Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bonanza Column 225 – Be Careful What You Wish For

As the controversy and demonstrations in Wisconsin continue, it occurs to me that the Tea Party and the Right in this country might be well advised to be careful what they wish for.

It's hard for me to believe that anyone would be naïve enough to think that if we could get rid of the unions, give tax breaks to the rich and to big business, allow corporations and lobbying groups to contribute to political campaigns without limit and without any public accountability, and restrict health care to those the insurance companies could profit by, we would find ourselves in some Eden of free enterprise, good (i.e. severely limited) government, and general national well-being, but that is what those behind the Tea Party, the NRA, and the rest of the vast right-wing conspiracy would have us believe.

Don't get me wrong – I believe conservatism is a legitimate economic and social philosophy that can genuinely be held by people of good will. I don't agree with it for a minute, but I also don't think that liberalism has all the answers. I'm a firm believer that when there is the opportunity for constructive conflict and respectful debate over differences, we all get smarter and we come out with better ideas than either side of the debate would have come out with on their own.

And so I have two problems with the current political debate. First of all, as I've said before, it's not respectful of honest, sincerely held differences. And let me be clear here, I'm not talking only about the Right. I have no more use for posters showing the Governor of Wisconsin in crosshairs or calling him a Nazi or a dictator than I have for the comparable rhetoric about the President. And unlike some of those who reflexively respond "the Left does it too" when I criticize these excesses on the Right, I don't think much of "an eye for an eye" as a tactic. As someone said, all it will lead to is both of us being blind.

But the bigger problem I have is with honest, sincere people on the Right seeming oblivious to the unquestionable fact that they are being led by a small number of interests in directions that seem to have much more to do with benefitting the interests of the leaders than of those being led. The Koch brothers are not humanitarians – they are clearly out to advance the interests of their own business and those of their business allies. The NRA is out to make sure that arms manufacturers are profitable and they don't care who gets killed, just as the tobacco companies before their excesses cost them all their credibility, were out to sell cigarettes and were willing to lie and fabricate claims about the health effects of smoking.

And in Wisconsin, these same forces see the opportunity to kill the labor movement, particularly in the public sector once and for all. Why? Not because unions are so bad or are corrupt, or whatever else they say, but because the public employees' unions are the only force big enough to compete with them on their own turf. If you look at the figures on campaign contributions since the Supreme Court's disastrous decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, you will see that of the top 20 contributors to campaigns, all but two were private corporations and lobbying groups, and those two were public employees' unions. If the misguided governor of Wisconsin succeeds in crippling the public unions in that state, other states will follow and the one force that can provide some counterbalance to the private interests, however small and outnumbered, will be eliminated.

So, to my friends on the Right I have to ask: do you really think a government of big business and the rich, by big business and the rich, and particularly FOR big business and the rich is in your interests? And even if it is in your individual interests, do you think it's in the interests of the country? What should the working class, the poor, and the steadily disappearing middle class do? Move? And do you think this is what the Founders had in mind when they wrote a Constitution that, to a degree unsurpassed by any document before or since, protected the rights of all against the tyranny of a few? Think about it, and be careful what you wish for – you just might get it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bonanza Column 224 – The People United

"Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear"

Recent events make those old Buffalo Springfield lyrics from the '70's seem to spring to mind. It's probably too soon to make any solid conclusions, but events in North Africa and the Middle East suggest that something very real may be afoot. Beginning in Tunisia, then spreading to Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Bahrain, ordinary people in "the Arab Street" seem to be saying they've had enough of dictatorship, and they aren't going to take it anymore. And, encouragingly, freedom and self-determination seem to be the core of their agenda – not Islamism, not Sharia law, not Socialism, but simply democracy.

As I said, it's too soon to tell how this is going to turn out – maybe the militaries will impose a new dictatorship, maybe militant Islamists will hijack the revolutions, but so far none of that seems to be happening, so maybe, in the words of the old protest chant, "the people united cannot be defeated," and maybe, just maybe, there's a valuable lesson in this for the US – maybe democracy and freedom really are "inalienable rights" and maybe oppression is its own worst enemy in the long run. Maybe the same spirit that impelled the American colonists to rise up in 1776 is inherent in all people and will eventually lead to the demise of dictators, and maybe we can count on that rather than try to impose democracy in countries where there is not yet sufficient pent-up demand for it, resulting in our becoming occupiers instead of liberators.

I'm not saying that we should never intervene – when a dictatorial government becomes aggressive and attempts to spread its rule beyond its own borders, we should defend those who cannot effectively defend themselves – both World Wars, the Korean Conflict, and the first Gulf War come to mind as examples – but there's a big difference between being defenders of freedom where it's endangered and being the self-appointed distributors of democracy where we think it should go, whether those peoples are ready for it or not.

I, for one, am very encouraged by the events in the Arab world. They suggest to me that the drive toward freedom and self-determination is, in fact, something that lives in all people and will eventually win out. Thirty years of Mubarak is a long run, but it ended at a time of the Egyptian people's choosing, and Mubarak's plan to pass on his rule to his son in a dynastic fashion was thwarted. I'm sad that it had to take thirty years, but as is noted in the US Declaration of Independence, "all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Still, as the Declaration goes on, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations… evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." I guess how long people are "disposed to suffer" will vary from culture to culture, but it's worth bearing in mind that the American Colonies were under British rule for the better part of 200 years before they rose up.

What's really interesting to me in light of the events overseas is the current struggle in Wisconsin between the Governor and many people there. At this writing an Egypt-style demonstration (minus the violence) has been going on for days in Madison, teachers are calling in sick and are being supported by parents and students in their resistance to cuts by a governor who took a state with a substantial budget surplus and, through tax cuts to businesses, created a deficit which he now proposes to meet by cutting services such as education and by breaking the state's unions. The people of Wisconsin seem to be uniting, and something is happening there – what it is isn't exactly clear – but maybe, just maybe, the people united won't be defeated – after all, the sixth-seed Packers won the Super Bowl, so anything's possible.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Bonanza Column 223 – TOCCATA Wins Hearts

Each time I've gone to a TOCCATA concert I write about it and each time I promise myself that it will be the last time I do. After all, how many times can readers stand to hear me wax poetic about the incredible contribution that this ensemble of local musical talent provides? And each time I break my promise because the experience just demands the expression of appreciation and acknowledgement.

As I've said before, that TOCCATA brings together so much talent, many if not most of whom have "day jobs" and still give huge amounts of time to rehearsing and learning to play together is in itself a remarkable accomplishment. That James and Nancy Rawie have made the commitment to share their time and efforts and (considerable) talents between Puerto Rico and Tahoe and bring with them world-class talent makes the difference between what could be just one more community orchestra and chorus and what TOCCATA is – a world-class ensemble that breeds talent and performances that go way beyond what you would expect here in the hinterlands of the Sierra Nevada, and that they give so much back to the community makes this a truly great organization in the best tradition of the fine arts.

Last week's TOCCATA offering included the incomparable Elizabeth Pitcairn returning to Tahoe for the third time with her "Red Stradivarius" violin. Through the efforts of the Rawies, Donna Axton, Joy Strotz, Paul Guttman, and others, Ms Pitcairn has formed a bond with the Tahoe community that goes way beyond "one more gig" for her and for us. In addition to five performances with the TOCCATA Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (about which more in a bit), she did two intimate "soirées musicales" in local homes to raise funds for TOCCATA, did two performances/classes in local schools, and gave a master class at UNR. Understand, this is a top young musician who plays all over the world with the best orchestras and who plays a legendary instrument worth millions of dollars, giving her time to school children and university students and, unless she is one heckuvan actress, having a great time doing it.

And the performances – OMG!!! If you have any taste for classical music at all and you haven't been to a TOCCATA performance you are cheating yourself. To be present for this level of performance in venues that are at once intimate and acoustically superb is not an opportunity one gets almost anywhere else. There is a world of difference between hearing the music in, say, Davies Symphony Hall or Lincoln Center in an audience of thousands and being in St. Francis Church or St. Thomas Aquinas Cathedral with hundreds can't be described.

Last week's performances were all Vivaldi pieces – for orchestra, for Chorus, and the familiar "Four Seasons." The Concerto for Two Trumpets complete with baroque trumpets by Paul Lenz, Mark Hoke, and Josh Dunlap was outstanding, the Chorus, with soloists including Anna Helwing, Joy Strotz, Katherine DeBoer, and the redoubtable Stuart Duke brought the Gloria to new heights and then, after the intermission, the centerpiece of the evening – the beautiful and incredibly talented Ms Pitcairn playing the Four Seasons, each "season" preceded by poetry in Italian and English and highlighted by four different gowns each representative of the season in the music. And what music! Playing completely without a score in front of her, her playing was flawless as was that of a chamber orchestra drawn from the TOCCATA strings (and an oboe) along with continuo by David Brock.

And as if all that weren't enough, for an encore Ms Pitcairn performed a piece rarely performed in a concert venue, the Moto Perpetuo (Perpetual Motion) by Nicolo Paganini. This piece, played in about four minutes, includes some 3150 notes – that's an incredible 13 notes per second – is not just an exercise in speed, but also includes melody, phrasing, and everything else that makes great music. Ms Pitcairn shared that she has spent three years learning to play it, in part to overcome a fear of fast pieces. I think she can safely say she's over that fear.

The point of all this adulation is to point out again how incredibly fortunate we in the IV/CB community are to have the kind of talent and opportunities we have here. As much as I love the intimate venues in churches and chapels, it's time we took seriously the possibility of creating a performing arts venue that matches the talent that comes here. In the meantime, if you aren't taking advantage of the opportunities, you should. TOCCATA needs and deserves all our support both in terms of donation and attendance.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Bonanza Column 222 – Olympics in Tahoe? Hmm…

Last Friday there was a presentation at SNC regarding the efforts of the Reno Tahoe Winter Games Coalition (RTWGC) to bring the 2022 Winter Olympics to our area. I won't say I went into the meeting with an open mind – more like slightly ajar – it seemed to me that this was likely to be yet another instance of Reno interests foisting something on the Lake without regard to what Basin residents want or what is important to us. While not 100% sold, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Jon Killoran is the CEO of RTWGC and he gives a heckuva presentation. He anticipated most of the concerns of his audience and was open to listening and learning – while clearly committed to his cause, he didn't seem to me to be there to convince, so much as to converse – to have a give and take in which he came across as genuinely eager to learn and to include the concerns of everyone who will be affected by the Games if RTWGC's bid is successful.

The process is a long and complicated one – unlike other countries where bids are government-sponsored and funded, in the US bids are generated by non-profits like RTWGC and these groups compete before the USOC to be the one venue offered by the USOC to the IOC, who make the final decision. Killoran makes a compelling case for having the games here and for the potential long-lasting benefits to our area.

Reno-Tahoe was the runner-up to Salt Lake City in 1998 and in 2002 when Salt Lake made the winning bid. Unlike the Summer Games, there are relatively few areas that can host the Winter competition – basically North America, Europe, and parts of Asia. 2022 seems a long way off, but it is the first bid that is available now, and the process takes quite a while – the USOC will make its selection in 2013 and the IOC will make the final choice in the Summer of 2015, so RTWGC is not starting any too early.

Here's the part that didn't quite sell me: Killoran made extensive use of the results of the games in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010 as being most comparable to RTWGC's plans. Both these games had effects on the areas where they were held that were clearly beneficial – the Salt Lake City Airport, for example, is one of the best in the country and was extensively renovated for the games. Other improvements include light rail, highways and other infrastructure, and, of course, increased business before, during, and after the games. I don't question these results – what does bother me, and what I think the Coalition needs to pay close attention to is the differences between the three areas. The Vancouver Metropolitan Area has a population of about 2.25 million people. Salt Lake City Metro is about 1.1 million. Reno is about 420,000 – that's a big difference, so let's take the Vancouver comparison with a grain of salt. Salt Lake is still over twice our size and closer to its mountain venues. I'm not saying this invalidates the comparison, just that it's something we need to take into account.

The big issue, of course, is impact. Killoran showed me impressive awareness and concern for the potential environmental effects of the Games at the Lake. Unlike the Squaw Valley Games in 1960, when all 17 events were held at Squaw, only about 20% of the 87 events in 2022 would be held around the Basin – the rest presumably in and around Reno. Killoran stated an unequivocal commitment that there will be "no white elephants left behind" in the form of overbuilt and unusable venues – whether he and RTWGC can keep that commitment remains to be seen, but at least the commitment is there.

There are those here in the Basin whose first response to any potential large impact, whether it's the Olympics or Boulder Bay, to start from "no" and to demand to be convinced. I'd suggest they reconsider this stance where RTWGC is concerned. If the Coalition's intentions come to fruition, much of what environmentalists around the lake have been advocating will come to pass more quickly and less expensively than they might otherwise – improved infrastructure, better public transportation, lake ferries, all figure in the plans, and would all happen in the next 11 years. New "green" public buildings are almost a certainty, and based on current figures we already have more accommodations than Salt Lake had by a factor of two, so no new tourist venues would be needed. For those concerned about jobs, while not all of the projected 50,000 or so jobs would remain after the games, many would and the run-up to the games would provide extensive employment during a period of economic recovery.

As I said, I'm not 100% sold, but I'm way more positive than I was going into the meeting. I recommend you begin to look into this effort for yourself – start at and go from there; it's worth serious consideration.