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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Poor Tom Speaks to the President-Elect

-- By Tom Phillips  

(After fasting through the Winter Solstice, Poor Tom puts on his clothes and comes in from the cold.)

Poor Tom in "King Lear"
OK friends, I apologize.  As some of you realized, Poor Tom was just a naked disguise, and his impenetrable essays on Irony no more than a post-election distraction for an old man -- an old man fearing for his grandchildren, trying to step back and love the world from an ironic distance, a literary perspective.

Still, it was a timely topic.

The primary definition of irony -- saying one thing and meaning another -- is Trumpspeak, the new lingua franca of our land.  A University means a scam.  I grabbed her by the private parts means I didn't do anything. "Make America Great Again" means make the rich richer.  "Lock her up" means drop the case.  A Wall means a fence, and then nothing.  NATO means NADA.

Everything he says means nothing -- he speaks in the moment only, and the meaning disappears like a post on Snapchat.   This is the ultimate in irony -- not the distance between one meaning and another, but the distance between meaning and non-meaning, being and nothingness.

However!

(With little hope but firm resolve, Poor Tom dons a scholar's robe, shakes his sleeves and begins to speak into the air)

Listen up, Mr. President-elect:

Friday, December 9, 2016

Friend of the Poor


-- By Tom Phillips

Bob Dylan is a serial disappointer, and that is part of what's kept him thriving as an artist for six decades.  A Swedish friend tells me his nation is deeply hurt that Dylan declined to come to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature.  But this is just one of a long series of disappointments and shocks to his fans -- going back to the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, when the left's favorite folk-singer came out with a snarl and an electric guitar.  

In 1967, after a year's hiatus attributed to a mysterious accident, he again came out with a new style that distressed his followers.  Suddenly Dylan's words and music seemed thin and spare -- compared to the hard rock and smoldering satire that began in Newport and culminated with "Blonde on Blonde."

Sunday, December 4, 2016

History Without Hate?

-- By Tom Phillips
"this election showed... the emergence of white people as a minority-style political bloc."  NY Times, 12/4/2016

“Let the grassroots turn on the hate"   Stephen Bannon, Trump adviser 
 
When one of my daughters was in middle school--  a public school, in New York City -- she came home one day with the following reflection:  "I hate English people."

 I asked why, and she answered with a litany of all the horrors visited by English colonialists on native peoples in the course of their imperial rule.  That was all she knew about "English people."  She didn't even know she was one of them.

When I informed her of her own heritage -- Anglo-Saxon and Celtic -- she was puzzled.  She was old enough to realize the implication -- that she ought to hate herself.  

The next day I went in to talk to the teacher.  When she heard what this 12-year-old had got out of her class, she too was puzzled.  The last thing she wanted was for students to hate themselves.  The school was also busy teaching self-esteem and self-love.  Unfortunately, they were pitching that message to a diverse student body by giving them someone to hate -- an undefined class of imperialists loosely interpreted as "English people."

This is one of the ways that white people in America came to think of ourselves as an oppressed minority.  We're not, of course.  We're still a privileged plurality, assured of special treatment by the cops, the courts, and financial institutions.  But as long as as we teach history in a way that casts Anglo-Europeans mainly or exclusively as oppressors, we reject and alienate them just as we have rejected minorities in the past.  This is one source of the resentment felt by less fortunate whites against an intellectual regime they have characterized as "politically correct."  The hate they are now acting out is payback for their long years not just in the economic doldrums, but also the doghouse of history.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

That Murrow Moment

 -- By Tom Phillips

Last summer, journalists great and small were questioning whether 2016 was a "Murrow Moment"  -- whether they should cast off their  professional neutrality and warn the nation about the dangers of Donald Trump.  The New York Times, after a brief struggle, went all in -- calling out his falsehoods in every news story, while thundering daily denunciations from the editorial and Op-ed pages.

The Huffington Post huffed and posted -- and tagged every story with a disclaimer, complete with otiose adjectives:  "Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist etc etc.."

On election night, Rachel Maddow melted down, blaming his win on the hapless Libertarian candidate who siphoned votes from who knows who?  MSNBC punctuated its coverage with sighs of grief and an audible "Jeez.."

Even the supposed right-wing nuts who led Fox News's coverage were in denial: long after midnight, Shepard Smith was looking grimly away from the handwriting on the wall, murmuring  "it's not over, it's not over."

But it is.   The "Murrow Moment" has come and gone.  Those who tried to turn the tide found the power of the press was zero, or less. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Art of the Ego

Donald & Marla, 1990
-- By Tom Phillips 

One night in 1990, my Presbyterian minister wife and I were seated on the couch, watching raptly along with thirty million Americans as Diane Sawyer scored her exclusive interview with the woman of the hour -- Marla Maples, the girlfriend of Donald Trump.  The real estate mogul was leaving his wife Ivana for this foxy anonymous model, and the nation was transfixed.  The tale was taking on biblical proportions, like David and Bathsheba.

Suddenly I sat up.  What the hell were we doing?  Neither of us cared a fig for moguls or models.  How had this semi-scandalous affair become a national obsession?  How had it sucked us in? 

Well, it wasn't her.  Marla soon faded back into anonymity, just another ex-wife.  But the Donald never went away.  I can't stand him, never want to be in the same room with him, cringe with terror at the thought of his becoming president.  But like millions of hapless onlookers, I still can't take my eyeballs off him.  What is going on?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A "Murrow Moment"?

Edward R. Murrow
-- By Tom Phillips

This year's presidential campaign is proving to be a challenge, or maybe just a temptation, for some journalists.  In the last week some have questioned the old standard of "objectivity" -- asking whether it's time to declare an emergency, jettison a disinterested approach to events, and ride like Paul Revere to the rescue of American civilization.

A front-page article in the New York Times asked rhetorically what reporters should do if they believe  Donald Trump is a demagogue who would be dangerous with nuclear weapons.  The answer: "you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, and approach it in a way you've never approached anything in your career."  Really?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Northwest Notes

-- By Tom Phillips

The Palouse, Eastern Washington
To judge by the news in Seattle, Lewis and Clark discovered America.  The business section of the Seattle Times covers western firms almost exclusively, and lists only Northwest stocks.  These are led by some of the biggest companies in America -- Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, all headquartered in the Seattle area.  Washington is one of the most prosperous states in the US, kicking off so much tax revenue that the legislature just reduced tuition at state colleges by up to 20 percent.  Meanwhile, housing prices statewide are rising at the fastest rate in the US.

Eastern Washington produces and exports a staggering quantity of  food and drink -- wheat and barley, beans, apples, peaches, grapes and berries, wine and beer.  The Palouse in southeast Washington -- wave after wave of gently rounded hills -- is the most densely cultivated farmland in the world.  Unlike most of the country, Washington State is a net winner in world trade, exporting much more than it imports.   

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Heaven and Sodom in Seattle

--  By Tom Phillips

 Visitor keeping score   
In the official scorecard and program for the Seattle Mariners this month, two items caught a traveler's eye.  One was an interview with a Mariners pitcher who says that he carries scripture in his back pocket -- Colossians 3:23 -- "with whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the lord and not for men."  He said with every pitch he throws, he tries to "honor the lord."

Just a few pages away was a color ad for a club one block from Safeco Field -- a "gentlemen's club" called SoDo.  It showed a tattooed young woman in spike heels and a thong, thrusting her butt toward the reader, who is invited to "come party with our all-star ladies before, during or after the game!"

Neither item was remarkable in itself.   What struck the visitor was that neither would ever appear in the official program of the Yankees, or the Mets.   Both Heaven and Sodom have been whitewashed out of civic discourse in New York.  Cravings for the Lord are kept private, out of concern that someone might be offended.  And sex ads are relegated to louche publications like the Village Voice and the Verizon Yellow Pages.  Here, they co-exist along with instructions on how to keep score, and a refreshingly frank team analysis headlined "Lack of Depth Could Sink Mariners."

So far, this article is the best example of critical thinking the visitor has encountered in Seattle.  But where there's freedom, there's hope.

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad and Merce

--   By Tom Phillips
Mmmm-aa
Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016
If Muhammad Ali was the greatest boxer of all time, it wasn't because he could punch the hardest. For Ali, the best offense was a good defense -- and the key was his dancing.

The "Ali Shuffle" was his signature step, and it set him apart from any other heavyweight.  He danced with both feet in the air, hovering, shuffling, so you never knew which foot he would land on, or where he would go. The feet were like a hummingbird's wings, a blur. Meanwhile the hands accompanied the dance, mixing jabs, hooks, and right-hand leads with innumerable fakes. At the top, Ali invented the bobblehead, flicking his neck backward and sideways to avoid his opponent’s fists.


He was his own dance master, making up strategy in the ring, in the moment. If he could be compared to a choreographer, it would be Merce Cunningham, who understood the uses of chance. Not even Merce knew how the music would work with the dance, until it happened on the stage. Not even Ali knew where he was going next, until it happened in the ring.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Daniel Berrigan Remembered

--  By Tom Phillips

When I was nine years old, my family visited the famous Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania -- row upon row of headstones, marking the young men who died there, and in subsequent wars overseas.  Wandering through the cemetery, I lost track of my parents -- and suddenly they looked and couldn't find me.  My mother went on a frantic search.  Finally she found me lying in the grass between two graves, with my arms crossed over my chest.  I looked up and said: "Tom Phillips, World War Three."

Growing up in cold-war America, body counts seemed a normal part of life.  Writing the news for radio and TV,  I calmly chronicled the deaths of 50 thousand Americans and millions of Asians in Vietnam.  After work I joined protests against the war.  Still, I wasn't a pacifist.  Like nearly all Americans, I bought the idea that some wars were necessary, notably the Civil War to save the Union, World War Two to save the world from fascist imperialism.

Daniel Berrigan, the radical Jesuit priest who died in April, disagreed.  Back in the Sixties I heard him say -- no principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being.  

That's too radical, I thought, repeating the usual rationales -- Hitler, slavery, etc.  Now, reflecting on all the graveyards I've visited -- though I'm not an expert on war or history, I no longer assume Berrigan was too radical.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Oscar Prevue 2

  By Tom Phillips

"Straight Outta Compton"
Confession -- When it comes to artistic awards, I'm not a big fan of affirmative action. So when African-Americans were snubbed in the Oscar nominations this year, I didn't join the outrage at first. My question was, did African-Americans do anything worthy of a major award?

The answer is, as NWA might put it -- Fuck Yes! "Straight Outta Compton" is full of foul language, violence, illegal substances, squalor, prejudice, ignorance and disrespect for women.  It's like walking into the mean streets, messy homes and hip recording studios of LA's ghetto in the 1980s, where rap music became an art form and a a vehicle for rebellious free speech.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Harlem Nocturne for MLK

-- By Tom Phillips

Billy Harper
We didn't plan it to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, but somehow it all worked out.  Last night my wife Debra took me out for my birthday, to the local jazz and supper club, Smoke, at 106th and Broadway.  The music was the Billy Harper Quintet, a group I'd never heard.  But I saw Harper's picture -- slim, gray-haired, serene -- with his tenor sax, and I just had a feeling.

Sure enough, the music was right up my alley -- wild, Coltrane-like solos spilling out over a calm, steady dance rhythm kept by the bass, with the drums and piano darting into the cracks in the chord structure and the beat.  And the faces of the band were nearly as expressive as the music.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Oscar Prevue 2016

 -- By Tom Phillips

Christian Bale in "The Big Short"
When it comes to movie awards season, the answer is usually blowin' in the wind --- some political or social trend will reflect itself in the choice of winners.  This year, I devoutly hope the wind blows in the direction of one or two films whose message is -- the authorities who tell you everything is OK are lying.  At the top of my list is "The Big Short,"  a racy re-creation of the financial meltdown of 2008 --  followed closely by "Spotlight," a newspaper drama based on the Boston Globe's 2002 investigation of predatory priests and their protectors in the Roman Catholic Church.