Monday, January 28, 2008

The Death Biz

As a nation we are in love with death.

Not our own deaths, of course, nor those of the people we hold dear. Death that is near to us we don’t particularly like. But other deaths, those of the famous, we love. We pretend not to like them, to be horrified by them or saddened, but the truth isn’t as easy as that.

When Princess Diana died we saw an outpouring of grief in the British that amazed us. We felt it too, of course. When a celebrity dies we always do. But the British had a long history of intensely mourning members of the royal family, and Diana was the most popular royal in centuries. Anger toward the royal family that had simmered for years combined with a very real affection for a very real princess, and was fueled by tabloid sensationalism, which was itself quickly blamed for her death. And the grief was immense. I remember someone being interviewed during that week saying “Can you imagine what will happen when Mother Theresa dies?” Then Mother Theresa died a day or two later and Calcutta exploded.

And then it was over.

Oh, there remain the icons, after a fashion. There are movies about Diana. She appears on a few mugs and t-shirts. Mother Theresa of course will have the greater memorial, as she will be canonized and her mission in Calcutta become a place of pilgrimage. But for the most part it’s over.

But look at America. Celebrity death in America is a big-time industry. With Heath Ledger’s death we should all be reminded of that. Already he’s appearing on lists of “dead before their time” actors. Soon we’ll see him on t-shirts with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. He’ll be photoshopped into that great poster by Gottfried Helnwein, wherein Bogart, Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe have been cut and pasted into Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” (never mind that there are only four people in the original). He’ll have monuments to him in Hollywood and in the Village and maybe on the wall of the Chelsea Hotel (though they don’t have a plaque there for Sid and Nancy, and they really should). His face will stare out at us from t-shirt shops in the village, along with “Jimi, Janice, Jim, Jerry” and John Lennon (I don’t know why he wasn’t included with the other Js) in his New York City T-shirt (I love the T-shirt in a T-shirt thing). Laike Che Guevara, he’ll become a highly marketable commodity, and maybe even be tattooed somewhere on Mike Tyson.

I’m not saying the grief isn’t real. Most of my friends are in shock. They’re in a daze. Hanna has been distracted by it for days. The Hollywood grief is real too. Daniel Day Louis was so sad and moving when he broke down talking about it, and then again at the SAG awards. The still photo of Ledger, added to the end of the traditional memorial collage at the last minute, with no music underneath, was heartrending. The tribute at the Oscars (assuming they happen, and they should if for no other reason than the fact that Ledger is dead and it will give the academy a chance to honor him and try to make up for the shameless way they passed him over for the Oscar after Brokeback Mountain), will have time to be prepared. It will be well structured, pitiful and poignant in perfect button pushing Hollywood style. And then the mugs and key-chains can be printed and everybody can make a buck. (and Oscar will like reward him posthumously for the Joker next year).

Do I sound too cynical? Do I sound like I am being flip about people’s very real grief? I wrote the other day that Ledger’s death was James Dean huge, and it is. I cried. I’ve been bothered by it all week. I’ve seen people walking around in a daze and when I ask why they say “I’m just so sad about Heath.” The feelings are real, sure. But they were the same for James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. And look at them now.

Dean is, of course, the closest comparison: both the most talented actors of their generations, both of them beautiful and young and vibrant, both serious about their craft and troubled by celebrity, and both of them dead in an instant, spreading shock throughout the world. When I heard Ledger had been found dead it hit me like a physical shock. I felt it like a blow, striking me in the chest and radiating pain throughout my whole body. I searched on line to find out if it was true and was momentarily relieved when Google News didn’t have it yet. But then it turned out to be real. I wasn’t alive for James Dean’s death, but I heard it was much the same minus Google. I’ve been to the spot where James Dean died. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, a lonely road between Atascadero and Bakersfield. There’s a beautiful eye-catching monument by a Japanese architect: a low, twisting wall of mirrored bricks built around the tree he crashed into. Right there in the middle of farm country. Dean’s death was monumental and ledger’s will be the same.

And we will continue to trade in it. We continue to build the memorials, print the t-shirts, sell the mugs, get the tattoos, and profit from the deaths of celebrities. I didn’t know Heath Ledger. But I did know how he made me feel. He had a powerful effect on a lot of people, myself included, and now his death is having a powerful effect too. We often *feel* we know celebrities because they provided us with emotions that are sometimes bigger and more powerful than those of the people we actually do know. It’s why we have mass hysteria at celebrity death (it’s also why we have stalkers). Heath was somebody like that. And there is profit to be made off of these deaths.

Barak Obama is profiting off sudden tragic death as well. For months the news media has been comparing him to the ultimate American icon of boomer angst, John F. Kennedy. Yesterday he was endorsed by JFK’s daughter Caroline. Today he will be endorsed by Ted Kennedy. It could be the thing that seals the nomination for him. Up until now I thought Hilary would win in the end, but now it looks otherwise.

Obama as the new JFK is great political theatre. He’s the second coming of the great Liberal martyr. He is young and handsome, moving and articulate, and most of all he’s inspiring. JFK himself was a mediocre president who usually gets a pass on having gotten us entwined in Viet Nam because of the shared tragedy everybody felt at his assassination. Had he not died his lasting legacy would not have been Camelot or the space program or the Peace Corps: it would have been Viet Nam and the Bay of Pigs. But we are a forgiving nation, and we will forgive almost anything in death (we even forgave Nixon in the end). But Kennedy was assassinated and became, like Lincoln, a Christ-like figure in the American mythos, especially for the liberals who make up the Democratic Party base.

Comparing Obama to Kennedy is great in another way. It immediately offsets the generational war he has waged against the elder half of the baby boomers. Technically, like your humble narrator, Obama is a boomer; but we are on the back end of the boom and weren’t actually involved in all that 60s revolution, so we can gleefully proclaim it time to pass the torch and leave behind the strident politics of the past. (Nobody, by the way, has accused Obama of ageism when he takes this line, yet it seems like the whole media universe has been willing to accuse Bill Clinton of engaging in racism for challenging Obama’s record). With the comparison to Kennedy all of that can be filed in the dustbin. Now Obama is no longer the anti-boomer candidate: he is truly one of them. He is the second coming of their messiah. And like a vendor hawking a John Lennon T-shirt, he is selling that memory to people who desperately want to relive the past. Cultural pain works that way. So he can be both the anti-boomer and the archetype boomer at the same time (JFK wasn’t a boomer, of course, but you get the point).

And it won’t stop there. Already, with his brilliant speaking style that morphs into Baptist preaching from time to time, Obama is garnering comparisons to the other great martyr of the 60s, Martin Luther King Jr. As a symbol of hope and of healing racial divisions, Obama could prove a more powerful figure than even Dr. King himself. What would it signal with regards to slavery, the civil rights era, the whole black/white history of violence and oppression in this country, if we could elect a black man president? There are black people who think there is no way “They” (the infamous “They” with a capital T) would let it happen. The Man will prevent it one way or another, because the Man has always kept the Brothers down. We could finally be rid of that paranoia with Obama. And then, who knows? Maybe if black people finally feel a part of this nation and stop feeling like the ever-oppressed victims of our American history (which they have every right to feel given what this nation did to them), maybe race will indeed become a thing of the past.

Of course, there is a downside to this whole thing. The only way Obama can truly become Kennedy or Dr. King is to be assassinated and to join them in the pantheon of martyrs. It would prove the paranoid right, that a black man could not be president. It would also elevate Obama to that mythical status occupied by the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King and Malcolm X (and Lincoln, but not McKinley for some reason). Then we could all weep and wail and mourn him. Riots would break out in the cities. The south-side of Chicago would burn. We would rend our garments and pull our hair and grieve, conservatives and liberals alike. Then the T-shirts would come and the coffee mugs, and we would buy them, and we would love him forever. Because we are in love with death.

God forbid.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger Dead

CNN is reporting that Heath Ledger has been found dead in an apartment in Manhattan. No other news source has it yet. This is devastating. This is James Dean huge. I am in shock.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


My pick may be out, but I got my dream matchup! Go Giants!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, January 18, 2008

No news like no news

So here's what passes for news at Fox Network News: the founder of an anti-gun group turned out to be a gang memeber who's only out to bilk the government out of 1.5 million dollars. My mom sent me the link. Seems this gang banger had founded a group to get guns off the street but was recently arrested on gun charges. He'd been converting assault weapons into fully automatic machine guns. Mom thinks it shows how corrupt government programs are. I think it shows how Fox Network News will trumpet anything that makes progressive government look bad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cowboys Pain

Let's face it: I don't have a lot of love for the cowboys. I don't hate them like my rabid Redskins fan girlfriend, but I lived in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s and was a Niners fan, then I moved from there to New York and became a Giants fan, so I've had a rivalry with the cowboys for awhile. And my Giants beat them Cowboys handily, so I've got a message for Wade Phillips. Shut up.

Even when my team has lost (and the worst loss I ever felt, amusingly, was when my Niners lost to my Giants in the NFC championship game), I recognized a simple rule. The best team always wins. This bull about "the best team lost today" coming out of Phillips is just that: bull. The best team never looses. If they were the best team they would win. Period. It's like my dad always says about potential: "I don't believe in potential. Anybody who has potential and doesn't realize it doesn't have potential."

Wade Philips has the most wins of any coach not to win a playoff game. That's good. Wade Philips doesn't deserve to win a playoff game, not since he didn't start Doug Flutie in the playoffs in Buffalo.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shake Up in the GOP

John McCain has surged up 26 points in a new CNN poll to take the lead in national polling for the Republican nomination. This is bad news for the democrats. A month ago it looked like McCain was toast and that his time had passed him by. Now he's looking pretty good. Of all the republican candidates he and Rudy are the only ones who could pull independents away from Hilary, and I always said Rudy would implode in the end. I think the coolest thing about all this is that after a ridiculously long build up in which the buzz words were change, and a roller coaster ride from the media in which frontrunners were changing at an alarming rate, we've passed New Hampshire and Iowa and it now looks as though the nominees will be the two people the pundits were predicting in the first place, Clinton and McCain.

Michigan is tomorrow and that could bring some buzz into the campaign. I haven't been following Michigan, so I don't know what the polling is saying there. But McCain should really worry about South Carolina on the 19th (The Dem primary in SC is the 26th). It gave him a beat down four years ago and is likely to do the same.

Bracket Busters

Well, my bracket took a big hit over the weekend. My championship pick is still alive but I almost don't care. If the Gods are willing I might actually get my wish and see New England vs. the Giants in the Superbowl. Giants have been great on the road this year, after all. If anybody can go into Lambeau and win it's them. But imagine it: Packers vs. Ginats at Lambeau Field. It's the 1961 Championship game all over again. It's time the Giants got some revenge for that one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Best Weekend in Football

At least that's how Berman describes it. I disagree: to me the best weekend in football is the one that includes the Rose Bowl. But I digress. The divisional championship is cool. Last weekend I was doing pretty good, picking three out of four winners. The Redskins were the only team to let me down. Here's how I see the rest of the season. I know, I know, you'll think I'm crazy:

Greeb Bay beats the Seahawks
Chargers beat the Colts
Jacksonville beats the Patriots
Cowboys beat the Giants

Cowboys beat Green bay
Chargers beat Jacksonville

Chargers beat the Cowboys to win the Superbowl.

Of course the smart money is on New England. And my ideal would be to have the Giants absolutely crush the Pats in the big game. But I've been picking the Chargers at the beginning of the season for the last five years or so. Sooner or later....

Why do I pick Jacksonville? Because the Pats will overlook Jacksonville, that's why. No, really. I think the Pats are beatable, Jacksonville is scrappy, and the Chargers have finally achieved the form we all expected them to have this year. I really think they can beat anybody right now. And th Pats have been pushed to the wall by too many teams down the stretch. At some point they will fold.

A late holiday present

Here's something I did in the airport over the holidays. Walk up to a sailor/soldier/marine whom you see in the airport or the bus depot or whatever and say simple "Thank you for your service." It's very simple, and it needs to be said.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Shooting War

On January 18th at 8:00 PM Vox Pop is the venue for a release party for the newgraphic novel "The Shooting War" about a blogger who gets imbedded with troops in Iraq. Info can be found at

Switching Gears

Well, the party's over for Bill Richardson, and it's too bad. Yesterday he drooped out of the race. I wish he'd stayed in till Super Tuesday, but that was pretty unrealistic. He was the best qualified candidate with the best ideas. He's been governor, a congressman, a cabinet secretary and and arms negotiator. He represented as much change as Obama and had three times the experience of Hilary. And he was doomed from the start. It's a pity.

And, I'm willing to say it: we have had in this election a woman, a black man and an Hispanic man all of whom had a real shot at being the first president from their respective groups. That's pretty cool.

Now I'm going to admit something: both my first choice in this campaign and my first choice in the last campaign (Dean) were governors of relatively conservative states who, as governors, had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. That's not *why* I supported them, but it was part of it. I trust all of the democrats to do a good job on ending the war, shoring up the budget, and restoring dignity and respect for the rule of law to the oval office. But I trusted Richardson and Dean to stay away from people's guns and to support sportsmen's rights. It's not the top thing on my agenda, but when the top five things on my agenda are covered by all the candidates, I have the luxury of getting personal with my vote.

Now I don't know. Last time, when Dean dropped out, I voted for John Edwards in the primary. Now I'll probably do the same. He's saying better things than the others in terms of labor, and he's endorsed by some of he sporstmen's groups. But Obama is so amazingly inspirational, and I've always felt loyalty to Clinton. Now that my first choice is gone my second choice will be real hard. Who represents the greatest change? Who will lead in the best.

Here's the most amazing thing: three of my favorite Conservatives, on a pundit and two of them good Friends, all of whom are or at least were staunch republicans, and backing obama. That Andrew Sullivan, the gay conservative columnist, has left the Republican party shouldn't be surprising. They parochially ran him out on a rail with their opposition to gay marriage. But it amazed me that Hanna's dad was supporting Barak Obama, and I was completely floored the other day when I found out that JP was too. And they all had the same reason. He was the biggest change. They believe him when they say he wants bi-partisanship, that he wants to stop fighting the battles of the sixties, that he wants to shake up Washington (remember, that was Regan's battle cry as well). As JP put it "Look, my party doesn't deserve to win the White House again after what they've done with it. I expect to be screwed by a democrat. At least with Obama I stand a chance to be screwed in a totally new and different way."

And all three of them are agreed that when the world looks at Obama they will see something and someone completely different from what they have always seen before.

Are we ready for it? I mean, I know I am: but after slavery and Jim Crow and lynchings and Selma and Martin and Malcolm, can we really elect a black man president? I remember watching him at the convention in '4 and thinking "God! I hope he runs!"

Still a tough choice, but a good dilemma to have.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

New Hampshire Smackdown

Wow! What a great night. This election is a lot of fun. Like I said, I like all the Democratic candidates, and this race is turning into a great fight. It's exciting. The thing that stood out to me was that Edwards' speech was inspiring and Clinton's was pedestrian, but Obama's was magnificent. He is amazing.

And I'm still voting for Richardson.

I am so glad the pundits got smacked down and called it wrong. Serves them right. It's Truman and Dewey all over again.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Fox/Republican Party

Anybody who still doubted that Fox Network News was the official mouthpiece of the Republican Party must now face the truth. FNN is a party network. They are in bed with the elephants. Not only are they not fair and balanced, they are sycophants to Karl Rove and his cronies.

What other conclusion can we reach from the fact that Ron Paul has been excluded from the next presidential debate? Yes, we all want to see fewer candidates in the debate, but Paul has a lot of support out there. He raised almost 20 million dollars last quarter. Fred Thompson and Duncan Hunter are no more viable? So why Paul and why now, before the Iowa caucuses? The only reason to exclude Pual is that his message is so far outside what the Republican Party wants that he threatens them. He has challenged them on the war and on presidential powers. He is highly critical of President Bush. He rocks the boat and it cares them.

And now he's being excluded from the debate. If they'd waited till after Iowa and then said they were excluding everybody who didn't poll at least 15% that would have been one thing. But to come out before Iowa and exclude Ron Paul is a blatant effort to marginalize a maverick candidate, and it only serves the party and the establishment candidates (it doesn't even serve the network, as a debate that includes Paul is much more interesting than one without him). It is certainly a disservice to the voters. The party hacks are trying to make Paul out to be such a fringe candidate that he isn't worth the effort to vote for, and one can only surmise that they did it now because they are worried about him and want to push him aside before the actual voting gets underway. Ron Paul may indeed be this year's Howard Dean, but the voters are the ones who should decide that.

Need more proof? My mother lives in Nevada and was planning to caucus for Ron Paul, though she's never caucussed before. She is the classic Ron Paul voter: someone who is dissatisfied with the party and is inspired by his populist message, and now wants to jump on the bandwagon. Turns out she's too late. She is a registered republican, but in order to take part in the caucuses she had to have signed up to do so weeks in advance. I assume that's to head off any late arriving Paul supporters like her (for the democratic caucus you can just show up). Right now in Nevada Paul is polling ahead of Mike Huckabee and one point behind McCain. And that is causing panic among the pachyderms. From my point of view they are rigging this election.

For shame!