Do Oscar Snubs Suggest Racial Bias?

January 22nd, 2015

In 1969, I was investigated for engaging in racial discrimination.  At the time, I was a green second lieutenant in the Air Force, serving as the Food Service Officer on McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

The charge of employment discrimination was brought against me by a black civil service employee who had applied for a senior cook position in one of the dining halls I directed.  Five other men (all white) had also applied for the position.  I interviewed all six men separately, asking them technical questions like at what oven temperature a chicken should be roasted.  On that particular question, the black applicant had answered incorrectly.  (I think I had expected a temperature of 350, which was what the others had all answered; his was considerably lower, as I recall.)

I had set out in my mind to make the selection entirely based on merit.  I didn’t want to engage in personalities, as the job was not one that required a great deal of personal interaction (or management skill).  I was just looking for a good chef.

In any event, two or three months after I had made the selection, I was visited by an official from the Department of Labor, who was accompanied by a two-star general from the Department of Defense.  In my extreme naiveté, I had no idea I was being personally investigated.  I thought they were just checking on how I made the selection (which, of course, they were, but for far more serious reasons).  I answered each question candidly and thanked them for their interest as they left.  The general stood for a moment when I said that and stared at me angrily, but then he turned and left.

About two months later, my commanding officer came by to tell me I had been cleared of all charges.  Still completely ignorant, I asked him, delicately, what he was talking about.

“Of the racial discrimination charges,” he said, “in the senior cook position.”

Only at that point, finally understanding what all the fuss had been about, did it occur to me that I may have been unfair to Mr. Wallace.  My commander, however, assured me that he didn’t think I had.

“You went on merit,” he said, “and that’s exactly what you should have done.”

He then added something along the lines of, “there’s no racism in this man’s Air Force,” or words to that effect, and shook my hand, as if I deserved a metal.

My insensitivity to the racial issue I had been oblivious to was perhaps a product of my life to that point.  I had never considered racial differences in the friends I had, or in the way I thought about people generally.  I was, in a sense, color blind.  Ironically, it was my lack of prejudice that caused me to act insensitively towards Mr. Wallace, whom I did later promote to a senior cook position when another opening developed.

I have thought often of the ways in which color blindness can be both an asset and a liability in the years since that incident.  The latest prompt came last week when the Academy Award nominations were announced.  No person of color was named in any of the twenty acting nominations, nor was a leading contender for best director (Ava DuVernay for “Selma”) nominated.

As a result, more than a few Hollywood observers have spoken out against the Academy voters, essentially accusing them, all 600 of them collectively, of varying degrees of racial bias.

It’s a curious charge, the kind that suggests the kind of conspiratorial action that would be hard to fathom, especially from those usually thought to be left of center on most social issues (equal rights and racial tolerance certainly prominent among those issues).  But some have noted that last year’s best film selection, “Twelve Years a Slave,” was directed by a black man (Steve McQueen), and he didn’t win the director’s award.

So, is Hollywood comprised of closet bigots?  Or is there some other explanation?  And if there is, is that explanation enough?

And, of course, there is another explanation, which is the same one I had for choosing one of the white applicants for the senior cook position: merit.  The Oscar nominations are determined in secret, with each member of the particular branch that the nomination represents allowed to vote.  Thus the actors’ branch selects the acting nominees; the directors’ branch selects the director nominees.  All members vote for the best picture nominees.

And the vote totals are never released.  Thus, in the acting categories only the top five vote getters are listed as nominees.  Ditto for the director nominees.  And so it is entirely possible that David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King in “Selma” and has been highly praised for his performance, finished sixth in the best actor voting.  Likewise, it is very possible that Ms. DuVernay finished sixth in the best director voting.

All of which, even if true, doesn’t get to the heart of the issue, which is whether merit alone should decide these questions.  And if not, then how should racial diversity be factored into each Academy member’s voting decisions?  Stated in more general terms, at what point does color blindness beget racial insensitivity, if not racial prejudice?  And when, if ever, should racial indifference be condoned, if not applauded?

Mr. Wallace was a good cook.  He ended up, in fact, being one of the better senior cooks on my staff.  He wasn’t, in my attempt to objectively judge all the applicants, the best cook who applied for that first position that was open.  Should I have been more sensitive to his color in considering his application?  Was I being racially insensitive by not?

“Selma” is a good movie.  In fact, it’s one of the eight that the full Academy selected to be a best picture nominee.  It is certainly well directed, but then, so are “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Birdman,” “Foxcatcher,” and “Boyhood,” whose directors were nominated.

I am more racially sensitive now than I was in 1969, but I still don’t know if I should have selected Mr. Wallace for that first senior cook position.

 

E. Haig’s review of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

January 22nd, 2015

Donna Tartt’s third novel, “The Goldfinch,” is one of the most acclaimed works of literary fiction from 2013, chosen as one of the ten  best books of the year on more than a few such lists and garnering the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  It also spent over thirty weeks on the New York Times’ best seller list, indicating it was popular with the readers of such works.

And since Warner Brothers has purchased the rights to the book for purposes of turning it into a movie, it merits a review here, especially since this review will offer a variant opinion of the prodigious tome.

To start on a positive note, the book most certainly reflects the author’s brilliance, not so much as a writer, but as a savant.  In “Goldfinch,” Ms. Tartt shows herself to be someone who knows a great deal about many things that most people know very little about (and may care about even less).  Her novel is 771 pages long, and most of those pages are devoted to details that are descriptive in the extreme.  The title of the book refers to a famous painting by the seventeenth century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, and, as might be expected, Ms. Tartt provides intricate details in her protagonist’s first-person narrative about the artist, this particular painting, and the period in art history it represents.

But she also provides intricate details on dozens of other subjects, ranging from furniture (historical styles and methods used to refurbish worn or damaged pieces) to sailing (including even how to tack against the wind).  And many of these subjects are of only peripheral relevance (at best) to the underlying story she is telling.

That story, told by a male character who is thirteen when the book begins and maybe in his mid-thirties when it ends, is decidedly thin when all the “excess baggage” is stripped away.  It could probably be told succinctly in one hundred pages and would contain precious few page-turning sections.  In sum, it concerns how the thirteen-year-old came into possession of the painting, how he attempted to safeguard it for many years, how he lost it, and how he went about trying to regain it.

Of course, many a great novel has been constructed out of a thin story; such is the magic of great writing in literary fiction.  But great writing also requires compelling characters and vivid descriptions of setting and action.  In this regard, Ms. Tartt is only moderately successful.  Many of her characters are only superficially drawn, principal among them being the protagonist’s parents, both of whom are central figures in the story.  Ms. Tartt alludes to characteristics without providing insight into how or why those characteristics exist.  In particular, the protagonist’s father is portrayed as a stereotypical loser, bent on self-destruction.  As the protagonist takes on many of those same characteristics over the course of the book, it would have been helpful to have a better picture of the genesis of the father’s flaws.  None, unfortunately, are provided.

The protagonist himself is less than fully explored, so that his “awakening,” if it can be described as such, in the book’s concluding pages, is far less compelling than it could have been.  The metaphysical musing he engages in at that point is certainly the book’s pay-off, and it raises legitimate existential imponderables, but a reader might well wonder why and how this particular character came to think along those lines after having shown so little propensity to do so over the course of the preceding 750 pages.

And then there is Ms. Tartt’s prose, which is, um, excessive.  If you like overly long sentences, you’ll love her book, because it is replete with many that run over 100 words.  Here’s one such sentence:

              I couldn’t stop thinking about the Thanksgiving before; it kept playing and re-playing like a movie I couldn’t stop: my mother padding around barefoot in old jeans with the knees sprung out, opening a bottle of wine, pouring me some ginger ale in a champagne glass, setting out some olives, turning up the stereo, putting on her holiday joke apron, and unwrapping the turkey breast she’d bought us in Chinatown only to wrinkle her nose and start back at the smell—“Oh God, Theo, this thing’s gone off, open the door for me”—eyewatering ammonia reek, holding it out before her like an undetonated grenade as she ran with it down the fire stairs and out to the garbage can on the street while I—leaning out from the window—made gleeful retching noises from on high.

That 137-word sentence might be fine if it described anything of consequence to the story.  Suffice to say it doesn’t.  But consider reading a succession of such sentences all interposed as “color” around the basic story of Theo and his possession of the painting.  It makes reading this novel far less pleasurable than it otherwise might be.

Finally, a word about the story’s denouement: it takes place “off-screen,” meaning it is not told by the protagonist but, rather, is told to him by his best friend.  And so the reader is deprived of a first-person description of these events and is instead given an account, almost as an aside, by a secondary character.  It will be interesting to see how the screenplay version depicts this end of the story.  A good bet would be that it will be shown as an action scene and not as a narrative from a friend.

“The Goldfinch” is the work of a brilliant writer who writes with an academic tone.  It’s the kind of book that many have apparently found engrossing, but reading it is also, in a word, laborious.

 

Black Holes Threaten the Cosmos; Meanwhile, Closer to Home …

January 17th, 2015

Had I not known better, I would have thought I was reading a spoof in The Onion (the online news magazine that publishes false stories that at first blush could be real).  The headline was dramatic enough: “Black Holes Inch Ahead to Violent Cosmic Union.”

Egad!  That sounded serious.  The article in question appeared in national papers (I read the New York Times’ account) last week with the sub-heading, “A Preview of the Future of Our Own Galaxy.”  Disturbed enough to envision Armageddon within my children’s lifetimes, I read on.  And, indeed, the report was (at least to a non-scientist like me) more than slightly alarming.  It described the cataclysmic results that would likely be realized when two black holes of enormous size spiral into a cosmic collision on what astronomers are calling “unimaginable scale.”

The article went on, in most serious terms, to describe how the release of energy from this collision would be the equivalent of 100 million supernova explosions, which, even though I have no idea what one supernova explosion would be like, was enough to make me wonder why this report was buried on page A12 of the newspaper.

The article continued to describe the magnitude of this prospective cosmic event for a dozen or so paragraphs, with each scientist who was quoted saying, in turn, that the event would destroy stars, planets, solar systems, and certainly all forms of life in the universal vicinity of the event.  I shuddered and wondered if I should perhaps turn on Fox News to hear them decrying Obama for not doing something about the threat.

And then, finally, buried about three quarters of the way through the article, came this note that the writer apparently thought was only mildly interesting: The collision might occur in one million years, which, the writer observed, is “an unimaginably long time to a human, but unimaginably short to a star or the universe.”  I was further relieved when the article went on to explain that the anticipated black hole collision was going to occur so far away from our planet that scientists would need gravitational wave detectors to “see” the actual results of the event.

And, so, I ultimately understood that our earthly existence wasn’t immediately threated (if it is to be threatened at all) by this particular cosmic event.

Meanwhile, closer to home (indeed, much closer), on page A1 of the same day’s New York Times (and just about every other major newspaper in the country), the headlines reported of the massacre of twelve journalists at the headquarters of a French magazine.

I suppose the juxtaposition of these two stories serves to define the word “relative.”  To be sure, the threat to our universe that the merging of the two black holes poses is massive in the grand scheme of things, but it pales in significance when compared to the threat posed by those actions occurring in the here and now right here on planet Earth.

I don’t know what to make of the degree to which terrorism from the Islamic extremists of today’s world has morphed from initially being centrally driven by al Qaeda, then to independent spin-offs that took hold in just about every Arab country, then to more virulent forms of the same fanaticism (like ISIS) bent on establishing a new Islamic fundamentalist state throughout the Middle East, and now to individual cells that might consist of a band of brothers, such as created the massacres in Paris this month.

Suffice to say that it is becoming an ever-more dangerous world when anyone who hews to the radical Islam view of the religion can justify horrendous acts of terror and murder in the hope of achieving martyrdom while vindicating some perceived slight to the Prophet or to Allah.  Combating this kind of evil has the potential of pitting whole armies of civilized nations against rogue bands of individuals who can take guerrilla tactics to a whole new level of unpredictability and mass carnage.

All of which raises a fundamental question that I have not heard anyone address: How do we stop it?  It was good to see the outpouring of support for France (and against terrorism) in the march in Paris days after the massacre (with leaders including Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas linked with other leaders in front of the millions who marched with them).  Maybe a silver lining of last week’s massacres will be a lessening of hostilities between those two peoples.

But solving this threat to modern civilization will take more than a show of unity among the civilized peoples of the world.  And that’s where I think the word “relative” becomes meaningful.  It may well be that we are on the verge of a new form of combat, one that will make the Bush administration’s “war on terror” look even more off-key than it did at the time.  It may also be that the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted drone missile attacks will appear laughable in the face of the ways in which Islamic fanatics will press their jihads.

And to really break it down to “relative” comparisons, the “Cold War,” in which the two nuclear superpowers engaged in a game of brinksmanship for the better part of a half century, is starting to look more and more like the good-old days, as civilized society seeks effective ways to combat repeated incidents like those last week in Paris.

And then there is the matter of cyber-attacks, such as the one the Pentagon just experienced last week.  (ISIS claimed credit for the attack, which DOD officials said was harmless.)  Relatively speaking, a massive cyber-attack could have even more devastating results for a society’s economy than armed, military-style attacks that can disrupt and destroy the individual lives of a handful of families and communities.

So, in the end, it’s all relative, isn’t it?  Yes, the threat to the universe in a clash of black holes can be cataclysmic.  But the more immediate threat posed by the ever-changing nature of radical Islamic terrorism might well warrant much, much more concern.

 

E. Haig’s Top Performances of 2014

January 7th, 2015

The Sacramento performing arts community continued to provide residents with ample opportunities to see quality performances in both music and theatrical productions last year.  We attended over forty during the year, but we missed more than a few that may have made our final list.  With that caveat in mind, here’s our top twelve for 2014, presented in reverse order.

 

  1. Murray Perahia’s piano recital on February 19 at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis). Highlighted by a powerful performance of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” (his Sonata No. 23 in F Minor), this 66-year-old virtuoso played a program that also included stirring renditions of Bach’s “French Suite No. 4,” Schumann’s “Papillons,” and Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2.

 

  1. Cameron Carpenter’s organ recital on April 2 at Mondavi. Performing to a small but highly appreciative audience, this young master of the instrument played Bach and Mozart with a flair that suggested he may well capture the same kind of attention with the pipe organ as his contemporary Lang Lang has with the piano.  Highlights included a work by Jeanne Demessieux and a foot-pedal only rendition of a Marcel Dupre composition.

 

  1. The Music Circus production of “Mary Poppins” in July. The first of two productions by this esteemed organization to make our list, the Glenn Casale-directed production of this Disney classic was a surprising delight from start to finish.  It had a stellar cast and terrific scenic designs (by Scott Klier and Jamie Kumpf) that had chimney stacks on tall houses in the aisles of the Wells Fargo Pavilion Theater and a collapsible kitchen that you had to see to believe.

 

  1. “Good People” at Capital Stage in May. This David Lindsay-Abaire Tony Award-winning play was given a first-rate production under the direction of Stephanie Gularte, who received great performances from everyone in the six-character cast (led by Rebecca Dines, James Hiser, and ZZ Moor).  The production was evocative of the best off-Broadway productions, the kind this company delivers with just about every play it produces.

 

  1. Ellis Marsalis, Jr. and Delfeayo Marsalis at Mondavi on September 19. With the father (Ellis) on piano and the son (Delfeayo) on his trombone, and backed by John Clayton (bass) and Marvin Smith (drums), the pair played tunes from their “Last Southern Gentlemen” CD.  It was a concert for lovers of traditional jazz with great arrangements of “Autumn Leaves” and “If I Were a Bell,” along with several Delfeayo originals.

 

  1. The Music Circus production of “La Cage aux Folles” in August. Although perhaps a bit dated now, this Jerry Herman-Harvey Fierstein musical still packs plenty of laughs and contains more than a few good musical numbers.   As directed by Tony Spinosa, and with strong performances from Brent Barrett, Alan Mingo, Jr., and Kevin Cooney, the Music Circus production featured terrific dancing (by six male dancers in drag) and lots of great costumes and wigs to add to the frivolity and hilarity.

 

  1. Pinchas Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Mondavi on January 25. The famed virtuoso violinist doubled as conductor of this great orchestra and also played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major in the first of a number of great orchestral performances in Jackson Hall last year.  In addition to the concerto, Mr. Zukerman led the orchestra in excellent performances of Beethoven’s  Fifth Symphony and his Overture to the “Creatures of Prometheus.”

 

  1. The B Street production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” in June. This Christopher Durang play won the Tony Award for best new play last year, and in this excellent production (directed by Buck Busfield), it was easy to see why.  The hilarious script (a witty spin on the works of Chekhov, Pirandello, and Neil Simon, among others) features six characters who were wonderfully captured by the cast, led by the always brilliant Jamie Jones.

 

  1. The February 13 San Francisco Symphony performance at Mondavi. The first of two Mondavi performances by this great orchestra on our list, this one featured the stirring conducting of Jaap van Zweden on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and the brilliant violin virtuosity of Simone Lansma on the Concerto in D Minor by Jean Sibelius.  Both artists were spell-binding, and the orchestra added its usual perfection.

 

  1. The March 4 performance of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at Mondavi. This great orchestra’s 75-year-old conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, was the central figure in this terrific concert.  His conducting, subtle, yet intense, demanded attention, even as he let his musicians shine.  Each work on the program was magnificently delivered.  Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville” was a perfect opening, Vilde Frang starred as soloist on Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, and the full (106 musicians) orchestra soared on a slightly abridged (still 52 minutes) version of Rachmaninoff’s grand Second Symphony.

 

  1. The Mondavi March 22 performance by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields led by Joshua Bell. Mr. Bell, violinist extraordinaire, sat as concertmaster and conducted the larger (40 musicians) version of the chamber orchestra in a stirring performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” (Symphony No. 3), and, for good measure, conducted and soloed on Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major.  He and the musicians also offered a terrific rendition of Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” to begin this wonderful evening of great music.

 

  1. The San Francisco Symphony’s October 25 concert at Mondavi. Guest conductor (and pianist) Christian Zacharias led the orchestra in a perfect performance of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring, skillfully maneuvering through the work’s many moods and images and concluding it with a whisper of pure beauty and sublime serenity.  The rest of the concert was also fine (Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, Haydn’s 93rd Symphony and a very interesting short work by Morton Feldman), but the Copland was the key, and it was as good as a performance can be: magical and to be treasured forever.