Somebody’s Watching Me

Whenever someone does something on the road that aggravates me, I try to remember that I’ve got a Christian message on the back of my car for the world to see. Often (though not always) I will temper my urge to react to a tailgater or some other clown driving as if he or she owns the road. I want to make sure my actions are consistent with the message I carry.

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Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before

It’s 2008, and while the Democrats won’t have George W. Bush to (er…) kick around again, they are demonstrating the same kind of entitled bravado that alienated them from enough voters in the last two presidential elections to lose what they believed to be their due. That sense of entitlement has already cost Hillary Clinton the nomination, and for all of his populist chops, it may well prove to be Obama’s undoing should the Democrat Party exert too much influence on his post-nomination campaign.

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Wright’s Wrong Turn

We have a long history in America of being called to task by clerics. The desire for religious freedom that drove pilgrims to our once savage shores and that was codified in our Constitution, made such a phenomenon possible. Emboldened by revelation and not beholden to the pleasure of government, preachers have been at liberty to speak their minds to congregations large and small. Today we find ourselves being taken to task by another man of God – Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

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A Revolutionary Soundtrack

The connection between contemporary pop music and politics tends to be quite prickly. There’s a lot of power available any time a pol can make a link to popular culture. Witness Walter Mondale’s use of the phrase “Where’s the beef?” in 1984 or Hillary Clinton’s Sopranos video last year.

But the connection is often made gingerly. As evidence, check out some examples of politicians answering the softball “What’s on your iPod?” question and you’ll see nothing but caution and calculation.

Once upon a time, about the best example of a joint venture between pop music and politics was the infamous meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in 1970. But since Elvis was trying to become a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, it’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll moment. In the collision between pop music and politics, the former has to bend to the latter. For example, consider James Brown’s endorsement of Hupert Humphrey in 1968. I don’t think Humphrey displayed the slightest bit of soul in response.

More successfully, in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign used Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” as a kind of theme song. Fleetwood Mac (at least the mid Seventies version) was a pretty soft-rock sort of band. That song’s lyrics are uplifting, not rebellious or anti-authoritarian. Recall that Bill Clinton’s campaign had briefly used Jesus Jones’ song “Right Here’ Right Now” and that Fleetwood Mac ended up re-uniting (once again) and playing live at Clinton’s inaugural ball. The first Baby Boomer Presidential candidate rode to victory (in part) on the back of a Baby Boomer hit single.

And what did Hillary end up selecting as her campaign theme song? As previously discussed: Celine Dion’s “You and I.” Now, there’s a tune that says “experience” and “moderate.”

That means we have to look at Barack Obama to break the mold. After all, he’s the candidate who keeps promising he’s not going to do things in the traditional Washington fashion. He’s the guy who’s supposedly captured the youth vote and the progressive vote. But has he done so?

Well, yes and no. Obama’s campaign rallies never shied away from music others might consider controversial. Have a look at this playlist from a San Francisco rally last fall. When he gave his concession on Tuesday from Indiana, after losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama’s speech was followed by “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” as the song’s author John Mellencamp stepped forward to shake the candidate’s hand in congratulations. That’s a photo-op, but not much of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution.

But let’s go back a few days earlier. On April 16, the last Democratic debate was held and moderators George Stephanopolis and Charlie Gibson raked Obama over the coals pretty well. Hillary Clinton got one hit on her account of a Bosnia trip, but Obama took a barrage of blows. Does Jeremiah Wright loves this country? Do you? How come you don’t love the flag? How come you don’t love white people? Aren’t we loveable enough for you? Left, right, left, right – BAM! Upper cut to the jaw.

Two days later, Obama referred to this pounding during a speech. He acknowledged the incident, classified it as politics, tried to move past it. Then came the bold move: He said, “You’ve just got to…” And he flipped his hand with a dismissive gesture, as if brushing a little lint of his shoulder. This wasn’t arrogance, at least not the garden variety sort. He stole that damn move right out of the Jay-Z playbook.

The rapper’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the typical theme of Me-Against-the-World, but the chorus offers advice that if you are “feelin’ like a pimp,” then you ought to “go and brush your shoulders off.” Jay-Z clarifies that “Ladies is pimps, too,” and they should likewise “brush your shoulders off.” The message pumps louder: “You gotta get / that / dirt off your shoulder.”

There’s a reason the rock/politics equation usually doesn’t work. Rock is often loud, rude, chaotic, antiauthoritarian. If that’s true, hip-hop is that same attitude cranked up to 11. But in this instance, hip-hop didn’t conform to politics. Obama stepped over to hip-hop and borrowed the attitude unadulterated.

Despite the fact that hip-hop has been continuously under attack as an artform over the last 30-plus years; despite the sexism, homophobia, violence, and materialism often found in hip-hop; despite Jay-Z’s own controversial nature and his use of “pimp” and the N-word in this song – despite all that, Obama was trying to communicate a response to an attack with a move that was (in many ways) rude, rebellious and anti-authoritarian.

To really appreciate this event, you need to see the video version that showed up quickly on YouTube. Set to the beats of Jay-Z, you see Hillary Clinton hammering away at him on numerous occasions; Stephanopolis and Gibson take their turns. Then Obama speaks and little cartoon heads of his attackers pop up on his shoulder – he brushes them off. They pop up on the other shoulder and are brushed off again. Finally, a little kitchen sink is thrown at him, to no avail.

There is a danger of embracing hip-hop. It’s an undeniably controversial form, with sex, drugs, violence, and race. Any sane politician would keep this stuff at arm’s length. And yet, for one moment, danger was embraced: A perfect marriage of pop culture and politics.

The Real Deal

Of course, our focus on authenticity in our popular culture is flawed. Gangsta rap and punk are supposed to be authentic, but bubble gum pop and teeny boppers are fake. There are music fans that don’t care, listening to whatever strikes their fancy, and I suppose you could charge that they are lacking in artistic values. But you could just as easily charge certain discriminating hipsters and intellectuals as being snobs.

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Presidential Picks in the Middle East

Here in the Middle East, a region where politics, conspiracies and skullduggery are national pastimes, the American presidential race is keenly observed, if not always understood. Still, there’s a great deal of interest among Israelis and Arabs about who the nominees will be and what that person’s election will mean for the region.

So, let’s take a look at some of the regional attitudes toward the Big Three candidates.

John McCain

The senator from Arizona isn’t widely known here in the region, but what little opinion there is has settled on a single narrative: he’s no different from President George W. Bush, a staunch ally – Arabs might call him blindly so – to Israel, a hothead and the candidate most likely to get into a shooting war with Iran.

Given their druthers, most Arabs on the street would prefer not to see McCain in office.

“I think there is an instinctive aversion to any Republican candidate,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But she made it clear she was speaking about the so-called “Arab street” and not the governments of the region.

“There’s a substantial difference between the Arab street’s opinion and the Arab regimes,” she added. “I think for Arab regimes, perhaps they’d be uncomfortable with a Democratic candidate.”

The Lebanese are certainly uncomfortable with the Democrats, as evidenced by the unease that met Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus last year.

Hillary Clinton

When it comes to Sen. Hillary Clinton, there’s a sense of relief in the region. Her presidency is seen as a return to her husband’s policies – although that harms her in some circles because of President Clinton’s support for Iraq sanctions throughout the 1990s. Others remember the Clinton presidency fondly for its efforts – though flawed – to hammer out a real peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

No matter; she’s considered a strong supporter of Israel – New York City’s large Jewish population and her Hollywood ties are often darkly fretted over – and her support for Israel during the July 2006 war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah hasn’t won her any friends among the so-called “Axis of Resistance”: Syria, Iran and its proxy militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas. For them, Hillary Clinton is seen as a hawk. Her vote in 2002 authorizing the Iraq war still angers many in the region.

The best thing about Clinton, from an Arab perspective, is that she’s a known quality. But between Clinton and McCain, most observers see little difference.

Barack Obama

The one candidate that elicits any kind of excitement is Sen. Barack Obama. An African-American who speaks in soaring rhetoric and who is (wrongly) assumed to have some Muslim ties is irresistible to many.

“I would say there’s a cautious optimism about Obama,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “First of all, they (Arabs) expect a Democratic candidate to adopt a different policy, different means. They’re quite aware that the Democratic Party doesn’t endorse Bush’s methods.”

That said, no one thinks the Obama is going to abandon Israel any time soon. “Arabs know the constraints on every president,” she said.

Nonetheless, some circles in Israel are freaking out over the idea of an Obama presidency. Why? Because last year, in an off-the-cuff remark, he mentioned that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” This led David Adelman, a member of AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, to write a letter asking for clarification on this “deeply troubling” remark of Obama’s.

Obama explained in a debate last year that he was talking about the consequences of Palestinians’ failed leadership, but that hasn’t stopped the “Israel First” crowd from coming out of the woodwork.

He has also surrounded himself with, shall we say, “interesting” advisors – when it comes to Israel:

  • Samantha Power, a human rights activist and Harvard University professor sometimes accused of supporting the Walt-Mearsheimer view of American foreign policy – that the U.S. is hostage to Israel’s view of the region.
  • Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama’s pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and who has ties to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan likes to toss out raging anti-Jewish statements and Obama has not seen fit to distance himself from Wright, whose church magazine last year gave Farrakhan an award.
  • George Soros, the philanthropic (and Jewish) billionaire, who is often accused as being hostile to Israel.
  • Robert Malley, a former Clinton administration official who the Jerusalem Post called a “Palestinian apologist.”
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski and Mark Brzezinski, who are assumed to be foes of Israel.
  • In each of these cases, his opponents are happily ginning up smear tactics against the Obama, seen in the region as the only person who might make significant policy changes for the U.S. policy. Significantly, the “Obama’s-a-Muslim” meme will not die. Look for it to reappear in a virulent form come the summer if he’s the nominee. When Arab media pick it up – it’s only a matter of time – the fictional association will become a reason for Arabs to support Obama and “proof” for Israel’s allies on the right that Obama is not presidential material.

    In the end, Obama’s voting record and more recent statements show him to be — like Clinton and McCain — a steadfast ally to the Jewish state. And Arab expectations and hope for the junior senator from Illinois are likely to be dashed on the rocky cliffs of reality should he find himself in the Oval Office.

    “There’s always the sense that African-Americans would be more sympathetic (to Arabs), because they’re oppressed too,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “But that wasn’t really the case with Colin Powell or Condi Rice, was it?”