Is the fist-bump a 'low-class' gesture?

President Barack Obama receives a fist-bump fr...

Image of Barack Obama and U.S. soldier doing a fist-bump via Wikipedia

Barack Obama does it. So does Michael Jordan and Pat Buchanan and Georgia State Troopers and the Dalai Lama and Barbara Walters. Even Bill O’Reilly approves of it. The fist bump. Who wouldn’t like this quintessentially American way of greeting another human being. Who wouldn’t revel in the joy of touching knuckles with friends and strangers alike? I’ll tell you who: The man who works as a guard at my son’s after-school program. Yesterday, the guard said he thinks the fist-bump is low-class. He didn’t use the exact words “low class,” but he might as well have. “You wouldn’t bump fists after a job interview,” he told my 8-year-old son and his friend, who had just bumped fists in playful solidarity. “You wouldn’t bump fists with your employer.”

Maybe not. It depends on the employer – though I understood the guard’s point: If you’re trying to land a job in corporate America, and you’ve just spoken with the suit-wearing head of HR, it’s generally not a good idea to raise your right hand and direct it toward the director’s chest area. Not a good idea at all. However, if the job you’re eyeing is, say, one in advertising where you’re pitching beer or sports gear to a mainly twenty-something audience, and you and the HR head had joked about the Budweiser commercials that lampoon fist-bumping – then, by all means, consider doing the fist-bump in the interview room. It might even get you the job, by showing you have a sense of humor and style.

On the other hand, many people share the sentiment of the guard at my son’s after-school program. Last September, after the Dalai Lama fist-bumped with Memphis mayor pro tem Myron Lowery, a man named Ric Weide wrote a post at asylum.com excoriating the fist bump, saying that it “seems to be the low class, no class way that street thugs greet each other. There is a certain breed of politicians that are some of the lowest class trailer trash scum around. This is their way of greetings! Trash!!!!!”

In 2008, when Obama first came out of the fist-bump closet, his knuckle-touch with Michele Obama caused a national conversation about the practice, with one Fox-TV anchor describing it as a “terrorist fist jab.” Not so, responded the future First Lady, who – in an interview on ABC-TV’s “The View” – said the fist-bump was “the new high five.” I agree with Michelle Obama. Children my son’s age – at least children who are already into professional sports, pop music, and the Obamas’ social mannerisms – do the fist-bump with aplomb and joie de vivre. It’s fun.

The guard who warned my son and his friend about the fist-bump’s potential demerits was projecting a bit too much. Besides, my son won’t be interviewing for a job until at least 2015. Who knows if the fist-bump will even be popular then. For now, the fist-bump is a tame gesture of endearment. It’s also healthier than a hand-shake, which – as Howie Mandel and others have noted – can more easily spread germs from fingers and palms. Healthy. Enjoyable. No surprise there was a movement to make June 3rd National Fist Bump Day. Inevitably, those who fist-bump for the first time find they like it – especially if they let go of their preconceptions. I mean, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan? Who would have thunk. To see the smile of his face (see here) is to see the humanity in someone who got out of his own skin for just a brief moment.

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Why isn’t the ‘Prince of Persia’ a real Persian?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (film)

Image via Wikipedia

It’s impossible to avoid trailers for the film “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” which have even appeared embedded in ABC-TV’s coverage of the NBA playoffs. Those who’ve missed the trailer can watch it below, and when you do, notice the Persian domes and minarets. Notice the Persian-style dress. Notice the other Middle Eastern motifs (including sand dunes) that conjure up images of 1001 Nights. And notice that the prince himself, a man named Dastan (a Persian word meaning “story”) is played by a non-Persian actor, Jake Gyllenhaal. What’s wrong with this picture?

On the one hand, nothing. Why shouldn’t a white American actor portray an ancient Persian prince? After all, the movie itself is based on an original video game created by a white American (Jordan Mechner), and the prince in that video game (see here) has the exact same non-Persian traits as Jake Gyllenhaal. Still, there’s something disjointed about an entertainment franchise built around “Persia” – i.e., the empire that spawned Iran – whose main character is a non-Persian. Wait, you say. Didn’t Alexander the Great (he of European heritage) conquer Persia 2300 years ago? And didn’t he arrange intermarriage between Macedonian soldiers and Persian women? So couldn’t an ancient Persian prince be as fair-skinned as Gyllenhaal? Not really. And he certainly wouldn’t speak with Gyllenhaal’s “Prince of Persia” accent – a king of pseudo American/British construct that complements the full British accent of co-star Gemma Arterton. (In “Prince of Persian,” Aterton is a white actress who portrays a Persian princess named Tamina.)

The clue that should have warned me “Prince of Persia” would be watered down ethnically? It’s a Disney film. And Disney has a history of whitening its Middle East movies – most notably its animated Aladdin franchise, which featured Robin Williams, and an Aladdin character who spoke like he was from Madison, Wisconsin, not Mecca or Baghdad.

Gyllenhaal is a formidable actor (one fan even mistakenly assumes Gyllenhall is Persian), but if Disney and director Mike Newell (who’s from Britain) wanted an actor of Iranian/Persian descent, they had a wide range of options, including Maz Jobrani, Cas Anvar and (from Iran itself) Mohammad Reza Golzar. Golzar has been likened to Brad Pitt for his good looks. In fact, Golzar looks a bit like an Iranian . . . Jake Gyllenhaal. OK. Maybe the choice of Gyllenhaal wasn’t that atrocious. Disney and Newell could have cast Brad Pitt as the Persian prince. That would have been a tragedy of cinematic proportions.

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Money and fame are never enough: One lesson of LeBron James' loss to Celtics

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 6: (FILE PHOTO) LeBron Jame...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

$21,000 an hour. That’s what Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James makes on the basketball court in salary. Endorsement money takes his income to a stratospheric level: According to one calculation, he makes more than $40 million a year, meaning James is one of the wealthiest athletes in the world. Cut to last night’s press conference – the one where James had to talk about his team’s upset loss to the Boston Celtics; the one where James looked like he had just lost a loved one or worse.

All of Cleveland seems to be in mourning. James’ dour demeanor was topped by two Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriters, who – in the quiet din of a Boston locker room – acted as if the Cavaliers’ loss was the most shocking thing to happen since Watergate. Sports pundits in Cleveland (and James’ fans around the world) are agonizing over the dent – the big, big dent – in their idol’s invincibility. But they and James should pay attention to the proverb that has been around for ages: Money and fame can’t buy you happiness. Even “winning it all” is ephemeral. James had a season to remember: Another MVP award; another series of games that excited kids and adults alike. My 8-year-old son thinks James is one of the best NBA players in history. But before my son went to bed last night, this is what he said after watching the Cavs’ and Celtics’ post-game press conferences: “LeBron is probably crying.”

Maybe. If tears did fall, that was OK. James is only 25 years old. He has lots of years left in his career. What if he never wins an NBA title? One day, James may still give the kind of college commencement address that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke gave the other day – the one where Bernanke said that money doesn’t buy happiness. James might take heed, as well, to the million-dollar lottery winner name Evelyn Adams, who – very briefly – made as much money as LeBron makes. Adams lost all her wealth.

“Winning the lottery,” Adams said, “isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.”

For James, though, the quest will go on. He wants to earn a billion dollars and join Tiger Woods in the rarified earnings category. It’s another quest that James’ fans will undoubtedly follow with interest.

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Only in San Francisco: ‘Liberal hate note’ is put on SUV’s windshield

GM Daewoo's sport-utility vehicle 'Winstorm' i...

Image by AFP via Daylife

Walking to the post office earlier today, I came across an SUV that had been ticketed for parking in a street-cleaning zone. Nothing unusual about that. But on the other side of the windshield flapped a big piece of paper with the headline, “Oh No! A Fu–ing Ticket!” That was unusual – enough for me to read the note myself, which said as follows:

“It’s not just a ticket.

Consider this:

When you leave your car in a street sweeper zone, the garbage that is under your car stays on the street all week.

In effect, you contribute to the ugliness of the world.

You make San Francisco ugly and dirty.

Your lack of responsibility is one more tiny part of The Problem.

Wake up.

Assume some responsibility for your role in the world.

Mama’s not here to wipe your ass.

You are responsible for your car.”

Whoever left the note didn’t leave a signature. Nor an email address. Nor any other way to contact him/her. Nope. Just the darkly-humorous invective on a white piece of paper, meant to change the thinking of the SUV owner. Obese cars aren’t welcome in San Francisco. Their fuel-inefficiency, their contribution to global warming, is an affront to everything San Francisco stands for. Do they warrant the aforementioned “liberal hate note”? Let’s say this: It’s not just San Francisco where SUVs are vehicles non grata. Signing out of my email tonight, I was greeted by a series of news and feature-story headlines, including this one: “Big, bad SUVs might be on the outs with most Americans, but the utility vehicle is far from dead, as consumers usher in the era of the crossover.” The “crossover” is a kind of “car-based utility vehicle” – i.e., a small-sized SUV. Stay tuned. In San Francisco, these kinds of automobiles will be targeted just like the SUV near my neighborhood post office. It’s another “only in San Francisco” phenomenon.

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T/S Exclusive: Craigslist's Craig Newmark on newspapers, liberals, Mideast, and more

DENVER - AUGUST 24:  Craig Newmark, founder of...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

It’s 10 a.m. on a typical morning in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood. The fog that inundates this part of the city is beginning to lift, and the area’s denizens – 30-year-old hipsters, aging hippies, young parents, college students, and devoted dog-owners – are doing their thing, which means the cafes are filling up quickly. Craig Newmark, the multimillionaire founder of the online site Craigslist, is headed toward a meeting at his favorite coffee hangout. He’ll be late. A minute after the confab is supposed to begin, Newmark is standing a block away, apparently waved down by a man in front of another coffee house. That’s how it is for Craig Newmark. Practically everyone in Cole Valley knows who he is, and they often stop him – and he, them – to chat about everything from birds (Newmark is an avid birder) to Craigslist, which is one of the world’s most successful internet ventures. Almost 10 minutes later, Newmark walks into the cafe called Reverie, and extends his hand to mine.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says.

“No worries,” I say.

For the next hour, Craig Newmark sits at a table, latte by his side, and discusses subjects for which he’s known (internet entrepreneurship, the success of his site, etc.) and those that rarely come up in public. Among them: The perception that he’s a diehard liberal — the sort of “San Francisco liberal” whom Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and other Republican acolytes love to belittle. Newmark bristles at the L-word — at least the one spelled L-I-B-E-R-A-L. He identifies with another L-word: Libertarian. The writings of Ayn Rand had a big influence on Newmark when he was a teenager, he says.

“I’ve invented a term for myself, which is ‘Libertarian pragmatist,’ ” says Newmark, who is 57. “I talk about a balance between market and government solutions. Sometimes the market fails. Sometimes the government fails. I like the idea of public-private partnerships.”

Newmark, who the day I spoke to him (last Friday) was approached by the American Enterprise Institute, says “I’d like to know more about them. . . . I’m interested in any group that acts in good conscience,” adding, “People listen to some things I say and think I’m a liberal, and people listen to other things and think I’m a conservative. People who are lazy come to one conclusion or the other. They should just do the research or ask.”

Newmark doesn’t pound the table as he says this. He speaks with an edge that is biting but interspersed with humor. Newmark could refer to himself as an Internet icon (which his is), but instead calls himself “a couch potato” and a “customer service representative.” He says he doesn’t know how many millions Craigslist bestows to him, but the subject is of immense interest. If you do a Google search on “Craig Newmark,” the first phrase that Google recommends is “Craig Newmark net worth.” One report suggests that Newmark is worth more than $1 billion.

“I’ve seen that search (recommendation by Google), and there’s not much ‘there there,’ ” Newmark says, his trademark black hat atop his head. When asked how much he is worth, Newmark fumbles for the only time in our interview, saying, “I’m . . . I’m trying to think of a smart-ass way to respond, and I can’t think of a good-enough way.”

Newmark is the poster child for many things, including the idea that Craigslist kickstarted the downward spiral of traditional newspaper journalism. The logic: Craigslist’s successful free-advertising model waylaid newspaper classifieds — a once-robust profit center that supported the salaries of journalists who’ve been fired in drovers over the last five years. Newmark’s retort: “It’s an urban myth (that Craigslist is to blame). Now and then, there are people who talk that way who don’t know the (newspaper) industry. Newspapers have much bigger problems than (Craigslist).”

What’s indisputable is that Newmark cares about journalism’s future. He attends conferences and consults with Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and other New Media thinkers; he blogs at the Huffington Post; and he frequently speaks to journalism classes around the country. Media outlets, he says, will only survive if they nourish “trust” in readers, viewers or listeners. The Sunday TV news-interview shows are a good example. Newmark cites the new fact-checking of guests on ABC’s “This Week” program (a development inspired by Jay Rosen’s suggestion) — and the lack of fact-checking on competing talking-head shows such as “Meet the Press.” “Basically, these other folks have said it’s OK for their guests to lie,” argues Newmark, who says the emergence of monitors like Politifact and FactCheck.org is “a great start. . . . This is the year that things are converging.”

A few minutes earlier, Newmark had called The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report “America’s most trusted news sources. . . . Humor, as in the non-dumb variety, keeps you grounded. There’s an Oscar Wilde quote: ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh — otherwise, they’ll kill you.’ ”

Yesterday, Newmark was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., where this week he’ll address a group of web masters who work for the federal government; meet with members of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and attend President Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, a two-day affair (beginning today) that’s designed to connect business leaders from Muslim-majority countries with American know-how. Newmark, who is Jewish, wants to create jobs in the Muslim world. He has given financing to projects in the West Bank (via the organization CHF International), and has joined the advisory board of Lend for Peace — a micro-lending organization that was founded by two Jews and two Palestinians. Also, Craiglist now operates a site for the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“I heard about this thing called the Marshall Plan, which built up markets and also prevented a lot of violence and extremism, so I figured, ‘I’ll do my own,’ ” Newmark says. “It seems to me that the West Bank is a good place to create jobs. I spoke to some people in the Israeli and Palestinian governments, spoke to some people at the (U.S.) State Department, and they said, ‘Craig — this is a really good thing. You have our support.’ ”

Newmark has traveled several times to Israel. On one recent trip, he took a cab ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, during which time the taxi detoured through the West Bank, he says. “Route 443 goes through the West Bank to Jerusalem,” he says. “It’s a short cut. The first time (my taxi took Route 443), the driver didn’t quite help me understand that.”

Throughout my interview, Newmark received calls on his mobile phone. Practically every hour, people around the world contact him, usually by email. Newmark says he tries answering every serious inquiry. Asked if he uses Craigslist himself (to buy or sell an item, say), Newmark doesn’t hesitate an answer: “I do, now and then. But each time, I worry about a conflict of interest. I’m painfully aware of that. I’m on the board of Consumer Reports, which is extremely strict on that kind of thing. Anything that my conscience dings me (about) and says ‘Is this is an issue?,’ I’ll think about it.”

Newmark is also quick to respond to critics who say Craigslist has too many questionable ads — particularly in its Personals and Adult Services sections. One listings rival, Greg Collier, calls Craigslist’s Adult Services section “morally bankrupt,” but Newmark says, “We just don’t tolerate (illegal services). I’ve worked with a lot of cops. They point out that (the number of people who use) Craigslist is the equivalent of a major metropolitan area, 50 million people, and that we have a very low crime rate.”

In his snark-filled attack on Newmark, Collier lampoons Newmark’s “do-gooder” image, but that image is there for a reason: Newmark is really trying to make the world a better place. For example, he’s on the board of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America because “if Americans are willing to risk a bullet for me, I figure I should pitch in.” Says Newmark to me: “I’ve grown into (funding, philanthropy and being on advisory boards). The odd thing is I’ve become more idealistic as I age. I’m serious about it. I don’t want to screw around. I’m looking at what really changes stuff — what makes a difference for real. Good intentions aren’t enough. You have to have good intentions and know-how to do things.”

Newmark comes from a modest family in New Jersey. His physical stature is modest. His speaking style is modest. Even his handshake is modest. But by making himself a public presence — by Tweeting as often as possible (he has 21,000 Twitter followers); by writing for the New York Times about the future of newspapers; by addressing Oxford University’s Said Business School; by appearing on ABC’s “Nightline” program; by doing everything else he’s doing — Newmark is making a name for himself far beyond Craigslist. In 2005, Time magazine named Newmark one of the world’s 100 most influential people (“a clerical error,” Newmark jokes), alongside such other figures as Clint Eastwood, Jon Stewart, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, the Dalai Lama,Nelson Mandela, George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Millions of people are devoted to Craigslist, some of whom, Newmark says, are skeptical that a real “Craig” is behind the business.

“I meet people sometimes who, prior to (our meeting), didn’t think I existed — and even as I’m meeting them,  I encourage that belief (of non-existence),Newmark says, smiling.

At the end of my interview with him, Newmark left the Reverie cafe, then looked down the block, for a public bus that would take him to the Craigslist headquarters, which is located in a neighborhood west of Cole Valley.  At Craigslist’s building, Newmark says, he doesn’t have his own office — just a simple table in a kitchen that’s used by other people. That’s how Newmark wants it: Bumping up against others in a space that encourages the exchange of information – just like the Internet site that turned Craigslist into a household name.

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On YouTube (and elsewhere on the Internet), the N-word is spewed like never before

Cover of "The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who...

Cover via Amazon

Around the United States today, newspapers have glowing tributes to civil rights pioneer Dorothy Irene Height, who passed away at age 98. The Washington Post calls Height “the founding matriarch of (the) U.S. civil rights movement,” while the New York Times labels Height “the grande dame of the civil rights era and its unsung heroine.” Go to a web site called niggermania.net, and Height is called “the old ape,” “old negress,” and “old coon” – all under a headline that reads, “Nice! (N-word) rights activist Dorothy Height beez dayed!”

The First Amendment protects that web site. Its name is allowable. Its hateful words are allowable. Its members can visit today and do what they’ve done every day since the web site began: Go public with their contempt for black people. On the web site (which is apparently run by a man in Arizona), President Obama and his wife are vilified with the most scurrilous language on the Internet. That’s no surprise. What is surprising is that  similar invective can be found on more mainstream web sites, including YouTube, where Obama is called the N-word countless times by people who want to advertise their racism to as many people as possible. It doesn’t stop with Obama. A few months ago on YouTube, I was watching Louis Armstrong performWhat a Wonderful World” and in the comments section, one person called Armstrong “a jolly (N-word).” Go to the same video now, and on the first page of comments are scatological references and the observation that Armstrong “is a chimp.”

In the 1950s, this sort of language was the hallmark of overt racism. It still is – but YouTube and other web sites give readers the ability to hide behind their anonymity. While newspapers debate how to tame hateful comments, a new media outlet that went online today – the Honolulu City Beat – is banning anonymous comments. YouTube, meanwhile, relies on a kind of self-policing. Officially, YouTube has a policy that prohibits “hate speech,” including “speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin,” but as YouTube spokeswoman Mandy Albanese told me via email, “With 24 hours of video uploaded to the site every minute, you can imagine why we can’t prescreen the content or police the comments. We rely on our community members to flag inappropriate videos and report abusive comments when they see them.”

With so many abusive comments, it’s apparently impossible to stanch them all – and the courts have usually sided with people’s right to offend. On Tuesday, the same day that Dorothy Irene Height died, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected animal snuff videos. Hate speech has its limits, though. Two months ago, the North Dakota Supreme Court heard a case involving a white teenager girl’s use of the N-word. According to testimony, the teen uttered the word repeatedly in a verbal attack on a black teenage girl. The white teen’s lawyer said her language was protected by the First Amendment. The North Dakota Supreme Court disagreed, citing a legal precedent that “fighting words” – i.e., words deliberately used to incite hatred – cannot be used with complete impunity.

In his book, “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, And Why,” Jabari Asim says a series of events have shepherded its continued use. In the mid-1990s, for example, the O.J. Simpson trial – and policeman Mark Fuhrman’s employment of the word – kept it alive in a widespread news context. Today, the word is used in public like never before. There’s no escape – not for a Congressman like John Lewis, and not for anyone hoping to see a joyful Louis Armstrong on YouTube.

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Islam and Simon Cowell: ‘Idol’ judge is causing a stir with his Afghan fiancée

Simon Cowell and Mezghan Hussainy at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscars Party in West Hollywood, California on March 7 (Larry Busacca/Getty)

One of the last times I give a talk for my book (“Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots”), a woman in hijab asked me when Americans would begin “trusting” Islam. By that, she meant, “When will Islam be considered just another religion – like Judaism and Christianity – and not a faith to be treated with fear and suspicion.” Speaking into a microphone, I made an analogy to AIDS and to soccer. In 1985, Rock Hudson’s HIV-status put (for the first time) a famous public face on the disease, helping Americans come to terms with an illness that was marginalized by mainstream culture. In 1998, French soccer player Zinedine Zidane led his national team to World Cup triumph, putting a positive public face on France’s large Arab and Muslim population. Zidane and Hudson weren’t panaceas – they were celebrities who brought humanity to people’s thinking.

Flash ahead to February 14th of this year, when “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell became engaged to an Afghan-American woman who hails from a Muslim family. Cowell’s fiancée, a make-up artist named Mezhgan Hussainy, met the “Idol” curmudgeon on the set of the famous music program. There is rampant speculation (see here, here and here) on whether Hussainy is a practicing Muslim – and whether Cowell will convert to Islam before their announced wedding date in July. The fever has reached such a peak that it spread a few hours ago to my in-box. There, I got an urgent email from elan magazine that was headed, “Simon Cowell Converting?” The email teaser refers to the magzine’s blog post, which has a photo of Cowell grinning with these words superimposed: “WTFatwa!”

Nice. elan magazine is devoted to covering “global Muslim youth culture,” and its emphasis on humor and pop matters is a refreshing antidote to the seriousness often attached to its subjects. Simon Cowell is a polarizing figure, but his reach is undeniable. Millions of Americans (and Brits, and other nationalities) admire Cowell for his (choose one or mix and match) entrepreneurship, put-down-manship, fame, wealth, power, smarts, and doggedness. “American Idol” is a genuine phenomenon, and for Cowell’s procession of fans (and enemies), his conversion to Islam would be akin to Cassius Clay’s change in faith and name. Some of Cowell’s followers aren’t taking too kindly to his engagement to a woman from Afghanistan.

“Yes, she is very pretty,” said one person about Mezhgan Hussainy, “but I’d be worried she could be a ‘cell’ for Afghanistan, and have a bomb under her coat someday to kill as many of us as she could. Stranger things have happened. Think about it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I’ve thought about it, and the comment is saturated in paranoia. Like I told the hijab-wearing woman in my book talk, no one thing or person will change the perception of Islam – it will be a series of events, some of them unforeseen, that humanize the religion. Picture this: Cowell’s wedding takes place this summer, and TV cameras record a procession of Afghan men (Hussainy’s uncles, cousins, et al.) in traditional dress who shout out their religious blessings in Dari. That in itself would be worth noting. Never mind if Cowell converts to Islam, which is expecting too much from someone like him: An arrogant man who shows his disdain for anything that’s bigger than Simon Cowell.

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The public wants to know: Did Sandra Bullock condone her husband’s Nazi antics?

Sandra Bullock and Jesse James at the 2010 Oscars (Getty Images)

What if Sandra Bullock did condone her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s Nazi proclivities? What then? OK. Maybe you weren’t aware of the Internet chatter (see here, here and here) that wonders if America’s sweetheart knew of Jesse James’ Hitler antics and (gasp!) tolerated them for the sake of her marriage.

Never mind the rumors of Bullock sex tapes (rumors that Bullock quashed forcefully). The Nazi question is potentially more damaging since – if verified – it would undermine everything the actress represents: Wholesome Hollywood goodness. Bullock is the apotheosis of middlebrow beauty – a tolerable actress who will never be confused for, say, Meryl Streep or Ingrid Bergman. The odd thing is that Bullock has two big commonalities with Bergman: German pedigree, and a queasy experience with a Nazi sympathizer. The Swedish-born, German-speaking Bergman – besides having a German mother – made a 1938 film in Germany (“Die vier Gesellen”) for a director, Karl Froelich, who was favored by Hitler. Years later, Bergman expressed guilt at not seeing the signs of what transpired during World War II, and spoke about Froelich trying to push her toward Nazism.

“Froelich took me to a huge Nazi rally (in 1938) where Hitler was the main attraction,” Bergman is quoted as saying in the book Ingrid: Ingrid Bergman, a Personal Biography. “Everything was organized with great theatricality. On cue, little children would rush up to the podium with flowers, and everyone would ‘Heil’ at whatever monstrous nonsense he screamed. It sounded so silly. I couldn’t imagine people taking someone like Hitler seriously. But in the whole audience, I was, I think, the only one who wasn’t raising my arm and saying ‘Heil.’ Froelich turned to me and said, ‘You must say ‘Heil.’ They are watching.’ I said, ‘Nonsense. Nobody is watching us. Everyone is watching Hitler. Besides, I’m not German. I am a Swedish citizen. I live in Stockholm, and there is nothing they can do to me.’ He said, ‘Yes, but you are half-German, and you know what can happen. People can have accidents. People disappear. They are everywhere, watching, listening. It could be bad for you.’ I think what he really meant was that it could be bad for him. But I never once said, ‘Heil Hitler’ during all the time I was in Germany.”

Bullock was in Germany for much of her childhood, thanks to her German mother, an opera singer named Helga Meyer. Bullock speaks German, and was candid with writer Holly Millea in 2000 when she described her childhood under Meyer – of being rushed to concert halls across Europe, of accommodating other professional demands of her mother – as “just an odd upbringing. And not all sweetness and light.” Bullock, then, is used to a degree of dysfunction. Tolerating it in her marriage would be no problem – as long as the problems weren’t out of control. What could she do, though, if her husband – even jokingly – did a ‘Seig Heil’ salute? What should she have done if she saw the Nazi surfboard that James reportedly has in his office? Call the Anti-Defamation League?

Bullock’s silence on the matter is fueling her detractors. At Jezebel (the women-focused web site), writer Kate Harding penned a column, “What Did Sandra Know About This Nazi Stuff?,” that questions Bullock’s behavior – that says Bullock may not be an innocent bystander to her husband’s Nazi eccentricities. One Jezebel reader has pointed a suspicious finger at Bullock’s politically conservative views (which, the argument goes, would suggest the actress could possibly, just possibly, be a Nazi sympathizer). One reader says, “I don’t see how SB could (be) with him all this time and not know that he thinks Nazis are groovy.” At popeater.com, a reader wrote, “I think she knew about his ‘affairs’ but only cared about her image. Her marriage was a sham. I’m also worried about Jesse’s ‘Nazi’ fetish, Sandra is half German. Is she a ‘Nazi’ fan in the closet?”

What a difference a month makes. In early March, Bullock was on stage at the Kodak Theater, holding her newly won Oscar, and bringing the audience members – and the millions watching on TV – to tears and laughter. One of them was her husband. “Did I really earn this,” Bullock said at the outset of her acceptance speech, “or did I just wear you all down?”

By now, Bullock has to be worn down by all the rumors and innuendo about her personal life. But every actor/actress who makes it big has to accept the public’s insatiable scrutinizing. In this era of 24/7 news/entertainment cycles, there are few juicy things about celebrities (especially anything to do with infidelity) that ever remain secret. Just ask Tiger Woods, David Letterman, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Woody Allen, et al. It doesn’t really matter that Bullock is silent on what she knew about James’ pseudo-Nazi-ness. Sooner of later, the answers will emerge, whether Bullock wants them to or not. None of us will be better off for knowing the truth. Like one of Bullock’s forgettable movies (“Speed” anyone?), it will come out, be reviewed – and then be superseded by the next big release/revelation. No doubt, that will be the day when Bullock officially divorces the one-time man of her dreams.

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The South’s Confederate mindset is always stunning to ‘Northerners’ like me

Jefferson Davis, Präsident der CSA {{de|1861: ...

Image of Jefferson Davis via Wikipedia

The news that Virginia’s governor is embracing Confederate History Month has stunned civil-rights leaders, and why not? The proclamation makes no mention of slavery or the long fight to end the slave trade – an omission that today’s Washington Post calls “incendiary” in its editorial chastising of governor Bob McDonnell.

To anyone who has visited the American South, McDonnell’s action comes as no surprise. Almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the South still celebrates the principles of the Confederacy in ways that are stunning. A small example: In Memphis, Tennessee, a major park features an homage to Jefferson Davis, the slave-owning president of the old Confederate States of America. The tribute is in the form of a giant statue – a towering figure that hovers over the grounds in a way that the Statue of Liberty oversees New York harbor.

When I saw the Jefferson Davis statue on a 2007 visit to Memphis, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Why? Because Davis was the South’s mouthpiece on slavery – a man who defended its practice, a man who wrote a memoir rationalizing the South’s reluctance to take anti-slavery orders from “Northerners.” In his acclaimed book on Davis, Donald Collins (an emeritus history professor at East Carolina University) says Davis “believed firmly in slavery and the inferiority of African Americans.”

In his book (and a radio interview you can hear here), Collins says Davis became, in death, a martyr/hero to Southerners. There was a competition to see which Southern state would get to house Davis’ grave. Virginia won out. Davis is buried in Richmond, the old Confederate capital – and the state’s current capital, from where McDonnell issues proclamations like the one that is rankling people across the country.

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Money isn’t everything: A Top 10 list of rich people who tried to be elected

SUNNYVALE, CA - APRIL 27:  Former eBay CEO and...

Image of Meg Whitman by Getty Images via Daylife

Almost $60 million. That’s how much Meg Whitman has committed so far — of her own money – to be California’s next governor. Whitman, who announced today that she’s lent herself another $20 million, can afford it. She’s a billionaire who made her fortune from the auction site eBay. What’s astonishing is that Whitman’s bid for the governorship is really just beginning. Assuming she wins the Republican nomination in June, she’ll then go up against the Democratic nominee (likely Jerry Brown) in a race to the November 2 election – more than six months from now. Based on her six months of campaigning, Whitman’s personal output will be at least $100 million – easily catapulting her into the Top 10 of self-financed political quests.

The good news for Whitman: Money gets you the ads that get you attention.

The bad news: Money doesn’t guarantee a candidate high office. Just ask Mitt Romney ($42 million), Ross Perot ($63 million), and Steve Forbes ($77 million on two campaigns) – all of whom spent fortunes in their pursuit of elected power, all of whom were rejected by voters. Whitman, though, is a glass-full kind of person, and she undoubtedly focuses on the multimillionaires who succeeded in shoveling their fortunes into campaign cash. Topping the list: Michael Bloomberg ($100 million), who’s been ensconced in New York’s mayorship for almost a decade.

Here’s a Top 10 list of rich people who tried to be elected. Some failed. Some succeeded. Some were Democrats. Some were Republicans (like Whitman). All of them made names for themselves, for better or for worse.

(10) Hillary Clinton. Running against Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, she spent at least $5 million of her own money to capsize her rival. Clinton had eyed the White House for years, but her personal wealth – and that of her husband – were overwhelmed by Obama’s star power.

(9) Jon Corzine. He hit the political big time – but at what price? The Wall Street executive forked over $60 million to win New Jersey’s Senate seat in 2000, $43 million more to take the New Jersey governor’s mansion in 2005 – and then had to beg for money in last year’s losing re-election bid.

(8) Ned Lamont. The man who would be Connecticut’s Senator spent $13 million of his personal cash on his losing 2006 run against Joe Lieberman. Like Corzine and Clinton, Lamont was a rich Democrat. Still is. That’s why, in his current campaign for Connecticut governor, he’s self-financing again – and will likely face a Republican challenger (Thomas C. Foley) who’s just like him: A multimillionaire skirting public-financing limits by ingesting his own money.

(7) Michael Huffington. When he ran for a California Senate seat in 1994, Huffington was more famous than his then-wife, Arianna – and much more wealthy. He used $28 million from his own coffers to take the Republican nomination and then go up against Democrat Dianne Feinstein. At the time, Huffington’s spending was a reported record: No other person in political history had “spent more of his personal fortune” seeking office.

(6) Katherine Harris. For Democrats, the Florida Republican came to symbolize everything wrong about Al Gore’s almost-win in the 2000 presidential election. Was it karma that led to Harris’ money woes in her losing 2006 Senate run? A desperate Harris pledged $10 million – her entire inheritance – to win the seat. “I’m going to commit my legacy from my father, $10 million,” Harris reportedly told Fox News then. “When I lost him, I said I would win this for my father.”

(5) Pete Ricketts. George W. Bush campaigned for him. So did Dick Cheney. That and almost $10 million of his own money got Ricketts nowhere in his 2006 Nebraska Senate campaign. Ricketts, who made his money from his job at an online stock-trading company, called his self-financing an “investment” in his political future. That future never paid off.

(4) Steve Forbes. A famous last  name. A famous fortune. None of that helped him in his Republican quest for the presidency – either in 1996 ($38 million) or 2000 ($39 million).

(3) H. Ross Perot. In 1992, Perot used $63 million of his own money to launch his third-party candidacy for president. Saturday Night Live loved him (in the same way it loved Sarah Palin). Nineteen million Americans voted for Perot, meaning the billionaire spent more than $3 for every vote he received. The money was chump change for someone ranked as one of America’s richest people.

(2) Michael Bloomberg. As a “Seinfeld” character might say, Bloomberg is just like Perot – only politically successful. Bloomberg is the eighth-wealthiest American, according to Forbes magazine. In his effort to retain his status as New York’s mayor, Bloomberg spent more than $100 million last year – on top of the $85 million he spent in 2005 and $74 million in 2001. The total for three terms: $259 million. To put it in perspective, that’s about the same amount that Sony just paid for its deal with Michael Jackson’s estate.

(1)  Blair Hull. Blair who? Few people around the nation remember Hull, the man who went up against Obama in 2004, when the future president was running for a Senate seat. Hull, a Republican, spent $28 million of his own money in the campaign. Politics has a short memory. If Whitman loses her race for governor, she’ll be another Blair Hull. If she wins, she’ll be like Bloomberg – rich, powerful, and the talk of the town.

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