Antisemitism and Crow Jim

Antisemitism is much in the news lately. So a big controversy continues over Dave Chappelle’s monologue on Saturday Night Live last week. I found most of his comments about Jews perceptive and funny. Others did not. You can read some excerpts and watch his full solo gig here; a verbal transcript is here.

Chappelle was really targeting the kind of phony socio-political correctness that informs the way we talk and think about matters racial. One commentator put it this way: “If Jews are on the receiving end of the jokes that forces this conversation, that is certainly uncomfortable, but it is also important, and not antisemitic.”

Well, Jewish humor often hits on the faults and foibles of their coreligionists. I’ve heard Italians privately do this too, and Chappelle often takes comedic whacks at black people. Who knows the in-group better than one of its members? Still, there’s the old saw that a lot of people still find true: It’s OK to joke about Jews if you are Jewish; otherwise it’s antisemitic.

As a secular Jew, I’ve often made fun of my people. It affirms my connection and the Jewish uniqueness. When outsiders do it we should look for the line between satiric humor and hate. This is usually not hard to find. The Reverend Al Sharpton used to dispense more than his share of loathing for Jews. Black folks let him get away with most of this repellent antisemitism.

Many negative comments about whites began in the “Crow Jim” era as some black jazz musicians protested against white attempts to play their music. In 1950s Chicago, friends of mine lived across the street from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam temple, home to his radical Crow Jim-ism. Meaning all things black would finally shake off the inferior white culture and escape its attendant evils. We used to watch these guys get into their black Cadillacs to go and play golf. We would talk with them without any discord. Black Power was both understandable and unachievable.

Today racial hypocrisy is very much on the rise. The old metaphors become dangerous: when was the last time you heard “calling a spade a spade”? But in a way that’s what Chappelle was trying to do. I watch a lot of CNN and sports channels. Almost every ad for every product now features black or brown people. It’s quite amazing. You could call it advertising’s guilty attempt to make up for years of excluding these folks. The obviousness of the gesture conveys its own crudity.

Chappelle made a couple of foolish statements in his monologue. He said that African Americans can’t be blamed for the Holocaust. Wake up, Dave, nobody’s doing that. It’s ridiculous to defend idiots like Kanye and Kyrie Irving but he did so while poking fun at them. Herschel Walker he finds “observably stupid.”

I think Dave wants to be an equal-opportunity comic, but it’s hard to do that these days. He made some great comments on Trump. Still, I tolerate his flaws because he’s perceptive and funny.

Computer-Assisted Headaches

Yesterday, all of a sudden, MS Word wouldn’t start. Do you know what this means to someone who writes? It’s like your car won’t start when you’re going to an important meeting. Or running  out of gas at night on a country road. Your word processor is your life.

I got it fixed because I know the vagaries and twitches of my old computer, and it just required a restart. I have a ThinkPad which I still love though it’s now ten years old, long past the fail date for most laptops. Its twitches have become more frequent, though nothing major bad yet. These signs have not gone unnoticed.

A new ThinkPad is out of the question: too expensive. Other new laptops have a lot of features I don’t want or need—and too few ports for all the USB peripherals I run. The mess of wires and cables beneath my desk is the typical rat’s nest. So you have to plug all that stuff into a hub.

I have been fooling with computers since 1984-5 when I bought two British-made Apricots for my business. These were great machines for the time and, along with my accountant, they taught me how to use software like Lotus 1-2-3. After I got the hang of earlier word processors like WordPerfect, my writing habits were absolutely transformed.

Apricot

As time has passed, computing has gotten much more complicated while the machines have gotten much better. As they now perform hundreds more functions faster and more powerfully, who can keep up (unless you’re a techie)? And who can master all the proliferating software? My old brain is not equipped for this.

Worse still is trying to deal with all the functions on a smartphone. I’ve had three or four of these over time, and each gets more fussy and complicated. They contain so much crap you don’t want, and some phones still come loaded with bloatware. They also hide the stuff you need to set or change in impenetrable sub-menus.

Doing regular things like cleaning the cache is like learning a new language. Making the phone behave as you want requires patience and perseverance. I have friends who just turn off their phones when they are idle. Y’all know what I’m talking about?

For most users, progress in the art of computing ought to mean getting things done that you need to do in the simplest, most effective way. Often it means spending inordinate amounts of time and frustration to fight your way through outdated instructions from Google, incompatible software, inscrutable tech talk, and incompetent support staff.

Like so much in contemporary life, our devices give us what someone else thinks we want in a frequently user-unfriendly form. Now we have AI to look forward to.

Really Bad Political Writing

‘Tis the season for such dreck, but of course it’s always the season. No one pays much attention to George Orwell anymore, but he did a great service to us all in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Here, God bless him, is an excerpt:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line”. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. . . . When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. . . .

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

Bad political writing and boring political speeches are so prevalent today that we have come to take them for granted. Below are some recent specimens. Disclosure: I used to write political speeches, which I’d never want to reread at this juncture.

Margaret Hartmann in NY Mag (her vapid opening sentence in a piece about Trump’s nuclear documents): “Normal people probably shouldn’t insist the government’s allegations against them are a complete fabrication if they know it’s highly likely that the Feds have evidence that proves them wrong.”

Matt McManus in Aereo (a liberal socialist writing about bad left-wing writing): “As Thomas Piketty points out, one of the motivators behind the recent surge in right wing populism—itself a distinctly postmodern phenomenon—was a sense that that the left has cut itself off from its humble working class roots and evolved in a Brahminesque direction, spouting impenetrable wisdom about vaguely radical change on behalf of marginalized people in prose that requires ten solid years at graduate school to understand.”

President Biden’s Remarks at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, Sept. 11, 2022: “And to all our service members and their families, our veterans, our Gold Star families, all the survivors and caregivers and loved ones who have sacrificed so much for our nation: We owe you. We owe you an incredible—an incredible debt, a debt that can never be repaid but will never fail to meet the sacred obligation to you to properly prepare and equip those that we send into harm’s way and care for those and their families when they come home—and to never, ever, ever forget. . . . When future generations come here to sit in the shade of the Maple trees that shelter the memorial and grown tall and strong with passing years, they will find the names of patriots.”

The President’s speeches have gotten more feisty since he decided to go after the MAGA Mafia. Still, one wishes that he could stop the cliché responses to events and speak the language of the people directly. As Orwell put it, “one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

Thoughts on Media

One of the interesting media guys of our time is Ezra Klein. In his New York Times columns he will talk about old media luminaries like Marshall McLuhan (“the media is the message”) and Neil Postman. It’s the kind of stuff that only a truly dedicated communications freak would enjoy.

But Ezra also gets into issues that modern media constantly bring up: free speech vs. the internet, propaganda and honesty, cyber security and data privacy, and so on. He published a very long interview about a month ago with Sean Illing, a sharp writer who does interviews for Vox. Ezra’s starting point was that democracies seem shaped by what kind of “communicative culture” they have.

Sean agrees that “media technologies are disruptive,” sometimes toxic; and so the two have an extended discussion on how a communicative culture can influence democracy—for good or ill. “Our ideology is our technology.” But is it? Sounds like McLuhan again. People liked Reagan not so much for his policies but because he was good on TV. Sean says people “race for content, for clicks, for attention and we act like greyhounds chasing a slab of meat.”

But this gets to something we try to say in the book (The Paradox of Democracy, by Zac Gershberg and Sean Illing), which is that what the media thinks it’s doing is not really what it’s doing, certainly not anymore. A lot of the press is still wedded to this 20th century model of journalism where we conquer lies by exposing them or we deliver truth to a country desperate to hear it and people make informed decisions and yada, yada, yada.

But this just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on. There’s too much bullshit to debunk, too many conflicting narratives to untangle. The information space has been shattered into a zillion pieces thanks to the internet. And the audience is so fragmented and self-sorted [that] a huge chunk of the country doesn’t really trust public institutions or the mainstream media. And they’re not listening, and a lot of it feels like it’s just a political class talking to itself. And I know that’s kind of depressing, but that has been my experience . . . .

If we are being confronted by the anxieties and the outrages everywhere all the time, and we can’t do anything about it, and the algorithms are pushing all the terrible shit in front of our faces all the time, that breeds fatigue and cynicism and probably despair.”

No one can deny that, I submit. The other side of that coin is simply . . . it’s what the public wants. A writer on Quora, Christine Infanger, says “the media is screwed up because people have their priorities completely wrong.” I like her argument; she’s on a good rant:

Does the media deliver more banality now because it’s what society wants or does society settle for mediocrity because it’s what they’ve become accustomed to? Maybe both. Let’s remember, consumers and their money have a lot of power—if people didn’t eat up channels known for their ‘news reporters’ blatantly lying, those methods would change immediately. If magazines didn’t sell truckloads of issues dedicated to which stars have cellulite or have been captured sans makeup or post-weight gain, those magazines would find a new tack. If people didn’t pay or click to see (name of celebrity) caught getting into a car without undergarments, those photos would no longer be in demand. If people didn’t want to analyze which celebrity gained weight, has a cute child, and whom may be having an affair with whom, there would be no market for it. It’s worth noting that the average paparazzi earns between $66-100k per year with the really smarmy ones earning a salary exceeding $250k per year. The public complain about taxes being high with those funds going to pay teachers, who are grossly underpaid, fund schools, many of which are sorely in demand of updating and new materials, libraries, parks, and police and fire departments. Where is the outrage about how much paparazzi earn to stalk ‘celebrity’ children coming home from school? The public is largely funding those outrageous salaries, yet seem content with it.

You get what you pay for. And that, unfortunately, applies to democracies as well.

Jiving about Race

You see a picture like this, and what comes to mind? Robert Colescott, who painted it, is gone but there’s a new show in New York featuring some of his most confrontational works. Says WaPo’s reviewer Philip Kennicott, work like Colescott’s “confounds almost every piety about race and gender in operation today, sometimes with humor, though not the kind of humor that makes you laugh.”

What I immediately flashed on was Charles Mingus’s great sendup “Eat That Chicken,” from his 1962 album Mingus/Oh Yeah. I still have the original vinyl that was instrumental in turning me on to Mingus. “Eat That Chicken” features another musical prankster, Roland Kirk, whose hokey, honkey-tonk solos perfectly complement Mingus’s vocal antics.

In the ‘60s and ’70s I was privileged to spend time with both of these gents and learned a lot about how black humor works. (I don’t have to capitalize “Black,” do I? Do we capitalize “White”?) Colescott brought another, more discomfiting aspect to it in his paintings. These include such gems as “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” which portrays the great black scientist in a boat full of cast-offs and stereotypes—including “a mammie figure performing a sex act on the flag bearer standing just behind Carver.” This is heavy blackface satire executed by a black man.

It’s a bit like what Jewish comedians over the years have done with Jewish culture: they appreciate it and often make fun of it. But for a black man (he was half-black, actually) like Colescott to produce art like this was to categorically pierce the sanctity of black identity, at least as it’s vouchsafed to us in our prevalent cultural politics. We need more of that.

Mingus’s “Eat That Chicken” was supposedly done as a tribute to Fats Waller. I don’t know if that’s true. Fats wrote funny “novelty” tunes like “Your Feets Too Big,” which I heard on the radio as a kid and loved. But “Chicken” has more of a happy bite to it, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. It makes a nod to Jelly Roll Morton and some of his novelties, the Dixieland tradition, and the earthy gospel-ish stuff that Mingus grew up with.

Anyhow, we surely could stand a little less sanctity about race in America.

I’m Declassifying Everything I Ever Wrote

That includes everything on this blog, plus Mingus Speaks and the other books and occasional pieces I’ve written. Also, I formerly did a blog called jazzinsideandout.com in this space, which is now offline though I keep copies on my computer of all the junk I wrote for it. All that is now declassified, so you can now read it quite legally—if you can find it.

Trump told NBC News on Friday that he had declassified all the records now held in Mar-a-Lago. He waved his magic wand. No reason I can’t do the same.

Matt Bai wrote recently about how Trump never understood the transiency of the presidency, that a president is merely a temporary custodian of the office. “You’re just hired to manage the place for a while.” Trump instead thinks of himself as a sort of super-CEO, a Musk-like creature with extraordinary powers of command and control. He can wave the wand of declassification whether he’s president or not.

I also decided to take this step in clear violation of the copyright law, which gives me legal control over my writings but which also poses certain conditions I don’t like. People are supposed to come to me for permission to quote or reproduce my stuff. This is a completely out-of-date prohibition since the internet has made any and everything totally available.

Another thing I don’t like: “if employees create works that are within the scope of their jobs, the copyrights are owned by the employers as ‘works-for-hire.’” Wait a minute. Why should working for others take precedence over one’s own creativity? I’ve written a lot of good stuff for other people that they now own the rights to?

Writers are like children; they want to hold on to what they think rightfully belongs to them. Some seem to have never gotten properly toilet-trained. Well, it’s time for all that to stop. Matt, again, has a good take on this:

So, of course, Trump refused to leave the job until forced, and of course he held on to material that clearly belonged in public hands. When the presidency is an acquisition rather than an opportunity to serve, then everything that comes with it is rightfully yours to do with as you please.

Of course I don’t work for the government though I have done contract work for the Navy and government agencies in the past. I have no idea whether any of that stuff might be classified, but it’s  doubtful. So who really cares? I wave the wand of declassification anyway. Let ‘em come to Mexico and search my 58 bedrooms.

Rescuing the Trump Papers

The New Yorker

A big question nobody’s asking is: What was he going to do with all that stuff in the 15 (now 12) boxes? Another: are some of these classified documents still damp from the toilet? So many questions and so few answers yet. How quickly and thoroughly the DOJ has presumed Trump’s criminal behavior is a dead giveaway (getting the search warrant), all the more so given the rapid and rabid responses of the GOP.

Witnesses have told how he tore up, burned, shredded, flushed and pocketed many documents. It will be a treat to hear their testimony before the Jan. 6 Committee. Maybe there aren’t that many papers left. If only one box of papers is now considered classified, what will that do to the DOJ’s investigation? Who squealed to the FBI that the boxes were still there? More questions, of course.

What we do know is that the Houdini of Presidential Crime will now likely end up charged, if not convicted. He’ll shortly announce his 2024 presidential run, another way to blunt the inquiry and tear the country apart. Just like he shreds documents.

Will he escape from justice one more time? I wouldn’t bet on it.

After Watching Another Wretched Survivor Interview

We complain regularly that the news is so negative, yet we continue like lemmings to follow it. The war in Ukraine makes us captive to the horrors journalists regularly present to us. Are news purveyors basically exploiting such people? Or are viewers all condemned to negativity bias, the condition in which negative events and statements impact our brains more powerfully than positive ones? Mainstream news surely caters to this bias.

A couple of years ago, Time magazine wrote this:

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Well, you may say, the negative response has always been part of being human. As Mel Brooks the 2000-year-old cave dweller would say, “Grab that stone and kill the lion.” Journalists are not lion killers, but writing about the Ukraine horrors—and showing us graphic images—makes them feel in control of events that are beyond control. They seem to think that they are giving us a handle on the indescribable.

Last week CNN’s Anderson Cooper devoted much of one show to interviewing bereaved Ukrainian mothers and family of those who had been tortured or killed. One after the other we heard their tales of woe and worse. I got very upset watching this and finally turned it off. It was another of the many cases of tear-jerking emotional overkill that too often are part of the news now.

As a one-time literature professor, I call this sentimentalism. Which I take to mean emotion called up by manipulation, emotion provoked in excess of the situation. Too much of our news dwells on these poor grief-stricken people and their stories at the expense of generating a true response, which should be sympathy. Their pain is obvious yet news people keep dwelling on it.

What they should be showing—and generating in us—is compassion. Reporters like CNN’s Clarissa Ward are better at that than cold fish like Anderson Cooper or the platitudes of Wolf Blitzer. CNN’s news format is partly to blame, as it makes these horror stories part of almost every troubling evening news report.

Online media often take a similar approach. The Washington Post today ran a story “remembering one person for each week of the pandemic: what brought them joy and what they wanted to do next. And how that was cut short.” A lengthy series of headlines follows about each person, like “Dick burst into song when least expected and liked to watch boxing matches.” One wonders if this approach gives solace to the families, or anyone reading it. It seems like the bland leading the bland just to elicit a response.

Media like Aljazeera and BBC have quite different approaches to covering the war: fewer sentimental heart-rending stories and more educated commentaries, overviews, and reporters who show compassion over the exploitation. More and more I rely on alternatives like them to CNN or Fox or MSNBC. Major media has too many motivations to stay negative.

Music When All Else Fails

I’m lucky enough to have collected and enjoyed some 1,500 records (vinyl LPs) and kept them with me all these years, plus about 1,000 CDs. Most are classical and jazz. Hearing them played back over a good sound system gets you emotionally in tune again. It completes who you are.

I have been living intimately with music all my life. Some of that history is recounted here, but the true story is that I can’t do without it. As a means to counter the fog and depression of war, for me music is unmatched. Everyone needs a break from the violence.

So much TV coverage of the Ukraine war becomes an assault on one’s capability to absorb violence. In our desire to learn more about the war we are surfeited with pictures and accounts that deny the reality of being human. Yet maybe you saw this video of the delightful German guy who came to Ukraine with his piano to play for the refugees.

Or the young girl who sang a song from Disney to refugees in a bomb shelter. It’s a commonplace that music de-stresses people but it is often judged in a political context. In the classical world, think of what Shostakovich went through under Stalin, from popularity to persecution. Or Prokofiev before him. Music under the Nazis was a travesty of art and a triumph of propaganda and kitsch. An estimated 1,500 musicians fled to England and the United States, among them Rudolf Serkin and Arnold Schönberg.

I have a great preponderance of German and Russian music in my collection. Should I give up listening to that as a protest to what Putin is doing in Ukraine (or what the Nazis did)? Of course not. Artworks should always be exempt from politics, even though their authors and practitioners unfortunately are not. Renouncing music, painting and literature for political concerns would be like renouncing our human connection.

In the world of commerce, we have reports of Stolichnaya vodka being poured down the sink. The company is now changing its name to “Stoli,” as if that will fool anybody. Protests only bite when there is a human connection involved.

Culturally, we are now seeing famous Russian conductors under pressure to renounce their homeland or quit music. Tugan Sokhiev “said on Sunday that he would resign from his positions with two orchestras—at the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and in Toulouse, France—after facing intense pressure to condemn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. . . . ‘I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over another,’ Mr. Sokhiev said in the statement.”

Artists have often faced dilemmas of this kind: think of Beethoven and his benefactors, or Béla Bártok, the Hungarian genius who fled the Nazis for poverty and exile in the U.S. And there were so many others.

Music is and has always been the highest expression of our common humanity. We need that refuge now more than ever.

Personal Reflections on War and Ukraine

In 1944 I was 10 years old. World War II was raging and I, like some kids, got caught up in following the constant news reports and accounts of the fighting. Movie theaters showed weekly “newsreels” of the battles in the Pacific and Europe. My father’s friend Jack was flying B-24s with supplies for China over the Himalayas. He sent home wonderful photos that I still have of the bases and people of India and elsewhere that supported these missions.

Once again, it’s the civilians who feel the brunt of war. The fighting in Ukraine has focused on the rank and file and their struggle: their street fights, their persistence in the face of Russian atrocities, the million refugee women and children fleeing the violence. The United States homeland was never really at great risk in WW-II. As kids we were fearful, but in the spirit of the time we had immense faith in our military. Years later I explored massive, overgrown 16-inch gun emplacements hidden away on the coast of Rhode Island. The guns were never fired in anger.

Ukrainians are battling Russian tanks with thousands of molotov cocktails. They were also used in Finland in 1939, in Hungary in 1956 and, of course, in WW-II. It’s an old-fashioned and very effective weapon. Flamethrowers and napalm were modern variants used in Vietnam. The U.S. military stopped using them in 1978.

We were never subjected to photos of burned and mutilated corpses in WW-II. Now such images are all too frequently on the internet. It’s an escalation even from what we saw and heard in the Vietnam years. I was teaching and living in New York then, marching in protests, hearing speeches from eminences like Dr. Spock and Norman Mailer. Such protests, we know, did help end the war. But war was still something mostly remote and apart from our daily lives.

The Ukraine disaster has prompted Biden to declare that no U.S. troops will be sent to fight there—a legacy of our involvements in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But social media and the internet now bring the conflict home and may well influence its outcome. Many people see Putin as a madman and comparisons to Hitler abound. Putin’s threats often put Hitler’s bluster to shame.

Since WW-II the U.S. has fought or undertaken and mostly lost numerous foreign interventions. “While the United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.” These interventions have generally failed badly. The media have been relatively kind to various administrations in reporting this. But American geopolitical interference has contributed to the rise of China and, some would argue, the disaster in Ukraine. We are now paying the price for that.

The invasion has pointed up not only the futility of Russia’s strategy but our own. Some old technologies, like molotov cocktails, still work; the old battle plans and interventions do not. This horrendous invasion points up the need for powerful new strategies to avoid conflict. We don’t yet know what they are or how to implement them. And nobody knows the West’s endgame yet except to get Putin out of power.