My country ’tis of thee

At Barak Obama’s second inauguration yesterday, American Idol star Kelly Clarkson added a poignant chapter to the storied annals of America’s least offensive patriotic anthem, My Country ‘Tis of Thee.

Seventy-four years ago, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson perform at the association’s Constitution Hall in Washington because the celebrated contralto was African-American. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest, and weeks of controversy ensued. On April 9, 1939, 75,000 people turned out to hear Anderson sing at an outdoor Easter Sunday recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Interior Secretary Harold Ickes introduced Anderson’s stirring rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee:

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Martin Luthor King didn’t sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, but the famous speech he delivered from the place Anderson had sung 23 years earlier included a powerful allusion to the anthem’s lyrics:

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A few days after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre, Joe M. Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called Dave Berg, a producer with NBC Television. President Bush wanted Jay Leno to help the country get back to normal by putting “The Tonight Show” on the air. The program resumed on September 18, a week after the attacks, with no monologue, and a guest appearance by Republican Sen. John McCain. Crosby, Stills, and Nash ended the show with an unusual version of My Country ‘Tis of Thee, accompanied by the haunting guitar work of Michael Hedges.

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The great Aretha Franklin sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee at Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 (but her hat may be the element that sticks in people’s memories).

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Clarkson had some daunting history to live up to when the stepped to the microphone yesterday. I think she performed beautifully. (Apologies for the Wall Street Journal’s triumphalist intro, but the camera work on this clip is better than the alternatives so far posted on YouTube.)

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(Note: I have included video links her because embedded YouTube videos don’t show up in certain email programs. Email subscribers can usually see them in their browsers by clicking on the title of the post.)

When one side flouts civil norms

Yesterday, White House press spokesman Jay Carney kiboshed the idea of minting a platinum trillion dollar coin to get around the Congressionally imposed debt ceiling that Republicans are using to ransom deep cuts in medicare and social security.

Some economists have urged President Barack Obama to exploit a legal loophole that would allow the government to print a single $1,000,000,000,000 coin, and deposit it with the Federal Reserve Bank, thereby enabling the US Government to pay bills Congress has already authorized.

MSNBC Host Chris Hays summed up the case for the coin this way:

If this seems surreal or ridiculous or magical to you, you are not wrong. It’s totally bizarre and unprecedented. Even if it’s legal, as many legal experts believe it to be, it seems to run against our expectations of how our government does and should behave. It’s the kind of thing that just isn’t done. But that, you see, is the entire point. Behaviour of individuals within institutions is constrained by the formal rules–explicit prohibitions–and norms–implicit prohibitions that aren’t spelled out, but just aren’t done.

Chris-HayesAnd what the modern Republican party has excelled at, particularly in the era of Obama, is exploiting the gap between these two. They’ve made a habit of doing the thing that just isn’t done. Requiring a 60-vote majority for nearly every simple procedural vote just wasn’t done, and then the Republicans did it. Refusing to confirm any candidate for an open position because you object to the position’s very existence just wasn’t done, but Senate Republicans did precisely that with the newly created Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which they continue to boycott. And most clearly before the summer of June, 2011, opposition parties didn’t use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip with which to extract ransom, and they certainly didn’t threaten default as a means to gain political leverage.

The president has been extremely reticent to meet this extraordinary degradation of previous norms with innovations of his own. He is, at heart, an ardent institiuionalist. But there is no way to unilaterally maintain norms. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. And the only way to produce a new set of healthy norms is to do some innovating of your own.

And you can tell, I think, the trillion dollar coin idea spooks republicans precisely because it would be so out of character. It would so gleefully and flagrantly violate their own expectations about how democrats play the game.

I go back and forth on whether Obama is a leader of exceptional forbearance, or a patsy who can’t play hardball. In this case, I’m dismayed that the President has once again abjured what may be his strongest weapon on the eve of negotiations that promise to be not just difficult but fraught with potential harm to the United States and the world.

Since Contrarian readers may not have followed this looming crisis all that closely, I will follow the advice of James Fallows and include these two sentences in this discussion:

  1. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
  2. For Congress to “decide whether” to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to “decide whether” to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

For those who prefer to ingest their economic news visually, here is Hayes’s entire commentary on the Republican Debt ceiling fiasco (the coin discussion starts 25 seconds in):

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And here is the bipartisan panel discussion that followed.

At first blush, this is a discussion about the intricacies of US politics. But in Canada, over the last two years, the Harper Government has been flouting Parliamentary norms in a manner that is, so far as I know, unprecedented in scope. Harper has cobbled together massive omnibus bills that change dozens of important federal laws touching wide-ranging spheres of Canadian affairs–ranging from National Parks to native rights to protection of waterways. Harper has used his parliamentary majority to force these laws through with a minimum of debate.

Just as Republicans can say Democrats used the filibuster too, Harperites can say Liberals used Omnibus bills, too. Yes they did, and sometimes in regrettable ways, but never on this massive scale.

What we’ve seen from Harper in the last two years is a flouting of norms, and as Hayes says, once norms are gone, they’re gone, and you can’t get ’em back. Once Canada’s dalliance with the radical right ends, as inevitably it one day will, the most important task facing a moderate or progressive alternative will be to repair the damage Harper has done to Canadian Parliamentary Democracy.

I lost it at the polling booth, & You still don’t own me

On the off chance you may have missed these…

Seventy-seven beautiful women update Leslie Gore’s signature anthem to women’s freedom for the 2012 presidential campaign:

And “Girls” star Lena Dunham is driving sanctimonious Republican hypocrites snaky with this primer on how to lose your electoral cherry:

Friggin’ funny Obama roast

President Barack Obama at the White House correspondent’s annual dinner and roast:

It’s fair to say that when it comes to my presidency, the honeymoon is over…. I’ve even let down my key core constituency: movie stars. Matt Damon said he was disappointed in my performance. Well, Matt, I just saw the ‘Adjustment Bureau.’ Right back atcha buddy.

Donald Trump is here. I know he’s taken some flack recently, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put the birth certificate issue to rest than the Donald. That’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like ‘Did we really land on the moon?’ ‘What really happened in Roswell?’ And, ‘Where are Biggie and Tupac?’ All kidding aside, we all know about your credentials and wealth of experience. For example, the other night on “Celebrity Apprentice” … you fired Gary Busey. These are the kinds of situations that would keep me up at night.

Michele Bachmann is here, and she’s thinking of running for President. Which is weird, because I heard she was born in Canada. Yes Michele, this is how it starts.

Can you imagine any of the leaders in Monday’s Canadian election being half this funny?

Crowdsourcing art

Johnny Cash Project

Chris Milk, who has directed videos for Kanye West, U2, Courtney Love, and Barack Obama, is assembling a few thousand volunteers to complete an animated music video for Ain’t No Grave, title track of the last album Johnny Cash recorded.

The Johnny Cash Project invites participants to use custom drawing tools to create the 1,368 frames in the 2 minute, 51 second, video. Since more than one artist will end up submitting artwork for each frame, the video will look different each time it’s played. Writes Milk:

Strung together and relayed in sequence, your art, paired with Johnny’s haunting song, will become a living, moving, and ever changing portrait of the legendary Man in Black.

White House taps the Da Vinci of data

President Barack Obama has appointed visual data guru Edward Tufte (previously mentioned: here) to the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel. Tufte will advise on such things as the website, where citizens can punch their zip code into a track-the-money map and see all the recovery projects in their area.

Bob Garfield of New York public radio’s On The Media interviewed Tufte about the appointment this week (audio embedded below; transcript here).

GARFIELD: Tufte has inspired a generation of innovators with his ideas for the efficient, clean and rich presentation of information. He’s a fan of The New York Times website, the iPhone, and, most of all, the lowly sports page, with its tables and stats a reader can grasp in an instant. But he’s in a constant war with the average website, cluttered with scroll bars, logos, jargon and meaningless graphics.

EDWARD TUFTE: They make the simple complex. The design hand in there is from the marketing department, and it’s unfortunate because our eye-brain system is so powerful, in one long glance, maybe a 12-second glance at something, probably 120 megabits of information goes to our brain. And there’s no reason we have to be looking at impoverished materials because we process material at enormous rates.

Tufte’s first piece of advice to government: its websites should imitate the best news organization sites.

Hat tip: FlowingData.

Hold the canonization – updated

DavidFrum-225Arch-conservative David Frum stiffed CBC Radio’s flagship The Current this morning [see update below], failing at the last minute to show up for a heavily promoted interview on his reincarnation as a thoughtful moderate. The program was forced to recycle a dumpster diving documentary in place of what I fear would have been the latest in a series of fawning interviews.

Let’s hope this will, in Canada at least, slow the media juggernaut bent on canonizing Frum as discerning paragon of moderation.

Frum, as the saying goes, was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. His father was a wealthy dentist turned wealthier real estate developer; his mother was, well, you know who is mother was. At a time when right wing media barons were ascendant in Canada, young Frum fashioned a public career rooted in contempt for people (and regions) who don’t measure up to his own social Darwinist attainments.

Frum CBC no showOf late, he has bravely shown distaste for those who paint rifle targets on images of America’s first black president. He evokes mild embarrassment at keeping intellectual company with the likes of talk show bully Rush Limbaugh. He blows hot and cold on ditzy Sarah Palin. This makes him moderate only to those whose political spectrum equates birther whack jobs with such leftist radicals as Barack Obama.

Check the record: Frum staunchly opposes public health care. If it were up to him, wealthy people would buy their own care, middle class people would be OK until their insurance ran out or was canceled due to illness, and the poor and those with pre-existing conditions could rely on charity, thank you very much. He fought to preserve a system that produces the worst health outcomes in the industrialized world (and a pretty good swath of the developing world).

He opposed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Meirs because she was insufficiently pro life.

In justifying his vote to put Palin an old man’s heartbeat away from the oval office,  he wrote: “It says something important that so many millions of people respond to her as somebody who incarnates their beliefs and values. At a time when the great American middle often seems to be falling further and further behind, there may be a special need for a national leader who represents and symbolizes that middle.” Oh my.

Saint David? Hold the holy water, please.

[UPDATE:  Frum apparently made it in time for the Eastern Time Zone and later editions of the show.]


A photo recently added to the White House photostream on Flickr reveals a startling presidential penchant for meticulous editing:


Ouch! The speechwriter who endured this grueling feedback, Jon Favreau, is the second-youngest in presidential history. The only man every to serve at a more tender age, Atlantic magazine writer and former Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, offered these comments on the photo:

The volume of Obama’s editing is unusual but not unheard of. The quality of his editing is exceptional for a public figure. Think of just one sentence in the shot above. The original says “This has always been our history.” Obama changes it to, “This has always been the history of our progress.” A different, more interesting, and more original-sounding thought.

Those wishing to track President Obama’s edits in detail can view an enormous version of the photo here.