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December 29, 2010

Michael Winship: Censorship: Toys in the Nation's Attic

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

Censorship: Toys in the Nation's Attic
By Michael Winship

In the snows of yesteryear, far away from Don't Ask Don't Tell or START treaties or the War on Christmas, I see the movie house of my youth, the Playhouse Theater on Chapin Street, the only one in my small hometown -- except for a nearby drive-in that closed during the winter.

In the colder months, we'd get a short ride downtown to the Playhouse or crunch along the shoveled sidewalks, stepping over or through the deeper drifts, watching out for patches of ice. Sometimes during semester breaks in high school, I'd go to a double feature and, after it was over, walk down an icy silent Main Street late in the night to where my father was closing his store and preparing to drive home.

I've written of the Playhouse before; its history of vaudeville and minstrel shows, the smell of antique popcorn, the black velvet darkness inside while the movies ran, the theater illuminated only by the projector's beam and the soft neon light of a clock hanging to the right of the screen, courtesy of a local jeweler.

Because it was the only show in town, we saw some first-run films but mostly caught up with the big movies after they had played in the cities - if you wanted to be the first on your block, you had to travel to Rochester to see The Longest Day or Mary Poppins; it would be months before they came around to our theater.

But holding the town's movie monopoly had its bizarre advantages: unusual double features like The Three Stooges in Orbit - and Gigi. And because this was a small town, where everyone knew everyone else's business and the official motto could have been In loco parentis, if the mob of kids at a Saturday matinee got too unruly the manager would simply stop the movie, walk out on stage and threaten to call our mothers and fathers. I remember this failing only once: at a screening of a Disney movie called Tonka, the story of a wild horse tamed by a young Sioux brave named White Bull. Sal Mineo was hopelessly miscast as White Bull - who could blame us for going on the warpath?

One of the very first films I saw at the Playhouse was White Christmas. I have little memory of that initial viewing - there was a jeep in it, right? - but as the years go by I've grown to love its music and cozy holiday sentiment, not to mention the impossible legs of actress-dancer Vera-Ellen.

I went to see it with my mother that first time. She was a bigger movie fan than my father and her eye was critical in more ways than one. Once, the Playhouse's main attraction was accompanied by a short, French comedy film, much in the style of The Red Balloon, that classic story of a balloon that silently follows a little boy through the streets of Paris. Only in this film the balloon had been replaced by a soccer ball that bounced through the street of Paris.

At one point the ball bounced through a doctor's office. A woman in a hospital gown was lying face down on the examining table, her bare buttocks briefly exposed. My appalled mother went to the manager and had the offending three seconds snipped from the film.

Years later we laughed about it and agreed that times were different then. And yet they aren't, of course. Witness the current flap in Washington over the inclusion of an excerpt from a video by the artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz in a show at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. Made in 1987 and titled "A Fire in My Belly," the video is a poignant, fierce message of grief and anger arising from the news that Wojnarowicz's mentor and former lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS.

Eleven seconds of the piece depict a crucifix over which ants crawl, a metaphor evoking, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich described it, "frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on."

Outrage was expressed by William Donohue of the Catholic League, a right wing lay organization with no official ties to the Church that seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for Donohue, propelled by his own hot air. The drumbeat was then picked up by conservative Republicans, including the incoming majority leader, Eric Cantor, who threatened the Smithsonian's funding and described the video as "an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season." Speaker-elect John Boehner made similar threats. The Smithsonian caved instantly, and removed the offending video.

Now, first of all, the video was just part of a fascinating exhibit called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. The whole thing opened on October 30, the day before Halloween, a month before the right discovered it, so if anyone is inclined toward taking offense maybe it should have been Wiccans, other pagans, assorted Satanists and trick-or-treaters.

I know this because, unlike I would guess virtually every one of its holier-than-thou critics, I have actually seen the exhibit. On October 30, in fact, because its opening coincided with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." Taking a break from the masses filling the capital's mall, my girlfriend Pat and I sought sanctuary in the National Portrait Gallery and checked out Hide/Seek.

In the interest of full disclosure, I used to write a television series for the Smithsonian; the National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorites of all its museums. And Pat was friends with David Wojnarowicz, the artist in question, who himself was killed by AIDS in 1992.

Hide/Seek, according to the gallery's website, "considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art -- especially abstraction--were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment." Art talk, which translated means that the show not only demonstrates the major contributions of gay men and women to contemporary American art but just as important, how their work was affected by years of suppression and finally, liberation.

The Wojnarowicz video was just a tiny part of the overall exhibition - which flows from Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to Jasper Johns, David Hockney and Andy Warhol - so small that Pat had to point it out to me. I hadn't noticed it amongst all the other works. But no matter. The Smithsonian was created in 1846, its purpose "the increase and diffusion of knowledge," yet once again it has allowed its intellectual spark to be snuffed by know-nothings and dunderheads. Such cowardice relegates the institution to the role the Smithsonian professes to hate -- "the nation's attic," the place where we throw history's knickknacks, toys and worn out ephemera, unguided by curiosity or unimpeded scholarship.

God knows, Christianity will carry on, despite this minuscule, alleged affront. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, if Christmas can survive the Roman Empire; it can certainly survive this. If it can't, we're in worse shape than I thought and I'd just as soon run back to my hometown and lose myself in the comforting darkness of the Playhouse Theater. Too bad the bastards tore it down.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

December 15, 2010

Michael Winship: Mr. President, Put Up Your Dukes

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

Mr. President, Put Up Your Dukes
By Michael Winship

In a scene from the new movie, The Fighter, we watch welterweight Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, take a brutal pounding when he's thrown into the ring against a bigger boxer. Micky's been told the fight would be "an easy win," but he's driven into a corner, gloves in front of his face, bloodied and helpless as his opponent throws punch after punch.

With just a few days left in the life of the 111th Congress, Michigan's Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been urging President Obama to support keeping the Senate in session past Christmas, one last bid to pass legislation before the 112th convenes next month, Republicans dominating the House and increasing their numbers in the Senate.

"The way I think the President needs to fight is to say that he is going to use all of the power he has of a bully pulpit and urge the Senate to stay in, right up to New Year's," Levin said on C-SPAN's Newsmakers program Sunday. But, he continued, "I don't see that kind of a willingness to fight that hard, where he will take that kind of a position and that's what necessary."

Instead, the president's on the ropes like Micky Ward. But he could make a comeback, taking cues from his own past and the examples of two men - each an Obama supporter -- whose recent deaths remind us that there are people of actions and words whose very existence advances America and the cause of democracy in the face of seemingly implacable opposition, within and without.

Richard Holbrooke was arrogant, vaultingly ambitious and did not, as the saying goes, suffer fools gladly. But in his decades of public service and diplomacy he displayed, in the words of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "the courage of his convictions, and his convictions were on the side of innocent people bludgeoned by the world's worst bullies and tyrants. His was a foreign policy pragmatic in its particulars but intensely moral in purpose and perspective."

I first crossed paths with Holbrooke in 1977, just after President Jimmy Carter had appointed him assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He was only 35, but already had more than a decade's worth of work experience in world affairs, including his time in 1963 as an officer with the Agency for International Development in Vietnam and a stint on Averell Harriman's staff at the Paris Peace Talks in 1968. Just for starters.

His greatest success was as chief negotiator of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended in the war in Bosnia, although, as John F. Harris and Bill Nichols recalled on the website Politico.com, "Colleagues joked at the time that Holbrooke succeeded... because the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia preferred to end a generations-old blood feud rather than endure another day sequestered with and being badgered by Holbrooke." He was the embodiment of Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck's credo," Don't say yes until I finish talking."

At his death, as President Obama's chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he continued to struggle for answers, desperately hoping to find solutions that might bring to a peaceful end America's involvement in those two mutually desperate countries. He refused to relinquish his belief, as he told The New Yorker's George Packer, in "the possibility of the United States, with all its will and strength, and I don't just mean military, persevering against any challenge."

Holbrooke embraced the sentiment so beautifully expressed in John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address: "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate," words crafted by Kennedy with his friend, counselor and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. Sorensen died October 31st, but a memorial for him was held last week here in Manhattan.

If you were one of those politicians and leaders fortunate to speak Ted Sorensen's prose, his words not only made you sound smart -- they actually made you smarter. That's because echoing through the resonance of his rhetoric there was learning to be had -- history and philosophy, eloquent and perceptive allusions from the Bible, Pericles and Jefferson, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Churchill. An historical or literary reference in one of his speeches, well honed and to the point, could not only inspire you to action but also send you running for an encyclopedia.

He came by that knowledge via a love of reading passed along to him by his mother, Annis Chaikin, who paid her way through the University of Nebraska working as a maid, and his father Charles, a lawyer who served as that state's attorney general. Writing of his childhood during the Depression in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ted Sorensen said reading allowed him to be "carried afar, on the wings of words."

Sorensen described himself as "a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian... surely a member of the smallest minority among the many small minorities that made this country great." Although he was kidding, there was nonetheless within him a compassion and understanding that permanently embroidered his heart on his sleeve, whether it was integrating Lincoln's municipal swimming pool when he was in college or writing a Kennedy address on civil rights in the hours after Governor George Wallace was made to stand aside from the doorway of the University of Alabama and allow entrance to African American students. Sorensen was a man who sought justice; a man of peace, humanitarianism and idealism; a man of discretion, commitment, and loyalty not only to his colleagues but his country.

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." Those, too, are words from the 1961 inaugural address Sorensen and Kennedy wrote together, as true today while we're debating tax cuts and the estate tax.

Just words. But President Obama, as I know Ted Sorensen told you, just words are how a president operates, how a president engages a country. Put up your rhetorical dukes -- we know it's what you're good at when you want to be and the spirit moves you. At the end of The Fighter, Micky Ward triumphs and becomes light welterweight champion of the world. This fight is only over, sir, if you throw in the towel. Many fear you already have done so. Now's the time to start proving them wrong.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

December 8, 2010

Michael Winship: The Heartbreak of Premature Capitulation

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

The Heartbreak of Premature Capitulation
By Michael Winship

There's this old joke about the French Revolution. A group of prisoners is lined up before the guillotine. One by one, their heads are lopped off. Then, the next man is put in place. The lever is pulled, but the blade stops just inches above his neck. This must be a sign of divine intervention, the judge in charge declares, and the man is freed.

The same thing happens to the next prisoner, and the next and the next. Finally, as the very last man is prepared for execution, he looks up at the mechanism and exclaims, "Wait! I think I see your problem!"

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you President Barack Obama, providing needless aid and comfort to those who would do him wrong, handing over his own head without a fight, afflicted with a curious syndrome we men of science have decided to call Premature Capitulation.

Backing away from myriad campaign promises, giving in to health care, economic stimulus and financial reform compromises -- in some ways these were par for the course, the unfortunate price of governing and politics in a polarized America. But in the few weeks since the midterm elections, the affliction of Premature Capitulation has become more and more endemic, whether it's dissembling on our policy in Afghanistan or backing away from a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank, announcing a Federal workers' wage freeze (which would have been appropriate for the higher ranking civil servants but is pandering to the right and downright cruel to those government employees who barely make enough to live on) or the continued kowtow to the moneyed interests who, if they pat him on the back, do so only to find the place to insert their knives.

And now this deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, continuing breaks for the wealthiest Americans, as well as a similar extension of the capital gains top rate - 15% -- and a raise of the estate tax exemption to $5 million per person, with a maximum rate of 35%. In exchange, Obama is supposed to get a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits for the long term jobless, an expanded earned-income tax credit, equipment purchase write-offs for businesses, a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax and continuation of the college tuition tax credit.

Not so bad, you may think; in fact, many are viewing what Obama has gotten as a de facto second stimulus, but chances are Republicans would have yielded to public pressure on unemployment, especially during the holiday season, and as James Kwak points out on The Baseline Scenario website (which he founded with economist Simon Johnson), "The Bush tax cuts were always bad policy. After the last election, President Obama will be able to accomplish precious little. But he could easily have killed the Bush tax cuts and thereby done more good for our nation's fiscal situation than anyone will be in a position to do for many years to come. Killing the tax cuts would alone reduce the national debt by roughly as much as the deficit commission's entire proposal. And killing the tax cuts was the path of least resistance. Obama could have done it by doing nothing. Or he could have done it by taking a strong negotiating position and being willing to walk away from the table...

"Instead we got a two-year extension as part of an overall package that adds $900 billion to the debt... And Obama will no longer be able to say the tax cuts were a mistake made by President Bush that he was letting expire. Now he owns the mistake."

What's more, while the president's brief announcement of the deal Monday night was matter of fact, the press conference on Tuesday - calling out progressives as sanctimonious purists -- was a defensive display of petulance more appropriate to the sandbox than the White House.

Mr. President, up to now at least, progressives have been the loyal opposition. You're wasting ammo on the wrong guys. Stand up, aim in the right direction, and fight. Because if you think the tax breaks will lead to further logrolling or concessions from congressional Republicans you're wrong. Now that they've gotten what they want, for the next two years of your term they will not yield much of anything else. Their nihilistic, scorched earth brand of politics leaves nothing behind but ash.

And so this latest compromise may prove a Pyrrhic victory. Or is that being premature?

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

December 2, 2010

Michael Winship: As Bees in Honey Drown: Bad Buzz from the Capital Hive

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

As Bees in Honey Drown: Bad Buzz from the Capital Hive
By Michael Winship

Bees in Brooklyn are producing honey that's bright red in color. Or, as The New York Times described it, "an alarming shade of Robitussin."

No, it's not a sign of the Apocalypse. Apparently, the insects have been sipping nectar on the wrong side of town. The theory is that they've been imbibing runoff filled with Red Dye No. 40 and corn syrup from a factory that processes maraschino cherries for desserts and mixed drinks. I'm not kidding.

Maraschino cherries could just be the start; soon the bees may be dining on cocktail onions and flying with those little paper umbrellas bartenders stick in mai-tai's. Or worse, drunkenly singing karaoke. Okay, now I'm kidding. But the real bottom line? Like so many other Americans, even though nearby farmland is filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, rich in nectar, pollen and other healthy stuff, the bees prefer junk food.

Coincidentally, news of this ruby-hued dietary phenomenon came on the same day that the United States Senate, that hive of rancid rhetoric and inertia, actually passed something nutritional -- the food safety bill. While far from perfect, the legislation represents the most sweeping overhaul of regulations in seven decades and will, as The Washington Post observed, "require food manufacturers and farmers to use scientific techniques to prevent contaminated food... delivering a revamped safety system that would confer vast new authority on the Food and Drug Administration, accelerate the government's response to outbreaks and set the first safety standards for imported food."

The vote was 73-25. "It's an unusual and shining example of how bipartisanship can work in Congress," said Erik Olson, director of the Pew Health Group food programs.

Bipartisanship? What a concept. But don't get used to it. The website Talking Points Memo reported on Wednesday that, "According to a letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this morning, Republicans will block all debate on all legislation until the tax cut impasse is bridged and the federal government has been fully funded -- even if it means days tick by and the Senate misses its opportunity to pass DADT, an extension of unemployment insurance and other Dem items."

The letter, signed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the Republicans in the Senate, proclaims, "While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate's attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike."

Harry Reid's reply: "My Republican colleagues... know that the true effect of this letter is to prevent the Senate from acting on many important issues that have bipartisan support. With this letter, they have simply put in writing the political strategy that the Republicans pursued this entire Congress: Namely, obstruct, delay action on critical matters, and then blame the Democrats for not addressing the needs of American people. Very cynical, but very obvious. Very transparent."

Transparent when Republicans - and some conservative Democrats -- are determined to continue tax cuts to the wealthy, and if they can, make them permanent. Never mind that much bemoaned mega-deficit (not to mention those 2.5 million Americans whose jobless benefits end this month).

But here's another coincidence: The website Politico.com reports, "Nearly a quarter of the incoming class of 84 House Republicans have assets of at least $1 million, according to a Politico analysis of financial disclosure forms, a sign that this anti-Washington, anti-establishment crowd of congressional freshmen has been quite successful in the private sector...

"Nearly half the current Congress -- 261 lawmakers -- already have assets exceeding $1 million, according to a recent report from the Center for Responsive Politics [CRP], and that number appears to be growing. Last year, 237 lawmakers made the mint club."

In a moment of classic understatement, CRP spokesperson Dave Levinthal told Politico, "There's a possibility they could be out of touch with reality because they don't have to live it themselves."

You think? Because not only do we have the members of Congress with considerable earned or inherited wealth blindly ignoring the huddled masses. There are also, of course, the generous corporate benefactors of the elected - more bountiful than ever in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision -- eagerly anticipating the service they bought and paid for when they funneled vast amounts of cash, millions of it in anonymous contributions, to the candidates of their choice. Tax breaks, deregulation, stymied reforms - you name it. When you can afford to buy your own reality, everything is honey.

Nothing - NOTHING - will restore any semblance of representative democracy in this country until we mobilize and adopt a constitutional amendment that overturns that Supreme Court ruling. In his forward to an updated report from the progressive citizens' group People for the American Way, Jamie Raskin, American University professor of constitutional law (and a Maryland state legislator) writes, " Citizens United tore down the wall of separation between corporate wealth and public elections, a wall that has protected popular democracy against the tyranny of fat cats and plutocrats for a century at least. The 5-justice majority in the case overthrew decades of precedent to declare that billion-dollar corporations have the same political rights as citizens do, meaning that while all citizens can write campaign checks from the same personal accounts that we buy groceries and pay utility bills from, CEOs can spend tens of millions of dollars from their corporate treasuries to get pliant politicians elected to serve the corporate will."

Makes you see red, doesn't it? Time to sting back.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

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