Bombast and baseball

Darryl Strawberry created a stir the other day by claiming his 1986 Mets team was better than his 1998 Yankees team. Without going into the merits of his argument, the negative zeal of Yankee fans in defending their team reminded me much of what has gone wrong with this country and why I am happy to be rooting for a team other than the New York Yankees. Naturally, as was pointed out by some commenters, Strawberry’s contributions to the 1986 Mets were more critical and prominent than those he added to the 1998 Yankees, so in this, the 25th anniversary of that ’86 team, he might have a bias. Still, it’s one thing to disagree with a man, but quite another to spew venom and viciousness scant few levels shy of Hank Williams Jr.

Few reasonable responses should be expected by commenters on an ESPN site (though I fully agree with this quite reasonable hypothesis). But the arrogance, the bile showering forth from many fans of the most honored franchise in baseball history is disgusting. Once I felt as though the Yankees were occupied by the conquering force of the late George M. Steinbrenner and his offspring — clearly, the fans are the ones who are the ones occupying this franchise. I am glad I am not a part of it. Hell, even the dugout is more reflective and self-aware than their fan base.

Society suffers these days from an undercurrent lacking in humility and grace and an overabundance of greed, arrogance, and bombast. The most vocal (and, hence, the de facto representative) Yankee fans have it in spades, and that’s why I needed to leave that fold. I am not naive enough to think that if another sports teams had their success rate and resources, they would not be as obnoxious or as utterly lacking in self-reflection and empathy, but there you have it; these are the times in which we live.

When, as vocal Yankees fans and the team’s president, Randy Levine, openly admit that anything less than winning the World Series a failure and a bitter disappointment — not mere disappointment but a failure and bitterness and all that implies — I think you get to the core of being a Yankee fan these days. In many ways, it reflects the current rot as it exists in many sectors of America’s economic society. It’s of a piece to what those involved with Occupy Wall Street movement are protesting against. And this is not to argue in favor of accepting failure, or of a socialist view of the world, or against capitalism, or against intrinsic success in favor of lovable losers. But success takes many forms. It does not mean that only one team in baseball is a Success and the 29 others Failures. There is one team that is a champion. Though by the measure of athletics, it essentially equates to 29 losers, it does not equate to 29 failures. The inability to see that, and the attendant lust for greed that accompanies this worldview, does not bode well for American society and its need to take care of all and to show forms of grace and humility.

Yankee fans of a previous era, perhaps, say, before the 21st century began (to select a convenient starting point), could win and enjoy their successes without this insatiable need for greed, for apocalyptic dominance, for suffering for winning only one of the past three World Series, while simultaneously dismissing and belittling the accomplishments of anyone else. It is hard to image the fans of the Fifties Yankess, the Twenties Yankees, even the Seventies Yankees, behaving so poorly.

Likewise, corporate leaders and captains of industry, while having a long history of opulence themselves, did not quite show the greedy disconnect that they show now, except perhaps in the trust-busting days of Theodore Roosevelt.  When Jeff Imeltt doesn’t bat an eye for building his success on using overseas workers (and, by easy extension, putting Americans out of work) while acting as the country’s jobs czar, it’s all part and parcel of the same arrogance and greed that is ruining America’s economy for all but the most comfortable.


Mad Men musings on creativity as a commodity

Among the meticulous historical details, brilliantly gripping story lines, and the spot-on commentary on America then and now, Matthew Weiner’s 1960s-set Mad Men is really a paean to the age-old battle of creativity vs. business, and how those concepts sometimes fit, sometimes don’t in America, yes, then and now.

Obviously, if you enjoy eating and having a roof over your head, you can write and paint as much as you like, but you still need to turn the heat on in the winter.

Still, the lament is that creativity always seems to still get the short shrift — even when creativity is what you are selling — often by devaluing the workers who produce it (through low salaries, under-staffing, or merely a general lack of creative freedom).

Don Draper, the ad man who keeps his firm in business through his much-sought-after creativity, is a proxy for the artist whose work is bought and sold, but whose creativity derives its business value through bringing in money. It’s not art for art’s sake, a point obviously made clear in that he’s in advertising, and not a starving artist. But he is an artist nonetheless, and though not a poet or painter, it’s a point worth noting.

“I want to work,” Don says in last year’s season finale, as he learns his firm is being sold to a larger corporation with even larger eyes on the bottom line (and, presumably, less on the creative aspects of the finished product, except, again, as a commodity). I commented on nymag.com‘s recap of the finale, and I wondered if that episode, and the entire series for that matter, expressed Weiner’s feelings about creative workers, including writers like himself. Don wants to create something — yes, a new firm, but he also wants to create new ads. It’s how he gains his self-meaning in the world. It brings him material gains, and it brought him a wife, kids, and house with a white picket fence — all those things that people expect to see. Don wants the freedom to create ads, and running his own agency will bring that as he railed (in that finale) about accountants wanting to turn a dollar into $1.10.

As much as it is about social change 45 years ago, Weiner’s show is as much about the search for creative freedom (for himself personally as a television writer and creator, but also for all creative types at large). But without being able to turn that $1 into $1.10, Don would be without his own firm and lose that creative freedom he so needs. Mad Men portrays that duality, nicely in a 1965 skin.

Tonight, in this season’s penultimate episode, as they further learn of the dire financial straits their new firm is in, Peggy asks Don, what are they going to do?

“We’re going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us, because we’re creative — the least important most important thing there is.”

It’s not a new question: is creativity merely another commodity? Holding a mirror to society to reflect back what you see — it may give viewers greater understanding of the world, but how do you support a family on that? Don’s ex-fling Midge makes a guest appearance in this episode as a struggling artist and heroin addict — does her art have value to her beyond its ability to bring her money to further fuel her habit? Or does it inspire Don to continue the strategy laid out for him in the first episode of this season — to promote and sell himself (and his agency) in order to have creative freedom? Is that inspiration worth the $120 (in 1965 dollars) Don pays for it? Should we even put a dollar amount on it? But isn’t that what you do if you graduate college with a degree in English, Fine Art, Drama, and so on? If your degree can’t help you get a job (and thus earn money), is such a degree valuable merely through its intrinsic value?

Perhaps it is the least important most important thing there is. How do you eat off of that, and is it crass to even ask the question? Or is linking the two concepts mutually necessary?


Tea bagged

It’s worth noting that this modern-day “tea-party” nonsense began with a rant by Rick Santelli, who railed against his fellow Americans as “loser” families (who’s anti-American now?) as they tried to grab a piece of the American Dream and simply bit off more than they could chew as others (Santelli anyone?) fostered a national mood built on Easy Credit. Santelli, just like the execrable Jim Cramer, admirably did their part to get us into this economic mess with their remorseless cheerleading of The Market and all but egging on the actions of greedy CEOs over this last decade. (And if you remember Santelli’s rant, you would recall the Chicago traders lustily cheering him on, who I am sure have only acted honorably and charitably in the last decade and did not pursue the greed that has landed the nation in this economic mess. I’m sure of it.)

The nation’s economy is not just the sum of its individuals. It is an interwoven context that we all share. To stabilize that communal landscape, sometimes you have to shower money upon those who have been foolish or self-indulgent. The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we’re all in this together. If their lives don’t stabilize, then our lives don’t stabilize.

David Brooks column, New York Times, Feb. 19, 2009

Meanwhile, we have these poor souls being used by propagandists —like so many nascent totalitarian regimes before them — who find taxes so distasteful because they obviously never had police protect their neighborhood, had their trash collected, had their kids educated, had their home protected by fire fighters, drove on roads or over bridges, had those roads and bridges plowed of snow, had their food protected and screened, had a seatbelt to wear, walked in a park or hunted on publicly protected land, filled their SUVs with gas, or, as Whiskey Fire pointed out, evidently never went to a “public space created and maintained by, uh, taxes” to protest taxes … you get the point.

Funny, these protests didn’t seem to crop up when the former President ran up a deficit fighting an illegal war or giving breaks to the more wealthy among us, forcing everyone else to make up the slack. Buy why protest President Bush? After all, he was one of us, not this, um, person in the White House who doesn’t look like any of us, right? Never mind that for almost all of them, their federal taxes have not gone up under the new President (h/t Whiskey Fire again).

As Paul Krugman said, it’s all so much Astro-Truf-roots.

But, apart from columnists like Krugman, the press is legitimizing the GOP talking points, once again.

That said, the Democrats are much to blame in continuing to lose the war for the hearts and minds. They preach to the choir too much, and, as I mentioned earlier, who but President Obama do they have that can promote their side of the story? Who are the young guns on their Triple-A team? As usual, the Democrats collectively roll over and too easily cede the bully pulpit, and we’re all going to eventually pay for this weak-kneed (lack of) reaction. It’s not good enough to be correct. You have get that message across, too.

This is clearly an extension of the Culture Wars begat first by Nixon and then perfected by Lee Atwater. Credit due: like the Devil who convinced the world he wasn’t real, to paraphrase Keyser Söze, the GOP continues to push its message and convert followers who have and will continue to suffer from the economic policies their very GOP heroes are pushing.

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If this is ‘getting screwed’…

Sen. Lindsey Graham says about the Stimulus Bill: “If I may say, if this is going to be bipartisanship, the country’s screwed.” So what does that make jamming $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for Haliburton-types down the public’s throat and 20 of 28 years of the trickle-down economy trickling precious few dregs down the legs of the wealthy to everyone else?

Can’t blame the senator for his lack of perspective (even though his dramatics in flailing around the stimulus bill on the Senate floor last week ought to get him an Oscar bid). His party wants to emulate terrorists. Nice.

Look, of course you can disagree philosophically on economic approaches — I may not agree with Sen. McCain, for example (and he was disappointingly playing by the Lindsey Graham-Eric Cantor playbook last week), but he’s certainly entitled to advocate for his party’s economic approach.

But calling a new President’s initiative, less than a month into his presidency, a stinker — in the words of Rep. Eric Cantor — and getting screwed — in the words of Graham — strikes me as especially classless (check out that previous link for a story about a video from Cantor’s office; this is from the employees of a sitting U.S. Representative and the minority Whip, no matter how much he’s trying to distance himself from it. And regarding Rep. Cantor’s love of Newt Gingrich — How long before Rep. Cantor shuts down the government because he’s forced to sit in the back of a plane?).

It seems to me the GOP is taking advantage of the new President’s efforts to extend to extend a hand to an opponent’s clenched fist by responding with a mugging and then crying foul when the privilge is refused.

It’s sort of like trying to make peace with the class bully in middle school, and then getting punched in the face in response to your offer — with the bully next running to the principal’s office to claim it was all your fault (and you getting sent to detention because the bully got his story out first).

Of course, if that’s the definition of bipartisanship according to the GOP, then I suppose I have to agree with Sen. Graham after all.


$500 large per year — A modest proposal

By The Icepick, age 36½

I see The Times, somewhat tongue in cheek, has shown how difficult it is to survive on $500,000 per year for bailed-out CEOs struggling to make ends meet on the island of Manhattan (h/t Gawker).

Private school: $32,000 a year per student.
Mortgage: $96,000 a year.
Co-op maintenance fee: $96,000 a year.
Nanny: $45,000 a year.

We are already at $269,000, and we haven’t even gotten to taxes yet.

Tongue planted firmly in cheek or planted firmly elsewhere, this is a big concern of The Icepick’s for these souls, the hard-working citizens of Kriegel’s Hedge Fund Class. Though they have made Manhattan unaffordable for anyone else — which in turn pushed slightly-less-wealthy people out to Brooklyn, making that borough mainly unaffordable for any new residents who are not insufferable and/or a part of Gawker’s creative underclass living the four-to-an-apartment life and accumulating crushing debt — and keep pushing that out 75 miles or so east and north (I don’t know Jersey except from The Sopranos, and I would say you could go south, but you might be saying “eek, eek” to the oh-so-smarter-than-humans dolphins), adding a layer of entitlement for some when you go east and a dash of the superiority complex when you land immediately north of Yonkers and New Rochelle — add in the fact that New York state government came to rely on the taxes paid by these industriously wealthy Manhattanites and can’t function without their tribute, making life even in small failing upstate cities, like, oh, say, Albany, Rochester or Schenectady unaffordable in their own bizarre way — they have a lifestyle to-which-they-are-accustomed to maintain of ex-cop drivers/bodyguards, dresses for the Botoxed wife’s attendance at charity galas, and helicopters to avoid LIE/thruway/Northway traffic to get to their summer homes on the edge of Long Island and along the rapidly overdeveloped and deteriorating shoreline of Lake George.

This, of course, overlooks the various companies’ boards who will not needlessly suffer as harshly as the CEOs they grossly overpaid and failed to supervise, or the fact that despite the President’s best intentions, most CEOs will worm a loophole out of this new pay stipulation and avoid the ignominy of buying a MetroCard and riding the subway with the Great Unwashed.

Nevertheless, The Icepick is greatly concerned for the welfare and quality of life of whatever few, poor CEOs who manage to get docked down to $500 large per year. After all, the Times earlier quoted a compensation consultant caterwauling: “That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus. … And you know these companies that are in trouble are not going to pay much of an annual dividend.”

Well, my initial thought was a modest proposal somewhat along the lines of Jonathan Swift, which would assuredly bring a kingly sum to carry the CEOs of child-rearing age through this summer in the Hamptons, or at least keep their mistresses in Prada or whatever for a while.

But, perhaps thinking that too harsh (and likely to contribute to declining enrollment in private schools, who would in turn probably hie their way to the altar of Washington, D.C., seeking their own bailout), I instead am somewhat inspired by this post on the behind-the-scenes legal wrangling involved in the forthcoming awesome-looking Watchmen movie, and am tempted to advise it as a suggestion for the well-heeled and classy class of bankers, CEOs and the like for whom $500,000 per annum is an unacceptably paltry, pitiable, and Dickensian sum on which to live.

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It’s about time

Fine. They want to cut funding for HIV testing and smoking cessation, mass transit, road-fixing, and education. We can send grieving families, black-lung causing pollution, and another generation of disadvantaged teenagers with no real opportunities directly to their homes and offices later on. But how can you even think about adding tax cuts when more people aren’t making any money to tax because, you know, they’re out of work and there’s no work available? The trickle-down economy didn’t work for the middle and lower classes, so your tax cuts for your wealthy friends and donors will only benefit your wealthy friends and donors.

Or does the GOP simply want to be known as the terrorist organization of the House? (since Rep. Sessions seems so fond of their tactics; h/t Talking Points Memo).

So, it is with great pleasure that the President is going on the offensive, even a little bit, and even if he has to play the roles of both good cop and bad cop (via CNN.com):

“We’re not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin,” he said. “We can’t embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face, that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or failing schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees.

“I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV — if you’re headed for a cliff, you’ve got to change direction.”

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Frozen out

Ashamed to admit I haven’t seen any of these films, especially in a year of such a relatively weak line-up of Oscar films (ironically, Revolutionary Road and Gran Torino are the two of this season’s Oscar-contender flicks I wanted to see, and both were largely shut out of the major nominations).

The Wire shares something with these films: They all serve as urgent dispatches on the way we live now. Wendy’s predicament—like Ale’s in Chop Shop, Marlee’s in Ballast, and Ray’s in Frozen River—resembles, if not in its details then certainly in its outlines, what millions of Americans are going through. Immersive and rigorous, these movies depict an experience that is at once common and unseen: the struggle of scratching out a living, or getting by without one.

As someone who knows upstate and its characters pretty well, I’d hazard a guess that I’d recognize a plenty of reflections in the characters of Frozen River.

What struck me about The Wire (and which apparently struck the Slate article’s author) was its portrayal of a reality not often shown on TV or in the movies, but which much of America lives. Outside of the New York City metro area, many of New York’s upstate cities look quite like mini-Baltimores of The Wire — from the urban plight of their undeveloped neighborhoods, to their machine politics, to their frequently politically/statistics-driven police forces, each with their own heroes and villains.

So how the hell is a tax cut going to help people like these, particularly a corporate tax cut? Haven’t we given tone-deaf Big Business enough help? Does bipartisanship essentially devolve into trying to humanize and make friends with the class bullies only to find out they really are unrepentant bullies (with utterly incompatible economic views) whose only hope is to make suffering worse and actively wishing for this country to fail (um, the very definition of anti-American) so that your side can pick up a few more votes in 2010?