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Sunday, July 26, 2009

“Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane”: Barack Obama, Bob Dylan and the man the authorities came to blame

When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road

Just like the time before and the time before that.
In Paterson that’s just the way things go.
If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street

less you wanna draw the heat.

President Obama called it a “teachable moment.” Noted African American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pointed to his arrest for disturbing the peace in his own home as an example of “what it’s like to be a black man in America.”

And while Gates’ indignation was intended to be self referential, President Obama’s equally indignant comment that the Cambridge police had ‘acted stupidly’ in their treatment of Gates may very well have provided the first glimpse into what it’s like to be a black president in America.

During the campaign, Obama went out of his way to avoid the issue of race. And to his credit, relegating race to the back burner allowed more pressing issues like heath care, the economy, and the war in Iraq to take precedent. In fact, it was only in the midst of the infamous Jeremiah Wright incident, when the issue of race threatened to boil over, that Obama was forced to chime in on the topic. By all accounts (including those of Professor Gates), Obama didn’t just tackle the issue of racism in American, he transcended it.

But the cool, ethereal detachment Obama displayed during the campaign was decidedly absent last week as the president allowed himself to be drawn in.

And while Obama appeared to have acted impetuously when he broke from his seemingly perpetual tranquil state, the truth is that racial profiling—what many have placed at the epicenter of the Gates’ controversy—is an issue to which the president has given considerable thought.

While in the Illinois legislature Obama was the chief sponsor of a bill, which eventually became law, that requires police to record the race, age and gender of all drivers stopped for traffic violations. The data collected is then analyzed with the intent of deterring racial profiling.

And while Obama’s authoring of the racial profiling bill may explain his ‘stupid’ response to the arrest of Professor Gates, it did little to transform the incident into the “teachable moment” the president had hoped it would become. Unless, of course, the lesson was how to exploit a tenuous situation for the political and professional gain… in which case President Obama and Professor Gates both passed with flying colors.

For Obama, the arrest of Henry Louis Gates was a striking example of racial discrimination that he had hoped he could point to from a distance without have to become embroiled in the politically decisive issue. Of course, no one expected Obama to actually show his true colors on the topic. Judging from the amount of language 'recalibration' Obama has done over the last week, that assessment extends to the president himself.

For Henry Louis Gates, the front porch skirmish, which would have said volumes about the status of race relations in this country without Gates having to ever even have said a word, has been reduced to little more than the impetus for his next project—a PBS documentary on, you guessed it… racial profiling. And so, in both instances, what could have been a real moment of clarity was instead sadly and selfishly squandered.

Of course, the exploitation of race for personal gain is not just limited to politicians and Ivy League professors. It turns out pop stars are prone to it, too.

Certainly, Bob Dylan fell prey to the polarizing issue of racial profiling in the fall of 1975 when he championed the cause of a middleweight boxer by the name of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The song, which maintained Carter had been wrongfully charged and sentenced on three counts of murder, played the race card in ways that would have made OJ’s defense team cringe.

And while many of Dylan’s claims, including the assertion that Carter could have at one time “been champion of the world” were clearly self-congratulatory exaggerations employed to bolster a case for injustice, in the end it hardly mattered.

The mere fact Dylan had put pen to paper in defense of the beleaguered boxer elevated Carter’s plight to mythical proportion. It did marvels for Dylan's career, too. The song would go on to become one of his most popular; Desire, the album on which it appeared, one of his biggest sellers.

The issue of race in America may very be the most morally debasing issue our country has had to confront over our 200-plus year history. And even though Obama and Gates missed an opportunity last week to educate and enlighten on that issue much in the same way Dylan missed his own ‘teachable moment’ 35 years ago, there’s no question we’ve come a long way when it comes to our attitude on race in America.

And while those in power may occasionally play loose and free with the facts to advance the side they’re on, it’s refreshing to see the side they're on is the right one…

How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fools hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

“Going, Going, Gone”: The Kindle, disappearing digital content and the ever-enduring Bob Dylan

I'm closin' the book

On the pages and the text

And I don't really care

What happens next.

Iran was back in the news again last week when a court ruled that Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian singer-songwriter who has been likened to “an Iranian Bob Dylan,” was sentenced to five years in prison for recording music that "dishonors" passages from the Qur'an.

And while the prosecution of Persia’s own “poet of a generation” is just another glaring example of Iran's tyrannical theocracy run amok, it turns out the sentencing of Namjoo wasn’t the most flagrant suppression of free through to have occurred last week.

That distinction goes to Jeff Bezos, founder of online book behemoth,

Last Friday, as Namjoo was learning he had been sentenced to five years in prison for "his unconventional singing" of the Muslim holy book, hundreds of Kindle owners woke up to discover that two books they thought they had bought and paid for had, in fact, only been paid for.

It seems that what Amazon selleth, apparently Amazon can taketh away. And that’s precisely what happened.

Jeff Bezos has long been a proponent of the dissemination of digital content. For Bezos, the notion of delivering content (read: the millions of books Amazon sells) to anyone, anywhere, anytime has been more than a catchy mantra—it’s been a personal mission of sorts. And with the launch of the Amazon Kindle this past March that mission was by-and-large realized. But at what cost?

Those who anted up to buy the popular e-book reader, apparently. And while Amazon’s decision to surreptitiously remove content from the Kindle was hardly the best move from a public relations perspective, Amazon did nothing illegal.

It turns out that when you “buy” an electronic copy of anything—a song, a book, a movie, it doesn't matter—you don’t actually own that copy free and clear. It is encumbered by something called digital rights management software, or DRM.

Most of us have never heard the term, DRM, and nine times out of ten it doesn’t matter.

The new Britney Spears single, Dan Brown’s latest literary endeavor, the most recent episode of “The Office” shuffled off to our iPods— we paid for it, which presumably gives us the right to listen or watch it when we like, where we like, and with whom we like. Sort of.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, you don’t actually own digital content encrypted with DRM. You are for all intent and purposes renting it.

Again, nine times out of ten not a problem. But it can cause some serious issues when the person who truly owns that content (in this case the publisher) decides to renege on the rental agreement.

It turns out this is precisely what happened last Friday with Penguin, the publisher of the titles in question, forcing Amazon to recall the books without insomuch as a warning.

There's no question Jeff Bezos is a visionary. But in looking to the future, even he is tethered to the fact that he must keep his content providers—aka the publishers—happy. And so when the Penguin Group decided not to offer an electronic editions of the books, Bezos caved.

Amazon’s Communications Director, Drew Herdener, issued a statement claiming that the books were added by an outfit that didn’t have the rights to the material in the first place. Plausible enough, I suppose. But the fact that Amazon can remove content at their sole discretion, effectively assuming the role of a modern-day, Orwellian Big Brother is the real looming danger. And herein enters the irony.

The two titles that Amazon effectively ‘banned’ by removing them from the Kindle with a simple flick of the switch?

and Animal Farm—perhaps two of the 20th century’s most harrowing examples of the totalitarian suppression of free thought.

Kudos to you, Jeff Bezos. Your prophetic vision of a digital utopia has been fully realized. Thanks to devices like the Kindle, content flows freely to anyone, anywhere, anytime. And now we know who will be the guardian of that content. It seems 2009 will be like nineteen eight-four, after all.

Fortunately, there are people like Mohsen Namjoo and Bob Dylan—iconoclasts of change with prophetic messages of their own—who will continue to fight to make sure that whoever controls the message can never control the messenger, no matter how it may be delivered…

I been hangin' on threads,
I been playin' it straight,
Now, I've just got to cut loose

Before it gets late.

So I'm going,

I'm going,

I'm gone.
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

“Mountains in the Palm of Her Hand”: Has Sarah Palin thrown it all away?

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand,

And rivers that ran through ev'ry day.

I must have been mad,
I never knew what I had,
Until I threw it all away.

It’s hard to believe over 40 years have passed since Bob Dylan threatened to walk away from the music business. But that’s precisely what happened in the days following the July 29, 1966, motorcycle accident that nearly claimed the singer’s life.

And while it’s unclear exactly what happened that fateful morning—the details surrounding the 500cc Triumph Tiger 100 motorcycle Dylan crashed on a road near his home in upstate New York have always been sketchy at best—whatever transpired was enough to force the reclusive singer to reexamine his priorities.

In a way, the examination was long overdue.

By all accounts the ’66 tour of Europe had been grueling. And while Dylan may have had mountains in the palm of his hand in terms of his creative prowess, he was demonized nearly every night, forced to endure irate fans who were determined to deter Dylan’s new musical direction with jeers of “Judas!” on more than one occasion.

But now that the tour had come to close, Dylan was looking forward to spending some time with his new bride, fashion model Sara Lownds, whom he had secretly married the previous November.

Intent on seeking shelter from the storm, Dylan retreated to a provincial farmhouse in Woodstock. It turns out the months that followed turned out to be some of the most tumultuous of his life.

From the moment Dylan had arrived in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1963, he had dutifully carried the torch for the folk movement. And while Dylan had never masked his disdain for the moniker, “voice of a generation,” by the summer of 1966, it was evident that his audience’s insatiable appetite for all things ‘Dylan’ was beginning to take a rapacious toll on him.

The motorcycle accident hardly helped matters.

Overnight Bob was besieged with questions. Was the accident a cover for another drag-addled rock star whose addiction had gotten the better of him? Was the whole incident a carefully calculated publicity stunt designed to increase speculation around Dylan’s next creative endeavor? Would there even be another endeavor?

In the end, however, it wasn’t what had actually happened that early summer morning that kept Dylan’s legions of devoted fans up at night— it was the incessant speculation on what might have happened. Conjecture, it turns out, was the biggest contributor to a rapidly mounting mystique that all but eclipsed the notoriously ascetic artist.

Nearly 40 years later, a new conundrum has captured America's imagination. But instead of unfolding in the solitary the woods of Woodstock, this one is taking place in the open wilds of Alaska.

Sarah Palin’s July 3 press conference in which she announced that she would resign as governor of Alaska was so surrealistic that one had to wonder if Palin had momentarily mistaken herself as Patti Blagojevich’s replacement on “I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here.”

Bar a complete mental meltdown—something that even her most staunch supporters haven’t completely ruled out—clearly there’s more to the story than the wily politician from Wasilla is letting on. But anyone who patently dismisses Palin’s penchant for the dramatic is missing the point of her decidedly populist appeal.

Ever since she stepped on that stage at the Republican Convention in Minneapolis, Palin has taken to fame like a fish to water. In hindsight, however, perhaps Palin’s aversion to being labeled “a dead fish who goes with the flow” makes perfect sense. After all, when it comes to fame and adulation, nobody drinks it in better than Sarah Palin.

Watching Sarah Palin’s meteoric rise over the last year has been a lot like watching a tightrope walker navigate the hazards of the high wire. Her ability to balance her own ego with the ever-increasing aspirations of Republican Party is a marvel to behold.

Her performance last week, in which she cobbled together a series of incongruous sports analogies in an attempt to explain how abandoning a state in crisis translates to the type of leadership she can offer a nation in peril, was definitely a swing for the fences. In the end, however, Palin struck out big time. Though time will tell how much America’s favorite MILF’s recent muff dive will tarnish her once unmistakable luminous quality.

And so we are left pondering the question: Was Palin throwing in the towel, or throwing her hat in the ring for 2012 political season?

Conjecture has always been a critical component to the ‘Dylan mystique.’ Second-guessing what’s going on inside Dylan’s brain is precisely what makes him such an appealing and enigmatic figure. If the events of last week are any indication, a speculative glimpse inside the mind of Sarah Palin is clearly a far more trepidatious trip.

But even if we were able to unravel Palin’s convoluted, incoherent ramblings, how can anyone expect Palin to move mountains for the Republican Party when she can't even figure out why she's walking away from them…

So if you find someone that gives you all of her love,
Take it to your heart, don't let it stray,

For one thing that's certain,
You will surely be a-hurtin',
If you throw it all away.
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Sunday, July 5, 2009

“Romance in Durango”: A Dylanesque dilettante or Mark Sanford’s swansong?

Soon the horse will take us to Durango

Agarrame mi vida
Soon the desert will be gone
Soon you will be dancing the fandango.

It looks like it just may be time to retire the old adage, “It takes two to Tango.”

Apparently, if you’re Mark Sanford, it only takes one.

Dancing solo lat week before a room full of AP reporters, the scandal-emblazoned South Carolina Governor put his best foot forward, addressing head on the allegations of a romantic rendezvous with Argentinean newscaster Maria Belen Chapur.

Not since Bill Clinton’s contemptuous, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” declaration at the height of his own sex scandal has a politician engaged in such a virtuoso performance.

And while Sanford exhibited none of the suave, smooth moves that made Bill Clinton a poster boy of cool, ethereal detachment, the governor’s response to doing the hokey poky did share one similarity with Clinton's infamous finger-wagging incident: both engaged in a breath-taking dance to the death.

In hindsight, Sanford’s strategy seemed sound enough. Tell the press everything, and hope that by not sidestepping the charges of infidelity the media will forgive you of your trespasses.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

In fact, Sanford’s decision to abandon the expected soft-shoe approach and come clean has completely cleared the dance floor of any prospective partners other than his own ravenous guilt.

The wife. Having had a hand in nearly every facet of her husband's ascent to the pinnacle of South Carolina politics, no one is going to mistake Jenny Sanford for a wallflower. Yet despite her understated approach to managing her husband’s affairs, chances are she won’t be stepping out of the shadows singing Tammy Wynette’s magnanimous marital mantra, “Stand By Your Man,” any time soon.

The GOP. Members of the Republican party also seem to recognize that following the Governor’s lead is probably isn’t the best course of action, either. To date, 14 of the 27 Republicans in the state Senate, and at least six newspapers have called for the governor to step down.

The other woman. And what about Maria Belen Chapur? Exactly where does the Argentinean beauty at the heart of this whole sordid affair stand on the issue? Sanford’s hot tamale isn’t talking. Bar extradition, she’s made it clear she plans to stay put on the Patagonia.

And so, with no one willing to take a turn on the dance floor, Sanford turned to the pages of the Good Book for companionship, citing a parallel between his plight and that of the world’s most infamous adulterer. "[King] David failed, literally, and yet he reconstructed his life," Sanford recently told reporters.

Upon reflection, however, maybe the analogy Sanford should have cited to parallel his rather precarious situation isn’t the story of David’s seduction of Bathsheba, but rather the fabled story of Jericho, in which the seemingly impermeable walls came tumbling down in ruins with the sound of a single trumpet.

Of course, Sanford didn’t need someone to blow the whistle on his indefensible indiscretions. He brought his world crashing down all on his own with his incessant pronouncements of unrequited love.

And while the press certainly amplified Sanford’s overly affectionate opines for Ms. Chapur, the real problem isn’t the intense scrutiny of media. Sanford may be the consummate politician, but somewhere along the way he overlooked his most important constituent– his wife.

There’s no question marriage is a complicated endeavor, especially for those who chose to live their lives in the fish-eye lens. But the difference between a politician like Mark Sanford and a pop star like Bob Dylan mourning the memory of his “one true love” is while the former may feign imperfection; the latter doesn’t have the luxury of disingenuous posturing.

In an odd way, it's as if we want our artists to be broken and emotionally askew. With politicians, however, it’s different. Yes, we place them on the spotlight. But the last thing we want them to do is wither when the heat is turned up.

Mark Sanford maintains his south of the border soirée was worth the fire he’s endured. And while the “moth to the flame” metaphor is in keeping with his undaunted persistence to be with his self-proclaimed “soul mate,” perhaps someone should remind the love-struck Sanford of this simple fact—

While the sight of a moth flickering fecklessly around an open flame is indeed the most beautiful of dances, in the end it's the moth that gets burned…

Hot chili peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape.
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