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Paint it Blacker | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Paint it Blacker

 My New Think Again column is called, “And they Call it Democracy,” and it’s here.

The Israel Palestine issue has got to be the most annoying issue in the history of humankind.  I take a lot of crap from right-wingers for my “What Liberal Media?” related arguments and I get a fair bit of abuse from Nader-style lefties who accuse me of being in the pocket of the Democratic Establishment, but nothing compares to the personal abuse and vitriol I receive from both sides whenever I write about the Middle East. Last week’s column appeared only to inspire pro-Palestinian jerks, though I get the “pro-Israel” types on my case just as often. Two examples

1) The first Pro-Palestinian Jerk, writing on the Nation Institute sponsored website Mondoweiss, explains, I kid you not, that there is no appreciable difference between my views and those of Martin Peretz. Don’t believe me? See here

2) The second is a pleasant fellow who wrote me saying his name is “Dean Chancery,” though if I were this stupid, I wouldn’t be giving my real name, and sent this:

There once was a progressive named Eric. Had a face that resembled a ferret. When he spoke of Zion, he was always lyin'. A feckless, pusillanimous hack...who in essence was an AIPAC and JINSA flack. A typical parvenu Jew who often cried "boo-hoo". At The Nation—he causes nothing but aggravation. Soon he will whine: "There's a poem in my 'zine", and when denied a raise...he'll twaddle off in a craze, and maybe they'll do the right thing and ship his four-eyed, meretricious punk ass back to Haifa.

What’s so funny (but also sad) about the idiocy on display above is the column was merely descriptive before it came to its prescription. Nowhere in it did I comment on the alleged justice or injustice of the situation. But there are plenty of people on both sides—and in the cases above, the Palestinian side—who really couldn’t care less about actually doing the Palestinians any good. What they want is the same feeling of moral superiority that Peretz, Foxman and the settlers evince when speaking about Arabs and Palestinians. It’s a sad truth of this conflict that the Palestinians have been as much the victims of their “friends” as their enemies. Israel, too, to some degree, but it’s a much nicer place to live. (As Edward Said used to like to say, “It’s like crossing a border from Bangladesh to Southern California.”

Remember those Hamas fellows whom The Nation finds so difficult to criticize in the midst of its regular attacks on Israel? Well, how are you guys about this?

Speaking during a visit to a university in the town of Hamas Foreign Minister, Khan Younis, Hamad said, "We are coming to occupy Haifa and Akko. We'll have armies from all around the world, and the convoys arriving in Gaza are carrying a message to our people, saying that we must stick to the path of jihad. The enemy is trying to impose a siege on us, but they are the ones under a siege and behind fences." Yeah, I’d want to sign a peace agreement with that guy…

A friend also sent me this, observing, “This gets at the weird way in which Peretz's writing is actually valuable:”

“Frankly, I am also sick and tired of the tiny covered wagon townlets in the middle of Judea and Samaria, and I am disgusted by the "hilltop youth" (they are not gentle hippies, believe me) who harass the Palestinians by arson and by the bearded ex-Brooklynites who cut down olive trees as if they are grizzly Douglas fir evergreens sprouting in Boro Park. Still, they are an asset, these irritating pious ones, and they should not be withdrawn until a proximate Arab polity, such as it is, is willing to live in peace with a Jewish state called Israel.”

Got it? Illegally occupied land. Violent intimidation. Broken agreements with the rest of the world. All good, because Arabs are bad…

Peace is a long way off, alas, thanks to all of the above.

Alter-reviews:

Last night I went with a bunch of Brooklyn College student scholars to see “Persephone” at BAM. I liked it. I have a thing for Julia Stiles and the production is interesting and innovative. But I heard a lot of complaints from the audience on my way back to the BAM bus.  So read up on it if you’re thinking of going.

The night before, I got to see Jackson Browne backed up by Steve van Zandt together with Nile Rodgers and Chic. The cause was an awards dinner where Steve gave Jackson a humanitarian award on behalf of the “We Are Family” foundation, which “creates and supports educational programs that foster mutual respect, understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity that are currently used in more than 20 countries on 5 continents” if you don’t know, you can check out at wearefamilyfoundation.org & threedotdash.org. Anyway, there was some genuinely moving stuff, regarding the work that kids are doing in insanely tough circumstance that would defeat most of the rest of us, and a live auction, where a Springsteen-signed ‘54 Fender went for $35K and then (finally) the band did “Doctor My Eyes,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “Lives in the Balance” and “Running on Empty” with some terrific slide work by Steve. All this was followed by a full set by Chic, whom the amazingly talented Rodgers called “the world’s most expensive bar-mitzvah band,” which reminded me of the night I saw the band in 1979 or so, and it cured me of my “hate disco” ignorance. Proudly, I like to think I was the only white boy in the audience who knew all, and I do mean all, the words to “Rapper’s Delight.” Anyway, Jackson was a terrific choice for the award to congrats to him and Rodgers, who started the foundation, both.

Tired of reading about Keith Richards yet? There’s Janet Maslin, Michiko Kakutani and Maureen Dowd in the Paper of Record and David Remnick in The New Yorker, which has the most amazing photo of Keith I’ve ever seen.

And I love Keith as much as anyone—he is particularly charming in Terry Gross’s interview but I’m a bit annoyed by what I think is Keith’s forty year slander of Phil Chess, that began with the Stones' visit to record at Chess Studios in 1964, during which time Keith claimed to have seen McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield up on a ladder painting the place.  I mean if even 1/100th of the stories in the memoir are true—and then again if they aren’t—then pretty much nothing that Keef says should be taken to the bank. This story has been repeated over and over to illustrate the alleged plantation quality of Chess, but as Nadine Cohodas, author of Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000) explains on pp. 243-44

Keith Richards is responsible for one of the most widely circulated myths about the Chess operation. In a well-publicized interview he claimed that when he came into the building and went upstairs to the studio, he passed a man in coveralls on a ladder painting the ceiling. Someone said, “Oh, by the way, this is Muddy Waters.” “He wasn’t selling records at the time,” Richards said, “and this was the way he got treated.”

Pungent, colorful, the story was politically salable to those who see the Chess brothers as little more than racist exploiters. But it didn’t happen. “That’s a lie. I can’t even imagine it,” said Billy Davis, who was at the studio everyday, all day. “I never saw Muddy painting or nailing or scrubbing or any of that bullshit…If he went up a ladder Leonard would be the first one to say ‘get your ass down. You know, I don’t want you fallin’ off those damn ladders.’”

In more erudite terms Edwards, the jazz A&R man, who, like Davis, was at the studio every day, echoed the sentiment. “Leonard had too much respect for Muddy. I never saw it,” he said. “I’m no friend of the Chess family, but fair is fair.” LaPalm was sure Waters wasn’t even in the building that June day: “Muddy was never on a ladder painting a wall at Chess records. That’s a fabrication.”

Waters never spoke about his alleged painting in the interviews he gave about the Rolling Stones and Chess.

Not in dispute about this June visit are the songs that were recorded in those two days, among them: Waters’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and “2120 South Michigan” an instrumental written in honor of the building. “2120” and five other songs from those sessions were included on the band’s second album, "12x5".

So cut it out, everybody.  While enjoying the new book, you might want to throw on the new bluray of “Ladies & Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones", which was shot over four nights in Texas during the "Exile on Main Street" tour in 1972, was released in cinemas for limited engagements in 1974 (where I saw it) and has remained largely unseen since.  It’s the band near its peak—certainly in terms of the material it plays—with Keith at his most zonked out and Jagger at his most ridiculous with a ton of eye makeup and stuffing in his sequined jump suit; Still, it’s great and something no Stones fan should be without, really.

Finally, Mr. Remnick casually tosses off the observation that the Stones have not recorded a memorable song in thirty years. Far be it from me to dispute the judgment of America’s greatest editor/reporter, plus the brilliant fact-checkers at The New Yorker, twice in one blog post, but:

Start Me Up, Hang Fire, Waiting for a Friend, 1981
Undercover of the Night, 1983
Love is Strong, I Go Wild, 1984
One Hit to the Body, 1986,
Mixed Emotions, 1994
Don’t Stop,  Stealin’ My Heart, 2002
Biggest Mistake, Oh No, Not You Again, 2005

Ok, I admit that that’s not much. And it was a lot of work to come up with it. But still, as unmemorable as most of the post 81 work has been, it still sounds pretty good when you put it on. I have “A Bigger Bang” on as I write this and it’s just fine…

“The Promise” is coming, which, according to my calculations, will be the greatest single musical release of all time; a bargain at $500 (but you only have to pay…)  Bruce talks about it here.

Now here’s Reed:

Reed Richardson writes:

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Newsweek explains the Democratic Party’s Congressional losses next Tuesday in a nutshell:

Compare 2010 with 1994, the last year a new Democratic president lost control of Congress to the GOP. While the overall percentage of Americans who now say they are dissatisfied with the country's direction (68 percent) is slightly lower than the percentage recorded in August 1994 (71 percent), the economy is a much stronger source of discontent than it was 16 years ago. In 1994, for example, only 52 percent of voters named ‘economic conditions in general’ as a primary reason for their unhappiness. Today, that percentage has shot up to 75 percent. In 1994, 45 percent cited ‘not enough good-paying jobs’ as a major factor. Today, the number has climbed to 56 percent.

When three out of every four of your constituents are unhappy about the overall economy and more than half are disappointed or fearful for their livelihoods, the people in charge, deservedly or not, are about to get their political clocks cleaned. Yet, after seeing these ominous polling numbers (and, for good measure, this even more frightening picture of the unemployment hole we’re in), the fact that the Democrats stand a good chance of retaining a slim majority in the Senate and limiting the damage in the House to roughly the same net loss—52 seats—as 16 years ago is damn near miraculous.

But, in the aftermath of next Tuesday, once the rosy Republican results have rolled in, be prepared to endure an endless round of more “nuanced”—read worthless—analyses of the election and “what it all means,” almost none of it grounded in the realities of the stark economic climate that faced incumbents this year.  You might even hear a cable TV commentator or read a news analysis that tries to put the election results in context by hearkening back to the GOP’s 1994 midterm elections prop—the wildly unsuccessful Contract with America—which some in the Beltway media still mistakenly believe, years later, was the fuel behind the Republican Congressional takeover 16 years ago. The truth was, of course, something quite different—more than two-thirds of voters back then hadn’t even heard of it as of Election Day. And if someone tries to sell you a similar whopper this year about how the GOP’s half-hearted, 2010 “Contract” rehash—the much longer, more banal and far less specific “Pledge to America”—had an impact on swaying independent voters, much less conservative ones, you’ll know why the saying “there are no new jokes” might apply just as well to political punditry.

And no matter what happens, come next Wednesday morning, just remember this.

The mail:

Terry
Cheyenne

Eric, You mentioned being busy with a book deadline, and there's this cuckoo election cycle to get through, but I have been thinking.  I once found a great deal to admire in Chris Hedge's work, but I've been increasingly confused by him.  I don't see any reality with him as to moving toward solutions, though I'm certainly as dismayed by so many of the same issues he often addresses as to our times in the nation.  He gives me a headache.  His stuff feels hateful to me now.  Tell me if I'm wrong.  This isn't for print, but for your insights here when you have time to offer some.

I remember before reading one of his rants about the system as to college education, getting into schools, how horrendous was testing and what should be offered by the student to achieve entrance, while he ensured that his own kid knew how to play to game to get a proper elite education.  Too much cognitive dissonance for me.

Somewhere between the Twilight Zone of many "ideas"  nowadays and such rants is some sort of realistic, sensible thought to grab onto, while resisting what we must.

Debi Riggs Shaw
Philadelphia, PA

To Reed Richardson, re: Oct. 22, 2010 Altercation—
Reed, I greatly respect and enjoy your writings here on Altercation, but I couldn’t disagree more with regard to your argument against NPR’s policy of non-involvement in partisan (or appearance of partisan) activities.  First, comparing this policy to an example of an NPR content-lite piece does not deal with whether the policy itself is reasonable or not, because plenty of news outlets are doing similar hollow reporting, with or without such a policy in place.  Second, I can tell you that as a state employee I am bound by similar ethical constraints against partisan political activities as the journalists at NPR, and it does not hurt my freedom to impact my democracy.  To suggest as many have that this somehow makes people like me a victim of civil liberties violations is beyond absurd.  Yes, it is a sacrifice, but it is also my choice if I want to work in this sector, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, it certainly doesn’t stop me from speaking my mind.

The question is, how comfortable are you with the coverage of a particular candidate by a reporter known to stump for that candidate?  How credible would that reporter’s information be?  And how comfortable would you be with the coverage of liberal activists by reporters known to speak out against the issues favored by those activists?  A look at Fox shows where the latter ends up:  completely compromised propaganda instead of facts and evidence, given credibility by the rest of a journalistic world too intimidated or jaded to call it out for what it is.

Yes, people know pretty much where John Stewart stands personally, but he is not a reporter, he is a comedian.  When he interviews, we know he is speaking from a liberal perspective, making it easier for conservatives to ignore him, whereas a journalist who reports objective fact-based stories can let the data fall where it may, and that data will not be left or right, but simply data.

The problem is that we are now so used to propaganda by biased talking heads that when data makes only one side look bad, we assume it, too, must be propaganda, with no more basis in fact than any Beck-inflected history revision.  The result?  Those reporting it are accused of partisanship, the news outlets are spooked into ramping up their ridiculous on-one-hand on-the-other-hand scorekeeping and soon Edward R. Murrow has been replaced by Chic Anderson.  There are damned few ethical news organizations left, and we really should support NPR for at least trying to maintain some integrity, even if, as the rest of us often do, they fall short in trying.


Reed Replies: Honestly, I’d never given much thought to comparing public employees’ ethics guidelines with the mainstream media’s until Ms. Shaw’s thoughtful letter. But now that I have, I’m even more convinced that most major media organizations are overreaching when it comes to their ethics policies.

Ms. Shaw says she feels politically unfettered despite having to abide by certain state employee ethical restrictions. Obviously, that’s her opinion and she’s entitled to it, but from what I can surmise from the ethics rules for Pennsylvania state employees, there doesn’t seem to be any additional restrictions on her individual political advocacy that wouldn’t already be considered illegal (taking a direct bribe) and/or highly unethical (accepting or offering a gift, promise of a job, or political donation in return for improper influence or special treatment) in any walk of life.

Still, the ethical restrictions she’s referring to may concern the Hatch Act, which does restrict federal and many state employees’ personal political activities to avoid potential conflicts of interest and prevent corruption. Even so, the Act’s rules of engagement still make a clear distinction between public employees’ official duties and their private lives. Indeed, take a look at this handy Hatch Act primer on what federal employees may and may not do with regard to actively participating in democracy and then compare that to the broad-based political restrictions found in the ethics policies of mainstream media outlets like NPR or the New York Times. If you do, you’ll find that public employees, who are still allowed to sign petitions, attend political rallies, make campaign contributions, canvass for candidates and participate in partisan GOTV efforts when not officially on duty, enjoy far more freedoms (or are asked to make far fewer sacrifices, take your pick) than any mainstream journalist. If public employees, who directly affect the way our government functions, can be trusted to separate their personal and public personas, why then can’t a copy editor at the Times or a field producer at NPR be given the same benefit of the doubt?

To her question of my comfort level with, say, Fox News covering President Obama, I’d say I’m fine with it because I know what kind of frequently flawed coverage to expect and I approach each article with a corresponding amount of skepticism. What's more, Fox News, for all its many journalistic faults and propagandist tendencies, isn’t, as Ms. Shaw contends, the natural outcome of what would happen should I suddenly get my way. In fact, the blatant rightward tilt of Fox News is not due to some bottom-up accretion of its individual journalists’ conservative political biases. Rather, it is much more a top-down, institutional bias, one that, at its core, is essentially a marketing strategy wrapped up in a partisan banner, as the recent l’affaire de Juan Williams demonstrated.

Now, I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Shaw that the rest of the major news organizations appear too spooked and/or intimidated to consistently call out the willingness of Fox News to flaunt the conventional rules of journalism in service of its own agenda. This failure, however, is symptomatic of the same ineffectual groupthink that results in the mainstream media’s “ridiculous, on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand scorekeeping” of political issues and candidates that Ms. Shaw later criticizes. Organizations like NPR and the Times talk about how they are staking their journalistic credibility future on their impartiality, but what they are really trying to preserve is their authority. And part and parcel of this preservation effort is an ethical approach dead set on ignoring and hiding the individual biases that populate their respective newsrooms. But every objective, fact-based story is, after all, really an undeniable act of journalistic subjectivity; it’s a reporter and his or her editors deciding what viewpoints to include or what data to leave out. To argue otherwise is to fall into a trap where the appearing-to-be-fair standard becomes the de facto lone standard for actual fair coverage, which leaves the press increasingly vulnerable to missing actual bias in a story. And, in the long run, this lack of transparency and increasingly untenable “view from nowhere” posture of pure neutrality—the fatuousness of which NYU media professor Jay Rosen ably reexamined after NPR’s firing of Williams—I fear will only further erode the public’s trust in the press. Worse still, this myopia harms the most those “damned few ethical news organizations,” as Ms. Shaw puts it, that are actually trying to maintain some integrity and enrich our democracy.

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