Archive for January, 2014

On Martin Luther King Jr., social justice and personal and moral failings: A consideration

January 25, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 25, 2014

Author’s note: Earlier versions of this post appeared on Jan. 21 and 22. The current version has been revised and expanded. MEM

On Monday, America honored Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights pioneer, who would have been 85 were he still alive, was born on Jan. 15, 1929.

Civil rights scholar Michael Eric Dyson wrote the following about King in his 2000 book, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is, arguably, the greatest American ever produced on our native soil. Figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson seized the national imagination while holding public office. By contrast, King helped to redefine our country’s destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere thirteen years. As a religious activist and social prophet, King challenged our nation’s moral memory. He bid America to make good on its promises of justice and freedom for all persons, promises that had been extended almost two centuries before. Part of King’s enormous genius was the ability to force America to confront its conscience. He also brilliantly urged America to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds.

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January 17, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken Jan. 17,
2014 Let me start off with this: Right from the start, I’ve had
mixed feelings about the rebooted Star
enterprise. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the
pun.) One reason for this, of course, involves the cast: William
Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, the late DeForest Kelley, George
Takei, Nichelle Nichols and all the rest of the cast of the
original Star Trek portrayed their
characters throughout three TV seasons and six feature films. The
thought of seeing different people play Captain James T. Kirk,
Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Hikaru Sulu, Nyota Uhura and the
others is just — well, it’s
frankly weird. I first became aware of
the original Star Trek when I was a
child, and I still vividly remember the excitement that surrounded
the release of the first several Star
movies. It’s a stretch to say I grew up with
these characters, whose adventures I also followed throughout a
number of original novels — but not a huge one. When
producer-director J.J. Abrams assembled his cast for the 2009
reboot, titled simply Star Trek, he came
up with an interesting group. As Kirk, Chris Pine has something of
the charisma of the young Shatner. Zachary Quinto seems to be a
fine actor, but I frequently think that he has the wrong voice (too
high-pitched) and nose (not angular enough) for Spock. Karl Urban
(a New Zealander,
natch) and Zoe Saldana capture some of the essence of McCoy and
Uhura, respectively, even though I find Urban’s gruff intonation
cartoonish and grating.

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McPhee aces Ashe’s victory: ‘Levels of the Game’ delves into a 1968 tennis match, and the lives of the two men playing it

January 16, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 16, 2014

In the summer of 1968, amateur American tennis players Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner met in a semifinal match of the U.S. Open tournament. At that point, no American man had won the singles title in 13 years.

Writer John McPhee was on hand for the contest and penned an account of it for The New Yorker magazine. That story is the basis for the 1969 book Levels of the Game, McPhee’s in-depth exploration that combines a stroke-by-stroke description of the sporting event with detailed profiles of the two men. This slender volume — the text runs just 150 pages — is clearly written and compelling, even to a tennis layman such as myself. (I’ve attended a few U.S. Opens, but I don’t play or follow the sport.)

Part of the appeal here is the two men whose game and lives McPhee chronicles, compares and contrasts. The privileged Graebner, the son of a Cleveland dentist, was a scion of the country-club establishment. His opponent, Ashe, came from a hard-scrabble background, the likes of which tennis literally had never seen before.

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Freedom from regulation: Lax government oversight and possible private-sector negligence contribute to West Virginia water woes

January 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 15, 2014

Slowly, residents of West Virginia are having their potable water restored.

As previously noted, about 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties were ordered not to use their water for anything but flushing toilets (and fighting fires) on Thursday evening.

There have been no documented deaths after about 7,500 gallons of methylcyclohexene methanol or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used to clean coal, contaminated the public water supply. And by Tuesday, more than 35,000 customers had been given the go-ahead to start flushing the poison from their pipes by running the faucets.

The flushing process apparently involves running taps for 20 minutes and replacing water filters. West Virginia American Water announced that its customers would be credited for 1,000 gallons, which it estimated would be enough to cleanse the pipes of a typical family home. (The average residential customer uses 3,000 gallons a month, the company said.)

Still, the bulk of the affected customers will have to continue to rely on bottled water for most uses (again, toilet flushing and firefighting excepted). And it seems that many schools and businesses in the contaminated area will remain closed Wednesday. A number of these have been shuttered since Friday.

I wrote this last week:

[A]ll too often, a deep dig into these incidents reveals safety inspection and permitting processes that are lax or underfunded. Frequently, there’s a pattern of penalties that either are not enforced or are too minuscule to dissuade dangerous conditions.

This wasn’t really a prediction, simply an observation based on an oft-repeated sequence. True to form, this very familiar blueprint seems to apply to the West Virginia spill.

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A poison flows in West Virginia

January 11, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 11, 2014

Since Thursday evening, all or parts of nine West Virginia counties have been ordered not to use public water systems for anything but flushing toilets. The ban was issued after up to 5,000 gallons of methylcyclohexene methanol or 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, a chemical used to clean coal, leaked into the Elk River.

I’ve seen different estimates on how many people are affected by the contamination, but it seems to range from about 300,000 to 480,000 — 15 to 25 percent of the state’s population. Restaurants, schools and other businesses have had to close. Stores rapidly sold out of bottled water after the usage ban was issued. Authorities dispatched a small fleet of water tankers to the area and also made arrangements to distribute bottled water. 

It’s not yet clear how long it might take the river to dilute the chemical to levels that will be safe for drinking, washing and other normal uses. Read the rest of this entry »

Is unrestrained greed good? Nay, declares Martin Scorsese in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ his sprawling indictment of Wall Street and America

January 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 10, 2014

Let me tell you about a Martin Scorsese movie that I recently saw. The protagonist is an unscrupulous young white man who aspires to wealth and luxury. By associating himself with a gang of other similarly avaricious, unprincipled young men, the ambitious outsider achieves wild levels of success. The rewards include free-flowing money, drugs, sex and power. Those outside his circle sometimes pay a heavy price for the protagonist’s triumphs. After the group attracts the scrutiny of the authorities, they’re cleaved by internal divisions. Ultimately, the leading character is humbled, but he does not attain humility.

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason for that. Squint at Scorsese’s late 2013 release, The Wolf of Wall Street, and one might easily mistake it for his 1990 mafia classic, Goodfellas. In a broader sense, it also matches the outsider-makes-good-before-getting-his-comeuppance template that Goodfellas shares with Scorsese’s 1995 drama, Casino, wherein a Philadelphia oddsmaker becomes a top Las Vegas power broker but is undone by greed, drugs, lust and politics. In all three films, the protagonist’s success is threatened by a profligate right-hand man.

Both Goodfellas and Casino are based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi. This time around, the source material is a memoir by arriviste financier Jordan Belfort; thugs, guns and violence are de-emphasized in favor of opulence and sex, but the parallels with Scorsese’s early works are unmistakable.

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A different kind of road-trip movie: Alcoholic Bruce Dern and son journey to a strange place in ‘Nebraska’

January 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 4, 2014

At the start of director Alexander Payne’s new film, Nebraska, a stubborn and elderly alcoholic is bent on traveling from his home in Montana to Lincoln. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that by doing so, he can claim a million-dollar prize he has won through the mail from a sweepstakes company.

Woody’s wife, Kate (June Squibb), knows that this is a scam. So does his elder son, newscaster Ross (Bob Odenkirk). So does his other son, David (Will Forte), a salesman who has been spinning his wheels at work and at home; we see him failing to close a sale on a home stereo system and failing to persuade his long-term girlfriend that he’s made a mistake by moving out of the apartment they used to share.

Woody and David have a lot in common. Like his younger child, the Grant paterfamilias is adrift and ambivalent about the circumstances and direction of his life. If Woody, with his uncombed white hair and slovenly dress, is more battered than David, that seems to be mainly because the elder man has had more years to accumulate dents and bruises.

So once Woody makes it clear that he intends to travel to Lincoln by hook or by crook, David decides to indulge his father. Over Kate’s loud protestations, the pair set out on an 850-mile road trip to the state capital of Nebraska.

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