Baseball Crank
"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
December 17, 2013
HISTORY/WAR: Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan and the Cold War

My latest at The Federalist looks at the actual history of Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, the Cold War and the end of apartheid. It may not be the history you hear today, but it was all well known to those of us who were paying attention at the time.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:30 AM | History • | War 2007-16 | Comments (2)
December 16, 2013
WAR: Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan and the Cold War

The death of Nelson Mandela has unleashed a flood of commentary on a man who now belongs to the ages. Unfortunately, too much of that commentary ignores the extent to which Mandela - and his winning battle against apartheid - was a part and product of his times.

Specifically, much of the punditry by American liberals has recast Mandela's story as a simple morality play in which a great man was kept down by his oppressors with the help (or at least the indifference) of American and British conservatives, foremost among them Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In this telling, Reagan and Thatcher are portrayed as having no good or defensible reason for their actions. Instead, the narrative holds that external pressure on South Africa by liberal entertainers and politicians - including economic sanctions imposed over President Reagan's veto in 1986 - freed Mandela, who went on to prove his conservative critics wrong and earn the admiration of the world.

Not every element of this narrative is factually wrong, but it is missing so much critical context as to be grossly misleading. Reagan was wrong about Mandela but right about the world, and in judging Reagan, that was what really mattered; Mandela was wrong about the world but right about South Africa, and in judging Mandela, that was what really mattered.

To understand Mandela's flaws, why he was greeted with skepticism on the Right, and why he deserves to be lionized for rising above that skepticism, you must first consider both the global context of the Cold War and its regional impact on Southern Africa. And contrary to the liberal narrative, it was the end of the Cold War and the end of the regional agony of southwest Africa that made Mandela's release and the end of apartheid possible.

Southern Africa and the Cold War

It is easy to forget now, but as recently as the late 1970s, international Communism was on the upsurge in the aftermath of America's humiliating withdrawal from Southeast Asia - and many observers at the time felt the Communists had the stronger hand than the West. As an ideology of class struggle, Communism most naturally appealed to the Third World, where the poor are often desperately so and tend to vastly outnumber the middle class. In Southeast Asia, following the North's conquest of South Vietnam in April 1975, Pathet Lao took control of Laos in December 1975 and the Cambodian domino fell in 1976, leading to one of the worst genocides in world history over the next four years. In Central America, the Communists gained their first foothold on the American mainland when the Sandanistas overthrew the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in July 1979. In Central Asia, the Soviet Union itself invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

But no region offered more opportunities for the expansion of Communist tyranny in the late 1970s and early 1980s than sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the southern quarter of the continent, which was beset with an alphabet soup of left-wing guerilla movements. South Africa's immediate neighbor to the northeast, Mozambique, became independent from Portugal in 1975 after nearly a decade-long war of independence. Its new ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), declared Mozambique a Marxist-Leninist state in 1977, and set itself on a course of persecuting the churches and triggering a massive humanitarian crisis by shuttering the country's many religiously-run hospitals. In response, a Rhodesian-backed resistance movement, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), launched a civil war that would eventually claim the lives of nearly a million Mozambicans and created some 5 million refugees, about a third of Mozambique's population.. FRELIMO received Soviet support; while much of the West refused to support RENAMO due to its own savagery, the South African regime eventually became its primary source of support after the demise of Rhodesia and its replacement by Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe.

Inland from Mozambique, and also bordering South Africa, lay Rhodesia, independent from Britain since 1965 and ruled by Ian Smith's white-minority government. Rhodesia had declared its independence unilaterally, which was resisted by Great Britain (Rhodesia was never diplomatically recognized by South Africa, although its government ended up being effectively propped up by South Africa). Its white ruling regime faced a two-headed insurgency from the black majority population: the rural, Chinese-backed Maoist group ZANU, headed at the time by Robert Mugabe and Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and Joshua Nkomo's Soviet-backed ZAPU. In early 1978, under international pressure from - among others - the U.S. and South Africa, Smith agreed to a power-sharing agreement with moderate black Bishop Abel Muzorewa, an accord designed to ease Rhodesia into participation and ultimately majority control by the black majority, while explicitly preserving a political power base for the white minority (including guaranteed legislative seats) and empowering the moderate factions within the black majority. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe's people, Mugabe and Nkomo rejected the agreement and refused to make peace, and Muzorewa wasn't a strong enough leader to bring them to heel. By February 1980, the accord had been torn up and Mugabe elected President, where he remains today, with increasingly tragic consequences.

In the 1980s, Mugabe was not yet the full horror he would later become, but he was already a cautionary tale. In 1982, Mugabe sent troops into Mozambique on the side of FRELIMO, and would remain embroiled in its civil war until 1992. Also in 1982, Mugabe ejected Nkomo from his unity government, and Zimbabwe's North Korean trained and officered Fifth Brigade, engaged in massacres of the Ndebele people, who were on the losing side of the ensuing ZANU-ZAPU feud that would last until 1987. Mugabe was also engaged in a long-running campaign to demonize white farmers (they would eventually face formal confiscation of their land beginning in 2000).

To the northwest of modern South Africa lies what was then the South African province of South-West Africa, now the independent state of Namibia. North of that lies Angola, which like Mozambique had won its independence from Portugal in 1975 (in other words, both Angola and Mozambique had also only emerged from white rule of their black populations in the mid-1970s). Independence was, there as well, followed by a vicious civil war between the Soviet and Cuban backed People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the South African-backed National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi. At the peak of the fighting in the late 70s and early 80s, Fidel Castro maintained anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 Cuban troops in Angola, a major proportion of the fighting strength on the MPLA side. The CIA had sent covert aid to UNITA under the Ford Administration until the 1976 passage of the Clark Amendment, which banned aid to the combatants in Angola; eventually, in 1985, the Reagan Administration was able to obtain the repeal of the Clark Amendment and provide open support to UNITA.

Meanwhile, South African rule in South-West Africa had been challenged since 1966 by a war of independence launched by the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). By the early 1980s, South-West Africa was in the crosshairs of both the regional and global power struggles between South Africa and the various Soviet-aligned forces in Angola; SWAPO aligned itself with MPLA and its Soviet and Cuban allies. Billions in Soviet aid flowed into SWAPO's war against both the South Africans and UNITA. The wars in Angola and South-West Africa often spilled over each other's borders and effectively merged into a single, wider war.

Moreover, given the history of Cold War conflicts from Korea to Vietnam to Hungary to Afghanistan, there were real reasons to worry that this situation would escalate, especially if things went badly for the Cubans. In 1981, the Soviet Union admitted it had military advisers in Angola, after two of them were killed in clashes with South African troops. That threat was one of the drivers of South Africa's nuclear ambitions; its already-covert nuclear program, under Defence Minister P.W. Botha, went to ground in the late 1970s due to international pressure from both the U.S. and Soviet blocs, although South Africa would retain the warheads until the end of the 1980s.

The region's various warring factions also had a destabilizing effect on Zambia, which sits to the north of Zimbabwe, as a result of the tendency of whichever faction was out of power in Rhodesia, Angola, South-West Africa or South Africa to decamp across the border into Zambia. And north of Zambia lay Tanzania, under the rule of Julius Nyerere; Nyerere went to war with Idi Amin's regime in Uganda (to his north) in 1979, the Soviets backing Amin (who was aided by troops from Qaddafi's Libya and Arafat's PLO) while the Chinese backed Tanzania.

To put this in American terms, imagine that you were trying to rally support against Jim Crow in Florida, but the end of segregation in the rest of the region had resulted in oppression of whites and attempted genocide in South Carolina, a Marxist regime in Georgia, a civil war in Mississippi stoked by an army from Louisiana, and Alabama invading the panhandle arm-in-arm with an expeditionary force of Cuban Communists.

This was the world in which Botha became Prime Minister in 1978, and in which Nelson Mandela - held in a South African prison since 1962 and sentenced to life in 1964 for conspiring to overthrow the South African government - would increasingly become an international cause célèbre as the 1980s wore on. It was a region beset by one variety or other of Marxist movements (even UNITA had its own communistic leanings) and treated as a playground for foreign interference by a variety of players in the Cold War scene, first and foremost the Soviet Union and its allies. It was a region short on clean hands (as the roster of atrocities committed by virtually all the combatant forces in the various wars could attest) and long on corrupt and brutal governments (in Zimbabwe's case, a government bent on racial revenge). South Africa was by no means regarded in Washington or London as a virtuous ally, but what it represented was the region's strongest military and economic power and one that implacably opposed the region's Marxist tilt.

Mandela The Communist Fellow-Traveler

In Reagan's search for allies against Communist domination of southern Africa, it's easy to see why Nelson Mandela would not have seemed a promising prospect. Because, for all his later merits, Mandela gave every impression of being cut from the same ideological and political cloth as Mugabe and the region's other Communists and fellow-travelers.

The true extent to which Mandela was a believing and active Communist in the early 1960s, or during his imprisonment, remains a matter of some debate to this day. After his death, the modern South African Communist Party claimed "Comrade Mandela" as having once been an active leader of the Party, but then its self-serving motives in wanting as large a piece of his legacy as it could grasp are fairly obvious. But as Greg Myre at NPR observes, "Comrade Mandela" wasn't that far from the truth:

Mandela's...African National Congress has been closely aligned for decades with the South African Communist Party. Members of both organizations studied and received military training in the Soviet Union. And while Mandela and other ANC leaders called for a multiracial democracy, many members of his group viewed communist countries as more sympathetic to their cause than Western nations.

British historian Stephen Ellis published a 2011 paper citing documents from the South African Communist Party that state Mandela was one of the group's leaders.

Whatever Mandela's role may have been, his open alliance with the Communist Party was often cited by South Africa's government and some conservatives in the United States as reason to be suspicious of him and the ANC's intentions.

For years, the U.S. labeled the ANC a terrorist group because it carried out attacks against civilian targets in South Africa. And it was Mandela himself who established the ANC's armed wing in the early 1960s before he was imprisoned.

Bill Keller at the New York Times elaborates:

Although Mandela's African National Congress and the Communist Party were openly allied against apartheid, Mandela and the A.N.C. have always denied that the hero of South Africa’s liberation was himself a party member. But Ellis, drawing on testimony of former party members and newly available archives, made a convincing case that Mandela joined the party around 1960, several years before he was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the government.

...“Today, the A.N.C. officially claims still to be at the first stage ... of a two-phase revolution,” Ellis told me in an email exchange. “This is a theory obtained directly from Soviet thinking.”

Indeed, the remnants of Communist protocol and jargon — “comrades” and “counterrevolutionaries” — live on in the platform and demeanor of South Africa’s ruling party.

Ellis' work also shines light on the ANC:

His book also provides fresh detail on how the ANC's military wing had bomb-making lessons from the IRA, and intelligence training from the East German Stasi, which it used to carry out brutal interrogations of suspected "spies" at secret prison camps.

...Its campaign of "sabotage" and bombings over the subsequent three decades claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, and led to the organisation being classed as a terrorist group by the US.

In his book, Professor Ellis, who also authored a publication on the Liberian civil war, elaborates on other murky aspects of the ANC's past. One is that bomb-making experts from the IRA trained the ANC at a secret base in Angola in the late 1970s, a link disclosed last year in the posthumous memoirs of Kader Asmal, a South African politician of Indian extraction who was exiled in Ireland. He was a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, which, Prof Mr Ellis says, in turn had close links to the British and South African Communist parties.

The IRA tutoring, which was allegedly brokered partly through Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, led to the ANC fighters improving their bombing skills considerably, thanks to the expertise of what Mr Ellis describes as "the world's most sophisticated urban guerrilla force".

Angola was also the base for "Quatro", a notorious ANC detention centre, where dozens of the movement's own supporters were tortured and sometimes killed as suspected spies by agents from their internal security service, some of whom were "barely teenagers". East German trainers taught the internal security agents that anyone who challenged official ANC dogma should be viewed as a potential spy or traitor.

One of the more notorious episodes was the 1983 Church Street car bombing, which killed 19 people and wounded 217 at a South African Air Force facility. The bombing was pinned on the ANC by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which found it was authorized by ANC president Oliver Tambo. Tambo at the time stated that Church Street was a legitimate target. Botha offered Mandela release in 1985 if he would renounce violence; Mandela refused:

Mandela’s reply was read out by his daughter Zindzi, at a huge stadium in Soweto: “Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organization, the African National Congress. . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.”

This was a courageous stance, but it was also one that had to concern American policymakers who feared yet another civil war in the region. Peter Beinart argues that Mandela's immersion in Communist ideology had the unusual effect of encouraging him to move beyond thinking along racial lines, a habit that would stand him in good stead when he sought national reconciliation. But even if this is so, exposure to Marxist thinking had no such effect on Mugabe or other African leftists, and there was no good reason to expect it of Mandela in 1985.

Mandela never really stopped being an America-bashing leftist even after his release; Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed collects some quotes from his later years illustrating that point, as does Tim Graham at Newsbusters. Myre:

Mandela was at odds with U.S. foreign policy on multiple occasions.

He remained loyal to those who provided moral and financial support to his group during the years when the ANC had few friends in the West. This led Mandela to meet and praise leaders such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

The year after he was freed, Mandela called Castro "a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people."

Mandela also spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took issue with the U.S. campaign against Iran's nuclear program.

Michael Moynihan notes Mandela's lifelong callousness towards the human-rights victims of anti-American dictators, with specific recent examples from Iran.

Mandela would attain world renown as a "political prisoner," and Reagan himself would demand Mandela's release in his 1986 veto message:

[L]et me outline what we believe are necessary components of progress toward political peace.

First, a timetable for elimination of apartheid laws should be set.

Second, all political prisoners should be released.

Third, Nelson Mandela should be released to participate in the country's political process.

Fourth, black political movements should be unbanned.

Fifth, both the Government and its opponents should begin a dialogue about constructing a political system that rests on the consent of the governed, where the rights of majorities and minorities and individuals are protected by law. And the dialogue should be initiated by those with power and authority, the South African Government itself.

But Mandela's sentence to life imprisonment was unjust only because the system he sought to overthrow was unjust. He was not jailed for peaceable civil disobedience, which he had tried and seen crushed in the 1950s, but for conspiring to violent overthrow of the South African government - and he admitted at trial that he was guilty of precisely that:

"I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites."

As Mandela justified himself at the time:

"We had either to accept inferiority or fight against it by violence. We chose the latter." [Mandela and a co-defendant] strongly denied they were Communists. The charges against Mandela, former leader of the banned African National Congress, and the other accused include sabotage involving nearly two hundred incidents.

...Mandela spoke for nearly five hours. He said: "I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not do this in a spirit of recklessness. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment."...

He concluded in June, 1961, that violence was inevitable and that it would be unrealistic for African leaders to continue a non-violent policy when the Government "met our demands with violence."

He said: "This decision was not easily made. The decision was made to embark on violent forms of struggle. I felt morally obliged to do what I did."

Thus, Mandela's release nearly three decades later was not an admission by the government of his innocence or wrongful conviction, but a deliberate step towards reconciliation in spite of his guilt and in recognition of the ultimate justice of his grievances - a gesture that Mandela would reciprocate with a remarkable lack of bitterness despite those grievances.

Should Mandela be condemned for being an anti-American Communist sympathizer? Back in the 80s, Newt Gingrich was one of a group of young conservatives pressing Reagan for a harder anti-apartheid line. Newt, as he often does, frames his defense of Mandela today in the context of America's own Founding Fathers:

[L]et me say to those conservatives who don't want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?

Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future. This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.

What would you have done faced with that crushing government?

What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?

Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.

After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.

As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army's dictatorial assault on our freedom.

Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death."

Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that "all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Doesn't this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?

Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.

Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.

I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny?

Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.

Keller takes a similar line:

The early collaboration of the A.N.C. with the Communists was a marriage of convenience for a movement that had few friends. The South African Communist Party and its patrons in Russia and China were a source of money and weapons for the largely feckless armed struggle, and for many, it meant solidarity with a cause larger than South Africa. Communist ideology undoubtedly seeped into the A.N.C., where it became part of a uniquely South African cocktail with African nationalism, Black Consciousness, religious liberalism and other, inchoate angers and resentments and yearnings.

The view of Gingrich and Keller view is the charitable one: that the Communist component of Mandela's ANC was basically a marriage of necessity, like the Spanish and Chinese anti-Fascist alliances of 1937, or the Western alliance with Stalin a few years later. This is an important point - but the irony is that Newt's defense of Mandela's Communist ties is also the conservative defense of not taking a harder line against South Africa in the final decade of the Cold War, while Marxism and Soviet influence menaced the southern part of Africa. It is the sober realization that the long-term and wider cause of freedom may require short-term alliances of convenience with enemies of freedom. Liberals may reject the concept of alliances driven by interest rather than principle, but conservatives, long accepting of this reality and recognizing that the difference between a nation's allies and its enemies is always a meaningful, should grant Mandela the same understanding as Reagan, FDR, and Washington in this respect: he made the allies he needed to advance a just cause.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:23 PM | War 2007-16 | Comments (0)
December 9, 2013
POLITICS: Hispanic Voters Lose Faith In Barack Obama

We all know how far President Obama's approval rating has fallen, 13 months after his re-election. Gallup had a fascinating look at who exactly has lost faith in Obama, among poll respondents who approved of him a year ago. And prominent among the groups with the biggest drop is the supposed bedrock of the Permanent Democrat Majority™ - self-identified Hispanic voters.

As always, bear in mind that Gallup is only one pollster, and not the most reliable one at that, and that sub-samples tend to be smaller sample sizes than an entire poll. That said, a comparison between two polls by the same pollster at different points in time is an apples-to-apples comparison, and so of some use in tracking trends. I'd supplement this with similar data from other pollsters, but surprisingly few of the daily, weekly or monthly presidential-approval tracking polls provide this kind of breakdown on a regular basis (although a mid-November Quinnipiac poll showed Obama's approval underwater with Hispanics, 41-47, compared to 67-18 approval a year ago). That's precisely why Gallup's results are so interesting.

Here's Gallup's chart, which measures the net drop in points among different groups in their approval of Obama between his post-spring-2009 high water-mark in December 2012 and November 2013:


Bearing in mind that some of these are overlapping groups, you can see not only that Hispanics register a 23-point drop in approval, the largest of any group, but others near the top are also essential elements of any winning Democratic coalition: the youngest voters (18-29 year olds), the poorest (incomes under $24,000), the least educated (high school or less), various stripes of moderates and independents, women, the unmarried, the irreligious and voters in the Northeast and Midwest. Obama has lost the least support among those where he had the least support to start with: conservative Republicans, conservatives, Republicans. He's dropped at least 8 points among everyone else.

But a second way to look at these numbers is in percentage terms, to adjust for the fact that it's easier to lose more support among groups where you had more to start with. So, here are those figures:

VOTER SEGMENT12-Dec13-Nov% Decline
Independents w/no party leaning4128-32%
Liberal/Moderate Republicans2618-31%
Conservative Republicans75-29%
Less than $24,000 income6446-28%
High sch education or less5439-28%
Midwestern residents5238-27%
Non-Hispanic whites4231-26%
Eastern residents5944-25%
18- to 29-year-olds6146-25%
Attend Church weekly4534-24%
Not married6247-24%
50- to 64-year-olds5240-23%
Seldom/Never attend church5845-22%
30- to 49-year olds5442-22%
Attend church monthly5442-22%
$24,000 to <$60,000 annual income5140-22%
Southern residents4838-21%
$90,000 or more annual income5040-20%
Western residents5645-20%
65-year-olds and older4436-18%
Some college education5041-18%
College graduate only5041-18%
Moderate Democrats8973-18%
Conservative Democrats7965-18%
$60,000 to <$90,000 annual income4941-16%
Liberal Democrats9382-12%

Here, we see unaffiliated independents - perhaps unsurprisingly - at the top of the list, along with liberal Republicans, but Hispanics in a very close third place, with the poor, the uneducated and Midwesterners also high on the list (the latter is a danger sign for Democrats in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota next fall). By contrast, on a percentage basis, the three least-shaken elements of Obama's base are - unsurprisingly - black voters, among whom he's lost just 10% of his prior support, and liberal Democrats and Democrats as a whole, the only other two groups to show less than a 16% decline - and the dropoff among those two groups would doubtless be higher if you excluded his unshakeable support among black voters.

And bear in mind, these are losses among people who approved of the job Obama was doing after watching him in office for four years. These aren't voters who reject liberals or Democrats out of hand, or - if you buy into the excuse for every criticism of Obama - voters who don't like him because he's black. Most of them likely voted for the man, twice. And the most likely reason they are turning on him is simply because he's not getting the job done - his policies aren't working, the economy continues to disappoint, and he still isn't delivering the things he promises. As the LIBRE Initiative's Executive Director, Daniel Garza, put it, after noting that the November Quinnipiac poll had showed just 44% approval among Hispanics for Obamacare:

The dramatic drop in support from the U.S. Hispanic community should not come as a surprise to anyone. Instead of effectively addressing Immigration, the slow economy, the lack of access to affordable care, and other critical issues over these past five years, President Obama has delivered mostly empty rhetoric and a record of stagnant Unemployment , diminished household incomes and a tepid GDP growth rate. Americans deserve better.

It is not too late for a real agenda focused on private sector job growth, market-based health reform that empowers doctors and patients, and true bipartisan cooperation on Immigration reform. For too long now Hispanics have been called on by this Administration for political points, and our community is tired of the broken promises and bad policies that have left many of us worse off.

The immediate lesson here is that, for all the Democrats' bluster, Hispanics are simply not African-Americans. They may have identified to some degree with him against his critics as the first non-white President, they may like some of the things the Democrats stand for, and they may even feel - not without reason - that Republicans want to kick them out of the country. But none of that alone is enough to make them permanent Democratic partisans if they don't see results.

Republicans face a variety of challenges in appealing to Hispanic voters, even moreso than some of the other voter groups that are increasingly disenchanted with Obama. They will not be cheap dates for the GOP. But Democrats are learning that they are growing increasingly tired of being told to just sit back and pull the lever for Obama's pursuit of MacGuffins. Republicans have an opportunity, if they will work for it.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:30 AM | Politics 2013 • | Poll Analysis | Comments (6)
December 2, 2013
POLITICS: Have You, At Long Last, Sir, No Sense of Shame?


Just when you think Team Obama's "everything is an occasion for list-building, fundraising and community organizing" attitude can sink no further, you come across something like this, from Organizing For Action, Obama's tax-exempt political organizing arm that, among other things, runs his Twitter account. Yes, OFA is inviting its members to sign up to hold an organizing event to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the Newtown school shootings. OFA's email to its mailing list lays it out:

"OFA will give you the resources you need to ensure your event is a powerful reminder of what we lost a year ago, and a reminder that we as a nation need to do more to prevent gun violence and keep our communities safe," the organization said.

The email contains a link to a page on where users can log in and create an event.

"Despite overwhelming public support for expanding background checks for gun sales, Congress has failed to act,” the organization says. "Join local supporters as we remember Newtown and ask Congress: What will it take to make our communities safer?"

No instructions are included for helpful decorating tips or suggested refreshments; maybe you need to request the "resources" to get the full details on how to throw your Newtown shootings party.

Me, I'd suggest saying a silent prayer, but I guess that's why I don't have Barack Obama's mailing list.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:25 PM | Politics 2013 | Comments (3)
POP CULTURE: The 2013 American Music Awards

My wife and I recorded last weekend's American Music Awards and watched them with the kids this weekend. A few observations about the 2013 AMAs:

The Performances

This was one of the worst performance lineups for a music awards show I've ever seen, even in the context of today's music scene, although that may also be a symptom of ongoing shifts in the music landscape from as recently as a year or two ago. Imagine Dragons was the only act that could even halfway plausibly be described as "rock," and the "pop" acts were so overrun with rap interludes (close to half the performances had a rapper involved, even including one of the two country acts) that I actually missed people like Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift (Swift was there to pick up trophies but didn't perform). From my perspective as a fan of both rock and pop-rock, the best performances were by Imagine Dragons, Luke Bryan and Ariana Grande, none of whom are exactly my cup of tea.

As to Bryan, it's the first time I'd seen him perform, and it's not hard to see why the man is a country music superstar; he's got stage presence to burn. The 20-year-old Grande, by contrast, has a lovely voice (although one that produced no comprehensible lyrics) but looked petrified, performing with her eyes closed and using up about half her speaking time - when she accepted the "New Artist of the Year" award - just navigating the steps to the stage in high heels and a tight gown without faceplanting. And the overwhelming impression left by Imagine Dragons was that the lead singer really, really, really likes hitting very large drums.

The weakness of the roster was largely driven by the absence of veteran performers, only a few of whom - Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull (who hosted the show), R. Kelly, a TLC reunion - took the stage. Besides Imagine Dragons, there were no bands, not even bands like Kings of Leon that are currently promoting new albums (Dave Grohl was on hand only as a presenter; the bizarre piano duo of A Great Big World doesn't count as a band). No rap warhorses like Jay-Z, Kanye or Eminem. Besides Aguilera, who contributed an uncharacteristically understated featured vocal to A Great Big World's performance, the veteran pop divas - Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Britney, Avril, Alicia Keys - stayed home. Even Carrie Underwood, customarily ubiquitous at music awards shows, wasn't in the house; Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were the sole country representatives. Nearly everyone left onstage debuted within the past 5-6 years, many of them more recently than that.

Timberlake, who performed a horn section-laden number called "Drink You Away," seems ready at last to embrace his Memphis roots, but his voice and personality are still too smooth and boyish to sing the blues. Meanwhile, speaking of boys, the British talent-show package One Direction performed with the careful stagecraft of a group that knows their fans want screen time for each of the five heartthrobs. They're slightly more talented and no less harmless than the recently-disbanded Jonas Brothers (the core One Direction demographic is girls too young to know who the Jones Brothers were), and still a few years from figuring out if there's a future Timberlake (or Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra or Brian Wilson - boy bands have a richer history than you'd think) in their midst.

As for the rappers, they did their level best to showcase their embrace of musical styles that involve actual music. Pitbull did a Cotton-Eye-Joe-style square-dance type number with Ke$ha, who appeared to have showered for the occasion, while Macklemore spat inaudible verses over a catchy horn section-powered groove.

R. Kelly's performance as...John F. Kennedy?...accompanying Lady Gaga only served to answer the question "how can we make a Lady Gaga appearance even creepier?" Given that Gaga's latest album looks primed to lose her label $25 million, maybe her ambitions will be scaled back in the future.

The Crowd

One of the fun people-watching aspects of a music awards show is watching the crowd, including their peers, react to the musicians (or just be themselves, like Jay-Z sitting in the front row at the Grammys with a snifter of brandy looking like he owned the joint). Taylor Swift got into just about every performance; Lady Gaga looked distinctly nervous and wound up waiting for her turn to go onstage. During Luke Bryan's performance of "That's My Kinda Night," it was painfully obvious that only a fraction of the crowd actually knew any of the words to his song, despite it being a huge hit.

But all that changed when Miley Cyrus took the stage for another bizarre, howling rendition of "Wrecking Ball," dressed in what can best be described as two-thirds of a leotard covered in kittens and performing with a psychedelic floating cat graphic twice her size. Not once in the entire performance, nor its immediate aftermath, did the cameras pan to the crowd to see how they were reacting (they finally cut into the crowd briefly before going to commercial, catching one guy with a skeptical look on his face). I was left wondering whether, after the viral "audience reacts to Miley and Thicke" buzz following the VMAs, one of the conditions of her performance had been to demand that the network not show any crowd shots while she was onstage.

The Clothes

Is modesty making a (slight) comeback? Probably not, but it had a better night than usual. Katy Perry opened the show in a sort of mock kimono as part of a Japanese-themed number; her dress contained enough material for about five typical Katy Perry dresses. Lady Gaga's Marilyn Monroe-themed dress was, basically, just a short skirt, while Rihanna - who was there with her mother - wore a long, classy gown. And Grande brought the old-school class. The men, meanwhile, were mostly on better behavior than Robin Thicke's notorious antics with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, while Timberlake and Pitbull set the tuxedo tone. Cyrus, of course, was the exception as far as clothing, but even her outfit looked more like she was dressed for a 1981 aerobics session with Olivia Newton-John than for a stripper's pole.

The Awards

The AMAs are a fan-voted awards show, so the awards themselves were dominated by the kinds of acts - Swift, Grande, One Direction, and the boy-band granddaddy Timberlake - who appeal most strongly to the kind of teen and preteen girls who are the most devoted "early and often" voters for this kind of thing. Swift has finally abandoned the patented and increasingly unconvincing "Taylor Swift shocked at winning an award" face, but her acceptance speech for "Artist of the Year" showed why she commands the loyalty of "Taylor Nation," as she tells her fans that she and they are still "on the same page" in what matters to them, what affects them, and how they feel:

Faith and Politics

Speaking of reaction shots, one of the show's more vivid moments of frisson was generated when Rihanna's mother - presenting her daughter with an "Icon" award after being introduced by Bill Maher - prefaced her remarks by saying, "First of all, all praises and honor be to God Almighty through Jesus" while Maher rolled his eyes looking like a teenager embarrassed by his square older relatives:

America has perhaps no nastier public "atheist" (I put the word in quotes because a man that angry at God can't really claim not to believe in him) than Maher, so naturally watching a proud mother from Barbados discomfit him merely by sincerely witnessing her faith without embarrassment. But the evening's other more explicitly political moment was more cringe-inducing, as pasty Irish Seattle rapper Macklemore (who may or may not have cribbed his nom de rap from Mark McLemore) offered up a ham-fisted sermonette on the Trayvon Martin case from Miami, where he had a scheduled show:

Martin Luther King, Jr. said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And due to the fact that we are in Florida tonight accepting this award, I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it.

This is really happening. These are our friends, our neighbors, our peers, and our fans, and it's time that we look out for the youth and fight against racism and the laws that protect it."

This is nonsense, junk law and junk statistics of the worst kind - and what's more, obvious pandering by a white guy trying to polish his street cred - but a decidedly subpar evening for the music business wouldn't be complete without some subpar political posturing.

For once, I actually ended the evening thinking, "well, the Grammys have to be better than this."

Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | Pop Culture | Comments (0)