Tangled Up in Unbelievable Foolishness

Tangled Up in Unbelievable Foolishness

Tangled Up in Unbelievable Foolishness

Eric Alterman reviews jazz, including Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton, the Jazz Foundation benefit, and Reed Richardson discusses the ethics of Obama’s budget speech.


My new “Think Again” column is called “Something is Happening and You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Ms. Dowd?” and it’s here.  Guess who and what it is about.

My Daily Beast column was called “Obama’s next budget deal cave in” and that’s here.

I will be speaking on April 27 on “Kabuki Democracy” at Town Hall in Seattle, to make up for the gig that was cancelled in January, due to snow. More info here.  (Also, Katrina and I will be on a panel on Obama’s first year on Saturday morning, April 30, at the LA Times Festival of Books, which is at USC this year. I believe the panel begins at 10:30 am.)

I apparently discuss the book here, on the radio. 

Oh and all honor to David Byrne, conqueror of “Doctor Atheist von Gay, The French Celebrity Abortionist.’” 


I was lucky enough to be in Rose Hall last Friday night to see Eric Clapton join Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra for a once (actually three times) in a lifetime opportunity. Joined by Taj Mahal, who did a short solo set and then came back at the end, they picked songs from what Wynton said were over 2,000 that Eric had compiled as possibilities : The setlist went as follows:

Ice Cream (Howard Johnson / Robert King / Billy Moll)

Forty-Four (Chester Burnett)

Joe Turner’s Blues (W.C. Handy)

The Last Time (Bill Ewing / Sara Martin)

Careless Love (W.C. Handy / Martha E. Koenig / Spencer Williams)

Kidman Blues (Big Maceo Merriweather)

Layla (Eric Clapton / Jim Gordon)

Joliet Bound (Kansas Joe McCoy / Memphis Minnie McCoy)

Just A Closer Walk With Thee (Traditional)

Corrine Corrina (Bo Chatman / Mitchell Parish / J. Mayo Williams) – encore

It was much more of a jazz show than a rock or even a blues show. Everybody including Eric wore suits and ties. Everybody sat down quietly for the entire performance, both onstage and in the audience. Eric looked thrilled to be there, but truth be told, more than a bit intimidated. There was no rocking out, not even any breaking out. But there was virtuosity a- plenty, as well as reverence in abundance for music that deserves it, but does not necessarily benefit from it. I wouldn’t have missed it and the night before, at the gala at the at Rose Theater in Frederick
P. Rose Hall, they say they raised $3.6 million dollars for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s performance, education and broadcast events. And hey, there will be a DVD, more evidence of what a fine fellow Eric has turned out to be. For more, visit Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Speaking of fine fellows, I guess this would a good time to mention Wynton Marsalis will launch a two-year performance and lecture series on April 28, with an appearance at Sanders Theatre. I’m doing this even though I recently gave a talk at Harvard, and not too many people thought that was worth getting all excited about. Then again, I’m willing to bet Eric Clapton has no interest in doing much of anything with me either Wynton will be lecturing on a variety of topics, they tell me, “to illuminate the relationship between American music and the American identity and he’ll be bringing his band on occasion. It’s really more than those Harvard punks deserve. The first one will be April 28 is titled “Music as Metaphor” and will feature Ali Jackson (drums), Dan Nimmer (piano), Walter Blanding Jr. (tenor sax), Carlos Henriquez (bass), James Chirillo (guitar and banjo) and Mark O’Connor (violin). Tickets are here

And while we’re on the topic, how about ponying up for the tenth anniversary celebration of the Jazz Foundation of America. There are two reasons to do it. On is the line up for "A GREAT NIGHT IN HARLEM" at the Apollo on May 19th. So far, it’s Macy Gray, Lou Reed, Roberta Flack,Christian McBride and Dr. John. The second reason is what they will do with the cash. That would include:

• Preventing homelessness and evictions by paying rents and mortgages

• Creating dignified work through our Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program

• Providing free medical care and operations through our partners at Englewood Hospital

• Keeping the heat turned on and food on the table through our Musicians’ Emergency Fund

Go here and spend your money.

More reviews:

The third wave of Legacy Hendrix reissues from Sony Legacy is here for you Hendrix obsessives and it includes the posthumous odds-and-sods style “South Saturn Delta,”; a deluxe DVD edition of Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsys (Live at Fillmore East), with bonus footage includes a killer "Foxey Lady" and rarely performed live versions of "Power Of Soul," "Stepping Stone" and "Who Knows,” and there’s also "Power of Soul" where lots of other people do Hendrix songs including Santana, Prince, Sting, Clapton, and plenty of others, a bunch of which you may already have. You can see if that’s the case, here

I’ve also been enjoying a new book of photographs of Patti Smith from way back when taken by a friend of hers named Judy Linn. They are grainy, black and white photos of a completely unselfconscious artists hanging with Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, Tom Verlaine, etc. It’s called Patti Smith 1969-1976, and it’s a charming, albeit modest document. I prefer it to the rather more elaborate Mary McCartney, From Where I Stand. I didn’t know there was a Mary McCartney but she turns out to be a photographer with some pretty serious access to people named “McCartney,” as well as Madonna, Bono, Debbie Harry, Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Moss.

My favorite coffee table book of the week is called “Naked: The Nude in America,” published by Rizzoli. The pictures are interesting, sure, but the text really stands out. It’s by Bram Dijkstra who is a cultural, rather than an art historian and it makes for a fascinating study with a number of provocative and illuminating observations on the, the “incursion” of physical realism, nudity for shock value, and the pin-up-girl craze. The dude is also a fine writer, and begins his text as follows: “The mind-boggling contradictions of American culture are nowhere as obvious as in its constantly shifting attitudes towards the naked human body.” And again, the pictures, both paintings and photographs, are well produced and often chosen for interesting reasons. I also spent some time looking through another Rizzoli coffee-table entry, Great French Paintings from the Clark: Barbizon through Impressionism. It’s a fine collection. This full-color catalogue features more than 70 of the most important nineteenth-century European paintings in the Clark Art Institute, including fine work by Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Manet, Degas, and Renoir, as well as Corot and Millet, with interesting essays as well. It’s not the Barnes collection, but it is something. (And too bad some of the Clark family’s funds landed in Marty Peretz’s lap, huh?)

Now here’s Reed:

Obama’s Sunday School Lesson

Wednesday’s budget speech by President Obama was one of the more curious “policy” speeches I’ve heard in a long time. It immediately struck me as reminiscent of something I’d encountered long ago, but it wasn’t until hours afterward that I was able to identify it—it was an old Sunday School lesson I’d heard growing up. Paraphrasing, its premise goes something like this: Each of us can choose from basically three different governing rules to live our lives.

Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Silver Rule: Do unto others as they do unto you.

Iron Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you.

The first of these rules is mentioned, in various forms, several times throughout the New Testament (most commonly as part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:12) and the point of that Sunday School lesson was to reinforce the importance and value of following such a rule. However, the so-called Golden Rule isn’t actually one of the Ten Commandments—despite what nearly half of Americans may think—and, in point of fact, Christians can’t claim sole ownership of this concept since an “Ethic of Reciprocity,” as its also known, also appears as a universal ideal in nearly every one of the world’s religions.

Living out this ethic requires one to be hopeful, trusting, compassionate, and altruistic, to believe that there is an enduring connection to one’s community and that the connection is not always an insufferable burden but instead can be a joyous responsibility. Golden Rulers abide by the notion that our individual destinies are quite intricately bound together and, furthermore, we are all better for it as a result. And for a president that often draws upon Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount for rhetorical inspiration, it was no surprise to hear him lean upon some of those same ideals to form the fundamental basis for his budget argument in Wednesday’s speech.

Indeed, it was hardly a coincidence that Obama’s one, brief invocation of God in the body of his remarks preceded a broad moral defense of those American policy programs that rely upon the Golden Rule as their fundamental funding mechanism.

“We recognize that, no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say to ourselves.

“And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities.”

That section alone was worth tuning if for, just to hear an American President put aside for a brief moment our country’s incessant mythologizing of the free market and rugged individualism to acknowledge that each of us has a vested interest in our neighbor’s fate. But he doesn’t just stop there. He then goes on to link the very concept of American Exceptionalism itself, which he is oft criticized for not touting incessantly, with our nation’s social commitments to helping the unemployed, the elderly, the sick, and the indigent.

“We’re a better country because of these commitments….

I’ll go further: We would not be a great country without those commitments.”

This Golden Rule-basis for policymaking is simply anathema to a Republican Party that now universally embraces as its guiding “path to prosperity” a draconian budget plan that takes dead aim at these social compact programs while further cutting taxes for the rich. With their plan, the GOP, spurred on by its extreme Tea Party wing, is effectively trying to seismically shift the policy ground in our nation rightward, from a Golden Rule to more of a Silver Rule approach, one where all interactions with the government are to be thought of in strictly transactional terms. In other words, it’s a philosophy that wants each of us to think that what I, as an individual, get out of government must exactly equal what I put in.

Of course, in a geographically vast and demographically diverse country of 310 million people, this calculus will never exactly balance out and, as a result, taxpayers in thrall to this Silver Rule way of thinking will rarely be satisfied with their share of the tax burden (no matter what silly ideas ridiculous centrist groups come up with). And when that disillusionment inevitably happens? Well then, Republicans can step in to conveniently suggest the next logical step—doing away with “ineffective” government program altogether. Such an extreme landing spot in our society often goes by the name of libertarianism, or, in Sunday School, we’d call it Iron Rule.

That is why the parts of Obama’s speech where he spoke of his moral justifications for opposing Ryan’s Medicare-killing budget plan resonated so well, while his attempt to match Ryan dollar-for-dollar in deficit reduction fell flat and left many listeners asking for more details. The Golden Rule sections of his budget speech seized the rhetorical high ground, keeping the fight on Democratic home turf where, it’s worth pointing out, most Americans also reside.

The other, more technical parts of his address, however, wobbled and began to cede too much negotiating ground to the Republicans right out of the gate. That’s because getting bogged down in discussions about what and how much should get cut increasingly comes off as a wonkish, narrow-minded policy exercise between two sets of Silver Rulers. But if the public can’t perceive a moral or philosophical difference between the two parties on an important issue like this, the press quickly follows suit and instead breathlessly buries itself in minutiae involving negotiating tactics and counter-proposals without ever delving into a broader discussion of the different policy proposals long-term impact. In this case, it means that the Democrats would lose their one big advantage when it comes to the budget—the fact that the American public wholeheartedly agrees with them.

Of course, I was apparently one of the few listeners who thought Obama’s speech spent too much time on details rather than too little. Then again, I would have judged the whole damn thing as a rousing success if he had simply condensed the entire thing down to two sentences about the Ryan plan: “Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it. That won’t ever happen on my watch.” and then walked out. That simple act alone would have been a dramatic way of contrasting the two competing fiscal paths now being presented to our country. Thankfully, Obama did more than that Wednesday, he presented the broader moral foundations behind this upcoming choice.

Do we continue to live up to our nation’s progressive ideals and fight to preserve what’s left of our existing Golden Rule-based society or do we abandon those ideals in favor of an increasingly atomized, privatized, and marketized country operating under Iron Rule? I know what my Sunday School teacher’s answer would be.

The mail:


Greer, SC

Since my earlier comments did not elicit any reponse on "Suspicion", I must make my own, if you will allow. The Elvis, original, rendition is more personal, more original & would be the favorite of any musical purist, whatever that means, but the Stafford version is still superior, stands the test of time. I defy you not to groove to the female background singers.

In further developments here in "GOP Paradise", I suppose you noted the Greenville County GOP convention had Newt, Santorum & Haley Barbour all speaking, Santorum won the straw vote with 31%. Greenville County is S.C.’s most populous country, the backbone of the state fundamentalist Christian GOP movement. Scary, huh?

To be fair, the attendence at the convention was about half of the size of the last one two years ago. And, Santorum has been making appearances in this area for weeks….he seems to almost have taken up residence. But, 31% for the man on dog sex guy, it still is scary. Did I say I was thinking of buying a gun? My wife just subscribed to The Nation, got our initial copy yesterday. Paradise is not lost, not completely.

Bill Dunlap

Lake Oswego, Oregon

Eric: Your column on the Ryan Plan makes me think that Rep. Ryan has a new take on the much debated idea of "American exceptionalism." Namely: Modern industrialized countries can treat their sick, take care of their elderly and provide a safety net for their poorest—except America.

Neil Lambert



Back in the 90’s,I used to look forward to every time you were on one of the news stations being interviewed (for some reason, I think of you talking to callers at C-Span; perhaps you were promoting books) and took great pleasure in your skill. You had two wonderful qualities: One was, you never lost your cool; you stayed rational and calm no matter what; and two, you always had the facts (and never took the cheap way out, being insulting or even short with people.) You were knowledgeable and patient.

I’m sorry to read this latest piece of yours, so many years later, because, like the Democratic party and the mainstream media that left me behind after Clinton, your tone has changed. It all seemed to vegin with the election of George W., suddenly I was seeing all the nastiness I used to abhor in Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and Newt Gingrich in the 90’s — and Lee Atwater, going back further. I hope that you haven’t changed as negatively as they have, but the piece here is not convincing.

Okay,you were obviously going for humor, and I realize that with the internet and a new generation of college-aged, i-Phone-trained liberals, comes a definite snark. But the remark about the Tea Party is below you and treading dangerously close to the "Sarah Palin is a c***" t-shirts (th’p not profane.)

I don’t know, but it didn’t seem to be your style. I know about the campaign to tag the TP "extremists" and about the concern these people causes on the left. I fear that much of it is’because the TP people do challenge Obama’s beliefs, and, too, there is a new culture of silencing those who disagree with the orthodoxy that was not there before the year 2000. But the accusations in your piece fail to get a laugh and look just a bit desperate…and afraid.

You see, I, a Democrat voter since Carter, am now a Tea Party person. Perhaps if you hadn’t grown older in your media bubble, you might have become one, too. I won’t bother explaining why we are not the "rump fringe" or whatever derogative term you used for us (because I know that YOU know it isn’t accurate. We are the future, not the past.) But I will ask you to think about this:

Who are the "mean-spirited" ones these days, Eric? Who seems to have no limit to their means as long as it results in the right ends? Who is quick to jump on anything negative about Obama as "racist" and slings around slurs consistently to describe their fellow Americans?

It’s no longer n***** or kike; now, it’s kindergarten teachers writing death threats to legislatures and calling those who think differently "stupid."

It’s "bagger," "winger," "homophobe," "xenophobe," "islamophobe," "Zionist" "rednecks," "fundies" or "those who believe in a mystical being in the sky."

The hatred is blatant for Christians, Jews, blue collar people — truck drivers, plumbers — non-college graduates, Southerners, and anyone (especially males) from a traditional, Scotch-Irish background or rural ("hillbillies"). And it comes from members of those groups themselves, who have been so filled with self-hatred that they eat their own, never bothering to notice that the "supressed" Holders they stand up for to not thank them, but instead are quick to speak of "my people."

I hope you haven’t left me behind, too, as the Democratic party and the media did. But it sure looks like it. And I’m sorry. I thought you were one of the good ones. I know you still could be.

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