Sunday, June 30, 2013

Some social issues more "equal" than others

Over the past week or so, the U.S. Supreme Court has been busy handing down rulings on social issues. Several months have passed since the court upheld fascist-style “show me your papers” laws that are plainly meant to marginalize and intimidate Latinos, and then allowed Republican-controlled states to further harm the poor by denying them access to the Medicaid expansion package in the health care reform law. Now the court has gutted the Voting Rights Act—allowing states that already have marginalized minority populations to marginalize them yet further in order to maintain white supremacy—and refusing to uphold the University of Texas’ “8 percent” rule, intended to diversify the university by making the top-8 percent of each high school’s graduating class automatically eligible for admission to the university or its branches. 

That case was brought forward—as other education-related cases before it—by a white female who claims discrimination; given the fact that white females represent by far the largest demographic in colleges and universities across the nation, this would seem the height of hypocrisy, greed and arrogance; but being white, female and a “victim” is always a hot seller with the media. The plaintiff in this case only finished in the top-12 of her high school class, but why work harder in class when you can always claim “white privilege”? Instead of ruling immediately in favor of such a lame plaintiff (who was admitted to LSU, where one former student, David Duke, occasionally wore a Nazi storm trooper outfit) , the court sent the case down to force the lower courts to revisit the case and rule more “appropriately.”

In the other social issues case, one “minority” group did benefit: The gay and lesbian community, when key parts of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” passed in the 1990s was struck down as unconstitutional, essentially giving same-sex marriages federal recognition. As I noted before, the news was greeted with banner headlines in newspapers all over the nation, unlike the tepid response to the Court’s actions that negatively affect racial minorities. One can’t help but to observe that images of the celebrants over the DOMA decision seemed to be universally white. Of course, white people don’t have a lock on the lifestyle, but let’s consider one fact: being white and gay is quite a different situation than being, say, black and gay. If being gay can be “hidden” or not readily apparent or is a particular “problem” unless someone is purposefully trying to be offensive, a complete stranger would never guess that the person was anything other than a privileged white person in this country. 

The fact of a person’s race overrides all other empirical considerations. The color of one’s skin, of course, cannot be changed, and thus is a permanent “affliction.” I readily concede that if we truly live in the “land of the free,” that includes who you choose as a life partner. There are a great many things that people don’t like, such as paying taxes, going to the dentist, or dying; people also have different tastes in art and music, and sometimes their opinions can relatively violent; but in a country that tends to leap before it looks, the erosion of “traditional” mores has become a landslide in the last few decades, and it cannot be stopped without being judged a hypocrite. 

No one need invent reasons why the media has in the main been in advocate mode in regard to gay and lesbian rights. Many in the media—especially women of the gender advocate and feminist stripe—see the issue as an extension of their own anti-patriarchal and self-empowerment agenda. Also into play is, as mentioned before, is the fact that this has largely been a “white rights” affair framed by educated, successful “victims” for whom the personal “indignity” of not overturning the one seemingly sacrosanct social tradition—that “marriage” is the union between a man and a woman, if for no other reason that it defines what a higher life form such as humans consider the “natural” process of procreation and raising of  young—is as much a matter of politics, ideology and power. And who is better positioned to control that message than a media both white-dominated and sympathetic? Certainly in regard to minority concerns, the reaction has been more muted, since whites in the media see no benefit for themselves of their friends.  

In an increasingly we-have-ours-screw-you turnabout, white privilege is making a comeback at the expense of what was largely the pretense of a desire to see minority advancement in this society. Yes, we have a black president, but his agenda has largely been derailed or neutered. The same-sex “rights” issue is just another aspect of this movement.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

“Congratulations” Justice Roberts—you have your very own Dred Scot for your resumé

The current U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps the most reactionary in U.S. history since the pre-Civil War period, has just promulgated its own Dred Scot decision.  Voting, of course, is a constitutional right—but only when and how a state deems fit, or so sayeth Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion on a 5-4 ideological split. Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act—which established the requirement that states with prior voter-suppression histories obtain prior approval by the Justice Department when making changes to its voting procedures—were declare “unconstitutional” despite the fact that the Act explicitly falls under the purview of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 

“Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” What planet is Roberts and the rest of the right-wing majority on the Court—including confirmed racial bigots like Scalia, Alito and Thomas (Mr. “White”)—inhabiting? The irony of it all is that there are banner headlines in regard the Court's follow-up decision, overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which essentially gives same-sex couples federal recognition; but there has been barely an acknowledgment by the white-controlled media that this same court has been whittling away at racial minority rights for years.

Let’s drift back into reality. Six states of the old Confederacy (not including border state Kentucky) have two Republican U.S. Senators; in fact there are more Republican senators from the former Union states than there are Democrats in a region formerly almost exclusively represented by that party. According to the 2010 Census, the state of Mississippi is 58 percent white and 37 percent black. Yet since 1989 it has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, and the state’s oddly-shaped congressional districts insure that the majority of the state’s black population is crowded into one district, providing the state’s only Democrat in its congressional delegation. 

What is disturbing about this is that theoretically if only 20 percent of the state’s white population voted Democrat, the make-up of its congressional delegation would likely be the opposite of what it is. Much the same can be said about other states and municipalities that were under the purview of the Voting Rights Act. Yet blacks and other minorities—despite constituting a sizable proportion of the population—have little or no influence in policymaking in these states dominated by the racial attitudes of the white majority which is still largely stuck in an antebellum mentality. 

In states like Alabama and Texas, efforts to further suppress the vote of presumably Democratic-leaning constituencies—whether by voter ID laws, having fewer polling places with shortened polling hours in certain districts, restricting early voting (especially for those with transportation or work hour issues), defective voting machines, or machines that use software manufactured by Republican activists with memory drives that can be “manipulated” or “replaced”—are, as Justice Ginsberg pointed out in her dissent—no different in spirit than the voter suppression of an earlier time. In fact, they are more sinister in character, because they cynically use the cover of “law,” which uses the pretense of “ignorance” to disguise their actual intent.   

Critics of the Voting Rights Act point to the election of Barack Obama as president as “proof” that the Act is no longer needed. On the contrary, it is proof that the Act not only works but is still needed. Obama was elected no help from states which are governed by Section 4 of the Act, and voter suppression laws passed not only in the South but by Republican-controlled state governments in the North were promulgated in response to this “unfortunate” event. Why do you think that Karl Rove was in a state of hysteria and denial when Ohio voted for Obama in 2012? Because he was certain that the same “covert” tactics employed in 2004 would “swing” the vote to his preferred candidate.  These tactics were spelled out in a subsequent Congressional report—released with the acquiescence of the Republicans only on the grounds that nothing would be done to curb such illegalities. 

Justice Roberts claims that our country has “changed.” Says who? Certainly no white person in red-Right states. They can’t understand why anyone would vote for a black man as president of “their” country. The immigration issue has also exposed the fact that nothing has really changed about our society. People may walk the same streets, work in the same places, eat in the same fast food restaurants; but when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of the matter, our society remains as segregated in time and space and mind as ever.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The privy of the universe

I’m trying to formulate a joke, except that it is hard to joke about the subject matter. How many of the brave boys and girls of the law enforcement departments of SeaTac, the Port of Seattle, the Department of Homeland Security, the Metro Sheriff and some guy in an unmarked car does it take to detain and arrest a shirtless, unarmed black guy with a Mohawk haircut? This was near a bus stop outside the airport; maybe the officers thought the sight of him was annoying these three posh-looking white women. After all, we must always be concerned about what potential consumers of air travel might see; we don’t want the thought of such sights be the cause of air sickness. 

A couple of the officers were laughing, so I don’t think the matter went much beyond the empirical aspect. Thus in this manner it is easy to get a criminal record. But frankly, I think that there are other, more legitimate reasons to be arrested for attire malfunction. Take for example the baggy-pants-hanging-halfway-down-the-fundament look sported by certain youth. I understand that there are certain places in the South where that can get you arrested, and for once I think that this regressive region of the nation has the right idea. There was a time when exposing one’s unsightly fundament was the topic of mirth and embarrassment; I recall an old Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Ackroyd as a plumber, drawing laughs when he exposed his ass-crack when bending over. 

But what is against the law or not seems to be a matter of personal taste, or how many brain cells are allowed to function. For example, how many of you ever decided to spend a pleasant afternoon in a park reading a book? Maybe not so many, but a few perhaps. How many of you have been approached by a police officer who asked you what you were doing. Fewer still, I’m certain. If you are like me, you might become offended by the attention and ask “What does it look like I’m doing?” The cop may respond “I don’t know what you are doing.” This is because according to the police training manual, people of certain “ethnicity” do not do things that “normal,” intelligent people do; it’s only a cover for some illegal activity, to throw the cops off a more nefarious purpose. It’s got to be; if police were that stupid, it would explain why one would shoot down innocent, unarmed people like the Native American woodcarver John T. Williams a few years ago in Seattle.  I dunno; I told a Kent cop that the reason why I was waiting at a bus stop was because I was going to the airport where I work; wouldn’t you know that ninny followed the bus all the way down to SeaTac to discover that it actually did stop at the airport?

Whether on the “right” side or the wrong side, human beings often seem to be the victims of their own failure to take stock of the situation and act in accordance with their best interests. Take for instance football player Aaron Hernandez, who plays tight end for the New England Patriots. Like many people whose primary path to success is the ability to advance their physical skills to the level of playing professional athletics, Hernandez could not advance from the level of immature boy to mature man. He only appears to be a man. The “boy” clings to his irresponsible “friends” who mainly took advantage of his fame and newly-acquired wealth by pretending that they had his best interests in mind. The “man” would have left these losers and spongers who had nothing to do with his success behind and associated himself with people who might actually help him from falling back into the trap of the “gangsta” lifestyle when his playing days are over. 

Unfortunately, a $40 million contract and a mansion in an exclusive neighborhood only bankrolled a dissolute lifestyle—one that Hernandez had promised to mend following a shooting incident that he was involved in earlier in the year. But rather than turning over a new leaf, he could not control his natural instinct to “hang out” with the same “friends” who enabled a lifestyle not of advancement into a higher plane, but regression into a “comfort” zone in which the influence of money only enlarged personal faults. The cost of this failure is a looming murder charge after another night out with his “friends.” Hernandez's actions in the wake of the murder—a desperate effort to destroy any trace of his involvement—only underlines the failure to fully own the consequences of not taking advantage of financial success for personal improvement.

Voltaire wrote that according to one religion, human existence on Earth is explained thus:  The first run of human beings existed on ambrosia, the food of the gods, the excess of which was expectorated harmlessly through the pores. But then one day the humans ate cake, which they liked very much, but had an unpleasant side effect. They asked an angel what they were supposed to do now, and the angel pointed the way to this insignificant little planet that meant nothing to the gods. Thus Earth became the lavatory of the universe. No further clarification required.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

MTV and the music industry's funk

I was sitting in a Laundromat several weeks ago when on the television set was four of the original MTV “VJs” on the all-female talk show ‘The View”—Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter and what’s-her-name; the fifth member of the fraternity—J.J. Jackson—had passed away of a heart attack in 2004. They were part of a long-lost historical artifact called “music television,” and for a moment I thought I was part of the heritage, so I purchased the book they were hawking from Amazon. Too late I recalled my true feelings about the channel: Particularly in the beginning, it was geared straight for a narrow, rock-oriented white audience. I looked at its Day One playlist, and I think the only song I liked was Juice Newton’s distinctly un-rock “Angel of the Morning”—probably added to the list because of a shortage of suitable videos. I simply didn’t like most of the songs they played, and watching their videos didn’t make them any more palatable. 

MTV was for white kids and arrested-adolescence. There was an audience for the more “adult”-oriented VH-1, but that would be a few years down the road. On “The View” the hosts tried to get the four to address the issue of racism during the early years of MTV. Naturally the question got the runaround treatment. In the book, VJThe Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, the Mississippi-born program director, Bill Pittman, wasn’t a “racist,” and Goodman says he was “ambushed” by David Bowie into offering corporate rationalizations for the lack of videos by black artists on MTV. What were they trying to say? That no one at MTV was a “racist”—but its target audience was? Surprisingly, despite the fact Thriller was well on its way to becoming an unprecedented phenomenon, the channel refused to air the video of Michael Jackson’s huge hit “Billy Jean” until CBS Records actually carried out its threat to remove all its artists’ videos from MTV’s playlist. It was subsequently claimed that the reason why MTV was “reluctant” to air Jackson’s video was that his music was too “pop.” 

I didn’t get much information from “The View,” but “shock jock” Howard Stern was another matter; Stern is the kind of host who can make guests feel comfortable making fools of themselves—particularly concerning their views on sexual matters. Hunter seemed to find the topic particularly “cathartic,” while Blackwood claimed to be a “prude.” However, she received some good-natured ribbing from her male cohorts for saying that the one thing she regrets most in her life is posing for Playboy in her pre-MTV days. She apparently did a test centerfold shoot, and a couple of the pictures ended-up in a “Girls of the Office” pictorial. One thing that can be ascertained for certain is that Blackwood is not a natural blonde. 

Quinn kinda got into my gourde when she claimed that the videos with “sexual” content that didn’t bother her in the old days bother her now that she has a daughter. Huh? If she was able to overlook the sales pitch then, why would her daughter not be smart enough to do so now, particularly when there is so much such content on television today to desensitize the mind into submission? Where are you going to see these videos anyway?—certainly not on MTV these days; even the "m" is barely visible in the channel's new logo. In the book, Quinn claims that she used to listen to the Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” on auto-rewind; now she hates the song for its "sexual innuendo.” I mean, who can understand what the singer is saying in that impenetrable accent? It’s just a catchy nonsense song, nothing more. I bet some people still don’t “get” what the “Afternoon Delight” is in the Starland Vocal Band’s subversive hit.

Politically, Blackwood writes that she saw through the fraud that was Ronald Reagan, but Goodman and Hunter both admit they voted for Reagan in 1980. Goodman says he regrets doing so, but Hunter says that we “need” someone “like Reagan” now. Earth-to-Alan: A lot of people believe that the problems we have in this country today are a direct result of the reactionary policies instituted by the Reagan administration. The last thing the country needs is another dose of his kind of poison--even when his mind was in a hazy cloud, which was most of the time.

During the 1980s I was busy rebuilding my record collection on CDs and relying on my ears to determine what new music was worth purchasing. In my mind, viewers of MTV didn’t get involved with the music—they just “watched” it. I had read of the “recession” in music sales after the 1970s, and figured that much of this had to do with MTV and the fact that people could “watch” songs rather than buy them; it might not have been the intent of video to “kill” the “radio star,” but if this was the result, it inadvertently did great harm to record sales and the record industry generally. And for what? MTV today is as much a useless acronym for a bygone era as “YMCA” is. 

But as much as I would like to blame MTV for the music industry’s woes today, that is something that I cannot honestly hang on them. I came across a 2010 article entitled “The Recession in the Music Industry – A Cause Analysis” on a website devoted to “music business research.” In it Peter Tschmuck (I can only imagine what it was like for him in school with that appellation) writes that “Filesharing is made primarily responsible for the decline in sales in the phonographic industry, especially in the CD segment. However, serious research on filesharing behavior shows that filesharing use does not necessarily have a negative impact on physical and digital sales. But if this is not the case, then there must be other causes for the now decade-long recession.”

He notes that dollar sales have seen more than double-digit yearly declines in recent years, but not necessarily in total unit sales. According to a chart he provides, vinyl LP sales peaked in 1981, with 1.14 billion in worldwide sales. While vinyl sales began to decline dramatically with the advent of the Compact Disc, cassette tapes actually saw a dramatic increase; cassette sales peaked in 1990, with 1.54 billion in unit sales. But after 1990 there was boom in CD sales, peaking at 2.45 billion in 2000; conversely, cassette sales decreased with the availability of affordable recordable CDs. Meanwhile, the singles format—either in 45s or CDs—peaked in 1983 at 800 million, before beginning a slow downward drift, bottoming out at 233 million in 2003. But since then there has been a dramatic rise in “singles” sales—mainly due to single-song digital downloads; songs legally purchased are now double the level of the early Eighties. Less impressive is the sale of complete digital albums; in 2008, these accounted for 113 million units. CD sales have almost halved since their peak, but are still by far the preferred medium for album purchases. 

Why the steep decrease in dollar sales then? Until the mid-Eighties, album sales generally outnumbered singles sales by a 2-1 margin, but then the ratio shifted dramatically in favor of album sales until the early 2000s.  Today, digital downloads of single songs match that of CDs and digital albums. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what this means: The price point differential of albums compared to 99-cent digital downloads can be 10-1 or more. Thus a decrease in total dollar volume can be considerable if consumers are forgoing the purchase of whole albums and merely purchasing songs they like. 

Yet we see all these “music” stars who seem to be rather well off; what you don’t see is that there are fewer of them. In the “old” days, record companies broke new artists by initially releasing singles to see how the market reacted to their sound; you often hear of cases where a group has a huge hit, and the record company scrambles to record a quickie album to take advantage of this initial success. There seemed to be limitless supply of such recording acts that didn’t last much longer than two albums before fading. However, if an artist established a reliable fan base, singles served more as an “advertisement”—much the way music videos would later on. Sometimes potential hits were left on the table if it was believed their release would actually hurt album sales. However, such reliance on albums as an income generator also contained the seeds of its decline; if they were regarded as mostly “filler,” consumers would jump at the chance to purchase only the songs they liked, ignoring the album altogether. 

Another thing older pop music listeners will notice that market dynamics have changed. While there was once just a “white” and a “black” market, there was considerable overlap; Motown even styled itself “The sound of young America” in the 1960s. This was perhaps even more the case in the 1970s. But as Tschmuck points out, “The labels and above all the majors had realized that they could increase the profits by a target group-specific supply policy. New market segments such as Country & Western, folk, and many types of rock music – Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Art Rock, Jazz Rock, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal etc – were established. This segmentation strategy certainly met a landscape of differentiated musical tastes, and music consumers welcomed this.”

But it came at a cost that the music industry only belatedly recognized. The more the separation into “segments,” the smaller the consumer base for each genre. I grew-up on 1970s AM Top-40, and this was a time when soft-rock, “Countrypolitan,” “Art Rock,” Philly Soul, novelty songs, Funk and instrumentals (and Disco) resided comfortably side-by-side with more established styles; all a song had to be was tight and tuneful. One thing I remember most fondly was the sense of humor of the times—something that seems to be completely absent from today’s artists. But when record companies started targeting specific audiences instead of a general audience, the “general”—or “mainstream”—audience that was the biggest consumers of music started losing interest in other genres and stuck to a dwindling pool of songs that they liked. 

To combat this side-effect of fragmentation, “The majors then embarked on a new strategy,” writes Tschmuck. “The artist roster was severely reduced, and instead of serving all market segments, the majors were committed to the superstar principle. Thus, the 1980s were dominated by pop superstars like Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Elton John, George Michael, Lionel Ritchie, Bruce Springsteen, etc.” But even this model could not survive for long in the face of the digital download revolution. In this day and age of “reality” television, people want “instant” gratification, and fewer people see the “value” of purchasing an entire album, even by “superstars”; they can hear snippets of a song or stream it on YouTube, and pick and choose what they want to purchase (if they don’t want to spend time searching for it for free). 

Thus the market has returned to a “singles”-oriented market, but not in the same way as before. We are not talking about the same quality or even quantity of the old singles’ market—not to my ears, not by a long shot. The only way the music industry can recover to its former “glory” days is if recording artists are more focused on quality and reaching a broader market. Most of what I’m hearing these days—particularly the mind-numbing repetitiveness of hip-hop and its ancillaries that still dominates what passes for “Top-40” radio—I don’t have much hope for that.