Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Virginia Is For US Haters

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell determined that he left out a certain word in his proclamation making April "Confederate History Month" in Virginia.  The word was "slavery." So, he's released a statement regretting the omission and updating the proclamation. This is a good idea.


Sorry, but I'm not on the Southern revisionism bandwagon. You can talk all you want about the bravery of Confederate soldiers and strategic genius of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals all you want. The one central fact of the Civil War isn't the issue of slavery or trade and tariff policy.  The one central fact is that the Confederate States launched the war on  the Union.  (In fact, McDonnell's proclamation conveniently occurs just a week before the April 12th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter.)  

The Confederates started the war -- and they lost the war.  They rebelled against the United States of America. After the end of  the "war between the states," America's existence as an irrevocable Union was settled. It was principally a political decision not to treat Confederate soldiers as treasonous agents and accept them back into the Union without penalty.

But the facts remain. A governor wants to commemorate an entity that took up arms against what is now known as the United States of America. This is a decision that shouldn't be offensive to black Americans.  It should be offensive to ALL Americans who commend and salute those who died for the cause of making this nation what it is today.  To commemorate the Confederacy is, by definition, to commemorate division. 

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Truth In Comedy

With all due respect to Del Close's classic improvisation manual by the same title as this post, my Conference on World Affairs panel Tuesday -- "Cringe Humor From Shakespeare to Family Guy" -- was a true joy to be a part of.

The panelists were comedian/writer Julia Sweeney, perhaps best known as androgynous "Pat" on Saturday Night Live a while back; Tina Packer, head of the "Shakespeare & Company" conservatory up in Massachusetts; and Tom Shadyac, director of many of Jim Carrey's biggest movies -- Ace Ventura, Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty, etc.  And then there's me who's done a few stand-up gigs and improv shows. Woah!!

However, it turned into an amazing free-form discussion. The moderator asked at the beginning of what we thought "cringe humor" was and its place in society. But from that starting point, Julia talked about how she's less drawn to cringe/sophomoric humor than she was when younger -- yet still found herself laughing herself silly watching Bruno after being given a promotional DVD; Tina went into the dark humor found in Hamlet and Macbeth -- and the truly appalling cannibalistic lines in Titus and Andronicus. Tom discussed what he thought of humor as being a healing factor in society -- to help throw people back into the non-thinking innocence of youth. Rather than assessing the "bodily functions" sort of cringe humor, I chose to talk about some of the political jokes I've made that have caused audiences to gasp or squirm noticeably.

My favorite recent anecdote involved a joke about Robert Byrd that I delivered at the Broadway Comedy Club.  First part of joke  goes that Byrd fainted at Obama inaugural reception (fact) because as a young man, the former KKK member said, "I'll die if a black man ever becomes president." However, since Obama's half-white, Byrd only fainted and recovered.  Second part of joke: "Problem started back in January '08 when Roland Burriss was appointed to Obama's old Senate seat. Harry Reid said he wouldn't allow the Blagojevich-tainted Burris to be seated. He vowed to Byrd that Burris wouldn't be allowed in. He changed his mind and reneged on his vow to Byrd.  And there's nothing Byrd hates more than a 're-negger.' (Say it out loud).

When I told this joke at the comedy club, one of the promoters there complimented me on my material, but said he didn't like comics to use the "N-word." I tried to explain to him that I didn't use that word, but a pun on the word. He didn't see the difference. Apparently, the closeness of the  word struck his "cringe" button.

Our series of opening remarks launched a real colloquy between the four of us where the conversation went into philosophical areas of the nature of humor, the nature of language, should there be any real "bad words" of which we are afraid.  Julia said that we shouldn't be afraid to say "nigger" (and used the word).  I also mentioned the "C-word"  -- and Julia promptly vocalized it! But the flavor was very open, the humor flowed like fine wine.  We laughed at ourselves, the audience laughed too, several asked good questions about where to draw appropriate "lines" and whether Stephen Colbert is a better humorist -- and has more freedom --  because he has created this persona called "Stephen Colbert."

All told this was a great experience -- intellectually and emotionally satisfying while also being an entertaining event in which I was both participant and observer, teacher and student.   It will be tough to top this as my favorite panel for this year's CWA.  

Then again, there are three days to go.


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Tick, Tick, Tick...

After a hellacious two weeks of stories of bondage-themed nightclubs, direct mail solicitations with phone numbers that connected to sex-lines and high-profile resignations, the end may finally be about reached for the tenure of Michael Steele as RNC Chairman.  The Daily Caller -- which first launched the current round of media bombardment when it broke the bondage-nightclub story -- reports Wednesday that the RNC and the Michigan GOP engaged in a highly questionable fundraising flip:

Into the RNC coffers, and back out again.
The Republican National Committee at the end of last year struck a deal with the Michigan Republican Party that if the state party could raise what turned out to be a half a million dollars for the RNC, the committee would immediately give the money back, in a scheme apparently devised to increase the RNC’s 2009 fundraising numbers, possibly even to circumvent federal spending limits.
“It was a known secret that a deal had been struck on the topic,” a former RNC official confirmed to The Daily Caller.
“I think the benefit to them was them getting guaranteed money,” the source said of the Michigan GOP, “and the benefit to the RNC was getting higher fundraising numbers.”
RNC spokesman Doug Heye, contacted by a reporter Tuesday afternoon, did not comment.

The last line is the most foreboding.  Heye is a competent long-term communications veteran -- and has worked for Steele a lot in the past.  For him not to comment speaks volumes.  It means he has been shut out from having the information to craft a response -- or he refuses to pass along an answer that he knows to be false.   

This sort of fiscal shenanigans gives RNC members material with which to fire Steele for cause -- unless he resigns first. 

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Back To Boulder

I'm attending the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, for the third year.  (If you're in town, here's the schedule of my panel appearances for the rest of the week.)

My Monday session -- "New  Tools, Old Traditions: A Renaissance in Journalism" -- included a fellow panelist taking me to task for saying that the New York Times, Post and Daily News were equivalent newspapers. In fact, I said that those three papers were fortunate to have single proprietor/family-based ownership -- instead of generic corporate control.  Yes, The Post is part of Newscorp, but it was the first US media entity that Rupert Murdoch purchased -- back in 1977.  I think it -- like the News under Zuckerman and the Times as held by the Sulzberger/Ochs families for decades -- has a more coherent vision than many larger papers that have been gobbled up by larger corporate organizations. 

In any event, lefty journalist Robert Dreyfuss (a former editor of The American Prospect) declared that the Post and News were "fish wrap" compared to the Times. He dismissed classic headlines like The Post's "Headless Body Found In Topless Bar" (1983) and the News' "Ford To City: Drop Dead" (1975). By definition broadsheet papers and tabloids are different entities, with formats that lend themselves to different ways of approaching and reporting the news.  That doesn't mean that they don't each have their place in the daily newspaper world.  

My problem with Dreyfuss' cavalier condemnation of tabloids is that he ignored the fact that the News headline he dismissed was actually about a major significant story of the time -- the federal government under then President Gerald Ford refusing to bail out a bankrupt New York City.  That was a decision that led to a series of events that have resonance in today's financial crisis. People remember that headline -- not because it was (in modern parlance) "snarky." People remember it because it perfectly summarized a seminal moment in the city's life.  Meanwhile, if anyone can remember what the Times' headline on that story was that day, please get back to me.

Rather than just condemning tabloid-format newspapers, Mr. Dreyfuss might want to consider that they have an important role to play and that journalists should be eagerly encouraging any format that keeps the daily newspaper alive in some respect.  

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