 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. Two sets from 9-11.30 p.m. Free parking to the side and rear of the venue. Gaffney's is also three blocks south of the Bethesda Metro Station.

Friday, September 25th, Clare and Dons (with the Pablo Grabiel Quartet), 130 Washington St., Falls Church, Va. Three sets from 7-10 p.m. Free parking. Weather permitting, we play outside.

Saturday, October 3rd, Maggianos, 5330 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. Three sets from 7-10.30 p.m. Across the street from the Friendship Heights Metro Station.

Thanks for your support. And don't forget to pick up a copy of our new CD, "Twisted Standards," available at all shows and now through CD Baby.

Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jimmy Carter is (mostly) right

Of all the things in the modern world that irritate kooky conservatives, nothing -- not science, not Europeans in socks and sandals, not the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, not the Canadian national anthem sung at NHL games and not even sex -- gets their sensible shoes shaking more than Jimmy Carter. To this day, I don't know if was his decision to return the Panama Canal Zone to Panama as part of the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, which established peace between Egypt and Israel and at least tried to create a framework for Middle East peace, forged the SALT II treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union, making good on his problem to create a separate Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services, failing to rescue the American hostages held in Iran for the last fifteen months of his presidency, his interview with Playboy magazine in which he confessed to "lust in his heart," rather than lust in a bus or airport restroom, bailing out Chrysler or . . . just perhaps, his refusal to schedule emerging Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell for a match on the White House tennis courts. My own take on Jimmy Carter is that he was neither among the best or the worst of American presidents. While there is much to debate about Carter's legacy, one is hard pressed to conclude that Carter was either dishonest (i.e., Richard Nixon), clueless to the point of sheer wonderment (i.e., Ronald Reagan) or dishonest and clueless (i.e., George W. Bush). And one other point I would always defend in any discussion Jimmy Carter is that he is among the brightest and most observationally astute men to hold the presidential office. Agree with him or not, when Jimmy Carter says something, whether about the Middle East, energy independence or domestic politics in the United States, he usually has a point. It just seems like most of the time Carter's comments tend to cut against the grain of the conventional wisdom peddled and, of course, embraced without skepticism by the political-media establishment in Washington.

Carter's latest faux pas? Asked for his thoughts at a town hall meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta about the yo-yos, yokels and yahoos who marched on their hated nation's capital a week or so ago, and, in particular, their characature of President Obama as part-Nazi, part-African war lord and part-gorilla, and, separately, South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson's "You lie!" invective directed at Obama during his State of the Union speech, Carter said that "I think it's based on racism."There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president."


"No, no, no and NO," shouted back the tea-party loonies, the right-wing cable mafia who cheer them on and those ever-patriotic Birthers dedicated to proving that Barack Obama was born in a diamond mine somewhere on the coast of Africa. "We are simply expressing our 'policy differences' with our nation's 44th president, who we respect immensely," comes the standard response. "Why else would we take the time to portray him as a Nazi or flatter him by calling attention to his heritage is such a good-natured fashion?"

And these patriots do have a point, don't they? If you think about it, perhaps there is nothing at all racist about a conservative protester raising a sign that features our first African-American president's head Photoshopped into the guise of an African tribal warrior, with a reference to the old Soviet Union underneath. Perhaps these are just honest policy differences articulated by concerned Americans who were mysteriously undercounted in the November 2008 election. Perhaps these are the same concerned Americans who nodded their heads in agreement with the assessment of the Republican party's foremost intellectuals, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who labeled Obama's first (and now confirmed) selection to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, a "racist" because of her "honest policy differences" with them on the nuances of modern constitutional jurisprudence, and not because she was a Latina who acknowledged that her life experience was relevant to her world view. And, as we all know, only minorities and women bring their "life experience" to bear on their decision-making in the judicial and political worlds. Well-to-do white, Christian men who have navigated the nation's most elite academic, professional and government institutions since they were in short pants and sailor suits, on the other hand, are scrupulously neutral in their understanding of law and politics.

Yes, yes, yes, indeed . . . there is that view, that "honest policy differences" expressed throughracist language, cartoons, photographs, broadcasts and protests are just that . . . honest policy differences. Or there is the very real possibility that a substantial number of Americans beyond the right-wing wacko fringe continue to labor in serious denial about the powerful role that race plays in our politics . . . and our culture and just about everything else that touches on American life.

Take for example a recent exercise conducted by Charles Lane, an editorial writer for the Washington Post. In a recent comment on Carter's remarks, Lane, whose name is not familiar to me and whose work I do not know or normally read, disagreed with the former president and offered the following analysis to demonstrate why the anger directed towards Obama, whether by someone like Joe Wilson or a plucked-from-the-line-at-Home Depot-American, is not fueled primarily by race.

"An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward Israel is based on the fact that it is a Jewish state. I think it's bubbled up to the surface, because of a belief among many non-Jews, not just in the United States but around the world, that Jews are despicable and a Jewish state is inherently illegitimate. I think it's based on anti-Semitism. There is an inherent feeling among many that the Jews should get out of Palestine.

Actually, I do not believe this. I’m altering former president Jimmy Carter’s own words -- substituting "Jews" and "Israel" for "blacks" or "African Americans," and "anti-Semitism" for "racism" -- to illustrate what was both true about his statement blaming white prejudice for the most intense opposition to President Obama, and what was so irresponsibly wrong about it."

First, I think Lane picked a terrible example. As an American Jew who is about as dovish as one can be on the Israeli-Palestinian question, I am nonetheless prepared to disagree with Lane that one who rejects the legitimacy of the Jewish state is somehow not motivated by anti-Semitism. Personally, I find it hard to reach any other conclusion, just as I am prepared to agree with the sentiment that opposition to a Palestinian state and the rejection of Palestinian nationalism is motivated by something other than a deep contempt, if not outright hatred, for the Palestinian people.

Second, by drawing a straight line from the experience of African-Americans in the United States to the legitimacy of a Jewish state, Lane's example employs a conventional and very common fallacy that undermines the point he is trying to make. African-Americans and Jews share a common experience in the United States: discrimination at the hands of private and public authorities that was rooted in our nation's birth culture, albeit in very different forms. And, yes, while Jews were denied the ballot in numerous states well into the 19th century, were prohibited from buying homes in "white" (i.e., Christian) neighborhoods, were prohibited from attending many colleges or, if they were permitted to attend them, only in small numbers, were barred from employment opportunities and forced to comply with Christian religious ceremonies in public schools (and often terrorized if they did not), the American Jewish experience nonetheless pales in comparison to what African-Americans have experienced in this country since they were brought here in chains to the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. And that comparison applies not only to Jews, but to women (white, black, brown and beige), other religious minorities, Asian-Americans, Latinos and any other ethnic minority, and gays. I will make this as clear as I can: nothing, and I mean nothing, compares in indignity, tragedy, brutality and outright hostility brimming with hatred with what African-Americans have experienced in the United States. No other population in the United States was systematically enslaved and emasculated over a period of almost 350 years and then, almost overnight, expected to hop ride on the mainstream American cultural horse of work, money and consumption with nary a peep of anger and resentment. Remember, this is a nation that once viewed Martin Luther King, Jr. as a threat, so much so that our own F.B.I. spied on him, harassed him and once sent him an anonymous letter encouraging him to commit suicide.

My point: you cannot substitute words for experience, and you cannot substitute the experience of one group that has historically suffered discrimination as a group for the experience of another group that has historically suffered discrimination as a group. It is a testament to the hope that America can offer to almost anyone that we are willing to learn from our mistakes, correct them in public and then watch as the previously despised and disrespected enter the culture, work from within it, and somehow manage to get elected president of the United States. That said, the experience of African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans and the 20th century European immigrants of Catholic and Jewish descent in the United States is not the same. The experience of men who have encountered and suffered from discrimination is not the same as women. And, to use a more recent example, the barriers that gay men and women face in their efforts to achieve social and legal parity in the United States are unique to the discrimination they face. Substituting gay for African-American, or Jewish for gay not only fails on the basis of a non-shared experience, it poses the wrong question. And a wrong question will not yield a wrong answer; rather, it yields no answer at all.

I don't know the precise percentage of people who are pissed off at President Obama because of "honest policy differences" versus those who are still apoplectic that a black man is the president of the United States. I don't know that we'll ever have any real reliable indicator of which is which since Americans are notoriously dishonest when it comes to confessing prejudice to pollsters and other professionals who investigate this stuff for a living. Perhaps it is a product of being born when I was and growing where I did (1961; Atlanta) that I simply cannot embrace the mainstream media-driven post-election narrative that Obama's election ushered in a new post-racial, post-partisan society. Although Carter has me by several decades, I, too, grew up around people who confuse white supremacy with patriotism, understand well the verbal codes and nonverbal rituals that define their world view and had little or no contact with African-Americans except as socially compliant inferiors, and still . . . still cannot grasp that a world that was once legally tilted and politically enforced in their favor no longer exists. I do believe that most white Americans reject the manner and substance with which the tea-party wingnuts are expressing their honest policy differences with President Obama. But I also believe that many of these same people have a substantial investment in the post-racial, post-partisan fairy-tale because it gets the nation off the hook of having to continue to confront our sordid and shameful history of racial discrimination. And a problem of this magnitude will never be solved by the same minds that continue to sustain it by turning a blind eye to the racial hatred that continues to fester in our midst.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap eulogize Patrick Swayze and offer an alternative to Obama's speech to public school children two weeks ago.

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Are the Republicans the Yankees or Bad News Bears of American politics?

As Major League Baseball winds down the 2009 regular season, I find myself, an Atlanta Braves fan, nostalgic, even teary-eyed for the second term of the Bush administration.

For that was the last time the Braves made the National League playoffs.

After 14 consecutive trips from 1991-2005 to baseball's post-season by virtue of winning their division -- not once during this streak did the Braves need the wild card birth created in 1994 to advance to the playoffs -- resulting in nine NLCS appearances and five trips to the World Series, the Braves failed to advance in 2006.

And 2007. And 2008. And, now, 2009.

Look at this very carefully and what do you see? Well, one thing is rather obvious: the Atlanta Braves have a much better likelihood of making the playoffs when there is a Democratic administration in power than when Republicans control the White House. The Braves advanced to the NLCS eight consecutive times from 1991-1999, including every year the Clinton administration was in office (with the exception of 1994, when MLB came to halt after failing to workout a labor agreement; naturally, President Obama's first appointee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, negotiated the settlement between the players and owners that put MLB back to work in 1995. The Braves continued to prosper during the first George W. Bush administration, just as they had during the last two years (1991 and 1992) of the first and only George H.W. Bush administration. But like many Americans, the Braves began to tire of W and his policies, so that by 2006 they no longer had the inspiration -- nor the pitching, hitting or fielding -- to play post-season quality baseball. So rapid has their fall from prosperity been that the Braves have not finished above .500 since 2005. But thanks to a rejuvenated pitching staff (and a division with the New York Mets and the Washington Nationals) that ranks third in the National League and is among the best in all of MLB, the Braves will finish above .500 in 2009. Once again, there is a reason among the 200 or so Braves fans still with the team to have hope for the future. And if Barack Obama is re-elected, the Braves stand an even better chance of returning to the top of the National League East, since we now understand the clear linkage between presidential election outcomes and the Braves' success.

But there could be a real problem in my analysis, based on some the political commentary I've read about Barack Obama's rapidly crumbling presidency, the convergence of millions (or 20,000, take your pick) of angry, "real" Americans on the Mall in Washington to protest the Muslim socialist jihadist policies of our first African-American president, who just happens not only to be a Muslim socialist jihadist, but a Nazi as well, the now nakedly transparent effort by the Obama administration to destroy Medicare by threatening either to (a) withhold government support for Medicare or (b) increase the government's commitment to Medicare or (c) both and his decision to "fix" -- not "repair" but "fix" as in the 1919 World Series -- the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by making it impossible for the United States to prevail, thus promoting the cause of Muslim-Nazi jihadist socialism in the Middle East and back home in places like Paducah, Kentucky and Opelaka, Alabama, where a gun-less, God-deprived people unable to pray in school will be defenseless against this coming assault. In the true spirit of one door opening as another one closes, Alabama and Kentucky produce more high-grade marijuana than any other state in the United States outside of California, so at least there is a support structure in place to help deal with the consequences of having their lives torn apart.

Indeed, according to the narrative rapidly emerging among the Deep Thinkers who hold forth on such entertainment programs as "Meet the Press," "This Week With A Former Administration Official," "Why It's Better to Be Conventionally Wrong Than Unconventionally Right," "Bland Balding White Men And How They Know So Much More Than Everybody Else," and "Serious People Don't Question Authority," and, naturally, Bill Kristol, Obama is falling faster than a pre-teen girl for a Jonas Brother or a nerdy college freshman boy for Jenna Jameson. And as Obama falls, so falls the fortunes of the Democratic party in the House and Senate, where the well-mannered and thoughtful outburst of one Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, during President Obama's speech last week represented, according to the thrice-divorced, formerly drug addicted, multi-millionaire Everyman Rush Limbaugh, the true feelings of real Americans. And Limbaugh's statement today, after reading a report about a fight between white and black students on a school bus, that "[w]e need segregated buses . . . This is Obama's America, presumably reflects the opinion of "real" Americans on matters of race and equality as well.

Somewhere later today, a conservative commentator will disavow Limbaugh's remarks, claiming that his (or her, but probably his) "problem" with Obama isn't the new found sense of empowerment among African-American teenagers to fight their white classmates on school buses, but the "failure" of Obama to make good on his "bi-partisan" commitment to promote a "post-partisan" agenda. Although there was no real concern during the W years to hold the White House accountable for its promise to unite and not divide America, out-of-power Republicans now insist that losing the 2008 election across the board did not represent a rejection of the Bush administration and the Republican party; rather, it represented a deliberate effort to create a new opposition party to oppose the proposals of the Obama administration and the Democratic agenda in the House and Senate. Just look at the results of the election and you'll see how this argument makes perfect sense.

Barack Obama: 365 electoral votes
John McCain: 173 electoral votes

Popular vote margin: Obama by 9.1 million votes, the sixth largest margin ever and the largest ever by a non-incumbent.
States flipped between 2004 and 2008: (nine, all in favor of Obama).

As usual Bill Kristol had his finger right on the pulse of the American voter, correctly predicting in 2006 that Barack Obama would not a single primary against Hillary Clinton and that John McCain would win "huge" against Obama. Can there be any doubt why Kristol is the Washington Post's go-to-guy to explain why the Democrats cannot and should not prevail on anything?

Back to the standings . . .

Senate: 60 Democrats; 40 Republicans (this includes Arlen Specter's switch). Net gain: 7 seats. In November 2008, the Republicans did not unseat a single Democrat.

House: 257 Democrats; 178 Republicans.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Right now, the best team in MLB by virtue of winning percentage is the New York Yankees, whose winning percentage of .639 puts them four full percentage points ahead of the second best team in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose winning percentage of .599 puts them in an almost statistical dead-heat with the Boston Red Sox (.597) and the Los Angeles Angels (.593) but comfortably ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies (.583). The distance between .599 and .583 might seem slight, but, at this point in the season, the Dodgers are four games better than the Phillies. That's a lot to make-up with just 16 or so games left in the season. Remember all the people that thought the Obama's lead going into election night was fragile and unstable? If the polling data reflected the population of Ms. Fountain's 3rd grade class race for room president, then, yes, maybe, a single digit lead might be precarious. But were millions of people going to change their minds three days before the election? No.

So, continuing this scientific analysis of baseball and politics, think of Barack Obama as the New York Yankees, the Senate Democrats as the Phillies and the House Democrats, with a 79 seat margin, as the the new Red Sox Nation (or Chavez Ravine, you decide) of congressional politics. Obama won almost 200 electoral votes more than McCain, 9.1 million more votes among all voters and 28 of 22 states. He flipped such Republican strongholds as North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. And, like the Yankees, he had almost bottomless well of money with which to make his case. Conservatives, who believe that money is speech because how it's spent reflects a person's (or corporation's) opinion, should be genuflecting before Obama rather than insisting that his "failure" to cure the world W made in six months reflects an abject, James Buchanan (or George W. Bush-like) presidential disaster. The Democrats currently rest atop the congressional standings with a winning percentage of .600 in the Senate and .590 in the House. And the record intake of Obama during this presidential election season means, according to the speech-money paradigm, that our current president is the most revered president ever, since more people spent more money to support than any candidate ever.

In Republican-world, that's not the case. The real winners in MLB this season are the following three teams:

1. Washington Nationals (.345)
2. Pittsburgh Pirates (.382)
3. Kansas City Royals (.400)

If Missouri reflects the nation's heartland, and the nation's heartland reflects the opinion of "real" Americans -- as opposed to fake Americans in . . . where else, New York (the Yankees) and Los Angeles (the Dodgers and Angels) -- then the Republicans are the Kansas City Royals of American politics, since the winning percentage of the Republicans is virtually identical to the American League's worst team. The Pirates are either the Green Party or Ralph Nader; the Nats . . . let's see . . . . either the American Communist Party or the American Independence Party (George Wallace in 1968 and 1972). But that's not good news for the Republicans, since the American Communist Party and the Green Party, attracting even fewer Americans to their positions, possess even greater veto power over public policy than they do.

And just where are the Braves? In baseball's forgotten middle-class, good enough to remain competitive but not good enough to enjoy the prosperity of a previous generation of Braves teams.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now, I admit that not a bit of this highly technical, sophisticated, robust and serious modeling of how the relationship of campaign outcomes, right-wing political analysis and Bill Kristol to professional baseball can be understood by people who are not professional political scientists. And I also admit that this post is biased towards people like myself who have a Ph.D and aren't afraid to use it. Going into the post-season, let's just hope that Bud Selig, for all his other faults, is a Democrat. If, God forbid, he is a Republican, rather than seeing the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Red Sox and Tigers advance to the post-season, you'll get the Nationals, Pirates, Royals, Diamondbacks, Mets, Cleveland and Orioles.

To the victors go the spoils, unless you decide that, because you were not victorious and have no spoils, they don't.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The quitting point

A few years ago, the social critic Malcolm Gladwell published, "The Tipping Point," a book that tried to explain when fads became social trends. My first reaction was jealousy and anger. I'd always wondered about such things as when "everyone" added a North Face fleece jacket to their wardrobe, when rental car companies started "upgrading" their customers for no obvious reason, or how 9 year-old visitors to my house began asking me for sushi as an after-school snack, as if it came in a box and could be ready in 10 minutes. Of course, like so many great ideas I've had over the years -- pre-mixed tuna with celery and mayonnaise and just a hint of chopped pickles with juice being my best one -- I never followed through. As false consolation, my friends tell me I wouldn't be able to manage the tax problems that would come with new found riches. "Not quite," I tell them. "My wife is a CPA. This woman knows exactly how many kernels should be in a bag of Smart Food popcorn. If the Smart Food people don't include exactly 4 servings per bag, trust me, they will hear about it." A tax problem isn't the issue. Getting distracted by the next great idea is.

Gladwell was on to something, though, and his book, like "Blink" and "Outliers" is fun, interesting and easy to read -- precisely the kind of thing that academics like myself would do if we hadn't been trained in graduate school to be pensive, boring and write in impenetrable prose. And although he offers no clear empirical explanation to explain social trends, Gladwell does offer the reader a lot to think about. But I find myself using the tipping point metaphor in other contexts, most recently while waiting for my 10 year-old teenage daughter to come bounding out of the front door of her school to tell me "this has been the worst day ever." Except the social phenomenon I see around school, around my neighborhood, indeed, almost anywhere where you find the parents of young children, is something I'll call The Quitting Point.

Sitting in the sun on some raised bricks underneath a small oak tree in front of my daughter's elementary school, something hit me as I watched mom after mom (and one other dad and an older man I hoped was a grandparent) come up the sidewalk, eagerly seeking out their social circle for gossip and chit-chat before their young charges came running out with their list of demands for the afternoon.

"Did you get the email from Ms. So-and-So about pumpkin math," asked one who must have, in her elementary school life, been the student selected to make the morning announcements over the intercom.

"Yes, I did!!! And I am so excited! I just love pumpkin math," said another. "I think what we should do this year is to divide . . ." and then I just checked out of the conversation. Pumpkin math? Excited? Like an aphrodisiac? How . . . why . . . for whom? Dear God.

Then I looked across the plaza and saw a relentlessly smiling young mom wearing a grey, oversized sweatshirt with "MINNIE," as in the mouse, on the front, She was talking to an equally cheerful mother wearing a Salty Dog Rehobeth Beach t-shirt, one at least two sizes too big, who seemed nonplussed by the other three children she was hauling around. "Yes, they're all mine!" I've heard her say on more than one occasion to disbelieving other parents. "The Lord's blessed us five times."

"No," I thought. "I think someone wasn't paying attention in sex ed class all those years ago." Then again, she strikes me as the type that attended one of those schools that banished sex ed from the curriculum and encouraged their students to write letters to Nancy Reagan supporting her Just Say No initiative or sign an Abstinence Pledge in exchange for complimentary in-class pizza parties.

The dad, of course, was standing by himself reading a magazine. Moms don't talk to dads unless there was a prior social relationship in place before their children began attending school together. Now and then, we get the gentle reminder from the Room Moms who circle the school at drop-off and pick-up like the Queen Bees they either once were in high school or are now determined to become telling us "you do know there is a PTA meeting tomorrow night, right? It's in the all-purpose room. Do you know where that is?" The dad will remind no one of George Clooney, clad as he is in his "Mets-Yankees Subway Series 2000" t-shirt that, based on the grease stains up and down the front, doubles as his lawn maintenance outfit. At this point, entering year eleven -- our children only overlapped by one year -- at our local elementary school, no one really knows to make of me. I'm sort of like the person who isn't asked to contribute to the Disease-of-the-Week jar when I leave the grocery store or sign a petition of some sort demanding higher or lower taxes. By and large, I'm left alone.

So here it is: When did grown-ups just quit caring? Was the woman in the MINNIE sweatshirt sporting the high-waisted-over-the-knee hemmed denim shorts, half-calf white socks with the Champion logos facing out and clunky running shoes born that way, or did something just happen one morning and she decided to throw in the towel? It couldn't always have been like that. In an earlier life, some guy had to see her from across the room, or make unnecessary trips to her cubicle pretending to need another pencil, or notice that she stopped for coffee at the same place he did every morning and work up the nerve to ask her out. A woman had to nudge her friend when she saw the guy who, by now, probably hasn't bought a new shirt in five years and said, "Do you think you could find out if he's seeing anyone?" There had to be those first few moments of infatuation, the ones where you think to yourself, "Okay, be cool, this could be it. Don't overeat; don't talk about how pissed off you are that you've been demoted from the lead-off spot on the company softball team; and DO NOT talk about your non-existent old girlfriend, even if she makes a reference to the "bad place" she was in until she wanted to go out with you. There had to be that first shiver at the first touch of their hands, the "where is this going to go" feeling after the first kiss. There had to be, right?

No, I am not excited about pumpkin math, not now, not ever. I especially hate Sally Foster gift wrap season and all the other beg-a-thons that go on during the school year. If I ever, ever see Sally Foster's car broken down on the side of the road, I'll simply drive by and wave . . . enjoying a cheap form of revenge for her extortionist tactics. During my one appearance at a PTA meeting five or six years ago, when my now "teenagers-just-don't-their-homework-or-take-showers-or-anything-else-anymore" 15 year-old son was a much more charming first or second grader, I suggested that the school simply assess a student activity fee, similar to how colleges assess their students, based on a projected budget for extracurricular activities over the course of a year. This way, we'd have no overpriced wrapping paper, unused pizza kits, strange "smoothie" concoctions that require no refrigeration and disgusting "flavored" popcorn cluttering up our houses. The school could also eliminate any overhead, which meant that all contributions went directly to school programs and not Sally Foster.

"Your Max's dad, right," came the icy response from the PTA president. She looked at me as if I had just walked into her church and, before an outraged priest, yelled, "No, you prove God exists. I'm good where I am." "We just don't do things that way here, she said, gradually raising her voice. "If you'd have come to SOME OTHER MEETINGS BEFORE THIS YOU WOULD KNOW THAT."


And thank you Celia Hodes.

Many years ago, I used to wonder about my older friends who referred to things like a night out with their wife as "date night," or justified an extravagant vacation alone or with their husband as "cheaper than therapy." What is up with that, I'd think? How much fun can that be? Where's the spontaneity, the romance, the feeling of not knowing where you're going or when you'll be back? Now, I get it. Reserving time for yourself is simply a way of sticking it to Sally Foster. Putting on a clean shirt and pants that don't look like you pulled them off the clearance table at Costco is a way of reminding yourself that, at least once upon a time, it wasn't always like this. These are the lessons I try to remember when the quitting point tempts me. Why, or why, does the Quitting Point beckon so many people who should know better? Why do I get such an evil stare of a "who's that" look from people for wearing a shirt that buttons up the front or a combination that appears color-coordinated? Why do I threaten my children with wearing a "Muffy's Mom" hat or a fleece vest that proudly boasts my son's membership on the AA Peewee Travel Hockey team rather than wear one as part of any 47 year-old's wardrobe? What happened to the idea that, at some point, you were supposed to dress differently than your children instead of like them? Or brag about not having purchased a new dress or suit since college? Or view Back-to-School Night as the social event of the season?

Yep . . . perhaps I should just stage a one-man protest against the infantilization of contemporary adult culture. That is, as long as I don't have to turn in my Sambas.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The high cost of high living

Now that the academic year is up and running -- in other words, the drop-add deadline is upon us -- the big-foot media have now turned their attention to some of the perennial questions in higher education.

No, no, no . . . not, "Can I get better weed on the North or South side of campus?" or "Where can I buy Adderall for exam period?" or "What was that guy/girl's name that went home with me last night?" Yes, yes. . . . those are important questions. But so are these . . .

Why does college continue to cost so damn much even as the economy remains shrink-wrapped?

Why do public colleges in the United States graduate the lowest percentage of their students of any university system in the West with the exception of Italy?

Why are so many students dropping out of American colleges and universities?

If you want to learn which colleges graduate their students at what rate, click here.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"Twisted Standards" is now available!

"Twisted Standards," the first CD from my band, Zeebop, is now available through CD Baby. To learn more about it, all you need to do is click here.

The CD retails for $10. You can also purchase the mp3 version of the album for $7.92.

We hope you will check it out, and enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it.

On Sunday, September 13th, Zeebop will headline the "Jazz in the Park" program of Adams Morgan Day in Washington, D.C. We'll kick things off at noon and play until 1 p.m. The event will be held in the Kalorama Triangle. Best of all, it's free. And, naturally, CDs will be available for purchase. Stick around for plenty of great music throughout the day.

As always, thanks for your support.

The new patriotism

I don't care about sick people, old people, poor people, unemployed people or homeless people.
(unless the sick, old, poor, unemployed or homeless person is me)

I don't care about black people, brown people, yellow people, blue people or foreign people.
(unless they're mowing my lawn, taking care of my children, fixing my roof, cleaning my toilets, painting my kitchen, shining my shoes or building my house)

I don't care about who is getting killed or maimed in what country for what reason or why.
(unless the person being killed or maimed is American).

I don't care that my fellow citizens believe my American-born, Christian president, who has spent his life using the American political process to advance such worthwhile goals as community empowerment (damn, did I just use that phrase?), universal health care, peaceful conflict resolution and cross-cultural understanding (damn, did it again!), refer to him as a Muslim socialist dictator and secret Nazi.
(unless that president is a Republican)

I don't care if the president encourages our schoolchildren to stay in school and work hard, since all their jobs and education are being taken by illegal immigrants and affirmative action.
(unless that president is a Republican)

I don't care if four times as many Americans will die this year from handgun violence than were killed in the September 11th attacks, as long as I get to strap my gun on my leg and stand outside the building where the president is giving a speech.
(unless the president giving a speech is a Republican; then the person should be branded a terrorist and thrown in jail)

I don't care if my favorite TV commentators spout lie after lie night after night, because even if they're telling lies they're really telling the truth. Free speech is what great patriots have died for.
(unless the people on TV and radio are liberals or disagree with anything I believe, in which case they should not be allowed on TV or radio, much less allowed to talk)

I don't care that my government permitted our military and CIA officials to torture prisoners held in places that I don't even know about for crimes they haven't been accused of committing.
(unless the persons being held in places that I don't know about for crimes they haven't been accused of committing are Americans. Then we should demand their surrender or blow them to Kingdom Come)

I don't care that my government lied to me about why we went to war in Iraq or keeps telling me we're winning when we lost years ago.
(unless . . . unless . . . unless . . . unless . . . hmmm?)

I don't care about the environment, air and water pollution, natural resources or corporate contamination of our food supply.
(unless someone comes for my gun or gets my fishes sick from dumping chemicals in my lake)

Nope, I don't care about any of this stuff at all.


'cause I'm just a patriotic American!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap offer their views on President Obama's scheduled speech to the nation's school children this week.

Friday, September 04, 2009

A life in music

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine included me in a Facebook distribution of "50+50 bands/artists I have seen live." Normally, I ignore just about everything that comes to me through Facebook -- the annoying quizzes ("Lowell just took the, "What kind of nuclear weapon are you?' quiz. Lowell is a 100 zillion megaton nuclear bomb."), the creepy "updates" involving the young children of new parents ("How come I'm tired after 47 straight hours of watching Courtney throw up on me? Hmmm . . . sounds like a trip to Starbucks is in order!!!" or "For the first time, Austin got his first choice for third grade teacher. Woo-hoo!!!" and, most frightening, "Buster has a fever of 101.5. Any suggestions?"), the navel-gazing, acid-flashback induced rhetorical questions about life's limits and possibilities ("Am I the only who noticed that Tide's new environmentally-conscious reduced plastic packaging didn't come with a reduced cost, just less detergent?").

Thanks for sharing. Really. Just so, so interesting . . . what would I do without all these important updates into the lives of little kids and their pooping habits or why, no matter when you go to the grocery store, you always get stuck in the worst line with the cashier who's new but trying.

Sitting down to catalog all the artists and bands I've seen over the years was something I should have done a long time ago. Since I'm not really the type of person to write things down, much less make lists, I saw this as a somewhat work-related task -- to improve my organizational skills; to think through the different periods of my life when I saw a particular musician, and where I was in at that point in my life -- thus justifying an exercise that, for people who are required to be accountable in their jobs, would just be a sneaky yet enjoyable form of procrastination.

So I put together a list and posted it on Facebook. Judging from the non-response, no one cared. Perhaps I should have prefaced my list with something like this, "I just discovered my son is making crystal-meth in our basement and attempting to pimp out his sister. Suggestions?"

Here is my life in music (not necessarily in chronological order):

1. The Beatles (really)
2. The Osmond Brothers (sad but true)
3. Janis Joplin/Jimi Hendrix/Joe Cocker (free!)
4. Yes
5. Genesis
6. Emerson Lake and Palmer
7. Jethro Tull
8. Aerosmith
9. Pink Floyd
10. Led Zeppelin
11. Bad Company
12. Kansas
13. Allman Brothers
14. REO Speedwagon
15. Rush
16. Cheap Trick
17. Donovan
18. The Who
19. Weather Report
20. Pat Metheny Group
21. Dixie Dregs
22. Sea Level
23. Renaissance
24. Gentle Giant
25. Jackson 5
26. The Temptations
27. The Spinners
28. Gladys Knight and the Pips
29. Diana Ross
30. Brand X (with Phil Collins)
31. Michel Petrucciani
32. Lyle Mays/Marc Johnson
33. Wynton Marsalis
34. Branford Marsalis
35. Kenny Kirkland Quartet
36. Dizzy Gillespie
37. Gary Burton
38. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
39. Steve Kuhn
40. Cedar Walton
41. Buddy Rich Big Band
42. Art Ensemble of Chicago
43. Bill Bruford
44. U.K.
45. Ahmad Jamal
46. Joe Zawinul Syndicate
47. Paul Bley Trio
48. Keith Jarrett Trio
49. Don Byron
50. Dave Holland Quartet
51. Dave Holland Big Band
52. John Scofield Trio (w/Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart)
53. John Scofield Quartet
54. Aquarium Rescue Unit
55. Derek Trucks Band
56. Caribbean Jazz Project
57. Steely Dan
58. Donald Fagen
59. The Syn (w/Chris Squire)
60. Todd Rundgren
61. The Police
62. Sting
63. Andy Summers
64. Roy Haynes
65. Christian McBride
66. Wayne Shorter
67. Terrence Blanchard
68. Benny Green
69. Kenny Garrett
70. Jeff Watts Quartet
71. Mike Stern
72. Dave Weckl Band
73. Niacin (w/Dennis Chambers)
74. Jon Faddis
75. Herbie Hancock
76. Freddie Hubbard
77. Wallace Roney Quartet
78. McCoy Tyner
79. Pat Metheny Trio (w/Antonio Sanchez and Christian McBride)
80. George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet
81. David Murray Octet
82. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
83. Paul McCartney
84. Brad Mehldau
85. Billy Joel
86. Stevie Wonder
87. Asia
88. The Pointer Sisters
89. The Rock 'n Soul Revue (with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald)
90. Jean Luc Ponty
91. Stanley Clarke
92. Cassandra Wilson

and hopefully many more to come.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap did not take a vacation this summer. You can find out what they've been up to by clicking here . . . some comments on the relationship between George Bush and his boss, Dick Cheney, health care town halls and many, many other things.

And so it begins . . . .

School's in . . . and with that, here is the schedule for Poliscope.

Monday: Red State Update

Tuesday: Tom Tomorrow

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday: Comments, essays, reviews and other heavily opinionated thoughts

Saturday and Sunday: Maybe, maybe not

Friday, July 10, 2009

Not fishin' but still gone for the summer

I'll be away from PoliScope for the rest of the summer, returning August 31st. I'll be doing some light traveling to research and interview persons for the book I'm working on about the relationship between race, jazz and the civil rights movement in the American South during the 1950s and 60s.

Don't worry: I'll still have plenty of time to observe the absurdities of life, and make fun of them upon my return.

Have a good summer.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Social engineering, Roberts Court-style

Now that a week has passed since the Court handed down Ricci v. DeStefano (2009), better known to the public as the "white firefighters" case, and the lawyers have had their back-and-forth over what this decision means for the law of Title VII, "disparate treatment" vs. "disparate impact," the professed standards of the Roberts Court on "judicial minimalism" vs. the Roberts Court's avowed preference for moving the law in any direction it sees fit and, naturally, whether this renders Sonia Sotomayor "unfit" to serve on the Court, this seems as good a time as any to offer some thoughts on what the Court's decision means beyond the narrow world of legal academia and those in the mainstream media who genuinely believe there is something called "the law" that stands apart from the political world that creates it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sonia Sotomayor: If the conservative majority's 5-4 decision to reverse the unanimous opinion of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision affirming the federal district court's decision in favor of New Haven makes Sotomayor "unfit" to take Justice David Souter's seat on the Court, then more than one justice on the current Court better call College Hunks Hauling Junk and clear out their offices, starting with Chief Justice John Roberts.

In 2005, Roberts wrote the opinion for a three-judge panel for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Bush administration's decision to establish military commissions without congressional approval based on the theory that Article II pretty much gave the president the power to do what he wished in "times of crisis" and, secondarily, that the Geneva Convention was judicially unenforceable in the American judicial system. A few days later, President Bush nominated Roberts to the Court, and he was confirmed with little controversy, something, in retrospect, that should have been remarkable given that his view of executive power in Hamdan was without precedent. In 2006, the Court, with Roberts abstaining, reversed the new Chief Justice's opinion. Five members of the Court -- Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Kennedy -- rejected in toto the Bush administration's theory of unbridled executive power, and, by default, the legal justification for the military commissions that Roberts, in his opinion for the D.C. Circuit, endorsed without reservation. Hamdan is perhaps the most important decision on the "inherent" power of the executive to take extra-constitutional action since the Pentagon Papers decision of 1971, and Roberts got it completely wrong.

Sam Alito should get packing, too. In 1991, Justice Alito wrote the opinon for a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upholding Pennsylvania's restrictive abortion law. Alito's decision to uphold the provisions requiring parental notification, a 24-48 hour "waiting period," and "informed consent" were upheld by the three justices -- O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter -- who helped formed the five member majority upholding the "core" of Roe -- and the Court's four dissenters -- Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas and Byron White. But the section of Alito's opinion upholding the state's "spousal consent" requirement was rejected by a majority of the justices. Indeed, Alito's opinion upholding a husband's "right" to approve his wife's decision to have an abortion met with not-so-carefully disguised hostility from O'Connor, who, according to Jeffrey Toobin's book, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (2007), was less than thrilled that Alito was nominated to replace her. I can only imagine why.

Perhaps Justice Stevens should go ahead and book a one-way trip on his own plane back to Florida to take the retirement that "veteran Court watchers" (Does that job description actually go on someone's 1040?) have been predicting for the last five or six years. This term, the Court, with Justice Scalia writing for a 5-4 majority, overruled a 1986 opinion on the right to counsel, Michigan v. Jackson (1986), that was written by Justice Stevens. Yes, the decision had been eroded over the years; but there was nothing to suggest that Jackson needed to go. But the Court's minimalist, restraint-oriented, non-ideological wing decided that, hey, why the hell not, as long as they've got the votes.

Compare Roberts and Alito's constitutional errors in their appeals court opinions with Sotomayor's alleged misjudgment. Roberts was writing on a blank slate, and got it so wrong that even Anthony Kennedy decided to vote with the liberals in Hamdan. Alito's opinion upholding the "spousal consent" provision of Pennsylvania's restrictive abortion was so offensive to O'Connor (and Kennedy and Souter) that it led her, for just the second time since coming to the Court, to strike down an abortion restriction as an "undue burden."

And Sotomayor? The unanimous three-judge panel for the 2nd Circuit issued a one paragraph per curiam opinion affirming the district court's "thoughtful" analysis of New Haven's decision to throw out the promotions exam. An en banc 2nd Circuit, 7-6, affirmed the three-judge panel's ruling. That means that 11 of the 21 federal judges who voted in Ricci agreed with New Haven and, by extension, the prevailing interpretation of Title VII in "disparate impact" cases.

Another quick tidbit I haven't seen anyone point out about Ricci: the vast majority of amicus support went to New Haven, including six states, the United States and numerous well established and reputable civil rights organizations. Contrast that with the support going to the petitioners: a handful of right-wing groups, including the Eagle Forum, the American Civil Rights Union and a few others that were obviously created for no other reason than to file a brief in this case. On top of that, not one municipal or state government submitted a brief in support of the petitioners.

Not even Sarah Palin's beloved Alaska, which supported New Haven.

Enough? So who is really out of the mainstream? Hint: It's not Sonia Sotomayor.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Title VII bars workplace discrimination. The law doesn't say that only employers who deliberately discriminate against their employees (or job applicants) are on the hook; it says, and the courts and Congress have been clear on this, that employers may not discriminate on the basis of race (or sex, color, national origin and, in subsequent provisions, many other categories as well). New Haven, like many other cities with majority African-American and/or Latino populations, employed firefighters in non-supervisory capacities; but, as you go up the chain of command, minorities become almost invisible. And, yes, exams are part of the selection and promotion process. But let's consider this: if minorities fail these exams at higher rates than their white counterparts, enough so that few, if any, are promoted, then we are left with two choices to explain this outcome:

1. African-American and Latino firefighters are capable of putting out fires, risking their lives in burning buildings and attending to all the difficult problems that firefighters face in their professional capacity. But African-Americans and Latinos stop short of having the intelligence and skill to command firefighters.

2. The examination process is producing results that are not accurately capturing the intelligence and skills of African-American and Latino firefighters in a way that makes them suitable to command their white colleagues.

Those are your two choices. Either African-Americans and Latinos aren't smart enough to get promoted or there is something wrong with the tests. Nothing else explains an outcome in which minorities come up so short.

The conservative majority on the Roberts Court -- and this includes Anthony Kennedy, who has never voted to uphold an affirmative action program created and administered by a private or public employer or public educational institution (he voted against the University of Michigan's law school admissions program that Justice O'Connor upheld in her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) -- likes to trumpet its true commitment to civil rights by insisting there is something called "colorblindness" in the law. By drawing no moral distinction between affirmative action and Jim Crow-type discrimination, the position that Roberts articulated in the Parents Involved case two years ago, the Court's conservatives claim that there is no place for "counting by race" in equal protection analysis. Not to sound like Maureen Dowd, but, for a Court that doesn't like to count by race, it sure likes to count by race -- as long as the racial group coming up short falls meets the criteria of whiteness.

Conservatives, leaving people like Charles Murray and Rush Limbaugh aside, have learned enough from the civil rights movement not to suggest that African-Americans and Latinos lag behind whites on standardized tests of all sorts -- from firefighter examinations to the SAT -- because they're less smart; rather, conservative usually respond by saying that affirmative action is just a quick fix, and a bad one, that doesn't address the "underlying" problems with substandard African-American and Latino achievement -- fewer educational opportunities, disproportionate poverty and . . . here comes their favorite one . . . a "culture" that looks down upon persons who aspire to something more than a life of crime. Fix those problems, say conservatives, and the test scores will come. But conservatives still live in denial on the fundamental force that accounts for so many of these social and educational pathologies -- the discrimination, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, that is still very much a part of American culture. Simply because the law makes it illegal to discriminate in an open manner doesn't mean that minorities, on average, compete on an equal footing with whites. Living, as I do, in an area where white privilege is the norm and not the exception, I am still amazed at how unwilling and/or unable so many affluent, well-educated whites are to admit that our children start with advantages that most African-American and Latino children do not. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard a well-heeled white parent congratulate his or herself on the great job "we" did getting their child into a selective college or securing a spot on the U16 National Bound Hockey Team or sending their child to the Poconos or Berkshires to work for free at a $4000 a month sleep-a-way camp, I could retire and live off the interest alone. In a sense, white privilege operates like compound interest on a savings account -- the earlier you start saving, the more you earn over a longer period of time. And when you start with an advantage that no African-American or Latino can -- race -- at an early age, from whether one parent should "opt out" of the labor force to avoid having to hire, ironically enough, a Latino or African-American to care for their children, clean their house and do their laundry, that position only strengthens over time.

Here's a question for the Court's conservative majority, the majority so concerned about equal opportunity without regard to race: Of the 112 13 and 14 year-olds who played in our Bantam House program in the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association during the 208-09 season, one was African-American. The only kids who spoke English as a second language were the handful from other countries, Canada (Montreal), France and Germany. Of the 90 or so kids who played in our Bethesda-Chevy Chase recreational baseball league this year, not one was African-American. The hockey club is open to anyone who wants to play; residency and neighborhood are irrelevant. If you want to drive here from Northern Virginia, Frederick or Prince George's County to play hockey, and many do, you can. Our baseball teams, on the other hand, are entrepreneurial in their creation. You round up kids from your neighborhood, your kid's school and, if you still need players, you get your kid's friend from another neighborhood to come on board.

So now the question: what accounts for the lack of local African-American and Latino players in these two sports?

Neither organization discriminates on the basis of race. Both organizations offer "sliding scale" fees to families who need help paying fees or acquiring equipment. Both organizations advertise extensively to the local community, although in recent years that advertising has more become Web-centric. The areas from which the vast majority of our players come are Northwest D.C. and Montgomery County. Neither area lacks for eligible 13 and 14 year-old boys who are interested in baseball and hockey. According, then, to the Court, since the traditional bludgeons of discrimination are absent, race cannot possibly account for the near whites-only population playing in these programs.

But we don't even have to go deep below the surface to understand why this is. To play house hockey in MYHA -- that's not travel, which is about a $1000 more per year -- you start by writing a $1400 check. And that's before equipment and incidental fees. Then you deal with the odd times -- 6.45 a.m. weekend game times and/or 6.00 - 8.45 p.m. practice times during the middle of the week. For families down the income ladder who do not hold jobs that allow them the degrees of freedom to leave their offices to get their kids to and from practice and games, or families with only one parent in the house and no spouse near-by to help with the driving, it is impossible to play hockey. As for baseball, there is very little racial integration in the Montgomery County public schools, and what little integration there is stems from white kids attending magnet programs at schools that serve predominantly African-American and Latino communities.

Forty-five years after the passage of the Civil Rights of 1964, there is still this unpleasant truth about the socio-economic mobility of Americans -- race correlates with income, education,two-parent homes, access to health care and social status. The further down you go on all these characteristics, the more likely you are to be African-American or Latino. New Haven, like every other city with a majority non-white population in the country prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was run by whites -- white mayors, white district attorneys, white police and fire chiefs, white utilities directors and on and on. Police and firefighting forces were reserved almost exclusively for whites and depended very heavily on patronage, ancestry and family ties for entry into those professions. Only in the last twenty or thirty years, as Justice Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, have majority non-white cities made meaningful progress in integrating and diversifying their police and firefighting forces. But now, thanks to the Supreme Court, New Haven, a city that is approximately 60% African-American, will have few blacks or Latinos in command positions. Something, then, is accounting for all this . . . and it's not a sign hanging in an employer's door telling African-Americans or Latinos not to apply.

Few can or should dispute that the United States has made meaningful progress in addressing the consequences of its Original Sin. But the answers to the deep problems resulting from the vestiges of slavery, state-enforced segregation that permeated every aspect of American life and a culture reluctant to acknowledge the power that white privilege still wields in our contemporary society have never come, nor will they, by treating racial discrimination as a math problem. A horrible, shameful stain on American society cannot be cleansed by treating the moral consequences of the deliberate choices made by our largest and most powerful institutions, public and private, as amoral.

* * * * * * * * *

President Obama was criticized early on for taking Sonia Sotomayor's background into account when he decided to nominate her to replace David Souter. Conservatives complained about the "empathy" that Obama believed was important for judges to have when deciding cases that deal with real people who have real problems. Conservatives who normally have no warmth for Justice Kennedy have praised his Ricci opinion as an exercise rooted in the law rather than "empathy" for the minority firefighters who still have no access to the command positions in the New Haven fire department. But Kennedy's opinion is hardly dispassionate analysis. Throughout his opinion, Kennedy makes multiple references to the hardworking firefighters who were denied their "merit-based" promotion because the test failed to yield enough minority applicants into command positions. We learned that Frank Ricci has dyslexia and worked hard to overcome it, and even paid out over a $1000 from his own pocket to pay for additional materials that would help him, as well as to compensate a neighbor who would read the materials to him. In a truly bizarre passage from his concurring opinion, Justice Alito spent several pages telling the story of a black preacher and self-professed "king maker" who more or less intimidated New Haven officials into throwing out the results and making sure that African-American firefighters got their share of the bounty. What any of this has to do with "disparate-impact" analysis is beyond me.

Then again, I have a real hard time relating to the world that Roberts, Kennedy and Alito inhabit, and an even harder time understanding and relating to the world that Roberts and Kennedy come from. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the two justices who have written the Court's most recent and important opinions on race. Roberts wrote Parents Involved and the Court's big voting rights case this term; Kennedy, who, obviously, wrote Ricci, also wrote the opinion in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union (1989), a case that narrowed the "disparate-impact" analysis on Title VII in place since 1971 so substantially that it led Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1991 to restore it. The 1991 law, not the "original" language of Title VII, formed the basis of the Court's analysis in Ricci. So there you go: another member of the Court's conservative bloc that found himself overruled, except this time by Congress rather than his colleagues on the bench.

As was well documented in their confirmation hearings, Roberts and Kennedy come from a world of affluence and privilege. Neither has ever confronted discrimination at any point in their lives. Elite education from the elementary level through law school, country clubs, well-to-do and privileged families, membership in their chosen professional cities most elite law firms (San Francisco and Washington), federal judgeships while still in their forties and an appointment to the Supreme Court by their 50th and 51st birthdays, respectively. For many who cling to the false calculus of American meritocratic achievement, the personal and professional lives of Roberts and Kennedy are often described as "impeccable" and "ideal." To me, their lives are and have been walled off, by design, from the world that neither has any hesitation in judging and correcting.

And, yes, I am a white male, and just six years younger than John Roberts. But the world in which he grew up could not be more foreign to me. By the time I was 12, I could stand on the street corner on a Saturday in Atlanta's West End and play the dozens with black guys twice my age. I could walk into record stores around the corner from where my father had his clothing stores in the 1960s and 70s and recognize the music coming through on the sound system. I knew my Motown and I was just starting to learn a little bit about jazz, enough so that I could say, "Holy Shit!" when I learned that John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones had all come through, at one point or another, my father's first store, which was located across the street from Paschal's Motor Hotel, which was the destination spot for black jazz musicians coming through Atlanta during the days of Jim Crow. Most of the men who worked for my dad as salesmen and managers were jazz musicians who needed steady day jobs. I could walk the streets of all these now-historic black Atlanta neighborhoods, have my regular stores to stop in and hang out, talk to all the street characters and black professional that befriended me because they knew my dad and never worry about anything. Hank Aaron, Lou Hudson, Orlando Cepeda and many other prominent African-American athletes were regular customers in my dad's store. It never occurred to me then that outside the world of black Atlanta these men were treated as second-class human beings and subject to racial slurs and overt acts of racism. Really, how could anyone not like Hank Aaron, who was an absolute gentleman (although he was a secret smoker. He used to smoke in my dad's store and I remember the first time I saw him light up I got so upset and went in the bathroom and cried)? Not until I was about 10 or 11 did I start to realize how deep and penetrating racism was in the world in which I was growing up.

* * * * * * * * * *

From the age of 8 until I went to college, I spent just about every Saturday going to work with my dad, who, at one point, had two or three men's clothing stores around the Atlanta area. By the time I left for college, my dad was down to one store, called "Out of Sight," a homage to the black phrase that became popular in the late 1960s and gradually, like all black vernacular, morphed its way into the lingo of white-hipster wannabes and hippies. I still worked in my dad's store during winter and summer breaks home from college, and I remember how heartbroken I was when my father called me at school around the middle of my junior year to tell me he was closing down his business to move on to some other adventures. As I wrote two years ago, I went back and forth between the white world I lived in during the week and the black world I visited on the weekends. When I needed my first nice watch, I didn't head to a mall store near my house. No, no. I went to the West Side Loan Co., which was the fancy name for the pawn shop around the corner from my father's last store, and visited "Fast Eddie." True to form, Fast Eddie pulled me to the side and opened his jacket to display a cascade of watches, some of which grazed against the handgun he kept tucked into the slacks I recognized from our store (with no back pockets). After I picked out my watch, Fast Eddie refused to let me pay, mentioning something about an "arrangement" he had with my dad. My first stereo also came from the West Side pawn shop. So what if the serial numbers had been scratched off the receiver and the speakers? And once my friends got wind of the deals available at the pawn shop, they didn't hesitate to navigate their way down to this part of now-historic black Atlanta, even though more than one friend asked me if I had ever been mugged or assaulted. Thinking back on it, I'm pretty sure that none of my white middle-class friends was harmed or killed on their way to or from the West Side Loan Co.

This was the world I knew as a child, teen-ager and young adult. I didn't know anyone who belonged to a country club, owned a boat, went snow skiing, vacationed to foreign countries, had parents who drove a car fancier than, say, a Buick or Mercury. I didn't know what "preppy" meant until I went to college and sat next to a girl in my Introduction to Western Civilization class who was dressed in a plaid skirt that came to the knees, a green cardigan sweater, an add-a-bead necklace, knee socks and topsiders. I had never heard of the L.L. Bean, Land's End or original Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues, much less seen someone who looked as if he or she had just stepped off the page of one. I didn't know anyone named Courtney or Tucker, who had nicknames like "Muffy" or "Chipster," or called beer "brewski." And I definitely had never seen a guy my age walking around in shorts with whales or crabs on them who could walk up to a bartender and ask for "the usual," or a girl who, at 18 or 19, had already begun dressing like her mother or, even worse, her grandmother. That world was and remains a mystery to me.

Twenty years ago, when I moved to Washington, I thought I was moving to a city in which imagination, perseverance, creativity and a willingness to think and act independently would be noticed and rewarded and not, as it turns out, ignored or punished. I had no idea that entering the professional world and, later, parenthood, meant that I was supposed to devote every waking hour to making sure that my children -- and myself, for that matter -- would not have to associate with the riff-raff, whether in sports, education or in whatever feeble effort we made to introduce them to the "proper" culture. Moving here presented another culture shock for me. I had never seen so many Volvo station wagons carting around children whose educational pedigrees, and those of their parents, were pasted on the rear window. Nor had I ever heard of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Cape Cod or Jackson Hole, or knew that you could go skiing in Utah, much less have a second house in any one of these places. I didn't know that a three bedroom house with three bathrooms for a family of four was "too small." I never expected to draw looks of disbelief from my peers when I confessed that my children were attending public schools in the Montgomery County system rather than "securing" a spot for them in one of the ring of elite private schools that populate Northwest Washington and lower Montgomery County. I didn't know that children were supposed to attend "elite" sports or "knowledge" camps during the summer so they could distinguish themselves early enough to be competitive for admission to Oberlin, Swathmore or Harvard. I never anticipated that someone my own age would ask me to "coordinate" with their nanny to arrange a playdate with one of their children, since no one I knew growing up had a nanny or arranged playdates. We just walked around to each other's houses until we found something to do. I had never heard parents congratulate themselves as much as they do here for getting their children into the right private school, select sports team or elite college, then turnaround, without the slightest hint of self-awareness, complain about how "affirmative action" almost kept Rachel, Josh or Courtney from their birthright place in the University of Virginia's class of 2013. And I had absolutely no idea that teaching at the college level was something the accomplished, professional Washingtonian would find attractive once he or she "had made some real money."

Twenty years of living in Washington has not whetted my appetite to enter the world that John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy have lived in for their entire lives. As my own children move closer and closer to getting their own wings to enter a world that bears very little resemblance to the cucoon they have grown up in here in suburban Washington, I realize that the greatest gift of my childhood was not the signed baseball that Hank Aaron gave me when I was eight (which I promptly scuffed throwing grounders with my friends in the street), attending the 1972 MLB All-Star game or my first kiss from Terri Merlin in the 1st grade). Rather, it was exposure to a world that was completely unlike the one most white kids my age had ever seen, much less had the fortune to grow up around. And, that, more than any contemporary theory of constitutional jurisprudence or judicial decision-making informs my disappointment in a Court that cannot understand how the social, political and, above all, racial privilege it is determined to socially engineer from above does not, in any way, shape or form, serve the needs of American society.