Monday, December 29, 2014

Susan Sontag Remembered

Ten years ago the American writer Susan Sontag died of cancer at the way too early age of 71.

Sometimes called "The Dark Lady of American Letters", she was, in fact, a modern day Renaissance Woman. Besides writing cultural and political criticism as well as novels and plays, Sontag also directed experimental films and directed theater productions -- for example, in wartime Sarajevo in the 1990s. Unlike many other writers and artists who live in metaphorical ivory towers, writing knowledgeably about the world while having actual little contact with it, Sontag embraced life with vigor. She pursued her talents across a wide variety of media and dived into the controversies of late 20th century, early 21st century America. She lived her art, engaged her world, and thrust herself into the world that she wished to criticize and save. She also had a very colorful person life which, one might consider, another part of her art.
Sontag was a polemicist. She took radical positions and issued strident opinions -- for example, bemoaning the wars and evils that the "white race" had inflicted upon the world. After 9/11, she challenged American to examine its Mid-East policies and see how they had contributed to the attacks -- a view that was not, to say the least, a popular one at the time. But she never apologized and never backed down from her positions. She was tough.

Sontag was an original -- sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always interesting. It's a shame that she died before Twitter became a thing -- she would have had a doozy of a feed.

In the mid-1960s, Songtag shot to fame with an essay she published called "Notes on Camp" where she posits that "camp" -- low brow cultural and trivial things -- in fact, have great societal and cultural value. It's a brilliant, revolutionary piece of writing and, in many ways, it changed the very culture she was observing. Sontag bridged high and low culture, the crass with the beautiful, and saw the goodness in both. I'm sure that, in 2014, if she were still alive, Sontag would have been a fan of both "Masterpiece" and the Kardashians.

Recently on HBO, there was a new documentary called "Regarding Susan Sontag" that's both very good and "warts and all", like the woman herself. It's worth a look.

If only we still had Susan Sontag today, the world might make a little bit more sense. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Eddie Murphy's Last SNL Appearence

Hard to believe but it's been 30 years since Eddie Murphy last appeared on Saturday Night Live. 

Murphy was 19 years old in 1980 when he joined SNL. The original 1970s cast, as well as series creator Lorne Michaels, had left the show which then went into a sudden ratings and creative collapse. NBC was threatening to cancel the show except that this featured player, this young black kid from Brooklyn, was so good that they kept it on for another year. Murphy totally revitalized the show and, thanks (or not) to him, SNL survives to this day. By 1984, Murphy had a huge movie career and had left SNL but he came back one last time, in December 1984, to host. This classic sketch, "White Like Me" was one of his last SNL efforts.

Since then, Murphy has kept far away from the show that made him famous. In the mid-1990s, when Murphy's career was at a low, then SNL cast member David Spade made a crack about Murphy's woes on Weekend Update ("Look kids! A falling star!). Deeply offended that the show that he had saved was making fun of him, Murphy vowed never again to appear on the show and he has kept good to his word. One day, I hope, he'll put his grudges aside and come back on SNL.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Classic Mr NYC

The legendary Man Who Made Mayors, David Garth, died yesterday at age 84. He's the political mastermind who helped to elect four of our city's last six mayors. 

I blogged about him in 2010. Read it here.

Luvin' NYC - and how!

This week's New York magazine published its annual Reasons to Love New York issue. It's a cute compendium of stuff that is awesome about NYC -- although why this should generate feelings of "love" is another subject entirely.

It's generated some contre temps, however. Namely, Reason #12 tells the story of a Stuyvesant High School student who made $72 million trading stocks during his lunch hours. Pretty unbelievable and, in fact, it shouldn't be believed at all since it's not true. New York has had to publish an apology to their readers. Like New York itself, the reasons to love it are as much hype as reality.

More importantly, it makes you wonder what kinds of kids are being admitted to what is supposedly our city's best high school. 

But wait -- there's some good news! 

The Lonely Planet travel guide has released its Top 10 US Destinations to Visit in 2015. Guess what the #1 travel destination in the country is? 


Not NYC as a whole, not specifically Manhattan or Brooklyn -- but Queens. The garden borough, the boroughs of our two major airports, the borough of the 1964 World's Fair, the borough where yours truly lives. Queens is on the rise with massive numbers of people moving in. It's also one of the best places to eat -- in the whole friggin' world. Queens is the biggest secret in NYC hiding in plain sight. It's an amazing place. A city unto itself.

So you gotta love New York -- for whatever reasons, good, bad, true ... or sometimes untrue.   

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Royalty in NYC

Landmarking NYC

Interesting conversation on WNYC yesterday about landmarking.

One of the legacies of the 20th century and Robert Moses era was that lots of wonderful old buildings, buildings that told the history of NYC, were destroyed in the name of progress and replaced by ugly monstrosities. 

Since then, the city has done an admirable job through the Landmarks Preservation Commission preserving older buildings but it's a constant battle between those who want to retain the past vs. those who want to create the future.

Both should always have a place in NYC. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Memo from NYC

In the body politic -- in this city, state, and country, as well as in countries around the world -- there is a constant internal struggle between stability and change. Between wanting to Change vs. wanting to Conserve.

This internal struggle, perhaps, is true of every single individual who makes up any particular body politic.

The People, those sainted masses, say they want change, say they are unhappy with the status quo, say they want things to "get better", say that they want the world to become a better place, and yet, at the same time, have a sentimental attachment to the past -- both real and imagined  -- as well as a strong belief that things were better "then" before "those people" ruined everything and that we just need to "get back" to the way things were through the power of old-fashioned "common sense."

We see this in our politics today.

Since the election of the first black Democratic president, Republicans have yelled and screamed about wanting to "take our country" back from this socialist who wants to destroy America. Democrats don't get it. They wonder, what was so great about the past? What was so great about the time when there was legal segregation, gays were closeted, women died from back alley abortions, and old and sick people died in poverty? Republicans, of course, still wish we lived in that world. Democrats don't. But Democrats also wonder what happened to the middle class, that wonderful post-WW2 institution, which has been dying a slow death for the last three decades. Democrats want to take the middle class back. Republicans, however, are very glad that it is dead.

In short, Democrats always want to improve things, to "change" things or to bring the country back to a certain mythic point in time when the benefits of society were more widely distributed, while Republicans want things to stay the same or take the country back to another mythic point in time when they were huge divisions between rich and poor.

Wanting to change things vs. wanting to keep things the same is the constant ying and yang of our politics. When it comes to elections and the wielding of political power, the burden is higher on Democrats. It is less so on Republicans. Democrats want to win elections so that they can do thing with the power they gain. Republicans want to win elections so that they can keep that same power away from Democrats. When Democrats win power, they think, "Great, let's create policies that help people" and Republicans completely freak out because this is their worse fear realized. When Republicans win power, they think, "Great, how can we keep power out of the hands of Democrats" and who cares about policy?

This internal struggle causes distortions in our politics and public policies. Democrats, liberals, view politics as a means to an end. For Republicans, conservatives, politics is an end unto itself. So Republicans are, for the most part, better practitioners of politics than Democrats (not always but usually).

This article by a former liberal Canadian politician sheds some light on the problem why, as the most recent elections show, people who care more about pure politics as opposed to crafting policy will always have the upper hand. In short, he concedes that the big problem with liberals in politics is that, because they care more about policy than politics, they are ill-suited to the nasty, vicious, ugly realities of political combat. Liberals look down on it. They think it's vile. Conservatives, meanwhile, love it. After all, it's why they're in politics to begin with! His advice to liberals:

"It doesn’t pay ... to pretend to be better than the business you’re in. You can’t succeed in politics if you give too much appearance of despising the low arts by which we govern ourselves. Fastidious distaste for the roughness and meanness of political life may work in a seminar room, but it’s fatal on the campaign trail."

My advice to Democrats after these most recent elections: play rough. Play hard. Go after the Republicans full blast. These are nasty, vicious people and anything less than full on confrontation with them won't work. Don't retreat, don't surrender, don't concede an inch. Don't compromise with them, don't make deals, don't try to get them to like you. Fight, fight, and fight some more. Never stop. Exhaust them. Harass them. Embarrass them at every chance. Most of all, embrace the "dark arts" of politics. Beat them at their own game.

Until the Republicans are fully defeated, Democratic policy goals won't have a chance. Only then will the middle class arise again.

About NYC: Trivial and Profound

Life, as always, is busy -- and so is NYC.

So busy. So endlessly, constantly busy.

It's REALLY hard to find time to sit down and blog about the big doings in this here town. Therefore I'm including a bunch of links about some interesting things, both profound and trivial about NYC in this, the last month of 2014:

Under profound, read this fascinating (and depressing) article by Zephyr Teachout about how hedge funds and big money are taking over the NYC public school system, all under the banner of "reform." As this last election proves, big, unaccountable money is conquering force that can never be stopped.

Another profound but more uplifting story is how, in this age of the digital, a bookstore in NYC is still thriving -- the good old, reliable Strand. Personally, I've never liked the Strand that much -- the people who work there are rude and I've never been bowled over by their selection -- but it's good to know that real honest to goodness bookstore can still survive in the most expensive real estate market on earth.

And finally under Profound, and also relating to books, is an interesting article about writers who live in NYC and can't (like yours truly) ever compel themselves to leave.

And now for something a little more trivial -- although not that trivial. Check out this list of the 60 best New York City songs. Some I like, some I don't, but any halfway decent song about NYC always catches my interest.

And finally, the most trivial and most profound thing I've recently stumbled upon: the NYC accent! Oh yes, NYC is home to many accents -- there isn't just once. There are Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island accents, there may even be a Manhattan accents, there are so many inflections, so many pronunciations of the Gotham tongue that to say that someone has a "New York accent" is both to trivialize the person, the accent, and the city. And how we New Yorkers speak, all 8 plus million of us, is something very profound indeed.