Pelé and Me, George Santos Must Go, When Is Art Racist?, Video: Attacking Black Kids at Pool, Brilliant Program to Defray College Costs, Plus: Movies, TV, Music
My thoughts on the top--and top-ish--stories in this week's political, sports, and pop culture news.
A Brief-ish New Year Message:
Most of the issues I write about concern power, especially those who crave it and abuse it—always at the expense of others. The struggle for civil rights—whether based on race, gender, LGBTQ+, ethnic origin, or religion—is always about those with power and money trying to suppress those without. That’s how they keep their power and money. But in a democracy, they can’t do it alone, they need to enlist followers, usually those without power and money who greedily will do anything to get it, or those who blindly worship those who have it. While people fighting for civil rights try to convince those with rights and privileges about the benefits of sharing, those who horde power convince them not to share—pretty much the opposite of what we teach our children.
These followers are often self-sabotaging. Based on sheer numbers, it should be mathematically impossible to exploit women the way we do. It can only be done if those in power who benefit from the exploitation convince a large number of women that they aren’t being exploited, that they are actually part of the power group. Basically, it’s like the popular kids at high school inviting a few outsider kids to a party. Those outsider kids are so grateful, they’ll do the popular kids’ bidding for the rest of the year—even though the popular kids treat them badly and laugh at them. Trump called the people he rallied together on Jan. 6 “trashy.” The sad truth is, as Ponyboy would tell them, they’ll never be a Soc (for The Outsiders fans).
How do the powerful convince people to act against their own best interests? By telling them that their worst biases and darkest emotions are good and reasonable. That’s how you goad a bunch of average citizens to attack Congress of January 6th, even though it is treasonous, people ended up dead, and a lot of them ended up in prison. Did any rich and powerful conservative who encouraged them join the attack or face prison?
The powerful start by corrupting the concept of truth, which is the foundation of every democracy. The campaign by the right against legitimate news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post (and, yes, they get things wrong sometimes, but at least they admit it) is not about truth, but about suppressing truth because the facts might gnaw away at the veil of fantasy they’ve created to maintain power over the ill-informed. If the facts don’t match what those in power have been telling their followers, then attack the source of the facts. A simple tactic that only works on lazy thinkers. For them, Power Is Truth. If the facts contradict their agenda, deny, deny, deny. Deny what scientists say. Deny what doctors say. Deny what experts say. Unless they’re lying in a hospital in need of serious medical attention—then science and medicine are good.
Truth has become a valuable and fragile animal these days, an endangered species in great need of nurturing and protecting.
The money masters who control those who want to ban books, ban women’s rights, ban LGBTQ+ rights, ban religions other than their own, are able to convince their followers using the age-old logical argument: “I’m made of rubber, you’re made of glue. Anything you say bounces off me and sticks on you.” So, if you claim Fox News is biased, they claim the Post and Times are biased. If you say their politician is making a statement based on unreliable studies, they say your studies are unreliable. Ideological standoff? Not really, because facts can be verified, the reliability of news organizations can be objectively measured, studies can be judged based on who does them, who paid for them, how big the sample was, etc. You know, math and science.
It’s a new year and so we have to renew our commitment to the truth rather than throwing up our hands in frustration at the nattering nabobs of negativism (yes, I’m sampling Spiro Agnew). Elections are quickly approaching and we will need to make sure that Truth Is Power, not the other way around. For me, it starts here.
Politics: A Made-Up Man Is Now in Congress
SUMMARY: “U.S. Rep.-elect George Santos of New York was under investigation by Long Island prosecutors on Wednesday, after revelations surfaced that the now-embattled Republican lied about his heritage, education and professional pedigree as he campaigned for office.
“…The Republican has admitted to lying about having Jewish ancestry, a Wall Street pedigree and a college degree, but he has yet to address other lingering questions — including the source of what appears to be a quickly amassed fortune despite recent financial problems, including evictions and owing thousands in back rent.”
MY TAKE: It’s pretty shocking to find out that an elected member of Congress lied about most of his background and, worse, that no one knew about it. A New York Times investigation found that Santos never worked at Goldman Sachs, didn’t graduate from Baruch College, didn’t attend New York University, and no evidence of his animal rescue group, nor did he disclose criminal charges for check fraud in Brazil. His business dealings are even murkier. He lied about his Jewish heritage and about his mother dying in the 9/11 attack (“George Santos said 9/11 ‘claimed my mother’s life.’ She died in 2016.”). Every day brings more revelations about his lies, but none more bizarre than his claim to be Jewish, calling himself “a proud American Jew,” which he later recanted saying he meant that because his maternal grandmother was Jewish, he was “Jew-ish.” Oy vey.
WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT: Ordinarily, most of us wouldn’t flinch at finding out a politician lied. But this story has grown, not just because of the enormity of his lies, but because he was able to use those lies to get elected. And no one noticed.
But they should have. Back in September, well before the elections, The North Shore Leader, a small newspaper o Long Island, where Santos was elected, sounded the alarm about his many fabrications. As a result, the paper forced itself to endorse Santos’s Democratic rival. “This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican,” it wrote, but Santos “is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot. … He boasts like an insecure child — but he’s most likely just a fabulist — a fake.”
It is impossible for the average voter to vet candidates to this extent. It’s not even possible for news organizations to vet every candidate. But it is possible—and necessary—for political parties to do a deep dive into the backgrounds of their candidates to insure they are who and what they say they are. That is their responsibility as a party wanting to earn our trust. Otherwise, our Congress could be filled with liars and scammers like Santos and Herschel Walker.
More important—and telling—than a grifter getting elected is the Republican reaction. The GOP is run like a 1950s corporation (or contemporary NFL team) in which earnings is the only ethics. If you find your best salesperson is a serial sexual abuser, you pay everyone off and keep them around because they’re a good earner. In this case, Santos is valuable to the Republican Party as part of their slim control of the House of Representatives than their commitment to election integrity (“G.O.P. Leadership Remains Silent Over George Santos’s Falsehoods”).
As the Times reported: “If Republican leaders demanded Mr. Santos resign — and he did so — it would prompt a special election in a swing seat, a potential blow to Republicans’ already precarious majority. And the incoming congressman had pledged to vote for Mr. McCarthy for speaker next week, a critical display of support for the Republican leader, who is facing a mini-revolt on the right and needs every vote he can get.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene, trying to solidify her power in Congress by supporting McCarthy’s bid as speaker, defended Santos: “The left doesn’t care about lying. The real reason they’re attacking George Santos is that he [is] the first openly gay [non-incumbent] Republican elected and they hate him for it.” Wait, the left is pushing LGBTQ+ agenda and at the same time derailing it?
Not all Republicans are silent. Republican Long Island Rep.-elect Nick LaLota called Tuesday for the House Ethics Committee to investigate Santos over his lies during his campaign.
Santos got elected based on lies about his qualifications. If he pretended to be a doctor but had no medical degree, should he still be allowed to operate on you? If he was hired to teach your children based on lies, should he be fired? If he sold you a car using false reports about its condition, should you get your money back? Why would the people of his district—or any member of Congress with integrity—allow him to take his seat? Anything less than his resignation is unacceptable.
Sports: The Man Dies, the Legend Lives Forever
Pelé, the Global Face of Soccer, Dies at 82 (The New York Times)
Commercial I did with Pelé in 1981.
SUMMARY: Pelé, one of soccer’s greatest players and a transformative figure in 20th-century sports who achieved a level of global celebrity few athletes have known, died on Thursday in São Paulo. He was 82.
“…A national hero in his native Brazil, Pelé was beloved around the world — by the very poor, among whom he was raised; the very rich, in whose circles he traveled; and just about everyone who ever saw him play.”
MY TAKE: I got the opportunity to spend time with Pelé on several occasions, all of them memorable because of his energetic personality. You couldn’t help but be happy around him because he was able to laugh and be joyful so much of the time.
During the making of the Atari ad (see above video) in 1981, we had so much fun hanging out together, laughing and joking around, that we sometimes forgot we were there to make the commercial. I went to visit him in Brazil when I was the U.S. Cultural Ambassador in 2012. He had just left on vacation, but he called me on the phone, upset that we didn’t connect. Every moment in his presence you felt how authentic he was. I’ve felt that same openness and sincerity from very few people.
When Pelé kicked soccer to a whole new level, athletes of every sport, myself included, were inspired to also reach for a higher level of performance. I don’t know if we achieved it, but we all loved trying. And the fans loved watching. Pelé, when you rose up off the ground, all humankind rose with you.
Instead of a clip showing Pelé playing, which I’m sure you’ve been seeing over and over on the news, I’ve included a clip from one of my favorite sports films, Vision Quest. In it, Elmo the fry cook explains to high school wrestler Louden, who is thinking of not showing up for his match against the state champ, what Pelé meant to him and what sports means to all of us.
It’s a new year, so time for a new commitment to our Substack community. Paid subscriptions keep the computers—and my staff—running. Start your New Year’s resolutions right now!
Art & Politics: We Are Our Art
Art at Capitol honors 141 enslavers and 13 Confederates. (The Washington Post)
SUMMARY: “When the 118th Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, its members will walk the halls of a building whose paintings and statues pay homage to 141 enslavers.
“As part of a year-long investigation into Congress’s relationship with slavery, The Washington Post analyzed more than 400 artworks in the U.S. Capitol building, from the Crypt to the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda, and found that one-third honor enslavers or Confederates. Another six honor possible enslavers — people whose slaveholding status is in dispute.”
MY TAKE: The art we display in our government buildings—whether federal, state, or local—has significance beyond chronicling historic events. It also embraces and perpetuates values that represent the people—and the government’s attitude toward the people. That’s why statues and flags representing the Confederacy were so insulting to Black people. Traitors to the Constitution who advocated and celebrated slavery (which included the torture, rape, and murder of those slaves) were being held up as heroes, people to be admired, while Black people had to pass them every day.
But there are nuances. For example, the article shows the painting General George Washington Resigning His Commission, which hangs in the Capitol Rotunda. Of the 31 people portrayed, 19 were enslavers, including Washington. Yet, the painting is also a historical document capturing an important event. How do we balance those two issues?
We also have to take into consideration other offenses, such as Thomas Jefferson having sex with his slave Sally Hemings. Since a slave had no legal right to refuse sexual advances by her owner, this would certainly be rape. Should we erase Thomas Jefferson from our history’s art? Andrew Jackson was a slaver, a censor, and an ethnic cleanser whoo would have wiped Native Americans from the Earth if he could have. Seeing his face on the twenty-dollar bill is an insult to American values.
This is a tricky situation that is also an opportunity. We have to acknowledge that people were products of their times and that many changed (not Jackson). Benjamin Franklin owned slaves, but freed them and then rejected slavery altogether. We can’t deny our history, but we certainly can be selective in what we display and how it is displayed. There’s no place for Confederate soldiers who supported slavery. But we can show art representing our complex founders in context, with appropriate information detailing what they did right and what they did wrong.
This should be a lesson in how America’s ability to evolve—to choose to do good despite the burdens of tradition. To end slavery was a choice. To affirm women’s right to vote was a choice. To educate our children was a choice. To care for our elderly was a choice. These were all choices for a better future, despite a checkered past. That makes me optimistic for what choices we will make next.
NOTE: This issue goes beyond the Capitol Building. It involves artists, writers, and leaders throughout history. Picasso was a notorious misogynist who abused the women he called his muses to such an extent that two of them committed suicide. His own granddaughter described his horrific treatment of women: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.” Yet, last June, his Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sold for $106,482,500. How are we to reconcile the great achievements and loathsome behavior of the same person?
First, we have to admit that there might be some contradictions to our decisions. Despite our best intentions, we may not always get it right and have to be willing to re-evaluate as we learn more. Second, we have to acknowledge the bad with the good rather than romanticizing or whitewashing them because it’s easier on us. I don’t think we should ban Picasso’s work, but we should teach the full truth about artists so the viewer can put the work in context. And we should ban works in government sites that glorify genocide, enslavement, treason, and other acts contrary to our values as a country.
Kareem’s Video Break
This is a throwback, folks. I remember laughing so hard when this first came out years ago. I came across it again and, yup, still funny.
Education: Finally, A Good News Story That Might Change the Country
California Begins Service Program for College Students (The New York Times)
SUMMARY: “The California College Corps, a state program that began this year, selects low-income college students to complete community service in exchange for $10,000 to spend on tuition and living expenses. The aim is to help students reduce their debt, while empowering civic action and addressing problems in the state, including education gaps, food insecurity and climate change.
“…The four-year program is funded by approximately $300 million in state money, and about 13,000 students are expected to enroll through 2026…. The inaugural class of 3,200 was sworn in at a ceremony in Sacramento in October.
“Over the course of the academic year, the students will serve 450 hours, which is about 15 hours a week. Half of the fellows are spending that time tutoring and mentoring in low-income schools in an effort to address the state’s Covid-driven learning loss, [California’s chief service officer, Josh] Fryday said. Others are building community gardens, planting trees, working at food banks or participating in other local community-service projects identified by their colleges.”
MY TAKE: As many of you already know, my Skyhook Foundation supports STEM education for underprivileged kids, so I am fully invested in anything that promotes a better education for those in need.
What makes this program especially effective is that the class is “mostly composed of first-generation college students, and more than 80 percent are people of color. The program’s first class includes more than 500 California Dream Act students, who came to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants but otherwise qualify for in-state tuition in California. Typically, undocumented students can’t participate in national service programs because federal rules prohibit them from receiving funding.”
For many college students without money, this could make the difference in them attending college and having the career of their choice. That’s a win for everyone. I encourage other states will adopt similar programs.
Racism: It Never Ends
White Men Charged in Attack on Black Teenagers at Pool in South Africa (The New York Times)
SUMMARY: “A violent attack by a group of white men on two Black teenagers at a resort pool in South Africa on Christmas Day has sparked widespread outrage, reviving images from the ugly days of apartheid and serving as a stinging reminder of the country’s unresolved racial tensions.
“Cellphone footage of the assault — which the teenagers said started when they were told the pool was for “white people only” — spread widely on social media. It showed scenes that could have been from decades ago, when apartheid-era laws restricted South Africa’s Black majority from using public facilities designated for white people.
“…Mr. Nakedi, who witnessed the assault on his son, said: ‘I became incensed. We have to relive the pain through our kids.’”
The men were charged with assault and one with attempted murder.
MY TAKE: If you’re White, you might be tempted to say, “Horrible, but that’s South Africa.” But after the many similar incidents that have taken place in just the past year here in the U.S., you should be aware that this fear of sudden racist violence—from citizens and cops—is what most Black families live with daily.
Movies & TV: What I’m Watching
Watch: She Said
I’ve always loved stories about investigative reporters uncovering the crimes of powerful people whose arrogance and hubris justify them exploiting other, more vulnerable people. All the President’s Men, The Post, and Spotlight reveal the real-life atrocities of presidents to priests.
Today, the public sentiment has been corrupted to be more aggressive against the press. Ironically, the instigators are those same powerful and arrogant people who want to discredit the press that are uncovering uncomfortable truths about them. Even more ironic, it is “news organizations” like Fox News, Breitbart, and The Daily Wire, which lack any integrity in reporting news unless it advocates their agenda, that perpetuate the onslaught against legitimate news. The followers of these sources prefer their information to match their biases, with no objective facts to make them think.
She Said, which chronicles The New York Times’ long and treacherous road building the story of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse is part of the “crusading journalists” genre, but it blazes its own narrative path. The film isn’t riveting just for the secrets it uncovers, but for the reflective light that bounces off Weinstein and illuminates the rest of us.
The story focuses on reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey as they relentlessly dig, cajole, and network their way into a story of heinous abuse that only the victims want told (even if they are too frightened, hurt, or legally forbidden to tell it). To its credit, the film is never preachy—it doesn’t have to be because the events are powerful enough to move the audience.
What I especially appreciate is how the story always shows a subtle female sensibility in many small moments: when one woman comforts her young weeping daughters after finding out she will need a mastectomy, when the reporters hug after they’ve made a breakthrough, when Kantor weeps after Ashley Judd agrees to go public with her accusation. It’s all so gloriously touching and intimate in ways that Bernstein and Woodward in All the President’s Men couldn’t be.
At the end, there is a sense of victory at the conviction of Weinstein. But that sense is quickly diminished by the endless news stories—many of which I have presented in the past few weeks—of continual systemic misogyny and sexual exploitation. Maybe that’s the point: rather than feel justice has been served, we should be inspired to seek justice everywhere. And to look at ourselves to see whether we are enabling such behavior merely by denying its existence or justifying it with a shrug and a smirk.
Don’t Watch: Babylon
Everyone is so earnest in this three-hour movie that you want to like, just for their sakes. And I loved director-writer Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and La La Land. But Babylon is such a predictable, soulless, melodramatic mess that I couldn’t get there.
The main problem is that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters. Margot Robbie is dynamic as the wannabe starlet desperate for attention and validation, but we’ve seen it all so often before that her arc isn’t tragic, just annoying. Brad Pitt as the aging movie star is also terrific, and there are so many aspects of him that promise he’ll become a more complex character, but they never happen. He, too, succumbs to a cliched ending.
The film seems to think it’s a commentary of the power of art despite the louts who make it, but it doesn’t say anything about movies or art or artists that we haven’t seen in dozens of movies before.
Watch: Jack Ryan (Amazon Prime)
Based on the Tom Clancy bestselling novels, Jack Ryan is in its third season. This is a popcorn series, enjoyable to watch but not memorable. John Kransinski plays Ryan (previously played by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford in movie versions), a CIA operative disavowed by the Agency as he tries to prevent a war between Russia and the U.S.
Standard stuff. And yet, it’s engrossing enough that I admit binging toward the end as the suspense increased. They want Ryan to be an American James Bond, but the show is so committed to making him a super-patriotic Boy Scout that he’s a bit dull as a character. He has no life, no love interest, just duty. They force at least two scenes of his unnecessary heroism just to remind us he’s willing to sacrifice his own life, even at the cost of the mission to save the world from WWIII. Sure, I complain—because it could be so much better—but I’ll be watching season four.
Music: Grammy-Nominated Jazz Fusion OGs
Yellowjackets: Parallel Motion
Yellowjackets have been dispensing jazz wisdom since 1977, though all but keyboardist Russell Ferrante are gone. Saxophonist Bob Mintzer, who joined in 1991, is also still there. This is an album of diverse voices, since all the members contributed songs, but there is also a singular sound that blends all those voices into a wonderful harmony of purpose.
I selected the video of “If You Believe” because I love Jean Baylor’s airy voice that lifts us up, up, up. It feels like when I was a kid, lying on my back, looking up at the clouds, imaging what it would feel like to float up there. Now I know. (Baylor is borrowed from The Baylor Project, which I highlighted a few weeks ago). Listen—and be prepared to float.