Sex and Power

In what is now an incredibly ironic scene from Netflix’s “House Of Cards,” Kevin Spacey in his role as Francis Underwood says something to the effect of “Everything in life is about sex except sex; sex is about power.” What Louis CK did was an abuse of power. No, it wasn’t rape and in a strange way it fits in with CK’s schlub/loser persona (which at some level most of us can all identify with) but it was sexual abuse nonetheless. Not only was it a serious mind fuck on the women he perpetrated it on (without their consent), it seems to have had negative professional ramifications (loss of work) for some of them.

Unlike Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and other prominent men who’ve recently been accused of sexual abuse, CK quickly owned up to his actions with a profuse public apology. Whether this was coming from his conscience or simply his method of damage control is yet to be seen. In an interview on “Fresh Air” this week two journalists covering this story reported what seem to be clumsy attempts at apologies by CK to some of the women long before this story broke. They also reported material (which I haven’t seen) in which CK seems to be joking about scenarios similar to the ones he perpetrated. Although I believe the best art comes out of the direct experience of the artist I find this last detail quite damning: he’s flaunting his abusive behavior and selling it to his audience. Is this not a perfect illustration of a power trip?

CK needs to reach out to each his victims and find out if and what (if anything) he can do to make things right. This would probably happen privately and hopefully for them he is already on it.

This episode puts CK’s fans in a strange spot; we like his no-filter, transgressive comedy. His genius lies in his ability to turn our dark thoughts and insecurities into side splitting hilarity. Louis CK is for those tired of the phony bleached teeth botox nicety that is held up as the ideal to which all should aspire. This extends to sex too. CK resonates with our inner freak as much as our inner dork. We hate to think “Oh no, not him too….”

If anything good can come out of this it would be to help move the issue of sexual abuse and harassment to the center of our national cultural conversation. It’s happening all the time, right under our noses, in our homes, churches, work places and other “safe” spaces.  Maybe as a whole we’ll own up to our own complicity in this abuse and stop turning such a blind eye to it.

 

 

It’s Time to Listen

Recently on Facebook a friend posted something to the effect of “My name is John and from now on you should refer to me as Irish-American.” It was clearly a snarky comment about blacks referring to themselves as African American. In fact, when challenged on it his reply was “I’ll call them ‘blacks’, you can call them anything you want.” I tend to call people whatever they call themselves, I think it’s a matter of respect. While here’s nothing pejorative about “black” and Blacks use it synonymously with “African American” John’s rejection of the term is indicative of something worth examining.

Take a little challenge: to the extent you can, write down the name of (someone you know personally) a teacher, an electrician or other contractor, a barber/hairdresser, an auto mechanic, a police officer, an attorney, an engineer,  a computer tech person, an insurance agent. Now go back and write down the name of an African American in each of those roles. How many did you get?

Here in what is possibly the most segregated city in America, most of us (whites) have little or no contact with ordinary black folks. We know little about them and are quite ignorant about how much we take for granted, ethnic pride being just one example. People tend to want to know the country and culture they descend from. In the “City of Festivals” we celebrate Irish, German, Italian, Greek, Polish, French, Mexican, Indian (etc) culture. Black folks were robbed of this through the horrors of slavery (including the systematic rape and mating of slaves). They can’t say “My family is from…” because they don’t know.

Initiatives like the African World Festival and Kwanza have been attempts to recreate and reclaim a lost ethnic pride, to create a new positive identity, and yet many whites react with derision. It would be like if we took a pig and kept all the good meat and gave them the scraps and them when they turned those into something tasty we talked down on the food….

Let’s talk about speech. I have no problem with proper English; in fact I am quite a proponent of it and have an English degree. However, I didn’t have to learn to speak differently from what I heard at home, that I speak pretty much like my parents. Blacks are held to another standard. In many lines of work they’re expected to speak like whites, and we congratulate them when they do: “He speaks so well”. At an inner city school where I worked one 3rd grade teacher called it the “cash language” (‘you speak one way at home but you need to speak this way to make the cash’).

What then are we to make of criticisms of President Obama speaking “too blackly” to black audiences, as if he’s not being authentic? What’s wrong with speaking to people in their own language? Does it make white folks feel excluded? Some of us act like it’s all about us, all the time. Grow up.

There is one place where we have lots of contact with African Americans, the white media. If you couldn’t come up with the names of any black teachers or insurance agents, you might be able to name some criminals. Yes, I wrote “white media” which locally would include most of the TV stations and WTMJ and WISN talk radio. Tune into talk radio on WNOV and you’ll hear reasonable and educated black voices addressing the problems in their community, like the recent violence in Sherman Park. When I hear white people saying “I’d like to hear more blacks condemning the violence” I can be pretty sure they wouldn’t know where to find a copy of The Milwaukee Times, or even find WNOV on the dial.

Why aren’t more of these African American voices represented in local white media? Good question.

I never bought or sold anyone, and from what I know of my family, neither did my ancestors. I have had many black friends in my life. Still I can acknowledge that my experience as a descendent of European immigrants is fundamentally different than that of the descendents of African slaves, and that I enjoy certain privileges they don’t. There is no personal shame in this acknowledgement.

Most people want race relations to get better, and if for nothing but white self interest we need them to get better: demographics show a declining white percentage of the United States. Are we going to be a strategic partner in future societies or a reviled minority? Are we going to work with blacks to transform racist aspects of our society or are we going to be an impediment to this transformation? In many ways it’s up to us because we are still hold most of the strings.

What can we do? A good place to start would be LISTENING. Stop listening to white people talking about black people and start listening to black folks talking about themselves.

NFL quarterback Colin Kappernick has drawn a tidal wave of criticism for his refusal to stand for the National Anthem. My initial reaction was that this was a misguided and ineffective protest that might cost him his career, I thought “maybe he’s dumb.”  However, as I listened to interviews with Kappernick and read more about this I learned that he was a straight A student, won many awards, and nearly had a professional baseball career. I also learned that the Star Spangled Banner’s writer, attorney  Francis Scott Key, owned slaves and prosecuted abolitionists. There are even pro-slavery lyrics in later stanzas of the song:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”:

The “hireling(s) and slave(s)” referenced here included black slaves who fought with the British in exchange for the promise of their freedom. While Keys seems to view them as mercenaries, in a very real sense they were fighting for liberty (their own).

Now I’m not going to throw out my Miles Davis CDs because he beat up his girlfriend, and some of the the Founding Fathers owned slaves. I’m not saying that we should ditch The Star Spangled Banner, but before we send Kappernick off to the proverbial gallows we should give him a fair hearing and ask ourselves “Why would this NFL star risk his career? What are his reasons for doing this?” This requires listening.

If we had all the answers things would already be a lot better. We need to stop talking and start listening.

 

Guy Fiorentini

 

 

Day Six: Eckhart Tolle

I’m taking the day off. Go read The Power of Now. Seriously. Now.

I know how this will sound to some people, because I was once one of “those people”, but I can’t think of any book more important. This might offend some of my friends, but Tolle’s gift to the world lies in his ability to show how religion (he references Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) is aligned with psychology and physical sciences like physics and chemistry; how we’re all connected. He shows us how we tend to create our own hell and how to break free of it.

I am not “enlightened”, this is more a matter of journey than destination, but I’ve seen little glimpses. It has worked for me, and it can work for you.

Are you still reading this? Go get the book!

Day Five: Dagos and Climate Change

My father was the child of Italian immigrants and began working in his father’s butcher shop at the age of eight. Before they married, my grandmother worked in a garment factory and my grandfather worked at a meatpacking company where the boss would fire a .22 pistol at the floor near the workers’ feet when he thought they were going too slow (until my grandfather put a knife to his throat and told him never again). True story. At that time, in the eyes of the Anglo establishment, being Italian put you a little ahead of the blacks. My father pursued a career in business and later banking, which meant that ethnicity had to be repressed. I remember him telling me once about a “compliment” a co-worker paid him: “You’re Italian, but you’re a good Italian.”

When I was growing up in my mostly white, middle to upper-middle class suburban home town, my parents discussed race and class, maybe more so than other kids’ parents. I think that due to their upbringing they were more conscious of these things than most of our neighbors. My mom’s father was one of 11 kids (unusual for a Jewish family), and as his father was mostly absent their lives, worked from a very young age, initially selling peanuts on the street. I know that my grandfather discussed racism with my mom: she told me about how, when they were out, he’d tell her things like “Imagine this dress, having to buy it without being allowed trying it on and if it doesn’t fit when you get home you not being able return it”. He explained “redlining” to her and how many blacks were prevented from living where they wanted.  My parents had political books too, I remember reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and Dick Gregory’s “Nigger” in elementary or middle school.

One thing my father said that really stuck with me was what he described as the biggest tragedy of racism: he said that if you tell people that they’re inferior enough times they begin to believe it and will even repeat it themselves. Now, through the lens of everything I’ve read and lived through, I can see this for the classic propaganda/brainwashing tool that it is. Constant repetition of a simple message is one of the tools cults use and the hallmark of the modern political campaign (talking points); whether the message is factually correct is irrelevant.

Lately I’ve heard a lot of people making sarcastic comments to the effect of “Thank God for global warming, or this weather would be REALLY bad”, the implication being global warming is some liberal fraud. When you consume a lot of media that makes this a mantra (Fox New anyone?) you’re going to believe it and repeat it. I think these folks would be very surprised to know that the Pentagon accepts climate change as reality, it’s right there on page 25 of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. Other industries not often considered “liberal” also accept it as real; these would include big oil and insurance.

I remember meeting a woman at the old Jazz Oasis (in the “ghetto”) who had never traveled farther than Kenosha; that’s only 41 miles. She didn’t seem to think she was missing anything, she seemed fairly content with her life. Who would I have been to tell her she needed to travel? However, had she declared “Milwaukee is the BEST place to live in America!” it would not have meant much, no matter how much she believed it. It would not have referenced any standard by which to compare cities. I believe that quality media, regardless of its political leanings, is one that abides by commonly held standards (rather than creating new ones). When Fox News edited footage of California skinheads rioting into their coverage of the 2011 Madison protests, they abandoned commonly held standards of journalism.

People need to occasionally take a trip outside their own mental ghetto. Sometimes you can’t do much more than hand them a ticket and give them a few words of encouragement, even though you’d really like to be shooting a .22 at their feet.

Day Four: Labels…”I am dead”

Ekhart Tolle writes about the importance of being fully engaged in the present, and how everything that works to take you out of the present (and into the past or future via your mind) tends to build up your ego, your “false self”. Labels are an example of this; when you can give something a label you don’t really have to be present to it anymore because in a sense you’ve frozen it in time. You’ve ascribed to it an unchanging condition, though in reality we are constantly changing. Political labels are no different. I find it interesting when people proudly claim “I’m a Progressive”, or “I’m Conservative”. To me, what they’re really saying is “I’m am dead”, or at the very least, “I am done.” To describe yourself as being in a frozen state is the exact opposite of a living BEING.

This is not to say that I can’t see the power of labeling in the real world, and you can’t really opt out completely. I hold points of view that others might describe as both “liberal” and “conservative”. Furthermore, I have conservative friends who hold some liberal opinions, and vice versa. I think most people are more like this than they realize, but there is so much fear out there being stoked by politically aligned media that try to think for you and tell you that you have to “be something.” Fear can be a great tool for controlling people.

Wisconsin’s concealed carry law comes to mind as one recent example: Its opponents conjured up scenarios of the OK Corral, gun fights in the streets. Two years later this hasn’t been the case, though recently a man killed his attackers while being beaten with a baseball bat at his place of work. I support a regulated right to concealed carry, though I also believe that that all guns sales without background checks should be illegal and prosecuted. To me this isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” issue, it’s common sense.

I don’t know if there is a more divisive issue in America right now than the Affordable Care Act, “Obama Care”. (Interesting, my text editor just correctly auto corrected for “Obama Care”). I know someone who’s health insurance at the business he runs was projected to go up 40-60% due to new regulations. I also know people who work full time but haven’t had health insurance for many years because of preexisting conditions, but are now covered. I think that it will take a few years to judge if this was a good thing for America overall. Is it possible that the demonization of the President and labeling the ACA “Obama Care” turns out to be a strategic mistake for Republicans? There are a lot of hard working Americans of all stripes who have been without healthcare for a long time.

So next time you friend declares “I am ___”,  you can think “What would ET do?” (Tolle, not the space alien) and then just reply them “I AM!”

 

Day Three: Good Books!

I’m cheating a little because I’m writing this on the eve of day two, but tomorrow may be hard to write, I have too much going on. Last week I read a great book called “The At of Racing In The Rain”. Its a fairly simple story about this guy Denny and his wife and kid, but it’s told from the point of view of his dog. This dog is extremely intelligent though, and he is a huge fan of European style auto racing. It sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go, I read it in about 24 hours and was teary eyed by the end. The story has it all: love, drama, suspense, tragedy, transcendence.

The week before I finished “Gone Girl”. If you like a book where the author is toying with you and you’re not sure exactly what’s going on, this is the one for you. Utterly unpredictable, with deviously manipulatively characters and a surprise ending that might leave you grinning or completely aghast.

Day Two: Money Musings and More

Day two of my experiment….Yesterday I pondered the nature of money; we use it everyday but do we really even think about what it is? A couple years ago I heard an episode of This American Life that detailed how a couple American trained economists turned around decades of severe inflation in Brazil. They did it by creating a new unit of money,  virtual currency (the URV) that was listed in prices alongside the standard price, though the currency was not issued. The exchange rates for the URV were listed daily and over time people began to think about consumer prices in the URV and gain confidence in it. Finally at some point the URV was printed up and everybody started using it; they had confidence in it, unlike their previous currency, and the hyperinflation ceased. The next decade saw massive economic improvements.

Back in Obama’s first term many large companies were sitting on huge cash reserves but they weren’t hiring because they “lacked confidence in the economy,” because consumer spending was down. Spending was down because people didn’t have jobs. I remember thinking “Where is the leadership in the business community?” I understand the corporation’s responsibility to maximize profits for their shareholders, but it seems like the world has become so interconnected that this is not working as well as it once did.

There seems to be a mantra, repeated endlessly: “We are in a sluggish economy…the economy has not quite recovered.” I say BULLSHIT. Tell that to the Warren Buffet and the financial services industry. Tell that to Wall Street bankers. Tell that to the the telecommunications industry, Time Warner, Comcast, Verizon. The economy is doing just fine, for some people.

If you accept that money is finite, the huge windfalls that are reaped by some aren’t magical created, they come from everybody else who isn’t raking it in. The huge golden parachute given to the CEO of Time Warner is directly tied to the artificially high cable TV prices everyone is subjected to because TW and Comcast enjoy a monopoly that has been gifted to them by a Congress entirely bought off by campaign contributions. If you doubt that your cable and internet prices are artificially high, consider that the profit margin is well over 90%, and they haven’t reinvested in their infrastructure. Susan Crawford has detailed how we’re not just getting screwed, but falling behind other countries in many categories due to their advantage in terms of broad band access.

Okay, I need to go to a birthday party.

New Blog Project: 30 Days in the Hole

I have never been one for routine, but I’m going to try to post every day for the next month. This will be a bit of an experiment but I have read that if you do something everyday for a month it will become a habit. If I can do this maybe I can make form other good habits. Also, I am hoping to find some order to all the disparate thoughts running around my head, and perhaps provoke some conversations. Why “30 Days in the Hole?” Why not?

Do you ever think about money? What it is and where it comes from? It must have arisen originally to make barter more practical. At a very basic level a society needs enough in circulation to allow people to obtain their basic day to day needs. As the population grows so does the need for more money. I don’t know what was used before gold, but that’s not really important. Like gold, there must have been a finite supply of it or it would have had no value. If you wanted more gold you had to dig it up out of the ground or take it from someone else. Gold has no inherent value, you can’t eat it. We give it value when we (as a society) assign it value. Why do we do this? Because (1) it is beautiful and people love beauty, and (2) it is hard to obtain and in limited supply.

At some point we realized that it was impractical to move around large quantities of gold (it’s very heavy) so we came up with the system of paper money. The gold would sit in a heavily guarded central location and bills would be printed that stood for denominations of this gold. If a bank owned $100 million in gold they could print up $100 million in paper bills and we agreed to honor these bill as if they were gold. This is called the “Gold Standard”.

At some point governments realized that people were so used to trading in paper money that they could just print up more bills and people would honor them. This might be a cynical way of looking at it, and as international trade ramped up in the 19th and early 20th century economic activity became much more complicated. There are many good reasons for governments to try to stabilize and control their economies, but ultimately, the only value in this money is group consensus that it will be honored. This is called “fiat” money, or the “fiat standard”, from the latin word which means an order, sanction, or decree.

Using fiat money is really an act of faith in the government, but when you think about it, using money backed by gold is also an act of faith. If we go back to a gold standard, as some libertarians advocate, you’re still going to be paying goods and services with something that represents it, not the gold itself.

In 2014 most of our major purchases are done with electronic credit: this is ephemeral data that represents money or the obligation to repay money, which in turn represents a promise based on gold that no longer exists. Ultimately all of this is completely worthless except for the fact that we agree to give it value; this latter point being tremendously important. If people start to question the value of the money because the government has issued too much it loses its value. Whether the money is based on gold or faith, the value of it is predicated on there being a finite supply of it.

When someone is able to “earn” an $80 million severance package, like the CEO of Time Warner just did after TW merged with Comcast, where does this money come from?

Okay, time to wash some dishes.

More nuts and bolts, less ideology.

This is a letter I wrote to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that was published recently:

Would someone please explain to me how further tax cuts and deregulation are going to have different effects on our economy than they did during the George W. Bush years?

I don’t recall substantial job growth, but rather jobs being shipped overseas, a real estate bubble followed by a stock market bubble, companies becoming “too big to fail” (needing taxpayer bailouts) and the richest becoming much richer. Since I began following politics in the Reagan ’80s, there has been only one president to leave office with the economy in better condition than when he came in (Bill Clinton), and he wasn’t primarily about deregulation and ultra-low taxes.

The genius of the new conservative machine is that many of its loudest proponents are mostly hurt by its policies – like my friend always posting on Facebook about “Obamacare” yet working full time and can’t afford health insurance.

I run a small business, and, yes, Bush cut my taxes by $1,000 a year, but I’d gladly give that back for future access to student aid for my kids, a regular music class for my son, solid roads and bridges, affordable health care and a coherent energy policy that looks to the future rather than the past.

Guy Fiorentini

Musings, October 2011

I wonder how the new reality of our stalling economy is going to affect culture. I don’t know much about art or film aside from knowing what speaks to me, but I can say that most (if not all) of the music that has really mattered in terms of pushing music ahead and speaking to mankind has come from people who had very little but their music. From the canonical European composers, to the great American songwriters of the first half of the twentieth century, to the blues artists that paved the way for rock’n’roll, to the great jazz improvisers and composers; although some of them were well paid for their work, very few came from privilege.

Over the course of time music has served to tell the stories of people: joyous, sad, painful, and funny. Songs are passed down through generations, bringing us together as people. Ultimately, it is an edifying force. Life is not easy but music makes it a little easier.

I’m not speaking of music as a whole (how could you?) but it seemed to me that in the Clinton and early Bush years, when America was going through huge economic growth, there was a lot of popular music that seemed to wallow in despair and self pity. Maybe we didn’t need music to make us feel better because in our orgy of consumerism and easy credit we had everything we needed? Or we felt like we did? I remember being at a party in the early 90’s when Nirvana was burning up the charts; the great South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo was on the TV. When I turned up the sound several people there made disparaging comments about the music. I could not understand how you couldn’t like it, that made about as much sense to me as not liking fresh strawberries. (By the way, I liked Nirvana too).

It’s interesting to be old enough to see music cycle in and out of fashion. When I was a kid I loved Hall and Oat’s “Kiss On My List”. Yes, the lyrics we’re a bit corny but the the chords were hip, the melody and singing were great, and the production was excellent. (Not that I knew this at the time, I just knew that it sounded great blasting through the speakers at the roller rink!). I bought the 7″ single. I liked many of their tunes but that’s still probably my favorite.

There were a lot of years where it wasn’t too hip to cop to liking something like two guys with poofy hair singing funky pop tunes with heavy soul undertones, but now the hipsters have “rediscovered” Hall and Oats, and they’re cool again…which I think is fantastic! Are we taking ourselves a little less seriously? We’ll need to in order to get through this. By the way, check out “Darryl’s House” online for some great interviews and musical collaborations between Darryl Hall and a wide array of guests.

My point isn’t that Hall and Oats epitomize great culture but that being an act that came out of a long term musical tradition, they were master craftsmen with a deep working knowledge of the best that tradition has to offer. That’s why, 25 years later, their work still speaks to people. It’s uplifting, and in tougher times we need music to give us a lift.

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My most recent Beginning Guitar class includes a man, a woman, a boy, and 11 mostly elementary school aged girls! When did playing guitar become hip for young girls? It’s got to be Taylor Swift or someone else they’re listening to, because this group is motivated, they are practicing and they sound good. It is difficult trying to teach guitar to kids who listen mostly to rap and r’n’b because there is little or no guitar in that music; this is something I’ve dealt with many times in the last 15 years. Thank you Taylor Swift.

My son Luca, who is in 3rd grade, played his first request recently. I started teaching him guitar this summer, and a few weeks ago he brought it to school to play for his music class. While he was playing “E Boogie Blues” (a song I wrote for my students), an overenthusiastic kid started yelling “Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!” Luca knew it so he played it (I hope the kid tipped him!). There are no words to describe the glow I feel when I think about this.