Monday, April 04, 2011

Vintage Krait Venom

This past weekend, The Krait (writing in tandem with her NY Fishwrap distaff columnist — Maureen "The Cobra" Dowd) gives The Donald a few brickbats. Collins' Op-Ed teammate, Maureen Dowd, was nicknamed "The Cobra" by the POTUS 43 when he was on the hustings in '00. For strength of venom, The Krait gives no quarter to The Cobra. In the meantime, The Donald is given his due as a potential Dumbo/Teabagger presidential candidate. If this is (fair & balanced) venom analysis, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Donald Trump Gets Weirder
By Gail Collins

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Donald Trump has run faux campaigns for president before, flirting with the Democrats and independents. This time, he’s playing a conservative Republican. By 2016, he’ll probably be talking about his affinity for the Alaskan Independence Party or the Whigs.

And, of course, he’s suddenly a birther. “This guy either has a birth certificate or he doesn’t,” he said of President Obama. “I didn’t think this was such a big deal, but, I will tell you, it’s turning out to be a very big deal because people now are calling me from all over saying: please don’t give up on this issue.”

It was a perfect vocalization of the New York Street: People are calling me up! Don’t believe everything you hear, unless it comes over the phone.

In a potential Republican field that includes Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, it’s hard to come up with a line of attack loopy enough to stand out from the pack. But darned if Trump didn’t manage to find one.

“If he wasn’t born in this country, it’s one of the greatest scams of all time,” Trump told Bill O’Reilly, who demurred: “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Vote for Donald Trump, the man who can make Bill O’Reilly look like the most sensible guy in the room.

Trump’s main argument for why he should be taken seriously as a presidential contender is his business success. Has Obama ever hosted a long-running reality series? Owned a bankruptcy-bound chain of casinos? Put his name on a flock of really unattractive high-rise apartment buildings? No!

“By now my name is big enough and equated with the gold standard to the extent that I don’t have to say too much about it,” wrote Trump in one of his books, before going on to say a lot more about it. He is extremely sensitive to any gibes about his business record, which has been up and down over the years.

During one down period, I referred to him in print as a “financially embattled thousandaire” and he sent me a copy of the column with my picture circled and “The Face of a Dog!” written over it.

Trump was one of the first people I interviewed when I came to New York as a reporter back in the ’80s when he was a developer-wunderkind who had started in the business with nothing but a smile, a dream and his father’s large holdings in real estate.

He’s still promoting, 24/7. Some people believe that his presidential flirtations are an attempt to draw viewers to his TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice.” In it, people who are alleged to be famous compete for money for their favorite charities and what one former contestant revealed was a salary of $16,000 apiece. That isn’t much for network TV work, but since one of this year’s celebrities, disgraced former steroid-using baseball player Jose Canseco, recently tried to make a $5,000 fee by sending his brother to impersonate him in an exhibition boxing match, you have to figure it comes in handy.

“Celebrity Apprentice” is widely regarded as terrible and cheesy programming, but, actually, it has its moments. I recently saw an episode in which a former top model had a serious discussion with a fellow competitor about whether this was the 20th century or the 21st. You can’t get stuff like that on “Mad Men.”

The series is a perfect reflection of Trump himself: an orgy of product-placement and personal aggrandizement. All the contestants, including the ones in their 70s, have to refer to their host as “Mr. Trump.” They all somberly devote themselves to making faux commercials about whatever enterprise has coughed up cash for a major mention that week. Then it’s off to the boardroom where people talk ceaselessly about their performance in order to stretch the whole enterprise into a low-cost, two-hour show.

When you think about it, “Celebrity Apprentice” has a lot in common with the current Republican presidential campaign. Endless blathering. Strange contenders who did something vaguely notable in 1986. And Donald Trump, looking extremely cheerful.

Beyond having the moral fortitude to tell Dionne Warwick she is fired, Trump’s qualifications for being president of the United States include having co-written a large number of books, including Think Big and Kick Ass (“People always ask me: ‘How did you get so rich?’ ”) and Never Give Up. (“This book is about a subject near and dear to my heart — never giving up.”)

To establish his birther creds, this week Trump produced his own birth certificate, after one failed attempt in which he came up with a document that was too weak to qualify for a passport. By the time he worked things out, we had an entire news cycle devoted to Donald Trump having been born in New York.

Now, let’s try asking to see his tax returns. Ω

[Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page. At the beginning of 2007, she stepped down and began a leave in order to finish a sequel to her book, America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. Collins returned to The Times as a columnist in July 2007. Besides America's Women, which was published in 2003, Ms. Collins is the author of Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity and American Politics, and The Millennium Book, which she co-authored with her husband, Dan Collins. Her new book is about American women since 1960. Collins has an undergraduate degree in journalism from Marquette University and an M.A. in government from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company

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The Lite Hist Boy Steps In & Faces Lenny Cassuto... Cassuto... Wearing Number...?

[O, Boy! Blogging is like riding a bicycle after a long time away from the bike: once you get up, the old, automatic unused skills take over. All is restored!] Wallace Stegner taught this blogger that fiction was a lens on life. Professor Leonard Cassuto offers today's corollary: "Baseball acts as a prism that refracts conflicting American attitudes toward big business and labor." If this is (fair & balanced) Baseballiana, so be it.

[x Cronk Review]
Baseball And The Business Of American Innocence
By Leonard Cassuto

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Football may get the highest television ratings, but no one should doubt that baseball is America's most literary sport. The game has a natural affinity to narrative: Each contest unfolds like a measured story, and the gaps in the action leave room for embroidery of all kinds. And embroidery there has been, with the romance of baseball proclaimed—against evidence that baseball is a big business, and often a venal one.

How does popular culture maintain such contradictory views of the national pastime in suspension? Let's revisit that question, in the game and its literature, as the season opens once again.

In the bravura opening chapter of Underworld (1997), baseball provides the warp and woof upon which Don DeLillo weaves a pano­rama of American postwar culture, including Jackie Gleason, Schrafft's, and the specter of Soviet nuclear tests. That atomic intrusion into an urban pastoral setting reflects a shift in baseball literature that dates from 1970, when Jim Bouton's landmark Ball Four, a candid player's diary, almost single-handedly bankrupted the remarkably long-lived myth that baseball players live in a state of perpetual boyhood as they play a boy's game. Bouton lay bare the activities of the players (including sexual escapades and amphetamine abuse) and team management (whose hardball negotiations held down player salaries).

Many authors of baseball books since Bouton have not hesitated to strip their subjects pruriently naked—and baseball literature now chronicles not only the airbrushed good old days but also the reality beneath the sepia tint. Jane Leavy's recent The Last Boy (2010), for example, provides a more, ahem, balanced look at Mickey Mantle than we've yet seen. Michael Lewis's influential Moneyball (2003), an insider's look at the workings of baseball's personnel decisions, continues to inspire adjustments and rebuttals. The latest is Sheldon and Alan Hirsch's The Beauty of Short Hops (2011), which argues for the limits of statistics in evaluating baseball performance. We may certainly expect many new books about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in the coming months and years.

Through it all, though, the romance of the game has mostly endured—one need only look to the unending flow of books that celebrate the game's past and present. According to one online source that catalogs recent entries, a new baseball book appears approximately every two-and-a-half days. There are still old-fashioned hagiographies written for children, like last year's Joe Mauer: From Hometown Hero to MVP; stories of teams, like The Mets Journal (by John Snyder, 2011); of seasons, like The Cardinals and the Yankees, 1926 (by Paul E. Doutrich, 2010); and even of ballparks (Take Me Out to the Ballpark Revised and Updated, by Josh Leventhal, 2011). A double handful of novels about baseball also appear each year. From romance to business and back again—the inconsistencies of our popular fascination with baseball continue, as my co-editor and I found in The Cambridge Companion to Baseball, our new survey of the game's history and place in American and global culture. That's what makes it so difficult to reform the abuses that also persist, some of which extend beyond U.S. borders, like the widespread exploitation of young prospects by predatory agents in the Dominican Republic.

The romance of baseball has lately been enabled by a deepened fascination with the numbers that quantify the sport's perform­ances and define its records. Fantasy Baseball both reflects and enables this increased focus on statistics. It's a popular armchair game for fans who form their own "teams" composed of real-life players, whose real-life performances are measured each day. Among the baseball books published each year are numerous guides for fantasy players that offer esoteric statistical analyses of hundreds of players.

The emphasis on the numbers calls even more attention to player records in a sport that already has a long history of honoring such marks. So it was news a year ago when retired slugger Mark McGwire called a news conference and admitted that he had used steroids during his glory years more than a decade earlier. McGwire begged forgiveness. "I shouldn't have done it," he said, "and for that I'm truly sorry."

McGwire's narrative of confession—preceded by his awkward and evasive Congressional testimony on the subject in 2005, when he refused to "talk about the past"—was accompanied by a leaden clang rather than a thrum of harps. Mc­Gwire's earlier silence under oath had exposed the truth of the matter years before his public admission.

The dissonance of Mc­Gwire's confession goes beyond his own place in history. It exemplifies the history of baseball in the United States, and even the place of the game in the world today.

Baseball is a sport that has proclaimed its own innocence at every turn. As the national pastime, it gained an early identity as a pastoral fantasy that has been exploited by commentators of all stripes. Even the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs proclaims baseball as "the game of innocence and growth." A Google search linking baseball and innocence yields more than a million hits.

Baseball locates its fount of innocence at the furthest possible remove from the crass world of moneymaking. Some of the greatest baseball stories, like Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952), hint at actual magic on the baseball diamond, legerdemain that maintains deliberate distance from the counting of ticket receipts. Baseball's most famous scandal, the throwing of the 1919 World Series by members of the Chicago White Sox, who came to be known as the Black Sox, gained its dangerous potency from the way that it mingled moneymaking with play on the field. As essays on baseball literature and film in The Cambridge Companion discuss, the enduring icon of this version of lost innocence remains "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a member of the Black Sox who was banned for life, but who has been immortalized in W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (1982) and in the 1989 movie based on the novel, Field of Dreams. My own essay on Pete Rose, a tortured exile from baseball despite his heroics on the field, extends to our own time the threat of gambling to baseball's image of innocence.

All sports (with the exception of horse racing) try to steer clear of the taint of money, but baseball has succeeded better than most for a long time. There's a charm to baseball's Elysian fantasy, and it's captured in the figure of Babe Ruth, the game's most beloved figure. Ruth is remembered as a man-child of prodigious talent and appetite whose home run hitting for the New York Yankees captured the imagination of millions during times of both prosperity (the 1920s) and depression (the 1930s).

His boyish love of the game notwithstanding, Ruth held out repeatedly for more pay dur­ing his most productive years. His highest salary, in 1930 and 1931, was $80,000, the equivalent of about $1,250,000 today. When his performance fell off to numbers that were still superstar quality, the Yankees swiftly cut his pay. In 1934, his last year with the team, he made $35,000.

Ruth used the tabloids as the arena for his salary battles with ownership, and he played the media organ perhaps more skillfully than anyone else. By contrast, the Yankee owners successfully portrayed Joe DiMaggio as greedy when he held out past opening day in 1938. He capitulated to the team's salary demands and returned with a $25,000 salary to widespread boos. The Yankees' principal owner, Jacob Ruppert, announced, "I hope the young man has learned his lesson."

Especially in light of recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere, it's worth dwelling on the lack of public support for baseball's workers. DiMaggio's case has been replayed many times since. The public has proved fickle when professional athletes hold out, often showing a tendency to overlook the owners' existence and to pressure the players to be satisfied with what they have. Even players have felt that way. Bob Locker, a relief pitcher during the 1960s and 1970s, recently said in an interview that "most players wanted to 'bend over backwards' for the ownership, since they were our employers, and we appreciated a chance to play a sport and earn a living. We had no idea how one-sided the situation really was." As late as 1967, the average baseball player's salary was less than $20,000, with paltry pension benefits.

The story of free agency is familiar by now: A union activist, Marvin Miller, succeeded in uniting the players, who eventually dragged owners to the table. The players won free agency (that is, the workers' right to sell their services to the employers of their choice) in a landmark 1975 arbitration ruling, and their sala­ries shot up. The story of baseball's management-labor relations since then has been one of contumely and fractious conflict—a saga with no heroes, starring a commissioner who works by shuttle diplomacy rather than convening owners to discuss a problem together or set an overall policy, and a suspicious union that blocks even sensible reforms, like those aimed at curbing banned drugs.

It's not just our nostalgia for the idealized innocence of the sport that makes us avert our eyes. Look more closely at the patterns of public support. Baseball has always been a big business. Owners were even granted an antitrust exemption in 1922, a few years after crushing a rival professional league. That exemption amazingly persists to this day, when a middle-of-the-pack team like the Cleveland Indians is valued by Forbes magazine at more than $400-million. But as Andrew Zimbalist points out in his chapter in the Cambridge Companion on baseball's economics, unlike in other successful businesses, baseball's owners have never wanted to look rich or even particularly successful.

In public conflicts between now-wealthy baseball players and incredibly wealthy baseball owners, public sympathy continues to whip back and forth like a reed in a crosswind. Consider the following figures: 90 percent of those polled in 1996 believed that professional athletes were paid too much; by contrast, only 49 percent did not believe in 1997 that "most successful people on Wall Street" deserved their paychecks.

Baseball acts as a prism that refracts conflicting American attitudes toward big business and labor. The journalist Matthew Josephson wrote in 1934 of how the "successful baron of industry" received "naively ecstatic" media coverage and "general public consent." In the late 19th century, the financier Henry Clews declared successful businessmen as "the modern nobility." But despite anger at Wall Street, his words have lost little currency since. A century later, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" had established itself as a long-running television hit. Andrew Carnegie's The Gospel of Wealth distracted attention from his own immense wealth by talking about the importance of philanthropy. Today, it has been joined by the so-called "prosperity gospel," which sees the Bible as the original success manual.

Looking at baseball shows us how Americans perceive inequality: They are as likely to identify upward as downward. And the failure to reform baseball (which matters in its own way) corresponds to a reluctance to reform other American institutions (which matters more). The tendency of baseball fans to reach for the dream and elide the reality corresponds to the credulity that Americans still maintain toward big business—with potentially dire consequences.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is the story of a man who isn't what he says he is: He's a bootlegger rather than a genteel millionaire. He loves a woman who isn't the paragon he thinks she is, but he loves her with a passion so powerful that it somehow transcends the lies and naïveté from which it springs. It turns out that Jay Gatsby, né James Gatz, by his own account a spectacularly self-made man, was "made" by a gangster named Meyer Wolfshiem. Fitzgerald wants us to under­stand the fathomless depths of Wolfshiem's mendacity, so he has him wear human teeth as cufflinks—and ties him to fixing the 1919 World Series.

Gatsby's tragedy thus becomes inseparable from the glorious dream that inspired it and the seamy reality that supported it—and, in a way, from baseball. The game's presence in the background is appropriate, for baseball blends ethereal dreams of innocence with earthbound truths from the world of experience.

And that seems about the right way to look at the game. Let's enjoy baseball, but not lie to ourselves about what it represents. Ω

[Leonard Cassuto is a Professor of English at Fordham University. He received a BA from Columbia University, an AM from Harvard University, as well as a PhD from Harvard University. Cassuto is the author of Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, which was nominated for the Edgar and Macavity Awards and named one of the Ten Best Books of 2008 in the crime and mystery category by the Los Angeles Times. Cassuto’s articles about American crime fiction have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, the minnesota review, and other publications. Cassuto is co-editor, with Stephen Partridge, of the recently published The Cambridge Companion to Baseball (2011).]

Copyright © 2011 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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A Monstrous Regiment Of Women Man-Up On The Dumbos & Teabaggers!

[Note from the blogger: This blog has been dark over the weekend due to a computer problem. The blogger's laptop was afflicted by something produced by a fiendish black hat and the laptop had to go to the hospital. The equivalent of a prefrontal lobotomy was performed and the hard drive was "wiped" and Windows 7 was reinstalled. Evidently the anti-everything software that was supposedly guarding the laptop failed and something malignant made changes to the operating system. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?]

Welcome, boys and girls, to another Tom Tomorrow installment (after the move from Salon to the Daily Kos0. Today, Conservative Jones gives voice to the Lunatic Wing on the Right. No, wait! It's not a "wing," it's that entire gang of wackos! Since April '09, this blog made several visits to Tom Tomorrow's alternative universe to be thrilled by the adventures of "Conservative Jones, Boy Detective" and the Great Wikipedia tells us:

[x Wickipedia]
Conservative Jones

Beginnning in 1963, Donald J. Sobol created Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, boy detective, in a long series of children's novels. Only his parents and teachers call Leroy by his given name (which he dislikes); the rest of the neighborhood children refer to him as "Encyclopedia" because of his penetrating mind. "This Modern World" is a parallel universe and in that world, Tom Tomorrow gives us "Conservative Jones," Boy Detective. Jones has a trusty sidekick, "Moonbat McWacky," just as Sherlock Holmes had Dr. John Watson.

In today's thrilling installment, Conservative Jones faces the Dumbo Dilemma O'The Day: How To Support The Airstrikes In Libya Without Supporting The POTUS 44? The best that Conservative Jones can muster is to strike at manhood in the Oval Office. Women (gasp) convinced the POTUS 44 to protect the Libyan rebels with bombing sorties. Women! If this is (fair & balanced) Dumbo/Teabagger insanity, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Conservative Jones And The Mystery Of Operation Odyssey Dawn
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2011 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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