Thug Worship in Iran and in America

Looters took over downtown Los Angeles the other night following a professional basketball victory.

A news radio reporter and several policemen were attacked, stores were looted, and, as far as I can tell, police stood down and allowed the looters to do the damage. After the Los Angeles Lakers won the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) championship in Orlando, Florida, a mob formed near the Staples Center, burning, vandalizing and destroying property everywhere in sight. Eight officers were injured, and 12 police cars, a sheriff’s vehicle, and six buses were damaged, according to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). One officer was taken to a hospital with minor injuries. Police said 25 arrests were made. One businessman, shoe store owner Richard Torres, told the Associated Press (AP) that he lost $100,000 when looters broke in and destroyed vintage sportswear and sneakers and the shop’s computers. “They were literally lighting stuff on fire,” Torres said. His store manager, Liz Sanchez, said LAPD did nothing.

In fact, LAPD Chief William Bratton, an ineffectual bureaucrat who routinely lectures the public on how the LAPD is underfunded, downplayed the looting and used the term “knuckleheads” to describe the criminals. The police clearly failed to protect the public and downtown L.A. will suffer and lose business.

But this mob mentality is rampant in the subculture of men’s professional sports, especially basketball, particularly the Lakers. Men of ability competing in athletic contests offers the sight of heroic action but thug worship replaced hero worship and engulfed sports long ago. Today, we are left with the spectacle of unkempt, baggy-clothed dog-killers, murderers and rapists spiking balls and sneering at the notion of civility. When Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, whom I personally believe is guilty of rape, was arrested in 2003 for felony sexual assault in Colorado, Lakers fans rushed, not to defend him based on facts (though some did) but to praise him.

Dads bought their sons jerseys with his number. I heard comments on talk radio and at parties, from educated men and women, that Kobe Bryant was like an animal that couldn’t be controlled when his sexual urges came upon him and that his accuser, a hotel worker and college student, probably deserved to be raped. Far from damaging his reputation among L.A. Lakers’ fans, the rape arrest (which did not result in conviction) elevated his stature. Thug worship is part of what fuels pro sports and it played out in downtown Los Angeles. With the dereliction of duties by the LAPD, and the consent of sports fans who sanction thug worship, the lawlessness, in the City of Angels and elsewhere, will get worse.

In Teheran, we have another example of civil unrest and I am reading the news from Islamic dictatorship Iran. I doubt that the protests against the current Islamic fascist dictator, who is controlled by the religious collective that runs Iran, will lead to fundamental change in that slave state. I support resistance to theocracy, in Iran as in America, where the Obama administration, defending the Clinton administration’s anti-homosexual Defense of Marriage Act, recently compared being gay to incest (as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow pointed out in a recent broadcast). But jihadist Iran, like Nazi Germany, did not become a theocracy overnight. Predominantly Moslem Iran is infected with anti-Western ideals that are widely accepted by the people. Protest over which Islamic thug is in charge is neither a cry for man’s rights nor a demand for the only political system which supports individual rights: capitalism.

Book Marks: Science Matters

Two George Mason University science professors, James Trefil and Robert M. Hazen, have updated and expanded their 1991 book, Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (Anchor, $ 15, trade paperback) addressing recent claims of advancements in particle physics and biotechnology. Though this is not a review, I can say that this new edition is generally well written, accessible and informative—with one glaring exception so far; they are agnostic on the abortion-related question of whether life begins at conception.

Their premise that one ought to be literate and knowledgeable about basic scientific principles is good and they hold that the universe is knowable, not random and chaotic. Chapters on faith-based assertions—doomsday claims by environmentalists and creationists alike—appear to be unbiased. The authors say they have written a book for the general reader that is equally informative as an introductory high school or college textbook and I’m inclined to agree.

They know we need remedial education. In the introduction, Hazen and Trefil write: “[S]cientists and educators have failed to provide many Americans with the fundamental background knowledge we all need to cope with the complex scientific and technological world of today and tomorrow. The aim of this book is to allow you to acquire that background—to fill in whatever blanks may have been left by your formal education.” With 19 chapters on electricity, atoms, nuclear physics, astronomy, genetics and evolution, and an epilogue, and an index, Science Matters is worth considering.

Screen Shots: ‘Taking of Pelham 1 2 3’, ‘Imagine That’

If you can get past the overbearing opening credits, which go on and on with loud guitar riffs, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is solid cops and robbers fare. The flawed movie works, thanks to Denzel Washington, who returns to acting, not the posing and strutting he’s been doing in recent film roles, as a city transit worker pushed to his limits by an extraordinary crime. John Travolta stars as a foul-mouthed thug who seizes a passenger-loaded subway train and demands $ 10 million in precisely one hour. Mr. Washington, in red-framed eyeglasses and an earring and bringing it home to a lovely wife (Aunjanue Ellis, last seen in Thomas Carter’s Gifted Hands), earns his way as a bureaucrat of dubious distinction, fumbling and stammering and joining John Turturro and James Gandolfini as a cocky cop and a groveling mayor in a New York City that no longer works. Based on the bestselling novel by John Godey, not exactly a remake of the taut 1974 movie of the same name (with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw), this acceptable caper screeches to a satisfying conclusion that cashes in on what it has earned.

Eddie Murphy stars in a little dollop of sentimentality called Imagine That, which suits its pre-Father’s Day opening just fine. Packed with half the Beatles catalog in cover tunes, notched with the cutest little girl on screen (Yara Shahidi) and featuring a predictable but positive plotline about parenthood, Imagine That is pure, silly fun at no one’s expense. Murphy portrays a financial adviser who competes with a charlatan (Thomas Haden Church) named Whitefeather that uses Indian mumbo-jumbo to make his money picks seem like a communal rain dance, like CNBC’s anchors talking up another Obama “stimulus” package, leaving stuffed shirt Murphy’s character out of the loop. Martin Sheen’s big shot businessman comes along, as the Murphy character starts believing that his daughter’s imaginary friends are giving hot tips—and they do pay off—and it’s all pretty ridiculous pap until the whole thing crashes like a Ponzi scheme and daddy learns that making money and raising a happy child are not mutually exclusive. This Paramount movie must be the first since The Pursuit of Happyness not to depict businessmen as ogres, which these days is enough to put a movie studio in Herr Obama’s penalty box. Cute, harmless fun for the family—or an afternoon outing for dad and daughter.

Norman Lear DVD Collection

Norman Lear, creator and developer of several popular 1970s comedies for television, recently appeared at a press conference to promote his new deluxe DVD set, released by Sony today. The 19-disc set is a rehash of previously released first seasons of TV’s All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their creator and developer, who was somewhat subdued at the presser, looks great and he’s still sharp. His work ages nicely, too.

Maude (1972–1978) is an exception. The CBS comedy starring the late Bea Arthur as strident Maude Findlay was more of a character than a show. The topically feminist-themed program was a spinoff (Mr. Lear’s first) of his vaunted All in the Family (1971–1979), which is based on a British series. While Mr. Lear is liberal and the comedy has that reputation, All in the Family depicted a likable white bigot—imagine such a character being introduced today—who often scored a point. Back then, a character could progress beyond idiocy and Archie Bunker became enlightened (he opened a bar in a later incarnation of the show). So, Mr. Lear reminds us that Archie was not an irredeemable bigot.

Another CBS All in the Family spinoff, The Jeffersons (1975–1985), is among the most successful shows in television. Why? I think it’s partly because the character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) held the show together as one of America’s most persecuted minority: the businessman. Always fresh, lively and interesting, the middle class American family was supported by the dry cleaning business that Mr. Jefferson worked to make profitable and its cast of characters defied stereotypes: sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), quietly rebellious Lionel (Mike Evans), and, in early seasons, mean, old Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), besides the more widely known characters Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), British Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and the show’s interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). The Jeffersons was a microcosm of America, with foreigners, mixed race kids, college-bound sons, independent women and one strong-minded, self-made businessman who was happiest making money and guiltlessly enjoying the rewards. George Jefferson would not have liked Barack Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Lear explained that hugely popular The Jeffersons was created to blunt criticism that his other CBS spinoff series, Good Times (1974–1979), portrayed the American black family as poor and unglamorous. Good Times, contrary to its title, layered on layoff after layoff for the Evans family, who lived in a government housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and they could never seem to get out of poverty. That might have been the show’s point—that housing subsidies trap the working poor in a viciously downward economic cycle—but the writers evaded deeper causes and went for laughs, saddling Jimmie Walker as J.J. with the comic relief. In hindsight, the J.J. character is the show’s saving grace. Good Times was created when its matriarch, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), left her job as a maid for Maude.

That particular connection speaks to Norman Lear’s success. His shows were not merely a platform for the knee-jerk liberal. Black working woman Florida told white liberal housewife Maude off in an episode in which racially obsessed Maude patronized Florida unceasingly and Florida finally begged Maude to leave her alone to do her job. In another episode, one of TV’s best depictions of white liberal guilt, Florida’s replacement, who is also black, quits rather than submit to Maude’s constant racial harassment. Norman Lear created dimensional characters.

Also included on this exclusively first season collection with a disc of features: the satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975–1977), which was syndicated, One Day at a Time (1975–1984), and Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Mr. Lear’s only show from this collection not to air on CBS (it ran on NBC). The Los Angeles-based Sanford and Son is built around raunchy comedian Redd Foxx, though not enough credit goes to his onscreen son, played by Demond Wilson, who had the task of playing straight to his conniving old junkyard pop. With no relation to the phrase made popular in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), One Day at a Time followed the lives of a woman (Bonnie Franklin) who divorced her husband after 17 years and moved with her two daughters back to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. One Day at a Time was an example of powerfully topical television programming, with episodes about youth suicide, drugs, job loss, and prejudice against women.

All of these shows, whatever their flaws, combine realistic characterizations with topical plots and humor and any of them are more realistic than the entire slate of today’s overproduced so-called reality shows. The extras—some run longer than others, with some stars in interviews, other stars glaringly absent—are admittedly a disappointment. This highly priced, handsomely packaged collection ($ 159.95) is strictly for those who haven’t bought the original first season products…and miss seeing the intelligent and thoughtful comedy of Norman Lear.

Pop Shots: Billy, Marx & Olivia

Billy Joel’s Storm Front (1989) is an underappreciated collection of ten songs that showcase some of his most interesting work. With rich rock-n-roll in piano, guitar, and horns, and of course his robust vocals, Billy Joel bursts with an angry and buoyant nostalgic anthem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which, in retrospect, traces America’s decline. He sails into the fisherman’s “Downeaster “Alexa”, he goes to extremes, observes the fall of Communist Russia in “Leningrad”, and he wraps with a poignant acknowledgement of reality in “And So It Goes.”

One of Storm Front’s background singers created an album of his own at the turn of the century which is itself an excellent piece of pop music. Though it is a bit too polished, a crisp production of country and rock is on display in Days of Avalon by Richard Marx of Highland Park, Illinois. These 12 mostly romantic tunes cover a range of emotions—always with the talented Marx’s sincerity in top form.

His sappy 2000 song with Olivia Newton-John (ONJ), “Never Far Away,” is part of Olivia’s 2008 duets CD, Olivia Newton-John & Friends: A Celebration in Song. I highly recommend this album for anyone battling cancer or any of life’s difficulties. From the opening anthem, “Right Here with You” to the acoustic guitar-driven last track, Belinda Emmett’s (1974-2006) “Beautiful Thing,” this is one of ONJ’s best recent efforts. The powerful motivational song, “Courageous,” is the perfect jolt for these lousy times. But each old and new song, featuring pairings with Keith Urban, Jann Arden and one of modern pop music’s best songwriters, longtime ONJ producer John Farrar (“You’re the One That I Want”) offer melodic shots of optimism fueled by a positive sense of life and the type of encouragement that only comes from a true friend.