Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Front and Center

If you can pull yourself away for a moment from today’s revelations in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Bush-era torture techniques, click on over to The Rap Sheet, where you’ll find a poll asking readers to choose the best crime novel covers of 2014. There are 20 nominees, from both sides of the Atlantic. Feel free to pick as many covers as you think deserve praise. Just know that voting will remain open until midnight on Sunday, December 21, after which the results will be tallied and announced. So don’t wait. Vote now!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reasons to Be Thankful

Can You Dig It?

Author and sometime Rap Sheet writer Gary Phillips dropped me a note over the weekend, saying that he and David Walker--the latter of whom is writing the new Shaft comic-book series for Dynamite Entertainment--“are putting together the first-ever anthology of [John] Shaft short stories … set in the ’70s of course.” As somebody who, over the years, has developed an unexpected fondness for Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft series, I look forward to seeing that black private eye’s return in any form possible.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

“We’re Seeing the Political Equivalent of Segregation Going on in the Country”

Mark Warren has a fine (though very troubling) piece in the November edition of Esquire, titled “Help, We’re in a Living Hell and Don’t Know How to Get Out.” He reportedly talked with 90 members of the present U.S. Congress--“a third of the Senate, more than a tenth of the House”--in order to write about “what’s gone so wrong” with America’s highest legislative branch. There’s much to appreciate in Warren’s article, but the best part may be the section in which he asks these elected representatives Congress has become so incredibly partisan and dysfunctional over the last decade.
Why, if so many members believe that things have gone so wrong, can’t they just fix it? There are reasons, they say, forces brought to bear that are beyond their control, and these symptoms of their current malaise are all related in a complex syndrome. In conversation after conversation, congressmen and congresswomen opened up and talked about each of these realities, regardless of party or ideology.

“You know, if I had a magic wand, one thing I would love to change—which you can’t do unless you’re king—is the redistricting process by which our boundaries are drawn,” says Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois. “Because what has happened over the decades is he who controls the mapmaking process, you know, creates hyperpartisan districts. And you get more and more members who come out here and say, ‘Gee, I know that I want to accomplish something on this issue. I want to take action on this issue, but the base of my district is so far to the right or to the left it makes it difficult for us to negotiate to the center.’ But whether you’re the most conservative member or you’re the most liberal member, if you have half a brain, you recognize you’re not going to get everything, and that any successful legislation requires the art of negotiation.”

“With the way we draw districts, with so few competitive districts, we’ve bifurcated ourselves as a civilization,” says Republican Scott Rigell of Virginia. “We get one ticket to the State of the Union, for the gallery, and my wife attends. And this year I came home from the speech, and she said, ‘Scott, I’m just struck by this, that the Republican side is just all white. And then you look over on the Democratic side, and—and it really doesn’t look like America, either, you know? It’s disproportionately represented the other way.’”

“The Democratic conference in the House looks like America,” says Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, who left his blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and now regularly takes bipartisan groups to civil-rights landmarks to educate his colleagues in nonviolent conflict-resolution techniques he learned during that period of national upheaval. “The country is changing,” Lewis says, “and change makes some people uncomfortable. But our congressional districts don’t reflect that change, and there are so few competitive districts remaining that people only fight for or speak up or speak out for the narrow base of people who reelect them.”

James Clyburn of South Carolina points out, “There are seven people who make up the House delegation from South Carolina. Seven. Of that seven, one’s a Democrat, and that’s me. Of that seven, one is black, and that’s me. Forty-four percent of the electorate is Democratic, yet we get one Democrat in Congress. Twenty-nine percent of the state is black, and yet we get one black in the House.”

“When you have these one-party districts, the only election is in the primary, and the winner of the primary will be the one who is closer to the views of the narrowest base,” says Angus King, Independent senator from Maine. “You can’t be moderate. Who votes in primaries? You have a 10 percent turnout in a primary election in Georgia, and Republicans are 30 percent of the population. So 10 percent of 30 percent—that’s 3 percent of the population voting to choose the nominee, and then if it’s a multiperson race, and the winner gets 35 percent, that's one third of 3 percent—1 percent of the population chooses the nominee, who in a gerrymandered district will be the eventual member of Congress. That is bizarre, and it has completely polarized Congress. In the primary system that we have now, there is no upside for a Republican to be reasonable. I have a friend who is a very conservative senator, and he faced a primary this year, and I said, ‘Good Lord, man, what are they gonna charge you with?’ And he said: ‘Being reasonable.’”

“Our Venn diagram,” says Derek Kilmer, Democrat of Washington State, “is two circles, miles apart. Just after we got here, a group of us, Democrats and Republicans, were at a burger joint talking, and after about forty-five minutes, I said, ‘We have to be able to get our act together and figure some of these things out.’ And across the table, one of my colleagues said, ‘Derek, I like you, but you have to understand that I won my seat by defeating a Republican incumbent in my primary, and I campaigned against him for not being conservative enough. The first vote I cast when I got here was against John Boehner for Speaker, and I put out a press release that I had voted against him because he was too compromising. I like you, but I have zero interest in compromising with you or anybody else. My constituents didn’t send me here to work with you; they sent me here to stop you.’ I left there and called my wife and said, ‘Oh, my God!’

“We’re seeing the political equivalent of segregation going on in the country,” says Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
You can, and should, read all of Warren’s Esquire piece here.

READ MORE:Has Gerrymandering Made It Impossible for Democrats to Win the House?,” by Sam Wang (The New Yorker); “GOP Gerrymandering: Dems Never Had a Chance” (Crooks & Liars); “The Right Makes the Case Against Governing,” by Steve Benen (The Maddow Blog); “No, Republicans Don’t Actually Need to ‘Show They Can Govern,’” by Paul Waldman (The Washington Post).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Certainly a Step in the Right Direction

With just a week to go now before national midterm elections in the United States, former Representative Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) has penned a piece for the UK’s Guardian newspaper in which he makes the case that the best way to fix America’s recently dysfunctional Congress is to vote obstructionist Republicans out of office. “As long as the Republican Party is dominated by leaders of extreme ideological rigidity, and they escape the blame that they deserve,” Frank argues, “the dysfunctional situation in Congress will continue.” I can’t disagree.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Journalism Loses Another Vital Voice

Oh no, not this! From the blog L.A. Observed:
A media icon of progressive Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, has shut down. The staff was called in today and told the Oct. 15 issue will be its last. Just before the meeting, editors found their e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts deactivated. The Bay Guardian started in 1966, a year before the Summer of Love, and covered San Francisco and Berkeley through the free speech era, the anti-Vietnam War era, the emergence of gay rights and the Dan White murders, through the gentrification wars right up to the recent changes in San Francisco wrought by technology billions. The operating slogan was to “print the news and raise hell.” The Bay Guardian survived a move by rival alt weekly owners from the Phoenix New Times chain to squeeze the older paper out of business, but in 2012 founders Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble stepped down and agreed to be bought out by the parent company of the SF Examiner, which later bought the SF Weekly as well.
Back when I worked in the world of alternative weekly newspapers (good times!), the Bay Guardian was considered a powerhouse in the field, along with New York’s Village Voice. It’s a shame to see it collapse just at a time when we could all use more “real,” energetic journalism in the world, as opposed to the sketchy, free-for-all sort of amateur reporting now being spread by so many news blogs of one sort or another.

READ MORE:The Bay Guardian Shuts Down,” by Tim Redmond
(48 Hills).

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Inspect This!

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The best news of the day (so far): The British crime drama Inspector Lewis will return to PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! series this coming Sunday night, offering the first of three new episodes. The plot of that October 5 installment, “Entry Wounds,” is described this way: “Faced with a crime that bridges the worlds of neurosurgery, blood sports and animal rights, [newly promoted Detective Inspector James] Hathaway works his first case as DI with the help of his new partner, DS Lizzie Maddox [played by Angela Griffin]. [Robbie] Lewis, struggling to adapt to retired life, jumps at the chance to rejoin the force when Chief Superintendent Innocent seeks his help.” The program will begin at 9 p.m. Word is that this is the final season for Inspector Lewis, which means fans like me must appreciate it all the more. Learn more here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Say U.N.C.L.E.

Well, I’ve done it again: written something in The Rap Sheet that should also interest Limbo readers. As some of you may know, it was 50 years ago today--on September 22, 1964--that NBC-TV introduced a new weekly spy-adventure series titled The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Clickety-clack here to read my anniversary post.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bret Maverick in a Pontiac Firebird

As I note in one of my other blogs, The Rap Sheet, it was 40 years ago tonight that The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, debuted on NBC-TV. You will find my recollections of that event here. Enjoy!

Friday, September 12, 2014

No Way to Run a Government

From PoliticsUSA: “When an individual or group reaches a state of mind in which they become obsessed with, or inordinately attached to, an idea or a stated goal they are considered by psychologists to be fixated. Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of being close to a person fixated on an idea can attest that nothing will deter the person’s obsession, even if there is a danger to themselves or others. There is a fairly substantial number of conservatives who are obsessed with bringing the federal government to its knees because there is an African American sitting in the Oval Office, and they are fixated on shutting down the government if their efforts are thwarted by the President or Senate Democrats.

“The truth is that since teabaggers became de facto leaders of the Republican Party, they have contemplated various schemes to shut down Washington. After U.S. Senator Ted Cruz took control of the Republican House and masterminded the government shutdown last October, many Republicans complained bitterly about and railed against other Republicans who voted to re-open the government and they have been obsessed with shutting it down again. In fact, their fixation with a shutdown is so overwhelming they have promised that if they gain control of both houses of Congress, their approach to ‘ruling America’ will be predicated on the perpetual threat of closing the government to force President Obama to assist their ‘bring the government to its knees’ obsession.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Expect More Political Games Ahead

It seems fairly predictable what congressional Republicans--ever amateurish, and both unwilling and utterly incapable of governing--will try to do now that President Barack Obama has defined the outlines of a plan to confront the terrorist organization known as ISIS (or ISIL).

First, Republicans will complain that the president’s objectives and tactics aren’t aggressive enough, and that sufficient details of his approach to curbing the Middle East terrorist threat have not been provided. Next, they’ll complain that the cost of the plan, as the president has conceived it, is excessive. At the same time, the GOP will refuse to articulate an alternative approach to shutting down ISIS--because they don’t have one. When the president and his fellow Democrats eventually try to get Congress on the record with a vote on a long-term strategy opposing the so-called Islamic State, Republicans will whine and complain that they have not seen enough to make them believe the plan will work, and so they can’t possibly support it. Again, they won’t offer any alternative, hoping instead to place the entire burden of this military/diplomatic campaign on Democrats ... who Republicans will look forward to later blaming for whatever might go wrong with the strategy (and things will inevitably go wrong). At that point, Democrats--realizing that they are in a no-win position--will leave the heavy lifting to President Obama, who Republicans (and their right-wingers water carriers in the media) will begin attacking for “not having worked hard enough” to win congressional backing for his ISIS strategy.

And you wonder why voters think Congress is incapable of getting anything done anymore...

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Getting a Read on My Reading

I was starting to think that nobody would invite me to take part in the latest Facebook meme. Finally, though, my friend (and January Magazine editor) Linda L. Richards tagged me. The challenge is to name 10 books that have “stayed with you” in some way. You shouldn’t think too hard on the matter, and the books you choose don’t need to be great works of literature, just those that you hold a little piece of in your heart. Well, here goes my list:

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (1985)
Lincoln, by Gore Vidal (1984)
The Underground Man, by Ross Macdonald (1971)
The Little Book, by Selden Edwards (2008)
Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow (2009)
Riven Rock, by T.C. Boyle (1998)
Mohawk, by Richard Russo (1986)
Never Cross a Vampire, by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1980)
The Steam Pig, by James McClure (1971)
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt, by David McCullough (1981)

As I said, I put these picks together quickly, without over-thinking the exercise. That my list features only three crime novels shouldn’t be terribly surprising; they represent my early experiences with the genre, back when I was still trying to decide whether it offered the storytelling scope and writing quality that would keep me interested in the long run. (Obviously, it did!) I am more surprised to see that only two of the books I mention were published within the last 15 years.

Even extending my tally to 22 titles (I couldn’t bear to trim any more out of it) adds only two 21st-century works:

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos (1989)
Ringworld, by Larry Niven (1970)
The Theory of Everything, by Lisa Grunwald (1991)
The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, by Herbert Asbury (1933)
The Eighth Circle, by Stanley Ellin (1958; more here)
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
The Blind Man of Seville, by Robert Wilson (2003)
The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie Jr. (1947)
Looking for Rachel Wallace, by Robert B. Parker (1980)
Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive’s Search for Justice in the Vanishing West, by Joe Jackson (2001--more here)
Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, by Steven Millhauser (1996)
Angel in Black, by Max Allan Collins (1981--more here)

Have I become increasingly critical of books over time? Was I more open to new works during the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s--is that why those decades are best represented here? Perhaps my standards for excellence have risen over the many years I’ve been reviewing books, and it’s harder now for a new yarn to win my love. That’s as good an excuse as any.

On Facebook, participants in this meme were asked to tag others, who would then feel pressured to submit their own book choices. I am declining to do that here. But if you’d like to share your top-10 lists in the Comments section below, that would be cool.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Fall of “Governor Family Values”



MSNBC host Rachel Maddow did a fairly outstanding job this evening of reporting on the multiple guilty verdicts handed down in the corruption trial of Republican former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. She retraces McDonnell’s rise as a “family values” politician, a graduate of televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian university, and a potential running mate for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, then follows the declining arc of his political career, culminating in a recent legal defense that found this supposed great upholder of traditional marriage mounting a legal defense based on scapegoating his own wife.

READ MORE:Virginia’s McDonnell Guilty on 11 Counts of Corruption,” by Steve Benen (The Maddow Blog); “Bob McDonnell’s Shocking Stupidity: How Could a Politician Have Been This Dumb?” by Jim Newell (Salon).

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams, Signing Off

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The scene above comes from Dead Poets Society (1989)

Sad news from the Los Angeles Times:
Oscar-winning actor and comic Robin Williams died Monday at 63 of an apparent suicide, the Marin County Sheriff's Office confirmed.

Around 11:55 a.m. Monday, sheriff’s officials said, a 911 call came in about a man who was unresponsive in his home in Tiburon. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Williams “has been battling severe depression of late,” his publicist Mara Buxbaum said. “This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

“I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul,” fellow actor-comedian Steve Martin said on Twitter.
You’ll find the full Times piece here.

SEE MORE:13 Amazing Robin Williams Moments We’ll Never Forget,” by Sarah Gray (Salon); “An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion,” by Edward Champion (Reluctant Habits).

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Real Struggle for the Republican Soul

In a post for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog about strategic and tactical differences among today’s Republican candidates for office, Ed Kilgore shines some light on the steady growth of a meta-ideology known as “constitutional conservatism.” He explains:
I do worry that the still-emerging ideology of “constitutional conservatism” is something new and dangerous, at least in its growing respectability. It’s always been there in the background, among the Birchers and in the Christian Right, and as an emotional and intellectual force within Movement Conservatism. It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of “traditional culture” is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t--all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or “foreign” delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America. I don’t think at this point “constitutional conservatism” has taken over the GOP, but its rhetoric and the confrontational--even chiliastic--strategy and tactics it suggests are becoming more common every day, even among hackish pols who probably don’t think deeply about anything and would sell out the “base” in a heartbeat if they could get away with it. Some of the moneyed interests bankrolling the GOP and the conservative movement probably just view all the God and Founders talk as a shiny bauble with which to fool the rubes, but others--notably the Kochs--seem to have embraced it as a vehicle for permanent domination of American politics. This is the real “struggle for the soul of the GOP” that’s worth watching, far more than the tempests in a Tea Party Pot in this or that primary.
The highlighting is mine. Read all of Kilgore’s post here.