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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Nov 26, 2008 at 12:13 AM

Heading to the final performance of this show at the Benedum, on Nov. 23, I wondered a little about accommodating myself to a revered novel about some of the country's most downtrodden people -- humans who breathed well within living memory -- rendered in an art form that's among the planet's priciest to produce. Simply on the level of formal expression, it seems problematic to take characters practically defined by the simplicity, even inarticulateness, of their speech, and make them communicate in powerful trained voices: They'd end start seeming powerful, which Steinbeck's Okies are anything but.

And yeah, hearing a baritone sing, "Them pigs they is all died off" is strange. But only at first. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korrie's 2007 adaption (co-produced by the Pittsburgh Opera, although it premiered in Minneapolis) brilliantly and rather boldly retains the novel's spirit of populist outrage as well as its humanity.

The three-and-a-half hour show mostly follows the Joad family, from Dust Bowl despair to struggle, betrayal and a battered sort of redemption in California. But the show never stops reminding us -- with dark humor and biting wit -- about the economic and political machinery behind their misery.

In a barbershop-quartet style number, for instance, used-car salesman sing about stiffing hicks. But two longer set pieces really dig in. In the first, "Not My Fault," the buck for the bulldozing of the Okies' repossessed homes is passed from their hard-up neighbor who's just driven his tractor through the wallboards all the way to double-breasted bank regulators in Washington. In the second, the savage logic of capitalism is made simple as a California plum magnate (and his cannery workers) sing about pulling profits from the earth, crushing the little-guy competition -- and leaving the fruit to rot if the surplus would raise prices too much, even if hungry people are standing just on the other side of the orchard fence.

The show, with its vintage jalopy, catwalk, clever staging and video backdrop, was pretty grand spectacle, too. Its very slickness, in fact, felt like the Trojan Horse that let Gordon and Korrie (whom I interviewed for CP in October) smuggle their (and Steinbeck's) populist politics into the halls of elite entertainment, for an audience of people mostly sure, current events notwithstanding, that capitalism will never collapse on their heads like a dust-freighted clapboard shack.

But who knows what sinks in, and when? On my way out, I heard a young woman tell her older female companion (perhaps her mom) that the show hadn't been "uplifting" enough.

Then again, if a story about people stripped of what little they had helping other people with nothing doesn't move you, what could?


Monday, November 24, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2008 at 1:22 PM

"Breaking the fourth wall" is a pretty hoary concept in theater, but Dan Jemmett's approach to it is refreshing. As he demonstrates in his latest Quantum collaboration, the British-born director exploits the fourth wall at once so casually and so thoroughly because we are never sure that he even acknowledges its existence.

Like much of Jemmett's work, the recently wrapped Museum of Desire has for source material a non-play that suggests no easy route to the stage: It's based on a short story, by John Berger, about looking at art in a rural French museum. Through his usual semi-improvisational creative process, Jemmett and his cast -- most of whom conspired with him on last year's raucous The Collected Works of Billy the Kid -- arrived at a structure wherein the actors take turns as the narrator and also together explore selected exploded moments of the story.

Staged in a gallery at the Frick Art museum, some of these sequences are wonderfully theatrical in a classic sense: barrel-chested Rick Kemp transforming into a horse before our eyes; Kristin Slaysman and John Jay wordlessly desiring each other from afar. Other strategies for shattering the invisible barrier that conventionally divides spectators from actors include having the two halves of the crowd seated facing each other (making us both watchers and the watched) and dispatching the actors at one point to "inspect" audience members as though they were artifacts, even to the point of infringing on personal space.

Like a sequence that's a self-concious tableaux (it might be titled, "The Company Harks to Distant Music Heard Faintly Through a Door"), these passages all of course serve to emphasize the artifice in art. A few other moves,  though, were pure Jemmett, and seemed to peel back layers of experience (or maybe just meta-experience) one hadn't been quite sure existed. For instance, while the play's action was continuous, and intermissionless, often a "scene" suddenly leapt to life with an actor hitting "play" on an old-school desktop-model cassette-player; the chamber music then scored the subsequent action ... which abruptly halted when someone hit "stop." (Were the cassette-handlers in character or out, and does it matter?)

Best of all, I think, the show's first half ended with each of the performers exiting singly, on lines of Berger's ruminative prose, never to return to the gallery. Their failure to return, even for a bow, is a very rare thing, even in experimental theater, and it made even more palpable the play's sense of unfulfilled longing, of people passing into History and Time. ("To be desired," writes Berger, "is the closest anyone can come in this life to feeling immortal.") Then, after all this angularly elegant play -- and a long, pregnant pause -- a decidedly rumpled Jemmett himself strolled into the gallery to hit "stop" on the player one last time, and to tell us to go look at the 16th-century drawings in the next room during intermission.

The show's second half was über-traditional: In the Frick's little dollhouse-like theater, we were treated to a casual literary reading (by Jemmett, of another short Berger story about art) and a gorgeous performance of Schubert's piano quintet "The Trout" by a CMU student ensemble.

During the intermission, by the way, Jemmett wandered the galleries, offering guests wine gums (little British candies) from a silver tray. The candy had been mentioned in "Museum," and -- like the shots of whiskey the audience got to knock back during Billy -- it too connected us sensually to an imaginary world.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Nov 21, 2008 at 3:02 PM

I think it's been pretty well established that PittGirl may be Pittsburgh's greatest self-promotional genius since Andy Warhol. Here's a woman who has reporters eating out of the palm of her hand -- to the extent that when her blog shuts down, it ends up on the front page of the Post-Gazette

Which means UPMC might want to hire her as an image consultant. 

As one of the state's largest employers, and a provider of life-saving services, UPMC is accustomed to getting good PR .. so much so that it can afford to run ads that don't actually say anything. But lately things have been turning sour.

A few days ago, the Post-Gazette's editorial page faulted the healthcare giant for closing a program to benefit poor mothers in Braddock. Now there's this story -- about the hospital's controverisal former transplant chief, Amadeo Marcos -- from today's Wall Street Journal. The story alleges that Marcos was symptomatic of a culture which put profit considerations above patients' health. 

You should read it at your earliest opportunity, but until then, a few highlights ...

  • "To overcome a perennial shortage of organs, [Marcos]used more livers from older donors. He transplanted some of these into relatively healthy patients .... He used partial livers from living donors, and then understated complications from the controversial procedure."
  • "'I couldn't square my own ethics with what was going on,' said Dr. [John] Fung, now chief of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic [and Marcos' predecessor at UPMC]. 'I didn't feel like the decisions that were being taken had the patient's best interest at heart.''"
  • "'For the first time in years, we had people dying on the operating table or in the ICU,' says Dr. [Howard] Doyle, now director of surgical critical care at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. At times, according to him, patients healthy enough to walk into the hospital before being transplanted died 'because they had a high-risk liver put into them.'"
  • Marcos and UPMC head Jeffrey Romoff "saw eye-to-eye on volume and profit."

Many of these concerns were outlined earlier this year by a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review investigation, "Transplanting Too Soon." Marcos suddenly left UPMC even as that series was heading to press. The Post-Gazette did a number of stories on Marcos' departure too. And while the P-G mentioned doubts about his approach to liver transplants, they played up concerns about Marcos' personal behavior even more.

Throughout the controversy, the hospital has defended its transplant program, and maintained that Marcos' departure did not reflect on the quality of care provided to patients, or with the issues discussed by the Trib.

UPMC attorneys, please take note: I make no representation as to whether the claims made by the Journal or anyone else are true. I'm merely flagging them as worthy of discussion. Please don't sue me, or put somebody else's brain in my head, or anything like that.

I will say this, though: I wouldn't be surprised if UPMC has to contend with increasing skepticsm in the weeks and months ahead. 

In the past year, we've already seen harsh questions about UPMC's role in the "Pittsburgh Promise" scholarship program. We've seen the Marcos kerfluffle blow up twice now. We've seen the non-profit slap its name across the tallest building in Pittsburgh ... only to announce layoffs a few months later. Meanwhile, wages everywhere are shrinking as healthcare costs soar. That's the sort of trend that tends to stoke a bit more curiousity about, say, the salary and perks that Romoff and other execs get. 

UPMC paid to have its name put on top of the US Steel Tower because it wanted more visibility. In the months ahead, it may come to regret that decision. 


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Posted By on Thu, Nov 20, 2008 at 1:57 PM

Unless Brillobox has surveillance video they're not telling us about -- and let's hope not -- it seems unlikely we'll ever get to the bottom of who did what to who at the venue last Sat., Nov. 15, when tempers flared between audience members and the night's headliner, guitarist Richard Lloyd.

Lloyd, who spent his childhood in Pittsburgh before making a name for himself in New York City in the seminal 1970s rock band Television, ended his set at Brillobox after only a few songs, due to heckling from the crowd and fears for his own safety.

"They started chanting 'Richard Lloyd, Richard Lloyd, woman-beater! Woman-beater!'" says Lloyd, who these days performs with his backing band the Sufi Monkeys. He worried that "some clown with fat knuckles and a few too many drinks is gonna think he's gonna be a big hero and fuckin' assault me. If I let this go on, it's going to end up on the Internet, it's going to end up as fact, and it's simply not true.

"I feigned anger -- but I'm not identified with anger," he says. "It's a tool -- it's actually a tool stored in the liver, according to Chinese alchemical medical ancient theorem. Anger is an appropriate response to a thwarting of one's will."

Things got off to a bumpy start during the changeover between the opening local act, Gems, and Lloyd's band, which was borrowing drums and a bass rig from the openers. While Lloyd was setting up, a female audience member walked across the stage to peer out the window at the back, apparently looking to see if a six-pack shop across the street was still open.

"A large woman gets onstage behind the drums" recalls Lloyd, "she's bumbling around onstage while [the drummer] is putting up cymbals." In the absence of security, Lloyd says he wanted to protect the people onstage and the gear, including some expensive microphones he'd brought for the guitar amps. "I said, 'Please leave the stage, you're not supposed to be up here,' ... because civilians and pedestrians are not allowed on a stage when there's equipment, wires to trip over -- she could have put out her eye."

That's when the girl's friend, Gems vocalist Cory Allen, intervened.

"I told him 'Chill out, she was just looking out the window' and he got in my face and was screaming in my face 'Don't tell me to chill out!'" says Allen. "I said nicely to him 'would you please relax?' and he screamed something else and squared up to me like he was going to hit me."

Ashley Larrow, who was standing nearby, says Lloyd "made a lunge at Cory. It was a split-second decision for me to step in between the two because I didn't think that this Dad guy would hit a girl." Instead, she says, Lloyd "grabbed my wrist with his big sweaty angry hand and shook me a bit and then pushed me away!"

Lloyd says Larrow struck him first, before he pushed back in self-defense. She "grabs my right bicep hard with her left hand, and pushes the hell out of me with her other hand, in the chest. I fling my hands up and say 'Get your hands off me!' and I open up my hands, and she starts screaming 'You hit a woman! You hit a woman!'"

Lloyd says he called for security, the owner and the promoter, but none were on the scene. A bartender managed to separate them and eventually calmed things down, enough that Lloyd could get onstage with the band and started playing. But soon Allen and others in the crowd began heckling him.

"I couldn't bear standing there and watching him play with my band's equipment after he verbally abused one and physically abused another of my best friends," says Allen, referring to the girl who walked on stage and Larrow. "So I heckled him while he was on stage because I wanted him to stop. I would have done the same even if they weren't friends of our band because I don't believe in treating women that way."

Regardless of who did what, the show ground to a close and customers were refunded their money for the event.

Brillobox owner Eric Stern says he later had an extensive conversation with Lloyd. Lloyd's "point of view was very understandable," Stern says, but points out that "there are as many versions of such episodes as there are witnesses.

"In any case, Richard was very sorry that the show could not go on," says Stern. "In the end, it seems like a situation that could have been easily avoided or at least remedied, but unfortunately ... degenerated into a night without music."

"If I see a man abuse a woman, I will go over and lay him out!" Lloyd exclaims. "I have a conscience, and it's clean -- clear. I don't beat on women." He adds, "I've only been in one fist fight in my whole life, in the fifth grade, and we became best friends."

Says Allen, "I know I could have handled the situation more maturely and I regret the way that the night ended.

"I hope that cunt Richard Lloyd sorts himself out before he kills someone," he adds.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 3:13 PM

I've been diligently watching fall's reality-TV stalwarts, those shows that have managed to make it to double-digit seasons, and more than once I've asked: Could these shows get any duller? Am even I ready to throw in the reality-TV towel?

The formulas are etched in stone, few players seem fresh and I can repeat most of the filler in my sleep: "Six beautiful women stand before ... Want to know what you're playing for? ... A roadblock is a task that only one member of the team may perform ..."

But as a couple of these shows near the season's end, suddenly -- some life!

An exception is America Next Top Model (Season 11), which trudges on. Even the addition of a transgendered model didn't deliver, and the "exciting" final episodes in Amsterdam couldn't be duller. Even a boozy party didn't go anywhere. (And old-timers will remember Season 2, when a booze-up with a Euro boy caused some real Melrose Place-style bed-hopping drama.)

Honestly, I might care more if any one of these 10 earlier winners had ever become a "top model."

But Amazing Race (Season 13) found its groove when the wheels came off the teams where they so often do -- in the chaotic streets in a massive Indian city. It isn't just the colossally bad traffic that undoes players, but also the culture's charming quirk of politely agreeing, regardless. Frantic team member: "Is this the right way to such-and-such?" Local nods helpfully, and repeats team member's gesture. So it's an affirmative ... or is it?

Amusingly, natives in last week's confuse-a-rama country of Kazakhstan ignored most team member's requests for direction and information, leading the oh-so-hapless Arizona frat boys to liken them to "zombies."

Over on Survivor, despite the gorgeous West African setting, the drama has been more petty than compelling. The first half of the season (number 17!!) found one team constantly losing -- which makes for dreadful TV. But the last three episodes have seen a fake merge, a real merge, three blindsides at tribal council, a power shift to the "loser" tribe now seemingly in control of nerd-boy Kenny, and the creation of an impressive fake immunity idol. (I stand by my assertion that these hidden immunity idols don't deliver on their promise of game-changing, but a fake idol has a lot more potential for fun.)

Also in Survivor's wind-down favor: The most obnoxious players -- Randy and Corinne -- are still on board and mad as wet hens.

And just in time for the winter bunking-down days is Top Chef: New York which started up last week on Bravo. Last season, set in Chicago, failed to ignite much drama -- though I still love the challenges and dream of eating the food. It's fingers-crossed for me and the new season.

The opening was a quick gut-punch as the contestants lined up literally off the boat for a quick-fire challenge that would send one chef home pronto. And, it was humiliating -- especially since the rounds 1 and 2 of the challenge involved basic knife skills and apples.

The main challenge was a good use of the city, and the competing chefs' on-the-fly skills, as each had to come up with an inventive dish rooted in the cuisine of one of NYC's ethnic neighborhoods (though the producers clearly did some fudging of NYC reality to shoehorn in several cuisines – "Little India"?).

My early favorite among the contestants is the little tattooed guy from Hawaii, former-dishwasher Gene. Dude got freaky-lucky, making what he thought was a Mediterranean dish to cover his utter lack of knowledge of Indian cuisine (sure, makes no sense), and through some miracle of culinary alchemy wowing Padma with a "perfect" Indian curds-and-rice side dish.

In reality shows, contestants can't necessarily win solely on luck, but unlike hidden immunity idols, luck can absolutely help one's progress. Now, if only the viewers can luck out on reality-TV getting a little mojo back..

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Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 10:09 AM

Startup theater companies doing classics in drafty old buildings is one thing that promises to keep my job interesting. So there's ample reason to celebrate Phase 3 staging Miss Julie at the Brew House. What puzzles is how Strindberg's 1888 work fulfills the company's stated mission of socially relevant theater.

The story of a count's spoiled, capricious daughter's brief, torrid and ultimately tragic affair with her father's stableman was surely provocative, once. And indeed, there's still bite to the groundbreaking Strindberg's methodical mapping of each class-conscious pressure point and bitter irony of a risky, transgressive upstairs-downstairs relationship.

Trouble is, the play turns on a premise essentially vanished from contemporary society: the idea that a rich, unmarried woman would be ruined by sex with a social inferior.

Of course, a play needn't be written (or set) today to be relevant today; timeless themes of honor and integrity echo in works like Ibsen's Enemy of the People, for instance. But while there remain plenty of provocative things to say about social class in America -- not the least being that it still exists -- Miss Julie's storyline from 19th-century Sweden (transposed to Ireland) doesn't resonate with many of them.

Phase 3 has a good pedigree. Co-founder Melissa Grande, who runs the marketing department for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, has substantial theatrical training and experience, as do conspirators Rachel S. Parent, Dek Ingraham and J.R. Shaw. The fledgling troupe's seriousness and credibility is attested by the solid Miss Julie production, with its imaginative set (the walls are made of white linens, bloomers and shirts draped from laundry lines) and good performances by the youthful cast, including Nicki Mazzocca, Terry Hoge and Alyssa Herzog in the title role.

In other words, thematic carping aside, it's not a bad start at all. (There are five more performances through Sun., Nov. 30, at the South Side landmark; see The troupe's inaugural season continues in 2009, with Jean Anouilh's The Lark (as adapted by Lillian Hellman) and the Pittsburgh premiere of Swamp Baby, a new play by Aaron Carter. There's plenty of reason to hope Phase 3 will fulfill its promise to explore the concerns of the present.


Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2008 at 9:31 AM

The sudden disappearance of The Burgh Blog ruined a lot of people's Tuesday mornings. And among some bloggers I know, there are already discussions about what it means for the Burghosphere. Is this the end of a golden age? Why have a handful of prominent local blogs shut down lately? What does it say about Pittsburgh's online community? It's the old regional neurosis again: Why are all the bloggers leaving?

I'm sorry to see Burgh Blog go too. But I take some consolation in thinking this outcome was inevitable. In fact, I tend to believe PittGirl killed the blog for some of the same reasons that helped make it popular in the first place. And if this saga does say anything about Pittsburgh, it shows how far people here will go to protect "one of our own."

I don't think there's any big mystery about what happened here. Judging from today's Post-Gazette article, somebody out there was able to piece together PittGirl's identity. Even though that person swore to keep the secret, PittGirl apparently realized the next person who did so might not be so accommodating.

Why was anonymity so important? You can find a clue in this interview PittGirl gave to Pittsburgh magazine:

Pittsburgh Magazine: Just to get this out of the way, I have no interest in finding out who you really are. It's too much fun this way, love the mystique. But let's deal with the elephant in the room. What's with the anonymity?

PittGirl: I guess it is twofold. One, I have a job and that job puts me in contact with lots of people in the city. Including some of the people I write about. Secondly, I love being able to truly speak my mind and I couldn't do that if I put my name and face out there.

I'll be honest: That's not the most ennobling defense of internet anonymity I've ever heard. And a few haters out there have criticized PittGirl for taking the piss out of people -- including those she apparently works with and around -- behind their backs. Then again, at least one of those critics stayed anonymous too. And the point is: Rightly or wrongly, PittGirl got to enjoy the best of both worlds. So did her readers.

In fact, when you think about it, the surprising part isn't that PittGirl was close to being outed. The surprising part is that it took so long. But then, there were people willing to play along, including many professional journalists.

That Pittsburgh magazine interview, for example, essentially begins with the interviewer agreeing not to dig too deeply or ask uncomfortable questions, because they're having so much fun together. Probably more interviews begin that way than many journos would want to admit. But what's strange here is that the whole post-the-IM-chat conversation gambit essentially publicizes the fact. The whole interview screams, "See? I get it!"

That pretty much sums up PittGirl's treatment by local media, even as they added to her celebrity. I can't think of too many cases in which the Post-Gazette has done a 600-word Q&A -- plus prominent mention in multiple follow-up pieces -- with someone whose identity it refused to disclose. And it's not because nobody over there knows who she is. I know of at least one reasonably high-ranking Post-Gazette editor who has met PittGirl for lunch.

In fact, this may be PittGirl's most impressive accomplishment: Her popularity was such that she got some of the city's most prominent media outlets to play by the blogosphere's rules.

I'm not trying to raise some big ethical stink here. We're talking about pigeons, not the Pentagon Papers. (And I'm not above keeping that sort of secret myself, as at least one or two other local bloggers can attest.) But not everyone is as willing to sacrifice their curiosity -- or to keep secrets -- as some local journalists were. The "mystique" as Pittsburgh magazine put it, was part of the PittGirl appeal, and her persona. Her blog played on it all the time. But for some people, inevitably, the "mystique" is going to be accompanied by a desire to have the mystery revealed.

Sooner or later this was going to happen, and it speaks to a small-town neighborliness -- on the part of media too -- that it took so long. But as PittGirl herself seems to have realized, even in Pittsburgh there's a point at which you can no longer have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And by the time you're giving interviews to a city's leading daily newspaper and its leading monthly magazine, that point is already in your rearview mirror.

Every public figure realizes that you don't get to choose the extent of your celebrity. Once you put your name -- or even a pseudonym -- out there, it no longer belongs to you alone. For example, I know of at least one local journalist who, because he made a flippant reference to PittGirl's blog, had his sexual orientation became a subject of derision in its comments section.

No doubt the commenter who did so thought the journalist's private life was fair game, because journalists live "in the public eye." Maybe so. But given those rules, it's hard to see how anyone thought The Burgh Blog itself could last forever.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Nov 18, 2008 at 4:05 PM

This shortie missed the boat on Short List last week but it deserves a little play, so here you go -- a benefit show tomorrow night (the 19th) at Altar:

Times are tight all around, but giving to charity shouldn't fall by the wayside in our budgets. Why not just double up and get some entertainment while you're helping others? Wednesday night's show at Altar Bar, featuring Midlfe Crisis and Who's Your Daddy, benefits the Pitterich Foundation, part of a larger foundation co-chaired by Altar owner Mike Pitterich. The foundation funds bone marrow cancer research at Johns Hopkins, the Cool Kids Campaign (providing items to improve the quality of life of kids living with cancer) and Dapper Dan Charities. Doors at 5 p.m., show at 7. 1620 Penn Ave., Strip District. $15. 412-263-2877.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2008 at 6:38 PM

To be honest, I haven't given too much thought to the federal government's efforts to bail American corporations out of the economic crisis. No one's going to help newspapers, it seems, so my main concern was that Jim Rohr of PNC Bank comes out all right. Once that outcome seemed assured, I mostly stopped paying attention. But Jason Togyer's post, about bailing the auto industry out of its problems, got me thinking about the subject again.

Jason's a smart guy, and the proof is that he got out of mainstream journalism a few years back. Not surprisingly, he makes the case for a bailout about as well as it can be made. You should read his post in its entirety, but I'll briefly excerpt a couple key points here: 

The main problem faced by GM, Ford and Chrysler is that they're saddled with health care and pension benefit costs that foreign companies don't pay.

... The Japanese and German governments pay for those benefits. That knocks an easy $1,500 off of the price of each car made overseas.

But just mention socialized medicine or government-funded pension plans in the United States, and you're labeled a communist or worse.

... Plenty of people on the left and right are saying "Let Detroit go down the tubes. I don't live in Michigan. Things are tough in the Mon Valley, too."

In other words, "Hooray for me, and to hell with you.
I got mine."

I can't object to any of this, as far as it goes. But I will say that the "To hell with you/I got mine" argument cuts both ways.

I mean, what about the selfishness of the automakers? For years, 45 million Americans who don't make cars have been making do without insurance. I don't get the sense Detroit saw that as a crisis. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently charged, auto execs sat on their hands instead of participating in efforts to provide a workable national healthcare system. They stayed out of the public arena entirely, until they wanted us to pay their freight.

At this point, I probably sound like a conservative jagoff -- of a genus slightly different from, but every bit as pernicious as, the jagoffs Jason is addressing. Instead of saying "I got mine, screw you," my message probably sounds like "I'm not getting mine, so screw you twice just for asking." 

But actually what I'm saying is this: If any of us are going to get ours, we all have to get ours. If we decide it's fair to shoulder the cost of healthcare for our automaking brothers, then they owe us the same consideration.

My only real objection to Jason's argument is that he's framed this issue as a response to a particular crisis, in a particular industry. I don't blame him for that, because he's merely responding to the arguments out there, and this is how everybody is framing the debate. All that changes is who has their hand out. Last month it was banks, today it's the car companies. Tomorrow it will be the banks again, and next week it will be someone else. These patchwork bailouts will eventually deplete the Treasury (assuming it hasn't already happened) and the rest of us will be no better off than we were before, and probably much worse.

As Naomi Klein has written, in recent years we've seen the rise of "disaster capitalism" -- the use of traumatic events (like wars, for example) to expand corporate power and profits (by providing Blackwater-style mercenaries, say). It's time to return the favor: We could start by demanding the auto industry line up behind a national healthcare plan -- one that its workers would participate in, and that its lobbyists would support. 

The auto industry is crippled, sure, but it still carries SUV-caliber weight in Washington. This is our chance to use it. Because if we don't, the rest of us will be left to shift for ourselves once the lobbyists get what they want.  All we'll have accomplished is propping up a system that was unfair to begin with, and probably won't survive in the long run anyway.

A couple years back, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating piece about how corporate America got into its pension/benefits mess. Not coincidentally, the seeds for the current disaster were planted by the auto industry. As Gladwell spells out, the visionary head of the Autoworkers union, Walter Reuther, wanted to set up a  system whereby competing automakers would operate industry-wide pension funds. His theory, Gladwell writes, was that "the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible."

That is, of course, the basic business model of the insurance industry. But Detroit carmakers opposed the plan because they thought it smacked of -- take a wild guess -- socialism. Eventually, Reuther gave in. But he did so because he thought he would be proven right in the end. As Gladwell puts it, Reuther was certain that when the automakers "got tens of billions behind in their health-care obligations, when the cost of carrying thou-sands of retirees forced them to stare bankruptcy in the face, they would come around to the idea that the markets work best when the burdens of benefits are broadly shared."

I'll favor a bailout for the automakers when they, and their workers, show they have learned this lesson. Until that happens, well ... to hell with you.


Posted By on Mon, Nov 17, 2008 at 10:30 AM

In the very week The Yes Men pulled their latest big stunt, everyone's favorite anti-corporate pranksters also marked Nov. 14's Pittsburgh opening of Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism With The Yes Men, the first-ever solo exhibition of their culture-jamming memorabilia, at Carnegie Mellon's Miller Gallery. The stunt involved 1.2 million copies of a faux New York Times, distributed in NYC and other U.S. cities. The front page -- dated July 4, 2009 -- announced the end of the Iraq War. Other headlines: "Senate Gets Tough on Limited Liability; to Rein In, Humanize Corporations" and "Nationalized Oil to Fund Climate Change Efforts."

Yes Man Mike Bonanno, at the Miller conducting a pre-reception workshop titled "How to Be a Yes Man," classified the Times prank among the group's "honest proposals": Unlike its Swiftly satirical "modest proposals" -- like posing as ExxonMobil reps to tell a roomful of petroleum-industry types about a new form of fuel rendered from the dead bodies of climate-change victims -- honest proposals depict the world the way it ought to be, and require the world to explain why it's not. Another example was the infamous 2004 stunt when Bonanno's frequent conspirator, Andy Bichlbaum, posed as Dow Chemical spokesman "Jude Finisterra" and told the millions tuned in to BBC World that Dow now claimed full responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, including $12 billion in reparations and environmental cleanup. The reason, Finisterra told the Beeb, was "simply because it's the right thing to do." (On discovering the imposture, Dow immediately denied it had any plans to do the right thing.)

Speaking to a packed Miller Gallery -- some 350 people, half or more of them students -- Bonanno described the thinking behind honest proposals: "Let's imagine what we want to see, and see how we can make that happen, instead of 'What do we want to oppose?'" The "newspaper full of hopes and dreams" was meant to spur citizen activism as well as to hold president-elect Obama to his promises of change.

Bonanno's advice to aspiring Yes Men -- anyone can effectively join the decade-old collective -- included how to write press releases. "We follow the same rules that any corporation does when they're sending out their fake news," said Bonanno, a compact, dark-haired guy in his 30s recognizable to viewers of 2004's The Yes Man Movie. (Another feature film is forthcoming.)

Keep It Slick was curated by the Miller's new director, Astria Suparak, who continued her practice of inventive receptions. Whereas the partially concurrent exhibit Your Town, Inc., featuring photos of repurposed Walmarts, opened with a "Hometown BBQ" (vegan corndogs; homebrewed beer), Keep It Slick debuted with a "Business Casual" reception. In a world of gallery openings boasting lavish wine-and-cheese spreads, this was an hilariously, and knowingly, sad little affair: In a corner of the gallery lined with circa-1970s paneling, two dinky tables held plastic corporate coffee carafes, small boxes of sweets and little trays of salted peanuts. Everyone who wanted a bite had to crowd in, then wait his turn, one more piggy at the trough.