Monday, September 29, 2008

Mourning Wood

I'm sure the robonerds have better addressed this topic since the last time I discussed it (at BTF), but...

Again, if better baseball bats are harder baseball bats, then why the fuck haven't batmakers been experimenting with heavier, harder species than the same old same old maple and ash? IIRC, Babe Ruth used the heaviest bat of his day -- which is saying something, since most bats were made of hickory then. Obviously, with today's bigger athletes (certainly more robust than Ruth), heavier bats could be used without deleteriously affecting bat speed. If the advantage of maple bats is expressed as wood density = power, then why haven't batmakers been experimenting with (off the top of my head) persimmon wood, say, which is so hard it used to be used for golf club heads. Or what about osage orange (aka bowdock, aka hedgeapple) wood? Or dogwood, so hard it was once used for loom shuttles?

Maple bats are dangerous; ashes are experiencing genocide thanks to the emerald ash borer. Obviously, people need to get to work on finding an alternative. The ballplayers mentioned in the following Seattle Times story seem much less conservative than I supposed (ballplayers being some of the most reactionary and superstitious people on earth); it doesn't look like they are opposed to experimenting. Do I have to buy a fucking lathe myself?

Big-league players are into their bats big time
By Larry Stone

SEATTLE — Ty Cobb once called his bat "a wondrous weapon," and the sentiment has hardly diminished through the years.

Players still treat their old hickory stick (to use a dated term; hickory hasn't been used in bat-making for decades) with respect, devotion and tender, loving care rarely bestowed upon an inanimate object.

Of course, if you want to animate a player, just ask him about his bat of the moment.

Lou Brock once said, "Your bat is your life" and didn't consider it overstatement.

Tony Gwynn referred to one of his particularly effective bats as "nine grains of pain." Leon Durham had his mother pray over his before each season.

Ted Williams would go to the Louisville Slugger plant each winter and personally pick out his bats, sometimes tipping the lathe operators $10 or $15 — big money in those days — to ensure the finest craftsmanship.

Scott Spiezio would kiss each of his new bats. Luis Gonzalez, entering the final day of the 1993 season at .299, slid his bat into the room where the Astros were having Sunday chapel service (he went 2 for 3 and finished at .300).

"That's food for my kids, and I don't have any kids," former major-league infielder Jose Fernandez told The Indianapolis Star in 2000, referring to his bats.

Rangers equipment manager Zack Minasian once observed, "Next to their wives, players are in love with their bats."

That held true for no one more so than former Mariner Bret Boone. Teammate Ben Davis once counted 192 bats in Boone's locker.

"He was the biggest bat-crazy guy ever," said Mariners equipment manager Ted Walsh, the man entrusted for the past several years with ordering all the club's bats — except for Boone's.

"He laid down his own credit card," Walsh recalled. "He called Louisville directly. He wanted to be like a kid at Christmas time, and every day have a bat box waiting for him full of new bats, and see if they felt any different.

"We always joked that one time, we were going to take all the bats he discarded and just put them in a box and act like he got a new shipment."

Don Mattingly was one of numerous players known to have taken his bats to bed with him. According to his Yankees teammate Rex Hudler, Mattingly had a ready response if his wife complained: "Honey, I keep my bats warm at night so that you'll have money to go shopping during the day."

"That's our bread and butter," said Mariners outfielder Mike Morse. "Your bat is going to take you as far as you go in your career."

Which is why Morse's affair with his wood often turns out to be a one-night stand. That's how long he'll stick with it to see if the feel — and the results — are what he's seeking in a long-term relationship.

"If it isn't, he's going to BP," Morse said. "Maybe I brought him out prematurely."

Ex-Mariner Al Martin once said, "If I don't get a hit with a bat, it's firewood. I give it probably two games at the most."

Yeah, sure, they're inanimate objects, all right. You can bet your sweet spot that most players don't laugh at Ichiro Suzuki's stated belief that his equipment, including his bat, has a human heart.

Bernard Malamud obviously understood the sentiment when he created the character Roy Hobbs — aka "The Natural" — who carved his "Wonderboy" bat out of a tree split by lightning.

When Wonderboy is broken (in the book version, that is, which differs from the stylized Robert Redford movie), Hobbs buries it in left field.

Writes Malamud: "Roy undid his shoelaces and wound one around the slender handle of the bat, and the other he tied around the hitting part of the wood, so that except for the knotted lace and the split he knew was there it looked like a whole bat. And this is the way he buried it, wishing it would take root and become a tree."

In 1989, when Sports Illustrated ran a feature on the rise of aluminum bats (including the off-base prediction that aluminum bats would probably be used in the major leagues "by the turn of the century"), Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois addressed the U.S. House of Representatives to decry the decline of wood bats.

"I do not want to hear about saving trees," Durbin said. "Any tree in America would gladly give its life for the glory of a day at home plate."

A trio of Angels players achieved a measure of bat immortality in the mid-1990s when the expansion of the Oakland Coliseum outfield bleachers was in progress, resulting in what became known as "Mount Davis," after Raiders owner Al Davis.

"They were pouring cement in Oakland one day and J.T. Snow came running in during batting practice," recalled Hudler, now an Angels announcer. "He said, 'Hud, we can put our bats out there in the cement and they'll be there forever.' So me, J.T. and Gary DiSarcina ran our bats out there. They're in the loge. When they destroy the stadium, they'll see our bats out there."

The Mariners' Suzuki keeps his bats in a temperature-controlled humidor — a practice that's now undertaken by teammate Jose Lopez as well — and meticulously cleans off every speck of dirt.

But in baseball lore, ballplayers are more concerned about what they put on their bat — and we're not just talking the standard pine-tar treatment that made George Brett go batty in 1983, or the corked bats that have ensnared players from Sammy Sosa to Billy Hatcher in hot water.

One minor-league team put Jack in the Box sauce on their bats to cure a slump, and when the team started winning, kept doing it.

"Then we lost because someone didn't bring the secret sauce," longtime minor-league manager Wendell Kim told The Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press.

Hall of Famer Eddie Collins would rub horse manure on his bat, telling teammates it kept them fresh. Former outfielder Oscar Azocar would pour alcohol on his bats and set them on fire to harden the wood. Jim Frey soaked his in motor oil. Joe Sewell rubbed his bat every day with chewing tobacco — and according to legend, used the very same bat every day of his 1,877-game career.

Generations of players have "boned" their bats — rubbing it with the femur bone of a cow, a process that compresses the grain and keeps the barrel more durable. However, bat boning has become largely obsolete with the rise of maple bats, which are so hard they don't need augmentation.

"A lot of guys don't even know what it is anymore," said Chuck Schupp, manager of professional bat sales for Louisville Slugger for the past 24 years.

Schupp and his Rawlings counterpart, Bill Steele, could tell you firsthand about the bat quirks of players. They roam major-league clubhouses all year, starting in spring training, to collect orders — and complaints.

"The bat has to be made to a player's specifications," said Steele. "I understand; it's a tool to them. If it doesn't feel right, they're not going to perform the way they want."

"I think it pushes you to do your job," added Schupp. "When guys excel at what they do, you want to make them happy."

The Mariners, like most teams, have budgeted about $80,000 for a season's worth of bats, purchased from one of 32 companies that are sanctioned by Major League Baseball.

That includes the traditional big boys — Louisville Slugger, still the market leader with an estimated 55 percent of players using their wood, as well as Rawlings (which now produces the iconic Adirondack brand) and Worth — but also upstarts like The Original Maple Bat Corporation, out of Ottawa, Canada.

Original Maple, its bats now distributed by sporting goods giant Wilson, took the game by storm in the early 2000s when Barry Bonds used the "Sam Bat" — named after founder Sam Holman, a woodworker and stagehand at Ottawa's National Arts Center for 23 years — to hit 73 homers in 2001.

Bonds swore by his "Rideau Crusher," named after a canal that winds through Ottawa. With that endorsement, Sam Bats — and maple — became the rage. While white ash used to dominate the market, it is now estimated that 70 percent of all major-league bats are maple.

Despite the raging controversy over the danger of maple bats, which have an alarming tendency to sever when they break, turning them into jagged missiles, the use of maple only seems to be increasing. Another problem for ash is infestation by a beetle, called the emerald ash borer, that is devastating ash trees in Canada and the Northeast United States, where most of the ash for bats is produced.

On the Mariners, Walsh estimates that 95 percent of the team uses maple. It is Walsh who is the team's liaison with the bat companies, placing each player's order — about eight to 12 dozen a season for each, at an estimated cost of about $65 per bat.

Jamie Burke swings maple in batting practice but uses ash in games. Raul Ibanez dabbles occasionally in ash but uses primarily maple, as does Morse.

"Everyone else is strictly maple," Walsh said.

The appeal of maple is the density of the wood. Bo Jackson would never have been able to break a maple bat over his leg in frustration.

"For me, not only is it a harder wood, but it doesn't chip, doesn't flake," Ibanez said.

Ibanez referred to a maple bat he broke in Anaheim last week.

"That had been my BP slash game bat for three weeks," he said. "You can use the same bat in BP as you do in the game, and you can't do that with ash."

It's a strange paradox — maple bats are revered for their durability, yet reviled by some for the danger when they do break. Commissioner Bud Selig has commissioned a safety committee to study possible remedies to the growing issue of flying bat fragments that endanger players, umpires, coaches and fans.

"I would hate to see them banned," Ibanez said. "Then again, I'd hate to see someone get stuck in the back of the neck."

Ibanez is a staunch proponent of the latest fledgling company to make an impact in the majors — Marucci Bat Co. out of Baton Rouge, La., which is currently used by players such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, David Wright, Manny Ramirez, Dan Uggla and Albert Pujols.

Not to mention a large group of Mariners, including Ibanez, who calls Marucci bats "for me, the best bats ever produced."

The story of the company is an amazing tale. The founder is Jack Marucci, head athletic trainer at Louisiana State University. Unable to find an appropriate wood bat for his 7-year-old son Gino a few years ago, Marucci decided to make one himself.

"I had taken wood shop in ninth grade," he said in a phone interview from LSU last week. "I spent 80-something bucks and got a cheap lathe. I made a bat in my backyard shed."

The bat proved popular with the Little League set, and Marucci ended up making more for his son's friends. He made a full-sized model and gave it to Eduardo Perez, then with the Cardinals, whom he knew from his days as a trainer at Florida State, Perez's alma mater.

Perez was stunned at the craftsmanship and sneaked the bat into a few games, even though it hadn't yet been approved by MLB.

News spread around baseball by word-of-mouth, and one day Marucci got a call from Manny Ramirez, asking for a few of his bats for the Red Sox's playoff run. Marucci toiled through the night to cut three bats, dubbing them CB24 — 24 being Ramirez's number, and CB standing for "Curse Buster."

The bat's popularity gradually grew, as did Marucci's operation. Now he works out of a 10,000-square-foot shop with 10 employees to make bats for 50 to 60 major-leaguers. But he still prides himself on the craftsmanship of his product.

"The process is all by hand," he said. "Every bat touches 10 sets of hands before it's shipped out."

Former Mariner Edgar Martinez never got comfortable with maple, sticking mostly to a Louisville Slugger ash model. Martinez was a fanatic for weighing each bat and pointing out the most minute discrepancy.

"I became a little more technical as I got older," Martinez said. "Right off the bat, I could feel if it was too heavy or too light. I started weighing all my bats. The ones I knew I wasn't going to use, I would give to the equipment manager to send back."

When he retired, Schupp sent Edgar a picture signed, "I hope I didn't speed up your retirement." Martinez has it hanging in his office.

Martinez's Louisville Slugger model, M356, remains, along with the C271, one of the most popular in the game, according to Schupp.

Some players, like Martinez, are known to be unfailingly generous with their bats, allowing any teammate to use it anytime. Others have the attitude of former first baseman George Scott, who used to say, "If you want to rumble, just touch my lumber."

And some have it both ways. When he played for the Cardinals, Hudler went on a hot streak using a bat borrowed from teammate Pedro Guerrero. But when Hudler got so hot that manager Joe Torre put him at cleanup — supplanting Guerrero — Pedro demanded his bat back.

"Me and Ozzie (Smith) thought that was pretty weak," Hudler recalled. "He took them all out of my locker."

Ask a ballplayer to explain his infatuation with bats, which to a layman borders on the fanatical, and he won't think it's all that unusual.

"They've been nice to me; I want to be nice to them," Mickey Tettleton once explained.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Seward as Neocon

I dunno why I've never thought of this before, but..

William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, had two goals very early in the first term. One being a declaration of war on France and Spain for the purposes of a)gaining territory in Latin America and b)reunifying the American people, whom he assumed would embrace a neo-nationalism and forget the sectionalist passions with which they were afflicted. Shades of William Kristol. The other being an arrangement between Lincoln, himself, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase whereby the President would be reduced to a figurehead and actual power would be reserved to the Cabinet. Shades of Richard Cheney.

Of course Lincoln outmaneuvered Seward, and Seward eventually came to appreciate Lincoln's skillz. But what if Seward had had a weaker President like Buchanan or G.W. Bush?

There's nothing new under the sun -- except, maybe, circumstances.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Let's Not Start Sucking Each Other's Dicks Quite Yet"

The admirable David Sirota, whose ideals are unfashionably substantive (as opposed to the sort of idealism now in season that's just as vaporous as it is vapid), finds himself, post-DNC, torn. Now I can't really blame him for nearly catching the contagious Denver optimism. But he also knows better, knows that being Hopey can make one dopey, and the contradiction shows up in his latest writing, here:

Now that the convention is over, I can report that all of what I feared, in fact, took place. Denver's downtown became a perpetual throng, insufferable Washington hacks from my past were unavoidable, and corporate money was so ubiquitous that even my ticket holder was emblazoned with a Qwest logo.

That said, I can also report that this spectacle actually had value, beyond the free booze and celebrity sightings. Conventions, I discovered, can be building blocks of social change - and if this year's Democratic convention ends up with any historical legacy beyond nominating Barack Obama, it will likely be remembered as one of many events that helped forge a contemporary progressive movement.

He goes on to cite the presence of radicals and idealists (some, like Sirota, the substantive sort; some not) outside the convention as proof. Then he relates a friendly exchange between a member of the corporate wing that is actually close to Obama and an activist of the wing that is not. The truth is that the suits in the Denver cards tend to be more clubs and diamonds rather than the hearts Sirota wants to see in his hand; but then idealists never want to fold even when the deck's stacked. Thus, wishful thinking. He's a bit more sober in his other piece:

By the time the 2008 Democratic presidential primary hit, progressives had laid the groundwork for a full takeover of the party. Because labor, environmental, antiwar and other grassroots groups had set the stage so effectively, the competition between John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama became a competition to show who was a more full-throated progressive. The heat of that supercharged battle ended up burning off the corporate naysayers and unifying the party.

Of course, the work still continues, as money remains a persistent and powerful force. For all his populist rhetoric, Obama still surrounds himself not with the grassroots organizers that he brags about starting his career around, but instead with a mix of Wall Street profiteers and Ivory Tower elites like Cass Sunstein, who wrap their free market fundamentalism in the argot of academia...


Thankfully, the millions of rank-and-file citizens who comprise the Democratic Party have finally answered the age-old question: Which side are you on? And they have answered it by siding with America’s progressive majority, suggesting that a progressive pressure system will indeed follow Obama into office, if he is elected. That is critical, because Obama hasn’t yet decisively answered the same question - the question of which side he is on. It will be up to the newly invigorated Democratic wing of the Democratic Party to make sure he listens to the public - not the Establishment job-seekers now flocking to his inner circle - when he answers that question.

The question is not what Obama will do; his interest and tendencies are plain to those with eyes and ears and a modicum of common sense. The question is what the movement will do about Obama once he's president. Of course on many issues it will have to prod him; on others, it will have to defend him. But how far will it go in opposing him? Punishing him? What will it do if or when he bombs Iran or Pakistan? What will it do if or when he decides that, yes, some physical and political vestiges of the American Empire must remain in Iraq? What will it do when his health care proposals become even more tepid, and the policies themselves even more amenable to the insurance industry? What will it do when it becomes clear that Hope is really Hype and Obama reveals himself as the Clintonoid centrist he's always been? What will it do when the new executive discovers he rather likes the powers and pleasures and privileges of the 'unitary' office?

I suggest that, if Obama is elected (let's hope so given the alternative), we must be prepared to go directly against him, lest he take us for granted. There's a fear among us that Obama can take our ball and make us go home, that he can continue to act (as he does now) as if it's either Obamaism or Republicanism or STFU. Actually, we have quite a bit more juice than that: either Obama can lead us in a direction we're willing to go, or he can go home (or with wingnuts and their sympathizers) in four years. Recognize the truth that the politician is not your fellow idealist and it becomes easier to exert a real pressure to which he'll positively respond. Because his interests are not ours. From Thomas Love Peacock's "novel," Melincourt, here's Mr. Sarcastic telling the cynical, gospel truth:

Custom is the pillar round which opinion twines, and interest is the tie that binds it. It is not by reason that practical change can be effected, but by making a puncture to the quick in the feelings of personal hope and personal fear. The Reformation in England is one of the supposed triumphs of reason. But if the passions of Henry the Eighth had not been interested in that measure, he would as soon have built mosques as pulled down abbies: and you will observe, that, in all cases, reformation never goes as far as reason requires, but just as far as suits the personal interest of those who conduct it. Place Temperance and Bacchus side by side, in an assembly of jolly fellows, and endow the first with the most powerful eloquence that mere reason can give, with the absolute moral force of mathematical demonstration,' Bacchus need not take the trouble of refuting one of her arguments; he will only have to say, "Come, my boys; here's Damn Temperance in a bumper," and you may rely on the toast being drank with an unanimous three times three.

Even inadequate reforms are only possible when the powerful are forced through immediate, personal interest to get along with the program. In the past, this was only accidental, as per the Henry the Eighth example: the structure of "custom" forbid anything more grand and deliberate. As for the context of our era... well, it's in a politician's personal and immediate interest to be popular, to be elected and re-elected.

The promise of one's vote and support is the hammer which threatens to strike a politician's knuckles as he clings to office. Don't be surprised, then, that a politician gets way too comfy on his perch (and therefore gets too kissy-face with the real experts in and instruments of corruption) when he knows that the hammer is always in your pocket, only taken out to smack the other guy's fingers. I think that the day after Obama's election we should start looking at supporting other politicians to Obama's left -- to push Obama left, to make immediate the threat of a hard 2012 primary, to make sure he does what he promised plus some. Also, and perhaps counterintuitively because it contains so many semi-wingnut Blue Dogs, we should be prepared to support Congress against the President on most issues on which they clash if only to strengthen the most democratic institution in our government (and the one which, not accidentally, has been losing the most power) and weaken the most autocratic (the executive). The new executive won't like this, but TS for him. You know what they say about absolute power; well, the power of the executive branch has grown absolutely throughout the country's history. Today he (no matter his name, or party affiliation) has more power than the Founders ever dreamed of -- or feared. But then, like Ben Franklin said, sooner or later, every Republic degenerates into a tyranny. Yes, I have an historical analogy ready. When he was out of power, alienated and brooding at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson the democrat chaffed under the arbitrary, unconstitutional, "monarchical" presidential powers of John "Alien & Sedition Acts" Adams. Well, here's Henry Adams (in his biography of that hilarious eunuch, John Randolph of Roanoke), the first president Adams's great-grandson, taking a bit of pleasure in showing how Mr. November Jefferson, once he got the office, let down his admirers in relishing the executive power he'd so long railed against:

Never did any party or any administration in our country begin a career of power with such entire confidence that a new era of civilization and liberty had dawned on earth. If Mr. Jefferson did not rank among his followers as one of the greatest lawgivers recorded in history, a resplendent figure seated by the side of Moses and Solon, of Justinian and Charlemagne, the tone of the time much belies them. In his mind, what had gone before was monarchism; what came after was alone true republicanism... Thus it was that he took into his hand the federalists' constitution, and set himself to the task of stripping away its monarchical excrescences, and restoring its true republican outlines; but its one serious excrescence, the only one which was essentially and dangerously monarchical, he could not, or would not, touch; it was his own office, -- the executive power.

When [John] Randolph [of Roanoke] spoke of "substantial reform," he meant that he wanted something radical, something more than a change of office holders. The federalists had built up the nation at the expense of the States; their work must be undone. When he returned to Washington he found what it was that the President and the party proposed to do by way of restoring purity to the system. In the executive department, forms were to be renounced; patronage cut down; influence diminished; the army and navy reduced to a police force; internal taxes abandoned; the debt paid, and its centralizing influence removed from the body politic; nay, even the mint abolished as a useless expense, and foreign coins to be used in preference to those of the nation... In the legislative department there could be little change except in sentiment, and in their earnest wish to heal the wounds that the Constitution had suffered...

...All these Jeffersonian reforms... touched only the surface of things. The executive power was still there...

...[Randolph] knew where the radical danger lay, and would have supported with his usual energy any radical measures of reform, but it was not upon him that responsibility rested. The President and the Cabinet shrank from strong measures... Perhaps the real reason [why] [t]he republican party in 1801 would not touch the true sources of political danger, the executive and legislative powers, because they themselves controlled these powers...

Jefferson, it is fair to say, was in his own way even more monarchical as a President than his predecessors. He unconstitutionally purchased Louisiana (instantly, as Gore Vidal observed, subverting the conviction he'd shared with his hero Montesquieu, who maintained that republics could only remain physically small if they were to retain their virtue); he made war on the judiciary, trying to impeach a slew of judges who were competent and honest but with whom he disagreed politically; he knowingly sheltered traitors (for political purposes Jefferson retained James Wilkinson as commanding general of the U.S. Army when he knew perfectly well the villain was a spy for Spain); he most pettily meddled in trials; he claimed executive privilege in cases that would make Richard Nixon blush; he executed his own little proto-neocon war with the Tripoli Pirates. Remember, this was Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- by far the "Hopeyist" document an American has ever produced. If the power of the office of the presidency can poison a Jefferson (and it most certainly did), then only a complete nimrod would believe an Obama is immune. Obama merely wants -- and is close enough to smell -- the office; of course he was going to backstab us on FISA. So extrapolate from that. When he actually gets the presidency, his tendency will be to go even farther in that illiberal direction.

Some people will say I'm jumping the gun. Which is true if they mean I'm too easily assuming an Obama victory, false if they mean I'm too certain of Obama backstabbing us. (Actually, it's animus to the genormously ignorant good faith of the mindset behind the latter charge that inspires virtually all my posts on Obama: nothing's worse than the True Believing fanboy.) The childish certainty that Mr. November won't fuck us over would be merely silly were the stakes not so high; as it is, such certainty is insulting and menacing. If he's our candidate, and if he becomes our President, then we damn well better take responsibility for him -- by doing all that we can to make him be decent, even to the extent that we actively and substantively oppose him when he goes against the sentiments that allowed his campaign in the first place. Whatever way it goes on Election Day, fanboys and their idol are on notice.

I think we've only begun to take back our own party -- much less the country. Obamaism may be a means to that goal but it sure as hell ain't an end. And the possibility is very real that it might be an obstacle. Fanboys like to play on others' hopes by saying that Obama's triangulations are but prelude to a gigantic trickfuck he's gonna give the rightwing after he's elected. But purveyors of the trickfuck theory never admit that the nature of trickfuckery allows that it could just as easily be played on the leftwing -- and considering the power of the office and the sort of connections one cultivates in getting it, I ask which side is more likely to discover the exact length, width and depth of the shaft?

For Fake: Obama as Morpheus

There are all kinds of Obama supporters of my age, gender, and race (no, not class so much). Some are de facto supporters, too worldly to be smitten by any politician; some are enthusiastic only to the extent that they are energized in opposition to Republicans. Then there are the others: the douchebag true believers; the gullible, the naive, the childish -- in short, the Ezra Kleins. Someday I'll write something about them. And this excerpt of Roger Ebert's review of the second Matrix film is something I'll probably use:

I became aware, during the film, that a majority of the major characters were played by African Americans. Neo and Trinity are white, and so is Agent Smith, but consider Morpheus; his superior Commander Lock (Harry Lennix); the beautiful and deadly Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith), who once loved Morpheus and now is with Lock, although she explains enigmatically that some things never change; the programmer Link (Harold Perrineau); Link's wife, Zee (Nona Gaye), who has the obligatory scene where she complains he's away from home too much, and the Oracle (the late Gloria Foster, very portentous). From what we can see of the extras, the population of Zion is largely black.

It has become commonplace for science fiction epics to feature one or two African-American stars, but we've come a long way since Billy Dee Williams in "Return of the Jedi." The Wachowski brothers use so many African Americans, I suspect, not for their box-office appeal, because the Matrix is the star of the movie, and not because they are good actors (which they are), but because to the white teenagers who are the primary audience for this movie, African-Americans embody a cool, a cachet, an authenticy. Morpheus is the power center of the movie, and Neo's role is essentially to study under him and absorb his mojo.

Sure, it's coming from the opposite direction from me. Ebert's commenting on the marketing scheme directed at a certain mindset, while my interest is on the mindset that would be marketed to, a mindset so at home with plasticity and falsity (and, it must be said, whiteness -- though not said with the usual finality and weight of those who like to believe that the first last and only explanation to any problem is racism) that the only 'authenticity' it can divine is superficial -- symbolic at best. For them, it really is that simple: Obama is black, ergo he really is all that. Of course, the reality is that Obama -- black, white, or green -- would never be allowed to be all that and have the presidency within his grasp, precisely because America as it is has been created and perpetuated by a long line of slightly-older... yes, plastic and mendacious douchebags who are, if anything, a practical lot, and will thus admit a new member of dusky hue so long as he comes to believe what they believe, and agrees to act according to the institutional rules. 'Black' thus comes to mask and then subvert (it is, in a word, a simulacrum) what is truly magical, radicalism. The douchebags get to have their cake and eat it too, bandying the skein of a progressive stance by pointing to the skin color of their candidate.