The Riff - February 2007

Anna Nicole Smith's Death--Biggest News Event in Recent History!

| Fri Feb. 9, 2007 8:41 PM EST

Anna Nicole Smith's death is apparently the biggest story of the 20th and 21st centuries. If you were watching cable news yesterday, you already know that the largest stories of that time period are of course, (5) the Great Depression, (4) Vietnam and the peace movement, (3) the fall of the Soviet Union, (2) WWII and the dropping of the atom bomb, and (1) the death of a former Playboy Playmate who married for money and in some way embodies the perversion of the American Dream.

The good people at ThinkProgress must have a team of 800 research monkeys, because they've tallied the number of times the three major cable news networks referenced Anna Nicole Smith and the number of times they referenced Iraq, just to illustrate the insanity.

The results:


NetworkAnna Nicole SmithIraq
CNN14127
FOX NEWS11233
MSNBC17024

You thought ThinkProgress would stop there? These are very hard-working research monkeys, people, and they are inspired by knowing they do God's work. (As an aside, can you imagine being assigned this project by the boss? "Hiiiii, Peter. I'm going to need you to watch hours of cable news that is saturated with worthless drivel, just to catalogue exactly how much drivel it is saturated with. Mmmmm'kay? Don't forget the TPS reports!")

No, sir. They go further -- courageously, valiantly, with no fear for their own health -- detailing the amount of time NBC, ABC, and CBS spent on Anna Nicole Smith vs. Iraq. (It's particularly bad for NBC, which spent 14 seconds on Iraq and three minutes and 13 seconds on ANS.) And to top it all off, they created a video with the lowlights, in which you can actually see Joe Scarborough scowling in disgust with himself and his producers. I can't post all that here, because you really ought to visit ThinkProgress to see everything in it's full majesty. The devolution of television news is upon us, and I know it makes you want to choke on your own vomit. (Sorry, too soon, I know.)

As Dan Rather would say: Courage!

--Jonathan Stein

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More on Liberal Anti-Semitism

| Fri Feb. 9, 2007 3:48 PM EST

Last week, Mother Jones linked to news that Alvin Rosenfeld of the American Jewish Committee called for a new policy of "confronting" Jews who challenge Israel. (Rosenfeld's essay specifically calls for confronting only those who "oppose Israel's basic right to exist," but the list of suspects he also includes casts a much wider net.)

Now the Anti-Defamation League is jumping on the bandwagon. The group will host a conference (9 a.m. this Sunday at Jewish Community High, San Francisco) on how Jews can protect themselves from anti-Semitism from the liberal left. They give the example of protesters at a recent anti-war rally in San Francisco chanting in Arabic "Jews are our dogs."

Oy vey and Jesus H. Christ. Whether that happened or not neither I nor anyone else at the rally who doesn't speak Arabic could say—and as such I seriously question if the ADL has good information on it. If it did happen, anyone in their right mind would say it was anti-Semitic plain and simple. There's nothing uniquely "progressive" or "left" about its hatred, and therefore there's little need for a special conference.

Nasty stereotyping and anti-Semitism does occur among those who consider themselves politically pure, just as homophobia does. And for that, shame. But what the ADL really means by targeting anti-war protests is that many of them called for the end of all occupation, whether conducted by Jews or gentiles. (Many disagree with that approach, but rallies unite people with different views.) Strong-arm Zionists have been pulling that same trick for years—conflating anyone who challenges the policies of a nation with those who hate everyone who shares the most common religion of that country. Their tactics make it harder, not easier, to piece out and deal with real anti-Semitic incidents or comments.

Snickers Pulls "Kiss" Ad; Nation Confused

| Thu Feb. 8, 2007 2:23 AM EST

By now, most people know about the controversy surrounding Snickers' Super Bowl ad. The spot featured two mechanics whose lips accidentally meet, in a Lady and the Tramp-style kiss, as they both chow down on the same appetizing candy bar. Their horrified reaction, and subsequent bizarre attempt to "do something manly" by pulling out their own chest hair, was apparently supposed to be funny in some way. More disturbing was the "extra content" available on the Masterfoods Snickers website, where you could watch "alternate endings" to the commercial, one of which included the two men beating the crap out of each other, and footage of Bears and Colts players reacting with disgust to the chocolatey lip-lock. Gay rights groups, sports writers and bloggers were not amused, and called for the ad and website to be pulled. On Tuesday, Masterfoods (what kind of a name for a company is that, by the way?) relented and pulled both the ad and the website.

If Chris Rock Says It, It's Funny; If Sarah Silverman Says It, It's Tasteless

| Wed Feb. 7, 2007 6:25 PM EST

A lot has been written about how women are perceived to be either "not funny" or "not as funny as men." Now that there are a number of respected women comics, that paradigm has changed somewhat in that women can be funny as long as their humor is not aggressive. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, is generally considered funny by anyone who is not a hopeless homophobe, partly because her humor is not at all aggressive (this is not a criticism, by the way--I think DeGeneres is hilarious). Margaret Cho is another story: She says bad words, and she talks about sex in great (and hysterically funny) detail. She not only makes people uncomfortable--she is a woman, she is Asian-American, and she is a member of the LGBT community, to boot.

Perhaps no one, though, has fueled the "women are funny as long as they are 'feminine'" fire as much as Sarah Silverman, whose television series debuted last Thursday night. Both men and women have walked out of her shows, and I have heard many supposedly liberal people call her humor "tasteless" and "disgusting." But the fact of the matter is that Silverman, and other female comics like her, do not push the envelope any farther than a Chris Rock or a Dave Chappelle, whom these same critics admire.

Silverman's humor is not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure. I am not making a case for whether she is a good comic; I am just pointing out that the "shocking" things that come out of her mouth would be considered "badass" if they came out of the mouth of a male comic. Drew Carey says it well: "Comedy is about aggression and confrontation and power. As a culture we just don't allow women to do all that stuff."

Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair, recently acknowledged that there are some funny women comics around, but "Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three." One might just as well say that most of the really funny male comics are black or Jewish (forgive me, those who think Robin Williams is still funny).

Hitchens, to his credit, also says:

Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit.

--Diane E. Dees

Speaking of Jews in China

| Wed Feb. 7, 2007 5:26 PM EST

China has a hot new class of business self-improvement books. One promises "The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish" according to the Washington Post. Another tempts buyers with "The Legend of Jewish Wealth."

You'd think that the books would go on to offer Borat-style stereotypes of Jews. But they don't seem to. Yes, the wealthy Jew is itself a destructive stereotype, and the Chinese interest in Jews is a little creepy, to be sure. China, a country of 1.3 billion people, is home to just 10,000 Jews. A recent reality-style show filmed a Jewish couple in their home, interviewing them about what they ate and other fascinating topics.

But the Chinese seem to identify with Jews, or at least Jews as they imagine them, believing that both people share an entrepreneurial sprit, according to Zhou Guojian, deputy dean of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

The books' authors, however, aren't Jewish, nor are they especially knowledgeable about Jews. In fact, when the Post reporters tried to track one down, they hit a wall. If this blogger's second-job as a writer of ESL materials to be sold in Korea is any guide, some poor blogger probably wrote the books only to have someone else's name slapped on them.

Keeping the Candles Lit in Cuba

| Wed Feb. 7, 2007 3:57 PM EST

There's a really nice profile of the tiny Jewish community in Cuba—yes, Cuba—in the New York Times travel section. And, no, it's not tiny because Castro stifles the religion, it's tiny because most of the Jews left with their property at the outset of his regime.

The Times also ran a piece on the closing of the last temple in Tajikistan—and, among the many well-done TimesSelect-restricted articles on historic Jewish communities, a review of a museum exhibit of all that's left of China's Jewish community and a look at a Long Island community's attempt to preserve Yiddish.

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Dinesh D'Sell Out

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:23 PM EST

It happens to most academic stars. Eventually, they begin self-parodying. So it is no surprise that Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative academic who hit the big time with his 1991 critique of political correctness, Illiberal Education, has swung even farther right with his newest book, The Enemy at Home. To give a quick and dirty measure of how far right, I present its subtitle: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. What's odd about this is that D'Souza isn't parodying himself, but political sound-byte machines. The right is really on message, is it not? Especially for a message like this one, which contains no truth whatsoever.

I've always wondered, do the Joe Blows of the right-wing believe some of the more absurd bits of spin they repeat? (I have, after much thought, come to conclude that most of the higher-ups, with some grandiosely off-kilter exceptions, do not.) But I've never seen an academic doing the work of political rhetoric quite as explicitly as this.

Pole Dancing, Margaret Cho, the Whitney: Julie Atlas Muz's Got It All

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 9:13 PM EST

In an age when anyone living in a metropolitan area can sign up for pole dancing classes at a local gym or be coached in the art of burlesque, it might seem unlikely that sex work-inspired performance art could gain the artistic prestige of Marcel DuChamp and Man Ray. But a review in today's New York Times compares the work of Julie Atlas Muz to both these heavyweights of modern art. The performance artist and burlesque star who has performed at the Whitney Biennial and the Miss Exotic World Pageant (and is touring with this year's Sex Workers' Art Show that Mother Jones reviewed here) celebrated the opening of her first solo show, "Divine Comedy of an Exquisite Corpse" this Saturday. "Exquisite Corpse," as the Times reports, is a commentary on "suicide, terrorism, and fear," laden with undercurrents about feminine power and aging. This sounds like the present wave of feminism at its most diva-like. You have social commentary about sex and politics all wrapped up in glitter with a lot of skin showing. But Muz says it's just "good old Vaudeville." It sounds like a lot more than old Vaudeville to me. While Vaudeville and Muz' work may be about stylized performance and glamour, the latter is about reclaiming and elevating both low art and feminine sexuality.

--Rose Miller

Prince Super Bowl Half Time Show: Rebuttal

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 5:24 PM EST

Oh, previous post, you could not be more wrong! My apologies for creating a new post rather than just commenting on yours, but I wanted to include some links.

Video of the actual performance:
- Part 1;
- Part 2;
- Part 3

Other reviews:
- Kelefa Sanneh in the Times
- Tom Breihan in the Village Voice

I promise I'm not just towing the critical line here when I say that I thought this performance was fantastic. (I was in a car driving up I-5 at the time so I had to watch those YouTube links after the fact, but still). I'll gladly admit that any of Prince's recorded output over the past 10 years (or more) has been forgettable at best, and that's incredibly sad considering the brilliance of his work in the 80s. But in this performance on Sunday, he utterly redeemed himself. Given the miniscule performance time, as well as the short attention span and enormous demographic range of viewers, he did the only logical thing: jam together a string of hits (his own and otherwise) like a prime-time DJ set. I don't think it's "pandering" to play a song people know, especially considering every single moment of even the most familiar numbers was altered in some way. He brought completely new melodies and a call-and-response vocal to "Let's Go Crazy," basically created a live mashup of the intro to "1999" with "Baby I'm a Star" and "Proud Mary," and injected every song with a raw, gritty power via those amazing guitar solos. Plus, considering the recent hullabaloo over black musicians playing rock music, there was something both utterly natural and deeply subversive in seeing Prince take on Foo Fighters' ubuquitous (and mediocre) "Best of You," and turn it into an almost-unrecognizably great song that straddled arena rock and gospel.

Ultimately, though, it was the casual ease with which he handled the almost unimaginable pressure of the event that made this such a riveting performance. He tossed off lyrics like he was just improvising at practice, walked away from the mic to deliver a one-handed guitar solo, and sauntered back halfway through a line like it just didn't matter. As Sanneh put it in the Times, Prince "looked as if he were getting away with something," and whether that was the knowledge that an artist once decried as obscene is giving a safe-but-thrilling performance at a venue now terrified of supposed obscenity, the thought that a quirky, diminutive experimental genius could so easily position himself squarely in the middle of the American mainstream, or just the fact that someone who went so quickly from superstardom to silly-symbol joke could come back so triumphantly, it was amazing to watch. One ticket to the Prince Las Vegas show, please.

Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here Today to Get Through This Thing Called the Super Bowl Half Time Show

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 4:08 PM EST

Super Bowl halftime shows are, of course, bland blimps of branding; processed cheese whiz for the widest possible audience, which no amount of excess, earnestness, or manufactured controversy can puncture. So I was surprised to feel a touch of sadness as I watched Prince roll out all the empty signifiers one would expect from a Pepsi commercial: the atonal call-and-response with "authentic" fans; the writhing Aussie twinbots, and the accessory du jour, the marching band. Prince was once so transgressive, so outsider, and so defiantly himself, and now here he was warbling feeble medley versions of 20-year-old songs. The only song that stood up to the ant-in-a-swimming-pool staging was "Purple Rain," and that was only because it always was a lighters-aloft arena power ballad anyway.

The Purple One could not even shock sartorially: In his teal frock coat and orange shirt, he looked like Little Richard dressed as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader, and although I was glad to see him strap on the purple glyph guitar for "Purple Rain," I half expected him to coax a fountain of Pepsi from it, in a nod to the fret board autoeroticism of his past live shows.

Or maybe it was just a sign of the times. Perhaps what I'm really offended by is the fact that my musical heroes are now officially irrelevant.