art, history, movies, music, race

Steamboat Willie


“Steamboat Willie” was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. [First distributed in theaters, not first produced —Ed.] It premiered November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. It was also the first cartoon to have synchronized sound.

If you watch the whole thing, which I had never done until last year, you’ll see it’s also a catalog of animal abuse that would not pass muster today.

screenshot of mickey mouse pressing his shoe on the back of a cat's neck

Since I mention abuse: About halfway through, the song “Turkey in the Straw” starts playing. I never gave much though to the single verse of lyrics that my brother and I learned for this song as kids. (I also never learned that version asking if your ears hang low.) A quick look at Wikipedia suggests that they were from a variation sung by George Gobel on television in the ’50s. Ours went a little like this:

Oh, I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg,
So I poured hot water up and down her leg,
Oh, the little chicken hollered and the little chicken begged,
And that darn little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

Ouch! Poor little chicken.

1918 sheet music cover portraying a fashionable african-american man called the zip coonLike folk music in general, this song has undergone all kinds of tweaking and transformations. In fact, one of the earliest versions had the unfortunate title “Zip Coon,” a minstrelsy reference to an African-American who was sharply dressed, urban, and free. Or, to use another more subtly charged word that is still around: uppity.

Maybe that earlier song variation could makes sense in the Steamboat Willie context, given the criticism of Mickey Mouse as minstrel.

Fortunately, we were spared the blatant racial mockery when we learned our lyrics. Though if you want to insist on some social subtext, I suppose there was some gender silliness: the hard-boiled-egg-laying chicken’s sex was variable in our singing. Sometimes we poured hot water up and down his leg.

history, politics, race

The Wallace Clarification

The news these days is the sort that inspires a lot of confusion, and when there’s confusion, there is no shortage of arm-waving, all-of-a-sudden experts buzzing around. You know what I mean: the street-corner authority: the pedestrian who sees a house on fire or a car accident, and then when anyone asks, “Hey, what’s going on?”, he’s the one who answers like he knows it all.

Every political talk show, dinner party chatter, phone call home makes at least glancing reference to the Economic Crisis. Inevitably, someone says, “You know, I still just don’t get.” And inevitably one person will say, “Well, here’s how it happened.” If you’re really lucky, you’ll be at dinner and two or three people will all vie for the resident expert crown and they’ll get into it full force. Pretty soon, your nice dinner has been hijacked by Hank and Neel and Ben, and and the best resolution is the simplest. More wine!

Before September 2008, the casual authority opined on terrorism or global warming, possibly both. Before 2001, they waxed on the New Economy (and the Dot-Com Bubble). Or, if you were really lucky, the perennial favorite: quantum physics. Possibly all of those. In the novel Making History, Stephen Fry alluded to the armchair experts who could recite ego-stroking theories they’d memorized from pop physics books. In the novel White Noise, Don DeLillo includes a scene in which a family begins to talk about theoretical physics and pretty much gets it all wrong:

Steffie said in a small voice, “How cold is space?”

We all waited once more. Then Heinrich said, “It depends on how high you go. The higher you go, the colder it gets.”

“Wait a minute,” Babette said. “The higher you go, the closer you get to the sun. So the warmer it gets.”

“What makes you think the sun is high?”

“How can the sun be low? You have to look up to see the sun.”

“What about at night?” he said.

“It’s on the other side of the earth. But people still look up.”

“The whole point of Sir Albert Einstein,” he said, “is how can the sun be up if you’re standing on the sun?”

I wonder what Sir Albert would make of the state of today’s world.

There’s a smaller tempest of interpretation occurring in the politics of the day in regard to some comments of Congressman John Lewis, in which he brought up the specter of George Wallace and the McCain-Palin rallies.

I have to confess, comically, that I was very confused about George Wallace when I was younger. I’d heard that he was a terrible racist. But then the only George Wallace I’d ever seen was the black comedian, who I thought was hilarious, and is currently playing the Flamingo in Vegas. And so when you’re hearing about these guys, starting in junior high or so, it all gets a little mixed up.

But it turns out that I’m not the only one confused about George Wallace. Luckily, we have Russ Rymer, a great journalist of race in America (and, quite often, of science).

On Friday, Russ published an op-ed in the Times with his explanation of the George Wallace comparison. It’s fun to read, and informative, and, at the climax, cinematic. Up front, Russ’s clarification: “The context of Mr. Lewis’s critique is not as has been presented: a saint of the civil rights movement likening a decorated war hero to an infamous racist. Rather, it was a collegial (if rough) caution from one brother to another, about a third, politicians all.”

I don’t want to steal Russ’s thunder, so take a look.

anticipation, competition, politics, race, really?

It is on.

Who says politics has devolved into a slideshow? Looks more like it’s the center ring. This was recorded for the WWE, broadcast last night. I guess they really are trying to get that working class white male vote. No more direct route than pro wrestling, right?


I like how McCain suggests that he’s “the man.” Hard not to hear that and think about “the Man.” As in, don’t let the Man get you down.

While we’re at it, here’s one version of the Fatboy Slim video for “Don’t Let the Man Get You Down.” It is supposed to have multiple endings. I am not suggesting that McCain is racist.

cool, money, movies, music, race, video

It’s a Mad World

As is customary when wasting any significant amount of time on YouTube, I stumbled across a cute enough little animation about an ambitious, yearning kiwi. And then another version of the same cartoon, this time with the Gary Jules/Michael Andrew song “Mad World” dubbed on top. It all seemed suitably angst-ridden. Kiwi and other videos, plus attempted exegesis, after the jump. Continue reading

politics, race

World Cup and Politics and Culture and Et Cetera

OK, I said something about politics and soccer in my previous column. I’ve not much energy for writing some long involved post, per my usual behavior. So (don’t tell anyone) I’m just sort of phoning this one in.

Even if one contends that the games themselves aren’t inherently political, they represent an opportunity for politics. Why else, then, were observers excited at the prospect of an England-Argentina match during elimination? Let’s just go through the litany:

  • Zinedine Zidane head butts Marco Materazzi. Alliteration enough for everybody. The remarks Materazzi made about Zidane’s mother and sister, or possibly his wife, or his daughter or his chauffeur or somebody, are also vaguely thought to have been racist. And all that in Italian, no less, which Zidane of course speaks. As observers have pointed out, within hours, media organizations around the world managed to hire expert lip-readers who could also understand Italian. But how interesting, for example, the idea that Materazzi, who some say called Zidane a terrorist, rather unbelievably responded, “I did not call him a terrorist. I’m ignorant. I don’t even know what the word means.”
  • Also interesting is the conjecture that Materazzi referred to Zidane as a “harki,” a word once also used to describe Zidane’s father, which Zidane denied, but which made him an acceptable team captain to the French far right. “Harki” is a highly offensive term for an Algerian who collaborated with the French during its occupation of Algeria.
  • I watched the end of the World Cup final–overtime and shootout–at Dolores Park with about 10,000 other people. The German Consulate and Peter with the Bus (aka Jens-Peter Jungblaussen aka Teacher with the Bus) split the $17,000 cost of the huge 13’x9′ screen which was surprisingly visible in daylight. Everybody was standing at this point, and when the replay of Zidane’s head butt was broadcast, the many, many French people in attendance cheered for their man. Moments later, as Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo drew a red card from his pocket, the French fell quiet and lit cigarettes as the many, many Italians present erupted in cheers.
  • Jacques Chirac, still immune from indictment as president of France, was present at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Was Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi there, as well? I spotted him on television on the 4th of July with Angela Merkel at the Germany-Italy semifinal.
  • After the victory, Roberto Calderoli, Italy’s deputy Senate speaker and a leader of the Northern League party, said, “A team which fielded Lombards, Campanians, Venetians and Calabrians won against a team which sacrificed its identity for results by fielding blacks, Muslims and Communists.” Not exactly a gracious comment.
  • While we’re on Calderoli, an Ansa article says that it was ironic for him to laud Italians from across the country, since he has been a supporter of devolution (a transfer of power from central government to regions, like how Scotland and Wales now have their own parliaments) as well as northern secession. The writer notes that Calderoli still got a jab in when he said, “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get it through that if the South runs, sweats, struggles and works, then the whole country can win.” Calderoli had to resign as a minister in Berlusconi’s cabinet after he showed up on television wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with Muhammed cartoons.
  • The morning after the victory, swastikas were found painted on the walls of Rome’s Jewish ghetto. According to another Ansa article, “police said they were probably painted by soccer fans celebrating Italy’s World Cup win.”
  • The biggest political loss coincided with France’s loss: it was a missed chance for the country to celebrate its startlingly diverse team. The victory would have been a starting point from which its citizens could heal–or at least paper over–their problems of multiculturalism, immigration, and assimilation. Remember, it was just last November that France was rocked by the rioting of disaffected young African and Arab immigrants. Nicolas Sarkozy, a likely candidate to succeed Chirac, referred to those minority rioters as “racaille,” which translates as “rabble,” but is considered highly derogatory.

All that politics over a single game!

The question: Is that too much? Do countries in Europe and Asia and Latin America invest too much of themselves and their national identities in their teams?

We Americans love our sports rituals, such as the egregiously titled World Series. Granted, we now have the World Baseball Classic, which is a sort of attempt at a true world series. But do you remember who won? How much attention did Americans pay to that world series, as opposed to our own World Series? There might be a political point to be made from that, as well.

Look: I’m no expert in soccer, though I wish I were, and that I could play it with some degree of proficiency. But it is sometimes elegant, and it has a kind of attractive international sheen, the same gloss that makes kids want to work for the U.N., or to trace the threads of international trade, or to be able to sell out arenas in both Boston and Buenos Aires the way U2 can. Who doesn’t want to sound like an expert on that?

And that’s probably why I got into an argument about Italy versus France the night before the World Cup final. My interlocutor claimed that France would win, and easily. I said Italy was the favorite, without actually endorsing the team myself. It was a long, arduous debate, in which neither of us wanted to give ground.

But I persisted, because I sometimes love debate and can get lured into discussions pretty easily. And because I didn’t want to be lectured by some guy who seemed to be recycling talking points he picked up from or, even worse, from America’s television color commentators. And because he condescendingly explained to me that the reason France didn’t play well as a team early in the tournament was because these guys don’t usually play together, which is obvious to anyone. And because, tedious though the argument discussion had become, I don’t like conceding when I’m right (which I was proven to be). And because I would prefer not to just walk away from a tense discussion that got off to a rocky start—especially when that rocky start consisted of my standing on the periphery of a conversation in which the guy grandly proclaimed France would win, followed by my butting in and saying–matter-of-factly and without any pleasantries like introducing myself–saying, “I think you’re completely wrong.”

Alaska, competition, photography, race, really?

Outhouse Racer: We have visual confirmation

Tony in Alaska (who also happens to be brother of “It is, in fact” founder Tim) sent in some images from last month’s Chatanika Days, mentioned in an earlier post on this site about outhouse races. Thanks for the pictures, Tony.

Tony trying out an outhouse

Some kind of race (probably drunk)

Tug of war

The Chatanika Lodge