The Grammy’s, Lin-Sanity, Jon Stewart (and Iran)

This is another column about the burgeoning crisis between the US and Iran. Since I have yet to gain any traction with this issue I have decided to sprinkle gratuitous pop-culture references throughout the piece to generate interest.

This column first appeared in the February 16th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Over the past couple of weeks my frequent collaborator, Dorian Dale, and I have set the burgeoning conflict between Iran and the United States in our sights, determined to bring this potential disaster further forward in our nation’s collective consciousness. But while Whitney Houston’s body is in search of an arena large enough to hold her mourners, talk of the next Great War generates barely enough interest to fill a teacup.

Therefore, I have decided to shamelessly sprinkle gratuitous pop-culture references throughout this column in order to reach a larger audience. (References are bolded for navigational ease.)

Iran is the slow moving accident you can’t take your eyes off of. It’s LIN-sanity. For that matter, so is the global economy, the crisis in the Eurozone and the price of oil. Let’s add in the GOP primary season for good measure to bring this tainted stew to a boiling point because the decision-making process in America this year will be guided by partisan politics rather than practical policies.

New Yorkers would be wise to look up from their smartphones for a moment to see what’s really happening. Not only is New York home to the United Nations and ethnic communities from around the globe, it bears visible scars of terrorism. Many of its residents’ livelihoods are directly or indirectly tied to the world financial district, and don’t forget that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is also taped in the city. Moreover, conventional wisdom (if there is such a thing) has it that should the wheels come off the Obama train, our current governor will be a top Democratic contender to challenge whichever GOP dipshit is lucky enough to hoodwink America into voting for him.

One way for Obama to lose the upcoming election is if oil prices continue to get out of hand. As it is, we are already experiencing higher-than-normal pricing during the winter months. Analysts are already warning that if the trend continues and conflict with Iran steers toward the inevitable, oil could hit $200 per barrel this year, translating into approximately $6 at the pump. If this were to happen, Barack Obama’s chances at re-election would be slimmer than Adrien Brody.

Many in the media have dismissed the likelihood of confrontations between the U.S. and Iran as “saber rattling,” but there have been some very real world occurrences that are beyond rhetoric. The attempted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok this week by an Iranian man and successful assassinations of nuclear engineers within Iran over the past few months have heightened tensions between Israel and Iran. For its part, the United States is positioning itself to defend against the threatened closure of the Strait of Hormuz, a key “choke point” for oil tankers in the Middle East. Along the way, the United States rescued Iranian fishing vessels twice in one week—events that garnered brief, but small international attention as opposed to George Clooney’s performance in “The Descendants,” which has received international acclaim and Oscar nominations.

While the world does its familiar dance of deadly brinksmanship, consider for a moment the case of Morgan Stanley. Never has one company had so much to say about, or perhaps to gain, from the pressing issues at hand. Morgan Stanley embodies the intersection of finance, politics, oil and war more than any other corporation on Earth. If ever there was an example of the “corporatization” of America, this is it. I’m reviving my frequent criticism of Morgan Stanley so we may, in the words of Belgian-born artist Gotye, “Walk the plank with our eyes wide open.”

First off, trying to drill down into Morgan’s structure is like jumping down the rabbit hole in search of Johnny Depp.  The list of Morgan Stanley subsidiaries is a 25-page, single-spaced document with 207 corporations registered on the Cayman Islands alone. What most people, and even some savvy investors, don’t realize is that among them you will find a host of companies directly related to or involved in the oil industry.

Take, for example, Heidmar, a global oil shipping company with 120 vessels. Or TransMontaigne, which controls a third of the oil terminal business in the United States. Both are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Morgan Stanley. Furthermore, Morgan owns $1.2 billion in shares of ExxonMobil and $900 million in shares of Chevron. Oh, and many of the oil futures contracts are traded on the Intercontinental Exchange in Atlanta, which was founded by Jay-Z. No, jk, lmfao. It was founded by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP.

Piece this together and you will quickly understand that there are two things of critical importance to Morgan Stanley where the oil business is concerned: price and volatility. When you add to the equation that the leading energy analysts in the world who predict the future price and volatility of oil are from… you get the point.

To borrow from the Occupy Wall Street movement—This is what democracy doesn’t look like.

Now let’s get our conspiracy freak on for a moment and take a look at whom Morgan Stanley is backing for president of the United States. No, it’s not Steven Colbert. Morgan is steadfastly behind Willard “I support military action in Iran” Romney. In fact, it is Romney’s third top contributor in the 2012 election cycle behind only Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, two companies that also know a little bit about gaming the financial markets.

Allow me to go one step further. Conflict in the Strait of Hormuz would be the best thing to happen to Morgan’s oil interests, as they deal mostly in the Western Hemisphere and would benefit greatly from their own prognostications of skyrocketing oil prices. Because the United States is officially now a net-exporter of oil, the American petroleum business and those financial companies that profit from it would experience a boom like never before.

The very thought of gas and oil prices going even higher sends chills down the spine, especially here in New York where we rely so heavily on home-heating oil and transportation in our daily lives. But don’t worry, New Yorkers, we’re in good hands there, too: Morgan Stanley owns the majority stockpile of home-heating oil reserves in the Northeast. Charlie Sheen can only dream of “winning” as much as Morgan Stanley.

 

All photos from the Associated Press. 

Quitting Charlie Sheen

Party Boy Sheen at Play

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about Charlie Sheen, so this article isn’t about him. It’s about us.

It’s about the millions of us who have tuned-in to watch Sheen’s rambling prime-time interviews, the 966,000 who “like” Charlie’s Facebook page and the thousands who have bought tickets to his multi-city “My Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option Show.” The allure is clear and age-old: A handsome, famous and ridiculously rich actor from a storied family goes on a coke-fueled bender with porn-star hookers, tells the corporate boss-man to stick-it, brands his two of his three ex-wives “bitches,” and proclaims himself a “high priest Vatican assassin warlock.” For voyeurs who love to see successful folks stumble, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Beyond the garden-variety “hero falls from grace,” storyline though, there’s another dynamic at work. We are fascinated by people who are drunk and/or stoned and behaving badly. Whether it’s Gary Busey on this season’s Apprentice or Janice Dickinson on Celebrity Rehab, we shake our heads, laugh nervously and lament the fact that we – even without all that money, fame, and power – aren’t THAT messed-up. The fascination with addicts goes beyond celebs considering the immense popularity of shows like A&E’s Intervention, Hoarders and the dozens of spin-offs in the making including Relapse, a show detailing treatment failures set to debut later this month.

Peel away the rich and famous veneer and Charlie Sheen is an extreme version of the guy at a party, who an hour into it is making inappropriate comments to female guests, slurring his words and dancing around with a lampshade on his head. We all laugh at that guy, egg him on a bit and feel a bit better about pouring our third Grey Goose. We’re entertained, he’s emboldened. Win-Win.

For those with an addicted family member (and who doesn’t have a few of those?), their drinking, toking or snorting invariably pales in the context of Charlie’s, Lindsay and the Hoff’s bizarre behavior. We no longer feel the same urgency to act, but we tune-in to Intervention for re-assurance and a few tips about how one day to best to trap our loved one in a hotel room before carting them off to rehab.

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to know that Charlie’s got some issues – issues that likely transcend coke and booze. After decades of education and awareness, we’re finally starting to get that making fun of mentally ill folks isn’t cool, which is perhaps why we’ve focused on Sheen as an addict, rather than a guy with a psychiatric condition. Addiction is still fair game, because we don’t view it as a brain disease, but as a series of bad choices, a lack of willpower and a moral failing.

Addiction, of course, is a brain disease. Would we laugh at an autistic child’s struggles? How about a senior suffering with Alzheimer’s? Probably not. We wouldn’t remix their desperate words over pop songs or peddle t-shirts with their confused slogans. We wouldn’t send them onto the stage before a packed house at Radio City and we wouldn’t forward their YouTube videos to all our friends.

The public attention paid to Sheen isn’t good for him, nor for anyone else. Young addicts look at Sheen and are able to say to themselves and others, “at least I’m not that f’ed up.” Sheen’s public potshots at Alcoholics Anonymous embolden treatment-resistant addicts’ beliefs that 12-step programs are thinly disguised cults, when in fact those groups have saved the lives of millions.

As much as Sheen’s rants delight, they also scare the hell out of some people.  His soliloquies reinforce the stigma associated with addiction and increase the barriers to care, compassion and recovery. LICADD – the nonprofit organization I run – has been looking for new office space in Nassau. About two-thirds of landlords have declined our offer to rent space once they figure out that our acronym stands for the “Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.” Immediately, they conjure up an image of a hundred Charlie Sheens standing in their lobby ranting and raving as well-healed corporate types tiptoe by. Like it or not, Sheen has become the latest poster child for addiction.

That’s unfortunate because there are so many folks quietly struggling through the horrors and drugs and alcohol and an even greater number of those who have made it through to the other side. Profiling folks who have pulled their lives back together and are experiencing the miracle of recovery doesn’t make for good TV and just doesn’t titillate us in the same way.

During one of his rants, Sheen told the world, “I am on a drug – it’s called Charlie Sheen.” We all are Charlie. We all are.

Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds