Friday, May 24, 2019

this is the joke

Mark Evanier administers a juried award called the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. The Finger Award is intended to compensate for the Fickle Finger of Fate by honoring unjustly neglected figures in that field, of whom Bill Finger - the writer who co-created Batman, but was long ignored in favor of Bob Kane, the artist - is said to be the prototypical example.

The Finger Award comes in two categories, living and posthumous, and for this year's posthumous award, the jury has fingered E. Nelson Bridwell. Not being much of a student of comics, I had never heard of him, but it turns out I should have. Evanier's announcement credits Bridwell with co-creating a comic called The Inferior Five, which I'd never heard of either. A quick visit to its Wikipedia page proves that it's exactly what it sounds like, a sort of precursor to Mystery Men, a rare case of a superhero movie I rather liked. So I might enjoy The Inferior Five as well, especially as Evanier says that Bridwell's "writing was marked by a wicked sense of humor."

But it was clicking from there on Bridwell's own Wikipedia entry that I discovered what he really deserves to be remembered for. While writing for MAD Magazine in the 1950s, he created one of our culture's truly classic, memorable, and lasting jokes. It's usually rendered something like this:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians.
"Well, Tonto," says the Lone Ranger, "we're really in trouble now."
And Tonto replies,
"What you mean 'we', white man?"
I can't tell you how often I've heard that last line invoked, often without any further reference to the joke which readers are assumed to know. And sure enough, whenever lazy essayists or reviewers - and they're usually white men - assume their personal reactions are universal and write something like, for instance, Edmund Wilson on The Lord of the Rings that "we never feel Sauron's power," I'm there to murmur, "What you mean 'we', white man?"

And did Bridwell invent this joke? Apparently. According to Wikipedia's sources, nobody's been able to find it told earlier than a 1958 MAD article by Bridwell and artist Joe Orlando depicting moments you'll never see in popular TV shows. In Bridwell's script, Tonto just says "What you mean ... we?" but it's the same joke.

For that alone, he is worth honoring.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

ecce homines, pars VI

Returning to my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1861-1877.

These are the presidents of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The coming of the Civil War was a huge watershed of American history, so much so that reading about these wartime and postwar presidents' pre-war lives feels as if they're different people or were somehow dropped in an alien environment.

George McGovern on Abraham Lincoln is more of a schematic diagram of Lincoln's presidency than a personal portrait, and it makes no attempt to tell a history of the war. The former presidential candidate and, one remembers, former executive administrator offers a dry and administrative look at the major issues of the presidency in the Civil War: preserving the union, waging the war, dealing with political pressures, and deciding to emancipate the slaves. Then it takes odd sidetracks to deal with side issues like Lincoln's relationship with each of his cabinet members, while ignoring other points, like foreign relations during the war. Lincoln, had he written it, would have leavened this account with a few jokes, and I missed other things I would have liked to see, like Congressman Lincoln's trenchant criticisms of the legality of the Mexican War (uncannily applicable to Iraq 160 years later). Despite the dry tone and the omissions, it's a good evaluation of the importance of the things Lincoln did.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson is the boldest, and one of the best, matches of author and subject in the series. Gordon-Reed is the historian who penned the major study of Jefferson's black family, the Hemingses. She cannot be expected to like her present subject, the most racist president America has ever had (present company excepted), and she doesn't, but instead of spending her space denouncing him, she seeks to understand the cultural and personal context that made him what he was, why many hoped that acceding to the presidency might produce an epiphany in his attitudes, and why it didn't. Nor has she forgotten the corresponding strengths of his weaknesses (absolute obstinacy can be a virtue if you're a Southerner minded to stick with the Union), nor her biographer's remit to cover all of his public life and major events of his presidency, even those irrelevant to her thesis. This is one of the best books in the series.

Josiah Bunting III on Ulysses S. Grant is another military writer on a military president. Bunting goes through Grant's military career with the same clear-sighted, straightforward attention on the task at hand that he credits as the key to Grant's greatness as a general. But when Bunting turns to the presidency he gets strangely waffly, as, apparently, did Grant. Grant tended to appoint subordinates without performing due diligence, but ... his cabinet members were all top-class men regardless of this, but ... somehow bad things happened anyway. Bunting is reluctant to blame Grant for anything except insofar as he was too passive in addressing problems, and goes through an entire chapter of scandals sweeping them aside this way. The strangest chapter is the one on Indian affairs, where Grant's determination to solve the native problem by assimilating them all to white culture, which nowadays would be called cultural genocide, is praised as noble. Yet Little Big Horn happened on Grant's watch, but this is somehow not connected to anything.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

concert review: two pianos and political culture

The publicity agents for this concert invited me to attend. Then I got my editor to agree to publish the review.

The theme was recent piano compositions inspired by the search for social justice. As I noted in the review, the concept sounds deadly, and one of the pieces indeed was, but what I didn't say but should have was that the reason I jumped at the opportunity to go was the list of composers. I was familiar with work by six of the eight on the program, and at least four of those I was more than happy to hear music by again. Both of the ones new to me turned out pretty good too.

I hesitated a bit at whether I should approach Elinor Armer, when I saw her at the cheese and crackers table after the concert. Then I did. I complimented her on the wit of her composition, and mentioned her set of collaborations with Ursula Le Guin, most of which I heard in concert when they were new. We agreed that we both missed Ursula terribly, and she said that she was planning a CD of her previously unpublished settings of UKL's poetry. I'm looking forward to that.

Since her piece was a tribute to her composition teacher, the noted French composer Darius Milhaud (who spent many years part-time at Mills College here), I asked if by any chance she was familiar with my harmony instructor, who was also a Milhaud composition student. She didn't recognize his name, and I said, "Well, he was probably before your time. He would have been rather older than you." She said, "I'm 80 years old, you know." I said, "Yes, but he was my teacher nearly 50 years ago, and he wasn't a young man then." Anyway, we had an agreeable conversation.

Then I took my notebook home and wrote the review. With a program full of new works and only one I'd ever heard before, it was hard to evaluate the performances, but I could certainly describe the music, so that's what I mostly did.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Stop Thebans

Today was the day of nationwide protests against the draconian anti-abortion laws from Alabama and Georgia and such benighted places, and while a quick transporter to go there was not available, I could at least show up locally, even though around here such protests are preaching to the choir.

Publicity said that protests were to be gathering at town squares and such places, but we don't have a lot of town squares around here. A web site showing locales showed that two of the three local events would be at shopping centers. Oh, I've seen that kind of protest before. A bunch of people gather on the sidewalk to yell at passing traffic. When I'm the passing traffic, I never know what to do. I can never make out what they're yelling, anyway. Not to be one of that crowd is a strong desire of mine.

But look. The third protest is at San Jose city hall. That's a plaza, at least, if not a town square, and it was the staging area for the Women's March which I've attended twice, and they're the sponsoring group for this one, so I'll go there.

So I do, and arrive as the rain stops just before official starting time to find ... they're all gathered up against the sidewalk to yell at passing traffic. Oh well. At least there's enough - about 300 people, I'd guess, virtually no children but a few men, not as large a proportion as at the Women's March - to mill around. I park myself on one of the artificial rocks and hang around agreeably for an hour. If any media types try to interview me, I'd say, "I'm here to support the women. Why don't you go talk to some of them?" but nobody does.

The first sign I see appears to read STOP THEBANS. I figure that's some species of alien, like, I dunno, Thermians. Then I figure it out. Other signs read:

I'M A WOMAN, NOT A WOMB

DON'T LIKE ABORTION? GET A VASECTOMY

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUNdamental human rights

and

PRO CHOICE, because other people's choices are none of my fncking business

which I particularly like because it pretty well sums up my own reasoning for picking this side. Once upon a time I considered abortion vs. forced pregnancy an insolvable moral dilemma. I might not like abortion, but where did I get off telling women they had to keep pregnancies because of my moral qualms? That arrogant I'm not. Eventually I decided that if I couldn't solve the dilemma, it was up to the woman who had the problem to solve it for herself. When it dawned on me that that was exactly the pro-choice position, I took that stand and have never wavered since.

Anyway, so we're all milling around and clustering by the sidewalk, and every time a passing vehicle toots its horn, everybody cheers. Especially when it's a heavy construction vehicle or, in one case, a city fire truck. Oh, so that's what drivers are supposed to do. It feels wrong to me, for whom car horn = hostile intention. But, whatever. In between cheers, a few speakers wielding highly directional bullhorns, so I don't catch more than a drift of what they're saying. But the drift sounds good.

After an hour everyone begins drifting away and the rain starts up again. I like to think that $DEITY arranged that break for us.

Monday, May 20, 2019

an excellent sf movie

First, you have to understand that I'm no fan of those big blockbuster movies that get all the attention. I tend to like quieter and well-crafted films. Even my favorite space adventure movies are 2001 and Dark Star (yes, Dark Star), but a lot of my favorite sf films are actually modest little things with here-and-now settings that integrate their sf elements into real dramas of human beings. For instance, I was quite taken with a little film from 2012 called Safety Not Guaranteed, which was set in a small town on the Washington state coast and which may, or may not, have involved time travel.

Now I've seen another film of that kind which is just as good, in some ways better. It's just been released on Netflix and it's called See You Yesterday. In this one, there really is time travel. Two bright juniors at the Bronx High School of Science have built a modest time machine which they've just now gotten to work.

Here's one of the things. These kids, they live in the East Flatbush ghetto in Brooklyn. They're black. Almost all of the characters in the movie (except their science teacher* and a couple of cops) are black. Their life is the ghetto. This movie was produced by Spike Lee, though not directed by him. The events of life in the ghetto, including the possibility of being randomly shot, by police or otherwise, are present in this movie and intimately intertwined with the story of the time machine.

It's really brilliantly written (and performed, and directed), especially the ending, which is both heartbreaking and audacious**, and which I've rewatched several times just to admire it.

*And guess who was coaxed out of retirement to play the part. I was utterly delighted to see him again.

**There's one old favorite movie of mine whose audacious ending reminds me a little of this one. But I can't tell you what it is, because I don't want to spoil this.

book report

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon)

This is a book by a white person, intended to explain racism to white people.

I don't think it's going to work.

The problem isn't with the substantive content of what DiAngelo has to say. I entirely agree with her on that. In particular, I'm in sad communion with her observation that the election of Obama was hardly the end of racism in the US, as was sometimes proclaimed, but the signal for a renewed outbreak of the kind of toxic, blatant, Jim Crow-style virulent racism that some of us were foolish enough to think had permanently faded away.

No, the problem is with the tone and the framing.

Early on, DiAngelo has to patiently explain, as she does every time she brings this subject up with a discussion group, that when she says that white people are racist, she doesn't mean they consciously hate or belittle black people. She's talking about "the racial status quo."

This becomes clear later on when she says that black people can't be racist, even when they're discriminating against white people on racial grounds. Only whites can be racist.

Here it is - or ought to be - as clear as it can possibly be that DiAngelo's definition of racism does not lie in individual acts of racist behavior, but in the whole cultural context of how whites and blacks relate to each other in US society.

Fair enough, but that's not the way she writes. She points to individual whites and says they're racist. She does that to focus them on the problem, but the focus is off. If racism lies in cultural context, then it doesn't consist of individuals' behavior, even when that behavior is discriminatory, and even though the cultural context is formed out of accumulated individual actions. The point is that if that's the definition of racism, then there's nothing any one individual can do to be any less racist, or any more racist for that matter, so the pointing finger is pointing too directly.

I wonder if we need two words, one to mean an inevitably racist context, and the other to mean specific acts of racism.

The people who really need this book - the whites who think that racism is obsolete but who casually demean black people - are unlikely to read it. They'll have been put off by DiAngelo's opening mea culpa breast-beating attitude long before they get to be told to breathe deeply when they're told they're racist, and if they ever get to the point where they read that black people can't be racist while all white people are, they'll just shut down completely.

If you make it to the end, there's some concrete suggestions for how white people should behave in a context of endemic racism, and those are useful, and go against the grain of blaming an endemic problem on individual actions; but first you need to get that far.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

rain

After a preview of the heat of summer, a mixture of rains and threatening weather returned starting a few days ago, wreaking schedule alterations on outdoor events which are normally common in May.

A press tour of Stanford's outdoor amphitheater, to which symphony concerts are returning this summer, was put off from last week for two weeks. While outdoor concerts are not much my thing, I have never been in this amphitheater, so I'm curious to go.

Today was supposed to be the Barron Park May Fête, Barron Park being a small community hidden away inside Palo Alto, whose town park is the location of the corral where lives the donkey, the one used as model for the character in Shrek. (I've seen the donkey at past events, and they look exactly alike.) I was especially eager to go because Brocelïande would be playing, but the rains this morning made it look doubtful, and indeed I found a Nextdoor listing that said it had been canceled. So, stay home and do some work.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

half a day at a book festival

The day I went to the California Symphony, which was Sunday a week and a half ago now, that was in Walnut Creek in the late afternoon, so it gave me time to spend part of the earlier part of the day at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.

I'd gone to a couple panels at this three years ago and have been on their mailing list ever since. But I hadn't found anything that looked worth making the trek to Berkeley for until I suddenly found one of this year's guests, Carlos Lozada, on my radar. Lozada has been the nonfiction book critic of the Washington Post for a while now, but I'd only come across him a month earlier when I read his takedown of the now-ex Baltimore mayor's children's book. You heard about this? The mayor resigned after a scandal around the large sums of money she got selling vast numbers of copies of her self-published children's books to various state institutions that could use a mayor's (or a state legislator's, which is what she was previously) help. Anyway, while the scandal was still boiling Lozada got hold of a copy of one of the books (which wasn't easy to find) and gave it a hilarious (and rather atypical of him) review. Since then he's also reviewed the Mueller report in its capacity as a book to read, rather than parsing it purely for intellectual content.

So Lozada was to be on this panel in a hotel ballroom on "Courage in Publishing in an Age of Political Polarization," which sounded interesting, so I went. At first the heavily overpopulated panel looked as if it wasn't going to go anywhere very useful, with heavy remarks about "cancel culture" and the "new prudishness" and whether the news that Woody Allen can't find a publisher for his memoirs means that publishers lack courage. Someone tried to draw a distinction that what's called "cultural appropriation" is not a bad thing in itself; borrowing is enriching; it's disrespect and exploitation which are bad. Well, good luck at maintaining that distinction.

But the moderator kept good traffic control, and when Lozada got a chance to speak, he put forth some good points from his Mueller review. I wrote him down as saying, "The report is the best of the inside White House books because Robert Mueller has subpoena power. Imagine if Bob Woodward had subpoena power. That would be really interesting." They then got into the question of whether the report is going to be an unread bestseller. Another panelist said, "The Attorney General doesn't seem to have read it," to which Lozada quipped, "Then he shouldn't have reviewed it."

Lozada also got a chance to deliver a bit on the kinds of over-common and repetitious books that political reviewers like himself see too much of these days. They cross the political spectrum. The ones on the left that he's tired of are, he said, "resistance anthologies consisting of essays by obsessively like-minded writers who keep screaming 'this is not who we are' over and over again, which I don't think is very useful," and on the right he finds either accommodationist apologias for Trump or else "book-length breakup letters to the Republican Party without addressing the author's own complicity in making it this way."

After that I wandered over to the Freight, whose auditorium had also been rented by the Festival and which turned out to be a good place for Lozada to interview one Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher with, judging from his interview, an excessively dainty approach. He's recently published a book called The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity which I haven't seen anywhere, nor do many libraries seem to have his earlier books though they're from major publishers. Apparently all his writings focus on identity, which you can understand why it obsesses him once he explains that he's half Ghanaian and half English country gentry with a politically radical side (his grandfather was Stafford Cripps), and now he lives in the US. What am I, anyway? he may well ask.

After that I wandered down to the display area in the city's central park. There were some publishers' booths with nothing I wanted to buy and some food booths with nothing I wanted to eat, so I drifted away.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

concert review: San José State University, School of Music and Dance

Probably the most fun, and certainly the most anticipated, thing I did last weekend was to attend SJSU's production of Bernstein's Mass. This is not a work one gets to see staged often - this was the fourth time total for me - and never before for me in a college rather than professional production.

My editor had phoned to ask if I could cover some other concert that evening and I had to say, "Sorry, I'll be at SJSU for their Bernstein Mass." Then I thought for a moment and said, "Would you like me to review that instead?"

He said sure, so here it is. You may thank my resident Catholic, who was enthusiastically there with me, for the comments on liturgical significance (the shroud on the cross, the Celebrant's vestments), because that's not stuff I would know.

I took our two CDs of the work up to my office with me to help with the review. Then I put them back down on the rack in the kitchen where they came from. Now I can hear from downstairs that B. is listening to one of them while doing the post-dinner dishes. (Just as a reminder: I cook, she does the dishes.) We like this work. And I've started writing cat lyrics to it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

An announcer on our local no-brow classical station just named a famous flutist as "Sir Galway."