Friday, April 15, 2011

My (positive) ode to tax day. No, seriously.

It's annual tax day, which means it's also time for annual ritual cultural displays expressing angst and dismay. For example, on the way to work today I listened to the tax day theme show from Sound Opinions. Some of the songs were just about not having enough money in general, but there's quite a bit of musical rage directed at the tax collector. This is, of course, the most famous example:

Despite the protests in this country, we're relatively lightly taxed, all things considered. George Harrison's rage was directed at a much more onerous tax rate of 95% for the highest tax brackets in the UK at the time. Many of them fled the country seeking havens. While 95% seems completely unreasonable, even for the super rich, it did spur investment. Of course, the GOP claims that it's tax breaks for the rich that spur investment, though there is little evidence of that. There's plenty of evidence that the high UK tax rate spurred the rich to stick their money in every available venture. In George Harrison's case, it was the movies. Harrison's good taste and willingness to put his money down deserve the credit, but without that ridiculous tax rate, we might not have Time Bandits or Monty Python's Life of Brian.

However, a couple of movies aren't really an argument in favor of a particular tax program, or taxation in general. Judging from the songs I heard this morning, musicians seem to agree. Rage is easier to get across musically than wonkish arguments, so I understand why there aren't any pro-taxation songs. But what is the pro-taxation argument?

It occurred to me that I was driving on it. Tax money built the roads. Tax money built my employer. Tax money built the police headquarters and airport I drove past. Tax money keeps planes in the sky and cars on the road. Tax money built the Hoover Dam and preserved the Everglades and Yosemite. Tax money created the Internet. Tax money put men on the moon. Tax money defeated the Nazis.

You might say it took people to do those things. Yes, it did. It took courageous and clever people whom we rightfully celebrate, many of whom gave up their lives doing so. But it also took a government to spend the money, to coordinate the people and materiel. Only in some libertarian fantasy can we pass the hat around and all chip in our couch change to fight the Nazis. It takes a government to give soldiers guns and training and tanks and boats and planes to do the shooting with before those individual soldiers can do any shooting of Nazis. We like to imagine ourselves rugged individualists, but it takes banding together in groups and organizations to accomplish large, meaningful tasks. That's pretty much the definition of civilization. Those libertarian fantasists should try living in a hunter/gatherer society some time and see how that works out for them.

I'm not elevating government over the people who did these things, but it's worth pointing out that it did take an organized government to accomplish all of these things. In this culture - largely thanks to decades of anti-government drumbeating by conservatives - we're quick to criticize the negatives of government without acknowledging its accomplishments. It's why people can carry to a protest a sign reading "Keep Government out of Medicare" and honestly not know how stupid they are. It's also why people don't direct their anger at, say, giant corporations who pay absolutely no taxes while shipping jobs overseas. Deflection is the key word: Rich Fox News anchors and morning DJs are in those high tax brackets and want to insure their taxes are as low as possible. They're going to deflect people's anger somewhere else, like "big government".

Now, none of this means that government doesn't do bad things with our money or that you can't complain when it does. But the conservative "big government" drumbeat isn't about targeting particular spending. The anti-government crowd isn't complaining about money going to drone strikes or the Guantanamo prison; these people are the political heirs of the people who put anti-Vietnam War tax withholders in prison for tax evasion. This drumbeat is about targeting spending for anything other than conservative preferences– things usually referred to as "essential".

I don't know if I'd say I like tax day, but honestly I don't mind it so much. These ritual denunciations puzzle me. Shouldn't we be proud of the things we've accomplished as a nation and proud to contribute to those accomplishments instead of grumbling about it? I'm glad to contribute. I'm proud (and angry) that I contribute more than those tax cheats at GE.

This year I'm getting a small refund from my withheld taxes. I think I'll frame the check instead of cashing it. It's only one dollar, and one dollar out of trillions might not seem significant, but hey, it's still a dollar more than GE paid.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Scaife paper cracks the master's whip at the Carnegie Museum

I'm a bit late responding to this, but I don't have the time to blog daily. I'm part of the amateur left, not the professional left.

Last week the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an editorial excoriating an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. An unsigned editorial means it is the opinion of the paper, and the opinion of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is likely the opinion of its owner, Richard Mellon Scaife.

Scaife was the Koch Brothers of the Clinton years, funding the notorious Arkansas Project targeting President Clinton and many other far-right initiatives. Many are convinced that the suicide of journalist Steve Kangas was a Scaife ordered murder. (I doubt this conspiracy theory - if you are going to kill someone, why leave him in your own bathroom?) When quizzed about funding right-wing causes by journalist Karen Rothmyer, Scaife notoriously replied "You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here." (That particular incident seems to have disappeared down the Wikipedia memory hole.)

The editorial is a complaint about Diver, a retrospective of the work of underappreciated artist Paul Thek. This New York Times review of the show at the Whitney Museum will give you a good overview of his work.

The editorial itself is largely an unremarkable piece of right-wing agitation with large helpings of snide commentary. An artwork is taken out of context and described disgustingly, another (pictured above) is taken as liberal and socialist propaganda, and there's couple of shots at the liberal elite mentioning biscotti and cappuccino. One banal editorial is nothing at all compared to the uproar surrounding the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibition and the pulling of David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly. And judging by its Twitter feed, the Carnegie Museum isn't taking this attack lying down. Two days ago it even held a panel discussion and screening of A Fire in My Belly.

What's going on here isn't an attempt to destroy the exhibit or the museum. Scaife has enough money and enough media to probably make a good attempt at that, but what's happening here isn't so much an attack as a warning shot. The real message of the editorial is this:

Pittsburgh's supposedly pre-eminent gallery for all things art has forgotten who butters its bread.

It's money we're talking about here, or the prestige that money buys, and in Pittsburgh the money is really old. The show is in the Heinz Gallery of the Carnegie Museum and Scaife himself is heir to the Mellon fortune. Those three names are about half the money in Pennsylvania right there. And being old money, it demands respect and fealty. It doesn't care about dirty pictures, but it won't countenance an attack on its ideology, not even in the form of one painting by one artist in one show. If it doesn't get what it wants, it will take its money elsewhere.

This is a message, and the message is "respect your betters, or else". It's a call for self-censorship, and there's plenty of evidence that people in the art world are getting the message. Self-censorship is the most insidious type of censorship and many institutions are reluctant to put on shows that challenge anyone: their audience, their patrons, or the right-wing noise machine. It was a (figurative) crime to remove the Wojnarowicz video from Hide/Seek, but the hidden crime was the fact that many institutions shrank from the idea of hosting the challenging show. Hide/Seek curator Jonathan Katz points out:

It’s hard to say two thing at once, but I’m going to. I’m going to say that I could not disagree more with the stupidity of the removal of the video. At the same time, I’m also absolutely convinced that the Smithsonian has been heroic in breaking this blacklist. In fact, what I’m finding very troubling about some of the reaction to what happened is that it tends to demonize the Smithsonian to the delectation of the very right-wing fringe that inaugurated this conflict in the first place.

What I think we need to remember is that the Smithsonian is courageous and that other museums were not. I’m increasingly getting concerned that the activist response targeting the Smithsonian loses the bigger picture, which is that it’s been 21 years since Mapplethorpe and no one has done a damn thing in that time, that museums have been sitting on their hands and that this incident confirms the wisdom of so doing.

We need to be outraged about incidents of censorship like the one committed by the Smithsonian. But we also need to be outraged by incidents of censorship and demand the institutions charged with preserving and representing our cultural heritage do so fully and completely and don't leave out gays or progressives or unions or whatever displeases the Sciafes of the world. We should demand that they challenge us and fight these battles instead of heeding the crack of the master's whip and abandoning these fights before they even begin.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me (part 4)

Track eleven: "Do You Want to Know a Secret?"

Lennon was inspired by this song from Snow White which his mother sang to him as a child:

Here's an instrumental cover by Count Basie. Yes, that Count Basie. Apparently everybody has done a Beatles cover album.

Track twelve: "A Taste of Honey"

"A Taste of Honey" always seemed out of place in The Beatles' oeuvre, a bit of saccharine oldies bombast amongst the rocking 60s tunes. It's not that simple, of course, as The Beatles weren't simply influenced just by proto-rock stuff, but this tune does stick out. Case in point: the most famous version of this song isn't by the Fab Four, but an instrumental two years later by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This is a hysterical parody of the song by Allan Sherman of "Camp Grenada" fame.

Track thirteen: "There's a Place"

This project is taking me in some odd places, but that's the magic of serendipity. One place is the blog Swedesplease, dedicated to Swedish indie music. (Yes, there's a blog about everything now.) There I found a mesmerizing cover by Ossian Ekenger of Gothenberg, about whom I otherwise know nothing, and the blog isn't particular forthcoming, other than this picture which looks like it belongs on a 1920s passport.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me (part 3)

Track seven: "Please Please Me"

The recording of this song was a turning point for The Beatles. George Martin was set to have them do another cover tune as their next single, but they turned up with an up tempo, rollicking version of this song, so Martin released this instead and it became their first #1 hit. So by way of contrast, here's a languid indie rock cover by Will Phalen.

Track eight: "Love Me Do"

Here's a bluesy cover by Dallas Hodge.

Track nine: "P.S. I Love You"

It was hard to find a cover of this song I liked. The problem is that this Paul McCartney tune shares its name with a great 1934 Johnny Mercer tune, which is why The Beatles' song was relegated to a B-side. Everyone has covered the Mercer tune: Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme... But I couldn't find many Beatles covers and even resorted to listening to shitty covers by a bad Japanese girl group and an weird Slovakian singer. I finally found this one by Scottish singer Barbara Dickson from her 2006 Beatles cover album Nothing's Gonna Change My World. Dickson has been covering The Beatles for decades: she performed their music in the 1974 Willy Russell musical John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert. George Harrison loathed it:
I saw it up until the intermission and then — I saw it with my friend Derek Taylor, who's a writer who used to work for Warner Bros. and Apple — I said to him we either have to leave now or I'm gonna jump on that stage and throttle those people. It was awful stuff. All these idiots acting out people — it's like I say in "The Devil's Radio," talking about what they don't know. It's like a rumor. It's like those Beatles cartoons, and it was so inaccurate it was nauseating, having been one.
When Harrison left, he took with him permission to use his song "Here Comes the Sun", which the show replaced with "Good Day Sunshine".

Find more Barbara Dickson albums at Myspace Music

Track ten: "Baby It's You"

A tune by Burt Bacharach and friends, it was originally released as a single by The Shirelles and became one of two Shirelles covers on Please Please Me. It reached number 5 when later covered by white blues rock band Smith in 1969. This cover is by Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.

Covering the Beatles: Please Please Me (part 2)

Track four: "Chains"

This song was originally released in 1962 as a single for The Cookies, the backup band for Little Eva of "Locomotion" fame. Can't find a version of this song that really works for me, even the one by The Beatles. Maybe no one has done it justice, or maybe it's just a slight song. Here's a version by The Everly Brothers. The sounds of actual chains are a bit much.

Track five: "Boys"

This was originally released by The Shirelles as the B-side of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", the first #1 hit for a girl group. Paul McCartney recalls covering the song live:

Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do "Boys", which was a fan favourite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here's us doing a song and it was really a girls' song. "I talk about boys now!" Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It's just a great song. I think that's one of the things about youth — you just don't give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.

Track six: "Ask Me Why"

And here's some random guy on the internet with a ukulele. Is it me, or does he look like Robert Patrick?