Monday, September 24, 2012

Swing State Blues

Swing State Blues

They call us undecided;
            We’re still sitting pretty on the split-rail fence.
The electorate’s divided,
            All these ads have made us ornery and tense.
As the pundits have confided,
            We Tarheels are recalcitrantly dense.

To messages from both camps,
            We plug our ears and hold our breath and bitch.
One guy is king of food stamps.
            The other guy is very, very rich.
They’re GOP and Dem champs,
            But we don’t know which is which.

            We’ve got the swing state blues
                        We don’t read the news
                                    We’ve got the swing state blues
                                                We refuse to choose
                                                            We’ve got the swing state blues.

Government should be smaller:
            Keep your hands off my old granny’s Medicare.
If Rush takes another caller,
            I’ll tell him that he’s choking on hot air.
If Reverend Al were taller,
            I’d make him eat Clint Eastwood’s empty chair.

Barack saved General Motors,
            But Mitt Romney keeps the immigrants at bay.
Black helicopter rotors
            Remind us that they’ll take our guns away.
Low-information voters?
            We know enough to stay at home election day.

            We’ve got the swing state blues
                        We don’t read the news
                                    We’ve got the swing state blues
                                                We refuse to choose
                                                            Reconquer Indochina,
                                                            Plus Mecca and Medina . . .
                                                            Stay out of my vagina!
                                                            We’ve got the North Carolina
                                                                        Swing State Blues.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mittie the Moocher

Mittie the Moocher

He gave her his townhouse and his racing horses,
Each meal she ate was a dozen courses,
She had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes,
She sat around and counted them all a million times.
            --Cab Calloway, “Minnie the Moocher,” 1930

Like many people interested in politics, I spent much of yesterday mesmerized by coverage of Mitt Romney’s “secret tapes.”  It’s hard to say what aspect was most entertaining, the candidate’s stupefying lack of logic or the buzzard flash mob quickly conjured by panicky conservative pundits.  On the first point:  hmmm, I did and will vote for President Obama, which puts me and most of my family and friends in the 47% who, because we won’t vote for Governor Romney . . . don’t pay taxes, see ourselves as victims, get government handouts, and have no sense of personal responsibility.  That would be no, no, no, and no.  On the second point:  if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, does that mean I now have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard?

[For those who haven't heard or read the remarks, here's a link to the complete surreptitious video:]

A tune started to play in my head while I watched Mitt Romney dismiss half of the American electorate – Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”  This terrific jazz/blues/scat song was composed near the beginning of the Great Depression; it alternates between narrative lyrics and call-and-response scat singing.  The ‘story’ of the song concerns Minnie’s attempts to sponge off rich men (including the “King of Sweden” who “gave her things that she was needin’”).  Unfortunately, the wages of mooching are sin and ruin; Minnie hooked up with “Smokie,” who in turn hooked her on cocaine and opium.  We are left, after a bravura barrage of scatting, with the plaintive refrain, “Poor Min, Poor Min.” 

Here are two versions of the song:
        --an excellent early recording (not a video)

        --a fun video showing Cab Calloway and his orchestra in full performance mode, from The Blues Brothers (1980):

The moral of the song, if one cares to extract one, is the same as the moral Mitt Romney was pushing in Boca Raton.  ‘Moochers’ – those who live off the largesse of others – are weak, dissolute, and a drag on society.  The song can also be read as a lament for or critique of the excesses of the Roaring Twenties, when fun, overindulgence, and magic money seemed to bury the Puritan work ethic.  Similarly, people like Governor Romney appear to run on nostalgia fumes generated by a mythology of better, simpler, more ‘American’ times before they were ruined by entitlements, immigrants, and redistribution of wealth.

I love Cab Calloway, and I feel silly burdening his wildly inventive song with ideological descants (even in the service of semi-satirical commentary).  Nonetheless, I’m not the only one to do so.  In 1932, the animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer released a cartoon version of “Minnie the Moocher,” starring Betty Boop, her canine boyfriend Bimbo, and Cab Calloway as a menacing ghost walrus.

This has got to be one of the greatest cartoons ever.  Luckily, it’s available online:

The moral remains the same, but the terms have shifted.  Betty Boop decides to run away from home after being scolded by her parents for irresponsibility.  She climbs out her bedroom window at night, joins Bimbo, and they end up in a hallucinatory, sexualized Plato’s Cave in which spectral figures materialize to the strains of “Minnie the Moocher,” conducted by the Walrus (goo-goo-g’joob – the walrus was animated using the Fleischer rotoscope process, in which cartoons are drawn directly over filmed images . . . in this case, of Cab Calloway performing the title song).  Skeletons drink poison booze (which turn their bodies black – make of that what you will), ghosts are electrocuted, phantasmal kittens cannibalize the body of their phantasmal cat mother.  Surrounded by these horrors, including a particularly disturbing ululating witch, Betty and Bimbo flee the cave for the safety of “Home, Sweet Home.”

The Fleischer cartoon foregrounds the original lyrics’ sexual component (Minnie was a “red-hot hootchie-cootcher,” i.e. a prostitute) and turns them into a cautionary tale.  Betty Boop – although drawn as a sexually seductive woman – is also a ‘good girl’ living with her parents.  Leaving the shelter of home (with her boyfriend, no less) exposes her to all sorts of physical and emotional dangers.  That she ends up safe in bed – alone – underscores the value of obedience and chastity. 

Again, reading a brilliantly surreal cartoon seriously does a disservice to its delightfulness.  Yet watching the depression-era “Talkartune” brings up a few other dimensions of the current discussion about ‘mooching.’

Betty Boop, deterred from a life of dissolute ‘mooching,’ is saved from being a victim.  Victimhood is sexualized – it’s a female thing that happens to the weaker sex, particularly when women don’t listen to their fathers or father figures.  Why does this remind me of the recent controversies about abortion, rape, and even birth control?  Why is it always ‘Welfare Queens’ who suck money and freebies from the public tit, rather like the rapacious ghost kittens in Fleisher’s cartoon? 

Mitt Romney’s remarks in Florida, and his disastrously premature remarks about violent unrest in North Africa, exhibit an odd hyper-masculinity.  We should never apologize, never be weak, never show our taxes, never condescend to listen to people with whom we don’t agree, never coddle those in difficult circumstances.  We should draw lines in the sand and be ready to bomb the hell out of any place that doesn’t recognize our irrefutable supremacy and moral rectitude.  We should be Leaders from Outfront rather than Leaders from Behind (that would be: followers).  We should be Makers, not Takers.  We should be Ayn Randian Capitalist Heroes in public, and firm but fair Paterfamiliases in private. 

Those who don’t fit into this equation are feminized in Romneyesque discourse.  They apologize and sympathize.  They think that hope-and-change fairy dust can solve real problems.  They are weak and lazy.  They lack responsibility.  They are freeloaders. They are infected with ‘foreignness.’ 

And so on. 

Both in Calloway’s song and the Fleischers’ cartoon, Minnie mooches (or might mooch) off men because that’s the only course open to her.  New Deal programs were not enacted until later, so living on the government ‘dole’ was not an option.  Today, the social safety net first woven in the 1930s, though frayed and threatened, remains in place, as do the gendered roles assigned to the provided and the provided for.

So as we wimpy 47-percenters swan around our government-subsidized housing counting food stamps, we think back to when we were manfully employed.  I don’t know about you, but my average tax rate has been around 30%.  I have no recourse to exotic tax shelters, or even to many deductions.  One could argue that hugely rich men who do have such recourse, and take advantage of it, could be justly described as ‘moochers.’  Unless, according to Mitt Romney’s logic, they are Republicans. 

Oh well.  Barring some catastrophe, we may be witnessing the end of Governor Romney’s viability as a Presidential candidate.  As cranky Conservatives call for his head, or his campaign chief’s head, or advisors and pollsters and strategists’ heads, they may be sealing his fate and guaranteeing the outcome that they don’t want:  four more years of Barack Obama and the supremacy of tax-evading, negligent, government-dependent slacker-citizens.  Which might make Mitt Romney adopt a new favorite song, the song Betty Boop sings in the Fleischers' “Minnie the Moocher” when she cries over her parents’ attempts to make her a responsible young woman:

They always, always pick on me;
They never, never let me be . . .
When I’m  gone, you wait and see,
They’ll all be sorry that they picked on me.

To which the 47%, now swollen to 51% or more, could reply, in Cab Calloway’s immortal words:

            Oh, skip-bop-doop-bop-lay-de-doo!
            Hi-de-hi-de-ho!  Hi-de-hi-de-ho!