Bird that Sings

November 18, 2010

The Devil and Barack Obama

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 1:23 pm

And a good time was had by all.

The Mid-terms are over and Congratulations are in order for the new speaker of the House, John “Burnt Sienna” Boehner, who this morning enunciated the ruling credo of the Congressional Republican Party.

“Credibility?” he whistled in wonder. “We don’t need no stinking credibility.”

In the wake of the failure to revive the economy of “Main Street” over the past two years Boehner would be exactly right about that. Republicans don’t need much credibility, because the President doesn’t have much either.

The reasons why the Democrats were demolished in the Midterms were 1) the economy, 2) Obama and 3) Race, and most importantly, the way those three things became conflated in the minds of many white working class and lower middle class, Midwestern voters.

Yes, Democrats got murdered because of the economy but more; it was the failure of Democrats to frame a credible argument about the economy.

The Administration’s official insistence that we are in a slow economic recovery, when most working people know we are in a deep and open ended recession allowed an opening for the Republicans that shouldn’t have been there. This is especially true given that most of what the Republicans propose–privatizing Social security, protecting Wall Street and Big Finance– is anathema to the Reagan Democrats of the Midwest who abandoned the party at this election.

There is not one answer to why the Reagan Democrats abandoned the Party this cycle. The fire probably started when Obama and Geithner continued the Bush and Paulson policies of bailing out the banks and Wall Street even as working class jobs continued to be offshored and/or eliminated.

It was then fanned on talk radio and Fox News using the rhetorical red flag of mandated Health Care, but clearly there was a disposition on the part of white working class voters to distrust Obama.

Strictly speaking that sentiment goes back to at least the Pennsylvania Primary in 2008 and Obama’s famous “guns and bitterness” remark, but the truth is that argument was just a stand in for a deeper political divide. (See Obama and the new politics, April 2008)

Strategically, the strength of Obama’s candidacy was his cerebral appeal to liberal and suburban independent voters for a new politics of reason. He was a black candidate who had turned away from the politics of anger and resentment and seemed to point to the possibility that we as a people could also move beyond race and the old divides.

We, his fans, saw Obama’s candidacy as a symbolic moment and his election, the change we had been waiting for.

As many wrote at the time, it wasn’t a political campaign, it was a-once-in-a-lifetime PR campaign in which the brand, Obama, becomes magically linked with an only-in-your-dreams product: Barack Obama is hope&change.

Obama and his advisors knew–or should have known–that no one could ever live up to that level of expectation.

As my wife, an Obama supporter, said to me last week; to get elected, Obama did a deal with the devil and now the bill is coming due.

The weak link in the Obama candidacy was always that in his reasoned appeal to liberals and so-called independents, he was leaving behind the ethnic, white working class base of the old New Deal coalition. (see “The Little Putz”, April 2010). Despite a dry, academic lip service to the politics of class, Obama’s heart clearly wasn’t in it.

One could argue that the Obama candidacy was actually a call for restoration of the neo-liberal political-economic consensus of the Bush I and Clinton years that had been overturned by the over-the-top right wing radicalism of the Bush II adventure.

If Lehman Brothers hadn’t imploded in September of 2008, that might have worked out for Obama. But the subsequent financial crisis startlingly revealed the speculative and debt based Finance Capitalism of the previous thirty years, not as the new source of economic innovation, but as a giant Ponzi scheme to transfer wealth from the Middle class to the Rich.

Both Parties were implicated but as the de-facto Democratic opposition candidate to the ruling Republicans who had presided over the precise moment of disaster, Barack Obama was now called to address this gaping hole in the American dream.

It was a great opportunity for Obama–it certainly got him elected– but it also went against his political grain.

And so, on his election, rather than invoke a new populist stand on the markets, Obama and his advisors fell back into their neo-liberal comfort zone, best exemplified by the appointment of the old Clinton/Robert Rubin fun bunch, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, to head his economic team.

Spitting at the opportunity fate had afforded them, Obama, Geithner and Summers spent the next two years trying to restore the now discredited Finance system to it’s Clinton era glory; an impossible task, and also, on balance, stupid politically.

Despite the signal legislative achievements of the Obama administration–not to mention their salvaging of the American Auto Industry–these achievements did not keep real unemployment from rising to nearly twenty percent, nor lift the Midwest from the near depression it has been sunk in for the better part a decade.

White Midwestern voters were looking for someone to blame, and who better than someone you viscerally dislike in the first place.

For white working class voters, Obama is, to flip the old Tastycake commercial, all the bad things wrapped up in one: a black, liberal, elitist.

They had been waiting two years to give Obama his comeuppance and that’s what happened on November 2nd.

It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the role straight up racism played in the Democrats’ repudiation. Anecdotally, some of the stuff that people have said to me about Obama over the past several months does not bear repeating, but it’s clear, to me at least, that we are definitively not a post-racial society.

But we’re not the same as we used to be either.

In 1901 WEB Du Bois prophetically wrote that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” but as a corollary I would assert that the problem of the 21st century is not so much the color line as it is the related issue of “class and caste.”

In an America–let alone a world–where the working class is increasingly of color, only a progressive politics based on Class and working class unity can succeed.

The Democrats cannot win the next election without their black electoral base, for whom Barack Obama is still a hero–though we’ll see how that goes over the next year or so. However the Democrats also cannot win without the Reagan Democrats of the rust belt whose antipathy for Obama is likely to grow as the economic crisis worsens.

To win in 2012; and more importantly, to deserve to win in 2012, the Democrats–with or without Obama–have to forget about branding themselves like cattle and really change this time.

Part II of this post, Towards a Labor-Democratic Party, will discuss some ways that struggle might be joined.

November 10, 2010

Baseball in Wartime/Every Season tells a story, don’t it? #9

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:16 pm

Every season tells a story and for now, the story of this season is the San Francisco Giants and their improbable World Series victory.

While nobody thinks of San Francisco as a baseball town, the Giants made it into a Major League City when they moved here in 1958. That was a big thing back in the American Century and the City’s never forgotten.

Last Wednesday, they had a parade for the Giants and in San Francisco, for that one moment, baseball was king again.

From where I sat across the Bay, you could almost hear the roar of the near hysterical crowds thronging the downtown — not that big a place — in the hundreds of thousands. On this side of the Bay though, the only way you’d notice was the heavy action around the local BART station.

At the grocery store, where I was earlier that day, one of the clerk/cashiers is a visible, vocal and longtime Giants fan and all the other fans were crowded around him.

One woman says she can’t believe the Giants won; she can’t even believe they got to the World Series, she was sure the Phillies were going to beat them like a drum. The other older folk hanging around the baseball register nod sagely in agreement, but on the way to store I passed about ten kids skateboarding together on a side street.

This particular neighborhood has always been a baseball hotbed and on weekend mornings, there’s a guy on a loudspeaker broadcasting the Little League games at the local middle school, waking everybody up for several miles around.

Of course this is also Oakland A’s territory and this year’s A’s were the most boring team in memory. The A’s sucked the life out of baseball around here the past couple of seasons, and a lot of people even suspect it was on purpose. They think the A’s are actually trying to hold down attendance so they can force the League to let them move to San Jose.

There’s a lot of reasons for kids around here not to follow baseball too closely. But not that many years ago, this many twelve year olds playing together on the street would have been playing some kind of ball.

Now, no one plays baseball on the street anymore. It’s organized ball or nothing.

There are many reasons for the decline of baseball in America and that’s one of the biggest: that kids don’t play it anymore, though they might pursue it in Little Leagues with some bigger purpose in mind. Of course, since the white flight of the 1960s hollowed out most of the big cities of the country — Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc. — there’s no street for a lot of kids to play in.

And then, too, as many have said, sports are not a pleasure in America anymore. They are big business, and we are no longer fans, we are sports consumers.

The only reason that the almost farcical attempt to turn baseball into a spectacle hasn’t killed it off completely is  there’s a part of the game that’s out of their league.

That’s the part of the game inside of us.

We know the game as a whole isn’t as good as it was thirty, forty or even fifty years ago — nor are the players.  Still, we go to games when we can.  We watch on TV, usually while we’re doing other things. We read the box scores, follow the standings, think about trade possibilities and, as we do, are occasionally transported back to other seasons, other players, other times.

This thing inside that binds us to our teams, and sometime even our towns, is what they call the limbic connection.

The limbic brain is the part that sits under the cerebral cortex and on top of the reptile brain. The cerebral cortex in turn is what allows humans and other animals who have one, to reason.

Birds have a very, very small cerebral cortex — as good as not having one — but as old Charles Darwin first observed with songbirds, their music is an expression of incredible complexity. The music of songbirds governs their social interactions: where they’re flying to and when; how they’ll mate. But it’s also a fantastic, collectively composed, yet improvised expression and it all comes from the limbic brain.

And the truth is, that’s where the music of human beings comes from as well. It’s why you often hear musicians say “I wasn’t playing; the music was playing me.”

The limbic connection to-all-being is the truth behind the metaphor of Eden in the Bible, before Eve took that big bite out of the Apple of consciousness.

And it’s why, against all reason, we follow our teams, which are mostly owned by rich, egomaniacal Philistines and composed of well paid mercenaries from other towns and countries who for this one season or two have joined your team, the one you’ve been following all your life. And so then are joined limbically to you and your tribe, your town… forever.

If you don’t follow sports, and maybe even if you do, this will all sound like a load of crap, but it’s true.

As the famous baseball fan William Faulker once wrote, “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.”

Oddly after I wrote the previous line, I Googled it and found it had been used before. It’s the first line of the introduction to the ESPN Encyclopedia of Baseball, which I’ve never read or even heard of before this moment. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Anyway … back in Philadelphia the reality has set in, along with the first nasty weather, that having the best team in baseball on paper doesn’t really matter.

And while there’s bound to be muttering among the baseball cognoscenti that the Giants are not worthy champions, I’d disagree. The Giants are not the worst World Series winner I’ve ever seen — that would have to be the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals — but as a wise man said, the best team paper almost never wins.

And then too, pitching is 75% of baseball. On those two criteria alone, the Giants — like ’em or not — are worthy and representative World Series Champions.

For the rest of us, there’s always next year.

October 27, 2010

The Series

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 2:14 pm

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve noticed that once your home team get knocked out, baseball becomes less subjective.

One of these teams, Texas or San Francisco, will lose the World Series and, depending on the manner of their defeat, go back to being the bums we knew they were in August: Literally in the case of both these teams.

Now they both stand to represent something more than their parts, and bigger than themselves.

As I wrote about San Francisco previously, (see below, A tale of two cities revisited) not a great team but good enough to win.

Texas though, might be the story of this Series. Unlike the Giants, the Rangers did not play in a competitive division this year. The California Angels had injuries and basically threw in the towel sometime after the All Star break. The Oakland A’s might have been the most offensively challenged team in baseball since the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies, albeit with good young pitching that could see them contend in the near future.

Seattle had a horrible start and was finished by June. When they traded Cliff Lee to the Rangers around the trading deadline their last place finish was already a fait accomplis.

So Texas was not competing against the division this year, but basically against itself. This, in an often dead Stadium, in football country, in a city that long ago gave up on them, with a owner who went bankrupt after purchasing the team at a discount from George W. Bush who made out like a bandit himself on the deal.

It’s a pretty unsavory story but its’ effect on the team seems to have been at the margins. With power and dangerous hitters up and down the line-up, good team speed, and good defense the Rangers feel like a throw back to the Cleveland Indians team of the late 90’s, and not completely by accident. Those Indian teams, which at various times featured Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Dave Justice, Brian Giles and Sandy Alomar Jr, were put together by John Hart, former General Manager and current “senior advisor” to the Rangers. Hart’s protégé, 33-year-old Jon Daniels, is the current Texas GM.

The Indians, so dominant during the season back in their prime, never managed to win a World Series and for that reason are a bittersweet memory to their fans.

The big thing the Indians lacked was a great starting pitcher, which is also what the Rangers lacked at the beginning of this season.

The Rangers, however, don’t lack a great starting pitcher anymore.

When Cliff Lee gets hit, he can look pretty bad. His fastball never gets past the low 90s and he needs to keep hitters off balance with a variety of speeds and cutters. But when Lee’s on, he practically unhittable and he’s been nothing but these past two post-seasons.

The Rangers other two main starters, CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis have both pitched well enough this season, but without Lee, Texas would not be here.

The Rangers line-up featuring All-Stars and former All-Stars like 3rd baseman Michael Young, DH Vladimir Guerrero, 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler, and outfielder Nelson Cruz is impressive, but the team revolves around outfielder Josh Hamilton, or as he’s called at my house, The Natural.

The first time I saw Josh Hamilton was in 2008 and, despite his big numbers, I wasn’t that impressed. Boy, was I blind. Josh Hamilton is what Shoeless Joe Jackson would have been if he had played in the live ball era. Think a left handed Matt Holliday with the power of Pujols, the speed of Johnny Damon — and of course, a dark side.

Cliff Lee’s performance in the 2009 World Series not only made him a folk hero in Philadelphia, but a bona fide superstar. The 2010 World Series might do the same for Josh Hamilton. Catch Josh Hamilton while you can, this guy was born to play baseball.

Between Lee and Hamilton, not to mention the serendipity of having ex-Giant Bengie Molina at catcher — who not only knows the book on the Giant pitching staff, but wrote it — I think you’ve got to pick Texas to win this Series… in five, six or seven.

October 25, 2010

The Phillies lose the pennant/Every season tells a story don’t it #7

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 12:08 pm

Well, the Phillies lose to the Giants in 6, 3-2, at home, and it isn’t that big a deal.

I’m finishing my second shot of whiskey as I write this and my heart doesn’t hurt as much as it did just ten minutes ago when Ryan Howard struck out with two men on to end the game.

For that matter it doesn’t hurt as much as it did the whole 9th inning or even the 8th inning when Carlos Ruiz lined into a double play with two men on to end the threat.

The Phillies scored first in this game but despite having men in scoring position in every inning from the 5th on, were unable to score again and as the game progressed you couldn’t help getting the feeling that it just wasn’t going to be our year.

As Larry Bowa said elsewhere, the Baseball Gods were not smiling on the Phillies this year, and this series was kind of a fractal of the season. Despite having arguably the best starting line-up in baseball, that line-up ended up playing less than twenty games together before the play-offs began.  And once the playoffs did begin, the lineup just didn’t seem to gel in time. Kind of like the Democrats in the mid terms, though we’ll see.

So yes, there is a sadness settling over Philadelphians right about now, and it comes not just from the losing–and not just from the whiskey– but from the sense of loss. This should have been the Phillies year. They had everything in place; starting pitching, power, speed, defense, and with the looming free agency of Jayson Werth there is also the feeling that the team will not be better next year, but worse and worst of all, starting to get older. The Phillies still have a window to win, but winter is inexorably coming now, and the window is closing.

In some respects this particular loss reminds me of the NLCS in 1978, where the Phillies lost for the second year in a row to the Dodgers, a team we all thought that the Phillies were better than–though it must be said in passing, a team far superior to the 2010 San Francisco Giants.  In the 1978 playoffs, the Phils lost the deciding game of the then 5 game series when Centerfielder Garry Maddox, a man Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin used to call “The Secretary of Defense” dropped a routine fly ball to give the Dodgers the win in the bottom of the 10th.

Despite the Phillies of that era being anchored by two Hall of Famers; the best third baseman of all time, Mike Schmidt, and Steve Carlton, the second or third best left handed pitcher of all time, that game against the Dodgers also had the feeling of a window closing for the Phillies and in a way it did.

The Phillies lost the division in 1979 to the “We are Family” Pirates of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker who went on to win the World Series. Those Pirates were frankly a better team than the Phillies that year and it was unclear how the Phils were going to win back their division in the near term, let alone the pennant.

The hopeful part of course for Phillies fans is that the Phillies did come back, shocking not only their fans but themselves in winning their first World Series of modern times in 1980.

So it’s hard to say. I hear Charlie Manuel, the lovable idiot, claiming that the Phils have their best days ahead, and maybe he even believes it. Even stranger, maybe he’s right.

The elements of chance and destiny are a big part of baseball. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted a Giants-Rangers World Series, but (whoop) there it is.

I guess there’s hope for all of us: Even A’s fans.

Anyway, by now I’m finishing my fourth shot of whiskey and it’s getting to be time to wrap this up, so speaking for pretty much everyone in the six County area; most of Eastern Pennsylvania, the entire state of Delaware, Jersey from Cape May to Trenton, and Philadelphians far afield in their Joycean exiles all over the planet, I’d like to say . . .Go Rangers!

You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.

October 23, 2010

The Yankees and the Curse of Empire

Filed under: Sports,The Philadelphia Perspective,Uncategorized — admin @ 8:46 pm

The late Joe Strummer of the Clash assured us that “the Future is not written,” but sometimes I have my doubts.

In the National League Championship Series, the favored Phillies are now down to the Giants, three games to two, going back to Philadelphia for Game 6 and — the spirits of Robin Roberts, Johnny Callison and Richie Ashburn willing — Game 7.

Similarly, in the ALCS, the favored Yankees are going to Texas Friday night, also down 3-2, but there is a difference.

The Phillies have the Giants right where they want them. The Yankees are doomed. The only question is who will finish them off, Colby Lewis in game 6, or Cliff “The Executioner” Lee in game 7.

If the answer is the latter it will be interesting to see how it plays out, especially if Texas goes on to play the Phillies in the World Series.

As I’m only half done writing the screenplay I don’t want to divulge the details of what’s going to happen, only that the thinly fictionalized story of Cliff Lee’s-revenge-on-the-Phillies-and-GM-Ruben-Amaro Jr.-for dumping-him-to-Seattle is tentatively entitled “Payback is a Bitch.” Needless to say I’m also adding a completely fictionalized sub plot where the Lee character is pursued by a baseball crazed country and western singer played by either Reese Witherspoon or Beyonce Knowles, depending.

But that’s not the best part of the story. That would be where Yankees GM Brian Cashman runs onto the field at Citizens Bank Park and in the middle of the Rangers victory celebration, signs Lee under the goal posts (an admittedly cinematic embellishment) to a six year, 160 million dollar contract to pitch for the Yankees.

In the movie it will sort of be a happy ending — if you ignore the part where Philadelphia fans run down Cashman, rip his body to shreds and feed the bloody hunks of flesh to a chained up Sarah Palin — but in truth, Lee will never again pitch in a World Series after signing with the Yankees.

The Yankees mega-million bucks signing of Lee will turn out badly, and Joe Strummer aside, how do we know this? Because with the exception of Mike Messina, CC Sabathia — so far — and the lovable Roger Clemens, the Yankees multi million dollar free agent signings of pitchers almost always turn out badly.

For lack of a better term, you can call it the Curse of Empire.

Talk to people in New York and they are invariably of two minds about the late George Steinbrenner. Yes, they say, he was a liar, a bully and a jerk, but he did what the rest of baseball should be doing: maximizing the natural advantages of his market to make his team great theatre and their financial success, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can see their point but there is a darker side to the story.

When Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973, they hadn’t been a good team for the better part of the previous decade, and what’s more, Steinbrenner wasn’t even the driving force in his ownership group.

Though it was Steinbrenner who, characteristically, took credit, it was his President and General Manager, Gabe Paul who took advantage of the advent of baseball free agency in 1976, signing ex Oakland A’s Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, then making a series of savvy trades for (La note: thanks, Repoz) Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Mickey Rivers, and Willie Randolph among others that turned the team’s fortunes around.

Steinbrenner forced Paul out after the ’77 season but the momentum of the latter’s deal making carried the Yankees to World Series wins in 1977, 1978 and an appearance again in 1981.

However, the success of the club left George literally drunk with power and his overweening presence in the Front office became the main impediment to Yankees winning again, no matter how much money he spent on the team.

It wasn’t until George was suspended from baseball in 1990 for hiring a gambler to “dig up dirt” on Dave Winfield, that then General Manager Gene Michael was free to develop the farm system and not trade away all the Yankees prospects for established stars. That change in philosophy eventually produced players like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Petitte who would become the core of the Yankees great late 90’s team.

George, of course, came to believe that Yankees great run from 1996 to 2001 was about him, and that a place in the World Series was a Yankee birthright. But when the Yankees lost the World Series in 2001, George was back to his old 80’s ways, signing another former Oakland A’s MVP, Jason Giambi, to a mega contract in 2002.  Then there was Alex Rodriguez in 2004, and Randy Johnson in 2005.

George kept figuring he was one superstar away from winning the World Series again, but until his dying day, I don’t think he ever figured out the problem.

George Steinbrenner never really got baseball and in truth, he’s not the only one.

All season long, the talk in baseball was of attendance being down, even in places where teams were contending like Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and San Diego.

Aside from the playoffs, which generate a maelstrom of municipal emotion, where your team is your town, baseball has trouble holding the attention of people these days, especially if they’ve never played the game.

The thing about baseball is that it balances athleticism with skill. You can succeed in baseball if you’re not a great athlete. You cannot succeed without great skill.  That’s a great thing about the game, but it means that results are not direct.

Steinbrenner treated baseball more like football, where if you get the biggest, fastest, most athletic guys, you can usually win. He also assumed that big results elsewhere meant continued big results, and that just goes against the track record of most baseball players over time.

You can strategize for success in baseball and hope for the best, but you can’t mandate it.

You can try of course, but as long as the Yankees continue to try and buy championships, they will not win many.

That is the curse of the Empire.

And I bet Joe Strummer, wherever he is, might agree.

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