Random Thoughts on American Society

Hobby Lobby, a chain owned by Christian mullahs, obtained a temporary stay on the portion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that requires coverage for contraceptive services. It claims such provisions violate the religious conscience of the chain’s owners. Conservatives have cheered this, but they should not. Let’s be clear about this: Hobby Lobby is not a religious institution; it’s a retail chain. If the Supreme Court doesn’t  vacate this stay, you can forget the worms analogy–the Court will open a can of venomous snakes. You might recall that the same Supreme Court ruled that the ACA was a “tax.” If non-religious institutions can opt out of taxes on the grounds of conscience, then every peace group in America should sue to opt out of taxes that go to war and military spending. How is the principle different?

I was thinking about the military this morning as I car-slalomed past potholes the size of Estonia. The reason they’re not fixed is the same reason we have a shortage of just about everything relating to civil society these days: lack of money. People can rail about welfare bums and entitlements all they want, but there are really just two choices:  live in a society whose civic life rivals that of Nigeria, or invest money in rebuilding. There’s really only one way to do that–slash military spending. And I mean severely, as in a reordering of national priorities. We’re probably talking on the order of 30-40% cuts.

Ignore politicians that equate military spending with jobs. That’s an old dodge rooted in propaganda. Yes, some jobs would be lost temporarily if, say, Groton, Connecticut closed its submarine base. But check out data from the Centre for Research on Globalization. It tels you what has been known for decades: military-industrial complex spending is the path to a boom/bust economy. Towns and regions that (think they) depend on it are among the least stable communities in the nation. Military towns are far from being “recession-proof” (like college towns). Portsmouth, New Hampshire is among the cities that came back stronger once its military base closed.

Do we really care any more about baseball’s steroids scandal? I surely don’t. Alex Rodriguez is banned for a year. Ho hum! Everything about Major League Baseball’s efforts to catch “cheaters” has been a fraud. As much as I think Rodriguez an egoistic boor, MLB promised it would not release names of people in the Mitchell Report. Had it been true to its word, A-Rod would be considered a first-time user, not a repeat offender. Moreover, there are things most folks are ignoring. MLB isn’t the worst sport insofar as drug use goes­–pro football is much worse, even if the public doesn’t give a crap about an interior lineman who gets caught. Second, sports has always had “cheaters”–spitballs, corked bats, horses shot full with pain killers, golfers moving balls for a better shot…. Fair? Nope, but consider this: “cheating” can give players an edge, but it doesn’t make them Superman. If Barry Bonds only did well because of drugs, why didn’t everyone hit 762 homeruns? And why didn’t every hurler win 354 games like Roger Clemens? Don’t tell me these guys don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. 

It’s hard for me to decide who looks most like a walking corpse, Keith Richards or John Kerry.

Remember the battle to ensure that Ebonics would never be considered acceptable grammar? Explain to me why non-standard grammar is okay if it comes from those wired and white. Where’s the outrage over things such as misuse of prepositions, apostrophes, split infinitives, and violations of subject/pronoun agreement rules? Don't’ get me started on texting shortcuts. I’d much rather someone “axe” me a question than receive an “R U there?” text.

New debates have arisen over raising the minimum wage. Predictably, business groups and conservatives predict economic collapse if wages go up–as they have every single time it has ever been raised and the sky, at last glance, is still standing. John “Putz” Boehner asserts that America didn’t always have a minimum wage law and that it was strong economically back in those days. Apparently he’s never studied the Gilded Age or read The Jungle. And don’t buy his strain-on- small businesses line of crap either. Two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are employed by large corporations; moreover, the Fair Labor Standards Act does not apply to businesses that take in less than $500,000 if they are not engaged in interstate commerce.

Another John Bonehead misconception–seven states have no minimum wage law: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Gosh! What economic powerhouses they are! I can’t wait for Massachusetts to become a dynamo like these perennial contenders for poorest state in the Union. Leaving that aside, this is simply Boehner’s attempt at political distraction. All it means is that these states do not have any minimum wage laws on their state books, which would make it harder for them to surpass the federal minimum wage, as 19 states plus the District of Columbia have done. They must comply with federal law, whether or not they have state minimum wage laws except in the cases noted above. 

Watching Chris Christie trying to squirm away from his vendetta-induced scandal reminds me that the only political sin worse than being arrogant is being too arrogant to admit that you’ve been an arrogant ass.


Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas Triumphant Again

Culburnie 124D
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Classic Scots fiddlers like Niel Gow saw little contradiction between playing for a fashionable drawing room audience by day and sawing out tunes for village peasants in the evening. After all, bowed instruments (including viola and cello) were more about the dance than the musician. If it set Scottish toes a tapping, it scarcely mattered if they were shod in silk or leather. That spirit of court and pub pervades the latest release from Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. Superlatives fail for these two, but does it surprise anyone to hear this is a stunning release? It differs from previous projects in several ways. First, the feel is more courtly than plebian. There are some wonderful raucous  traditional tunes here, including one of the better versions of the 3/2 dance tune “Keys to the Cellar” (known by many as “Cam Ye Ower Frae France”) ever recorded, but there’s even more stately material such as the strathspey “Niel Gow’s Wife;” Fraser’s birthday tune for a friend, “Howard Booster’s Style;” and “Glenfinnan,” a slow wedding march composed by Fraser. Another departure involves the integration of a style unavailable to the old masters: jazz. Fraser’s cleverly titled “Hot Club d’Écosse” hops to Django Reinhart small-combo jazz beats. Perhaps most surprising, Fraser and Haas even integrate some trombone and euphonium into “The Kelburn Brewer.” But style scarcely matters with masters such as these. Think I exaggerate? Who else could make a playful song about a kitten on the back of a gull (“On the Wings of a Skorrie’) sound so soul-wrenchingly beautiful? 
Rob Weir

 Here's a You Tube video of very good quality from the amazing concert I saw last September.


Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is Quite Grand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2011)
By Helen Simonson
Random House 978-0812981223
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Gay love isn’t the only kind that dare not speak its name. Not if you’re a proper English gent living in the tradition-bound village of Edgecombe St. Mary and you find yourself falling for a Pakistani widow. Britain is, after all, a land in which Pakistanis are called “wogs” and Muslims are called “towel heads” (a term, alas, learned from boorish Yanks). But 68-year-old Major Ernest Pettigrew, himself a widower for six years, has spent his life being disciplined, orderly, and proper and is starting to think maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Although village tongues wag, Major Pettigrew shares a love of tea and Kipling with Jasmina Ali and, the more they talk, the more they seem to have in common, even though he’s proper bourgeois and she operates a convenience store that sells goods many locals find exotic, if not dangerous.

The Major certainly has more in common with Mrs. Ali than with his money-grubbing sister-in-law, who wants him to sell a valuable pair of Churchill guns and give her half of the money rather than reuniting the set as the Pettigrew paterfamilias intended when he entrusted each son with one of them. The Major’s son Roger also wants him to sell them so he can get his hands on the money for some of the high-flying London banking schemes in which he’s involved, including Lord Dagenham’s plan to sell off part of the manor to an American developer who would remake the village as a sort of retirement theme park for elderly aristocrats and gentry. The Major finds Dagenham irresponsible, his neighbors annoying, and his son and his American girlfriend insufferable. When you read of the pageant staged by the villagers, you will come to share his disgust. You need not be a devotee of political correctness to conclude they don’t have a multicultural bone in their collective body.

Jasmina, for her part, is growing equally impatient with the Muslim bigotry of her own extended family, including her way-too-serious nephew Abdul Wahid, who doesn’t like women to be in public (though he harbors a few not-so-orthodox secrets). To compound the irony, the Major was an army brat born in Lahore and Jasmina in Cambridge. The novel builds to an inevitable culture clash crescendo.

This is Simonson’s debut novel and an impressive one. Her village characters have enough bigotry and foibles to be something out of Fawlty Towers and this keeps the book amusing rather than annoying. She also makes her characters walk the line between wackiness and obsequiousness, which makes them semi-endearing even in moments in which we’d like to rip out their lungs and feed them to the White Tower ravens. There are the usual pitfalls that come from a Yank (even one who has lived in the UK) interpreting British culture and trying to integrate Brit Speak into the dialogue. I suppose also we might protest that the storyline is ultimately implausible. Whatever. When the Major makes his eponymous last stand, it feels very satisfying. Label this one just a plain old good read.

Rob Weir