Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lucha Britannia

I sooo need a ticket to the UK this spring ...

the fabulosity of Lucha Britannia

Eighty Little Fingers and Eighty Little Toes

Last Monday Nadya Suleman of Whittier, California, gave birth to eight babies, through in vitro fertilization. The eight new babies join six siblings, ages two through seven, Suleman also conceived in vitro. Suleman is unmarried, and according to her mother Angela Suleman, she has been “obsessed” with having children since her teens.

I have to say that I have been immune to this obsession all my life. Even as a child, I was not especially fond of other children. My attitudes were perhaps partly informed by my own status as my parents’ only child.

I can’t go as far as W.C. Fields, who quipped, “I never met a kid I liked,” but I’ve always been dumbfounded by the question “Do you like children?” or “What do you think about children?” You might as well ask me what I think of forty year olds.

Some children are okay, sure, but in general children are no more attractive or interesting than adults in general—that is, the mass majority of them are dullards, an alarming number of them are assholes, and a few, too few, of them are delightful.

Suleman’s obsession, though, besides being a matter for medical ethicists to debate, is another sure sign of the decadence of American culture. The obsession with “bigger” and “more” and “never enough” is a peculiar one to capitalism, I feel.

American capitalism is goal-oriented. Her friends and family tell the media that Suleman’s goal was to be a mother. But for Americans, once the goal is met, new and grander goals have to be set—especially when the original goal proves unsatisfying. To claim that insatiety, whether in matters of childbearing or personal net worth, is a normal and natural human condition is to ignore history: Plenty of people have been able to say “enough,” not through lack of ability or smallness of passion or feeling, but through appreciation for the boundaries of experience.

A sense of accomplishment is a golden feeling—like new love—but also like new love, it is transient. Obsession seems to be a drive to make the transient endlessly and predictably reduplicable, if not permanent.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to me that America’s best-known native religion, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, is based on the potentially limitless expansion of souls and family, as the key to its view of a happy afterlife. It’s a religion that should have been invented on Wall Street.

I suppose a few opponents of abortion also oppose the sort of manifest destiny Suleman’s procreation habit appears to endorse. But, I suspect, too few. Pro-life implicitly suggests prolific and profligate. I generalize, but I sense a connection there. Underlying the pro-life movement is, in addition to a scarily reductive idea of human sexuality, an assumption that women’s fulfillment comes most truly through pregnancy and childbirth. Women like Suleman strike me as the victims of this idea. (I should perhaps apologize—I cannot judge or even fairly evaluate Suleman’s motives, but I find her actions perplexing and disturbing.)

The sterility that stifles some people’s lives cannot be bought off by assembly-line production of even more sterile lives. Technology’s capacity to mass-produce has served the ends of consumer capitalism but not so much the health of the human spirit. To this extent, technology and capitalism, while having done much to improve standards of living viewed through the lens of economics, have usually diminished quality of life from the perspective of humanism.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My 8-Step Economic Recovery Plan

Step One. No employee or executive of a given company can earn more than fifty times what any other employee or executive in the same company earns. No exceptions.

Step Two. Productivity and usefulness will always receive greater rewards than consumption and ineffectuality. Need will always receive greater compensation than cunning.

Step Three. No wealth is inheritable. Personal wealth dissolves upon decease. Survivors may purchase properties thus left in limbo—and in life, individuals are free to give gifts to whomever they please.

Step Four. Every college and university student will have to minor in some area to ensure that she or he can make and repair something of use to society or can provide another service that has demonstrable benefits to others.

Step Five. Nothing in the universe will cost more than a million dollars. Anyone who buys anything that costs a million dollars will know up front that he or she will never see a profit from reselling it. The cost of things will be adjusted to fit the new economy—no form of housing will cost more than $70,000, no bicycle will cost more than $100, no loaf of bread more than 25 cents, etc.

Step Six. Workers and investors will share equally in the profits of any venture—with exceptions for work and investments of exceptional value (provided such value can be supported in evidence). Workers and investors will share equally in the risks of any venture—with exceptions for workers or investors for whom the costs of the risk are demonstrably more severe than for other workers or investors.

Step Seven. Advertising will be restricted to the description of verifiable facts about the product (size, color, ingredients, etc.) or the service (time frame, processes, equipment, etc.). No promises will be made or implied that products contribute meaningfully to one’s sex life, sense of belonging, closeness to nature, patriotism, rebel image, desire for eternal youth, or admiration for small animals and children. Appeals to magical thinking or impulse will be strictly forbidden.

Step Eight. The porn industry will be recognized as a religious organization—in the service of the god Eros. Like other religious groups, it will operate tax free, yet remain free to encroach on legislation and judicial interpretation of laws uninhibitedly. If politicians and judges caught with their panties down are no more subject to censure or impeachment than a new President who commissions three Protestant prayers for his inauguration, the nation may spare itself the cost of investigating, censuring, and impeaching politicians over what they do with their willies and pussies with consenting partners.

(Of course, it would seem to make better sense to tax porn ... and churches …, just to relieve the public debt, if nothing else, though arguably porn, anyway, provides a service to society.)

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Comment on a Comment Responding to Remarks I Left on Another Blog

Like you, I distrust the bailout and have criticized it—am criticizing it even now. Still, I think Bush's wars and the evisceration of privacy and human rights have done more harm to our nation than the bailout ever will—but, still, that's not an endorsement of the bailout. (I don't think Bush is solely to blame for everything that's wrong with America—but for now he'll certainly do as a poster child for everything that's wrong with America.) I think the bailout will make matters worse because I don't believe trickle-down economics works—as I said, I think economic protection of the rich and powerful will not, as the reigning mythology goes, help out the rest of us. It never has, because rich and powerful people tend to care only about their own wealth and power. I don't trust free markets either, for the same reason. Quite frankly, and perhaps rather bizarrely, I don't trust economics—or demographics, or statistics—you can blame a bad math teacher in my past, no doubt. I simply don't think anything I value in humanity is quantifiable—or even manageable—or explainable on pie charts.

I voted for Obama, but that doesn't mean I can't and don't criticize the man. I'd vote for him again, given the opportunity. He's more conservative than I'd like him to be—and he's a politician—a breed of human I have no empathy for whatsoever, from US Presidents down to high-school Sr Class VPs. But politicians seem to come with politics. Obama is no worse than the last 8 or 9 Presidents we've had, and promises to be considerably better than 7 of them. He will do nothing, I suspect, to diminish the expanding powers of the Presidency, which have been stretching past its Constitutional limits since Lincoln, at least. I will be surprised if he makes any headway in solving the current economic mess ... and in the unlikely event that things improve in the next four years, it's more likely to be the result of chance than any given policy.

I don't think he's out to cripple the nation ... not intentionally ... but of course I could be wrong about that. I don't see community service as exclusively "Obama's cause," but I do understand having a certain measure of distrust for that appeal—the call to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and to pitch in for the good of the team, is very frequently an open audition for dupes—while the rich and powerful collect prizes and honors for coming up with the brilliant idea of asking poor people to work harder for less pay—if not for free.

In everything I write, it's fairly easy to detect my distrust, my detestation, of wealth and power (pure jealousy, perhaps ... I don't know ... but the bias is my cross to bear). I also have a strong distaste for appeals to family and God and patriotism—all my experience of such appeals suggests that they are effectively, if not inherently, fascistic in their demands for groupthink and utter dependence on feeling over evidence. Obama represents all these things—as almost every US politician must. We are a child- and flag-worshipping culture, on the verge of worshipping fetuses and flag pins, as well.

More than anything, we are a culture that worships money, which is why we cater to the whims of the wealthy. We choose our leaders from among the wealthy ... and specifically favor those adept at fund-raising and amassing endorsements from other wealthy, powerful people. If we're good to the wealthy, we believe, they'll be good to us. Putting any kind of legal restraints on wealth is anathema to those who have no qualms about legal restraints on natural bodily urges. On some level, most of us, like Joe the Plumber, imagine ourselves on the verge of having great wealth and spend a good amount of time daydreaming about how to spend our first million and what to buy our pal George Clooney for his birthday. The thought that our income over $250,000 could be subject to special (higher) tax rates or that our children will be forced to pay extra taxes on the $3,000,000 we plan to leave them appalls us. On the other hand, we suspect that poor people are sneaky, lazy, irresponsible, mendacious, and bilious—in short, every quality history shows us as typically belonging to the very rich.

The current economic crisis strikes us as very dire ... direr than a senseless war in Iraq, costing thousands of lives, ever struck us ... direr than AIDS ... direr than having a higher percentage of our citizens in prison than any other non-totalitarian nation ... direr than the threat of or our complicity in global warming. Something about money strikes to the core of the American people. More people are sweating over the coming depression than ever sweated over the melting polar ice caps. So the crumbling economy catches our attention in a way that crumbling communities do not. What can I say to that?

Not much. I can't even say I am truly appalled, because I am part of that culture, and everything I just described strikes me as normal and understandable. Perhaps even to some degree acceptable. And despite having no confidence in the effectiveness or morality of bailing out American banks and the auto industry—two dinosaurs we should be considering phasing out anyway—a part of me understands (though hardly accepts) the pleading hope that Providence will look down on this offering to the nation's upper 1 percent and let us keep our jobs (even the ones we hate), our homes, and our current standard of living.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The World's Second League

Here are some words from Matthew Parris, British Conservative, in yesterday’s The Times (UK) on the present financial crisis:

“This recession is not a failure of market economics. It is a reassertion of market economics after a decade in which we paid ourselves more than we were producing, and funded it precariously and temporarily by complicated credit instruments that it took a while for the market to rumble. Now a prosperity that always baffled ordinary citizens has collapsed. The collapse of confidence is not irrational; it's the correction to a long run of irrational confidence. All that stuff about the emerging Asian giants wasn't just phrasemaking for party conference speeches. It was true. We're falling behind. We face a mountain of debt: the difference between the life we are able to sustain and the life we were enjoying.

“Politicians cannot do much to jack up the first. So it falls to them to arrange and explain a reduction in the second. The great task facing the next British government is to help the country to recognise and embrace its fate: that we should get poorer, and slip with as good a grace as possible into the world's second league. Yes, there is a rebalancing required: a rebalancing of popular expectation.”

Parris’s penchant for bile and outright hatefulness aside, and not so evident here besides, the column raises some pertinent points. The United States and the nations of Europe have not relied on productivity for some time. The idea of actually producing a product has been in decline since World War II. And, Parris points out elsewhere, it’s probably too late to turn back to industrialism and so, needless to say, much too late to return to agrarianism.

I suppose the reason we can not return to an economy based on productivity is that technology today has advanced to the point that inhuman technology can mass produce things more consistently and efficiently than human workers can—a circumstance that has relegated us humans to the role of consumers of what the machines produce for us (sometimes useful and wholesome, sometimes not).

Parris applauds India and China for thrusting ahead of the West in recent decades. In a world divided between venture capitalists with hedge funds and unskilled labor with desperate growling bellies, India with its rigid caste system and China with its totalitarian form of Confucianism have proved to have the traits evolutionarily favorable to survival. The Western democracies, with their quaint embrace of Enlightenment values like education, liberty, and equality and their Romantic obsession with individualism, humanism, and pleasure, have taken a serious fall on the course and can expect to be put out of their misery soon.

I suspect that Parris belongs to the set that blames the laziness of poor people and union members for the present decline. Lord knows, the upper classes have worn themselves out struggling to pull us up on our feet. And all we’ve done in return is clamor for even more liberties, decent health care, affordable living conditions, and equality for everyone. It must be awful for them. And when disaster strikes, they allow us 30 months to pull ourselves up to some measure of prosperity—and then the “free ride” of welfare and charity dries up. And, honestly, what more can they do? There are limits.

Responding to Parris’s column, Andrew Sullivan, British-born American little-c conservative, states on his blog this morning:

“I don't understand why, after two decades of bubbling our way to phony prosperity through the dotcom chimera and the housing boom, it is somehow a ‘crisis’ that our standard of living is falling. It is surely a good thing that the standard of living is falling. It means that reality is beginning to return. A hangover may be painful but its cure is not a bout of more binging. My fundamental concern with the stimulus is that its spending be focused directly on real investment and immediate demand and that it be swiftly followed by a brutal assault on long-term entitlement and defense spending.

“We need to take a machete to social security and Medicare and a very sharp scalpel to all domestic discretionary spending. And we need to think very hard about big withdrawals of troops in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and about the foreign aid we give Egypt and Israel. Between the boomers at home and the expanding, unending empire abroad, the next generation will have no sane fiscal future unless something is done very very soon.”

I agree. The standard of living should fall—though I might add that it’s in society’s interest to ensure a reasonable bottom. Unless we want cities of slums and even more burgeoning criminal networks and gangs, not to speak of the current “Mad Max” scenarios the American bourgeoisie is currently envisioning, we need to protect, as much as possible, those who have not yet achieved what we regard as an average standard of living.

To the extent that constraints on the poor and the wealthy ought to be fair, if not entirely equitable, I support what some (including Sullivan) demonize as “class warfare.” The prosperous should not continue to go unchecked in their pursuit of even greater prosperity.

I suspect there’s enough blubber on the thighs of CEOs of most mega-gigantic corporations to feed every assembly-line worker. If we can limit welfare moms to 30 months of benefits, we can probably afford to limit Presidential candidates to no more than two residences. Outcries against government restraints on liberties almost never extend to the benefit of poor workers.

It just seems more reasonable to me, if restraint is needed at all, and I would always insist on no unneeded restraints whatsoever, to restrain the powerful, rather than the powerless. To burden further the already powerless is, de facto, to give undeserved, unjust, and unconscionable immunity and privilege to the powerful.


In a 12 January New Yorker profile by Jeffrey Toobin, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank grumbles about Barack Obama’s selection of Rick Warren to lead the nation in prayer at last Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony.

Not mollified by Obama’s choice of pro-gay rights minister Joseph Lowery to offset Warren, whose choice was meant to represent Obama’s willingness to bridge the partisan divide, Frank quips, “I didn’t vote for a tie.”

That remark puts succinctly half my beef with Obama’s otherwise remarkable style: his apparently fair-minded tendency, to invoke Hegel, to balance thesis and antithesis—yet his synthesis is often remarkably like the old conservative thesis.

And, oh yes, for the curious, the other half of my beef is Obama’s insistent mix of religious and political rhetoric—though I give the President bonus points for including “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address. Thank you … and at last!

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nation of Whiners

In a blog on yesterday’s Huffington Post, John Fischer raises a pointed question: Are Americans afraid of the changes President Obama and a majority of Americans say we need? He even goes so far as to compare Obama’s inaugural address to McCain supporter Phil Gramm’s offhand comment that we’ve become a “nation of whiners,” while emphasizing that Gramm’s remark was basically a plea to ignore the current problems and just think positive, while Obama’s plea is to make sacrifices to solve those problems.

But do Americans know how to make sacrifices anymore? Do I, individually? And we should keep in mind that “making sacrifices” is a voluntary act, not simply “dealing with” losses we suffer but have had no say in. And, perhaps needless to say, “making sacrifices” means WE sacrifice something, not merely look to others to sacrifice.

Some of the other commentators on Obama’s address last Tuesday have noted that its audience failed to respond to the call for “sacrifice”—a word used only twice in the speech and in both cases comfortably couched in the past tense: our “ancestors” and American soldiers in “Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.” But the idea of sacrifice is not far behind the rest of the address, notably in the phrase “the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”

The idea of the “common good” prevailed in olden days. The signers of the Declaration of Independence “mutually” put up “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” as collateral to ensure the independence of the United States from Great Britain. Today, faced with scary economic prospects, how many John Hancocks would put up their weekends, their tax returns, and their partisan political stances to ensure the independence of the United States from its creditors (mainly China, Japan, and the U.K.) or from undue influence of lobbyists for global corporations or from religious fanaticism of every stripe? (Not to mention lobbyists for “special interests” such as my own.)

And do we today even believe that such sacrifice matters? Do we believe it could work? Do we have the confidence the original declarers of independence had that there even exists meaning outside ourselves?

Perhaps more to the point, the point of Fischer’s article anyway, is whether we Americans have become such wusses that the current economic downturn strikes us as much worse than it really is. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, cited by Fischer, our present recession does not stack up impressively against those of 1948 and 1957, much less the Great Depression, the most common historical analogy given as proof of how tough we all have it now. There’s no denying that things are dire and promise to get worse—but is the hand-wringing really called for? Can’t we just buckle down the way previous generations did and tough this thing out?

And even if the perspective of the report resembles Gramm’s can-do Pollyanna-ism (we are, after all, citing the dubious Federal Reserve), might it also be true that the sky is not falling? Or, if it is, that it has fallen much worse on our parents and grandparents, and they were just able to take it better than we are?

And are the solutions being proposed really addressing the larger problem, or do they simply treat the immediate symptoms that the general public are finding so scary? Is a Band Aid from Obama better than George W. Bush “kissing it and making the hurt go away” by telling us to visit Disney World to fight terrorism? “More now than ever,” writes Fischer, “we are confronted by the very real possibility that the system we rely on for our style of living has reached its breaking point.”

We have now had almost two decades to gloat over the failure of Soviet communism (while not being overly impressed by Russian capitalism’s propensity for gangsterism and government corruption). Is it now time for the other shoe to drop? Hasn’t American-style capitalism been limping for quite a while now—hurt either by creeping socialism or more probably, in my opinion, by the rise of consumer capitalism (over an economy based on actual productivity) and the rise of legally protected, publicly irresponsible, government supported, and media controlling corporations?

I’m just asking. And, yes, I’m asking a lot of questions … and giving no real answers. And, in passing, to those—and there are many—who just hate it when people complain about things but have nothing better to offer, I’d like to say, “That’s bullshit, and fuck you.” Asking the right questions is 99% of getting the right answers.

Maybe we Americans are spoiled on easy answers—no-diet, no-exercise fitness plans, and a smiling, cute-though-still-troublingly-Jewy-looking Jesus who is down with suburbia and conspicuous consumption.

Maybe we can’t take the truth, as Jack Nicholson once screamed in a movie. Maybe we face crises now by looking to others to make the sacrifices for us … or by finding bigger, cuddlier daddies to pick us up and promise to fix everything up for us, nice and easy, just the way we always like it.

We have our myths and paladins to remind us of who we once were as Americans. We have our role models even now—“the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” Who and how many among us are really ready to pick up that mantle?

I may be complaining, but at least I’m not whining.

The 12 Articles of Men’s Clothing That Matter

1. Black T shirt
2. Levi’s® jeans and/or khaki chinos
3. Leather jacket
4. White cotton button-down shirt
5. Boxers
6. Briefs
7. Jockstrap
8. Tube socks
9. Black, dark gray, and/or navy cashmere sport’s jacket
10. Terrycloth bathrobe
11. V-neck and/or crew-neck cashmere sweater
12. Steel-toe work boots

Discuss ….

Thursday, January 22, 2009

First Thoughts on the Oscars: Listing

Forget for a second the individual categories, here’s my list from top to bottom of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies, based not on which ones I think will win big, but on which ones I’ll be rooting for.

1. Revolutionary Road
2. Milk
3. Frozen River
4. The Visitor
5. Frost/Nixon
6. Doubt
7. Wanted
8. Encounters at the End of the World
9. In Bruges
10. WALL-E
11. Man on Wire
12. Tropic Thunder
13. The Dark Knight
14. Iron Man
15. HellBoy II: The Golden Army
16. Slumdog Millionaire
17. The Reader
18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

And here’s the pool of contenders I haven’t seen yet.

The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, Changeling, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Happy-Go-Lucky, The Duchess, Australia, Defiance, Bolt, Kung-Fu Panda, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, Enre les murs, Revanche, Okuribito, Vals Im Bashir, The Betrayal—Nerakhoon, The Garden, Trouble the Water

And here are a few I think should have been in there somewhere:

A Christmas Tale; Body of War; Synecdoche, New York; Cloverfield; Pineapple Express; Quantum of Solace; Speed Racer; Mamma Mia!

So far I’ve seen none of the foreign-language nominees, and just two of the feature-length documentaries.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gene Robinson on The Daily Show (1-20-09)

Here below is Jon Stewart's satellite interview with Bishop Gene Robinson. Elsewhere I've read that Robinson was unperturbed by the fact that his prayer on Sunday was not included in HBO's broadcast of the inauguration concert at Lincoln Memorial. His response was something to the effect that God heard it, even if HBO viewers did not.

It may seem that my admiration for the tone of Robinson's prayer is at odds with my conviction that state and church, and even political and religious rhetoric, don't mix. I don't think Robinson had any more (or less) right to speak at the inauguration than Rick Warren or Joseph Lowery, just as I respect Barack Obama's right to take his oath on the Bible or to add "so help me God" to his oath, if he wanted to, while not thinking that doing so was useful, generous, or commendable in any way. Further, I think everything Robinson, Warren, and Lowery had to say about the occasion could have been said just as well in a speech, rather than a blessing or prayer. As a form of discrimination, which they are, such tokens of Protestant religiosity are relatively benign.

I was, however, heartened by one particular passage of Obama's inaugural address, which I think beautifully embodies the hope of the new President's idea of inclusiveness, in which he includes the irreligious on more or less equal terms with the religious (one could quibble over whether the em-dash is for emphasis, dramatic effect, or segregation, but I won't):

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

Booing Bush

I watched the inauguration yesterday on MSNBC. Thankfully, it was a snow day (so is today), my classes were canceled, and I didn’t have to justify the broadcast as integral to my British literature course (I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and would have then missed the broadcast, as my students would have, as well).

One thing stood out in MSNBC’s coverage of the formalities—the less than solemn reactions of the crowd, predominantly black, chanting “O-Ba-Ma” for the new President, and booing the departing President, breaking into the chorus of Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” at both his appearance on the stands and his exit. Something about MSNBC’s location made it easy for the masses’ vocalizations to all but drown out the network’s appointed color commentators. It didn’t seem that the dignitaries on the stand, including Obama and Bush, could even hear these rude outbursts, which sounded like the mindless self-expression of Super Bowl fans.

I’d say that 30% of me felt disapproval for the heckling, a bit less for the chanting in unison (matching, no doubt intentionally, the usual grunting braggadocio of “U-S-A U-S-A” at all kinds of events, from pro wrestling to Independence Day parades). It struck me—or less than a third of me—as unseemly, inappropriate to the cultural and political gravitas of the moment, which I felt was more elegantly served by the day’s scheduled program—Aretha Franklin’s stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” (and the ornate black woman’s “church” hat she sported) and Joseph Lowery’s by turns transcendent and saucy closing prayer.

But 70% of me—the part that was thrilled to see Muntadhar al-Zeidi pitch his shoe at George W. Bush in Iraq, regretting only his bad aim—was right with the rowdiness—more liberated and democratic in spirit than the babble of MSNBC commentators who tried to cast the proceedings in the light of Washington tradition and fetishistic awe for what they described as America’s one concession to “royal” pomp and ceremony.

To my mind, Bush deserved to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of DC on a rail. In this light, a little jeering, probably not even audible to the arrogant asshole, is comparably civil and gracious. Further, I hope the fact that Bush gave no last-minute pardons for persons chargeable with war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan (including himself and Dick Cheney, I assume) means that trials may indeed occur during the Obama Presidency (I have my doubts, though).

Rowdiness is a particular affect of American democracy, from the wild and wooly West to rock’n’roll to student sit-ins in the 1960s. (Unfortunately, other examples include lynchings, fraternity hazings, and gang banging.) I hope the Obama election is the first of many, hopefully stronger waves of renewed democracy in American life and politics—and I hope no less that it will be joined with a respect for rational argument and variety of opinion that Obama himself likes to talk about.

We’ll see.

That said, the other thing that stood out in MSNBC’s coverage was the calculated (it seemed obvious to me) posing of individuals and small groups within the historic mass of witnesses to the occasion. The cameras focused on beaming faces—some with toothy, unaffected smiles, others modeling themselves on Old Masters’ paintings of beatific saints at the moment of epiphany—and, with irritating frequency, weeping faces. Now I have to admit that I wept practically nonstop through the whole hour-long program, moved in part by the historic moment of acquiring a young black President, in part out of relief for seeing the Bush gang’s butts heading for the door, but, irrationally perhaps, I resented the network’s insistent use of cutaway shots of crowd reaction, which were the visual equivalent of a laugh track or melodramatic strings designed to telegraph “appropriate” emotional responses to the event. For that reason, in retrospect, I wish I had watched the inauguration on C-SPAN, with minimal pathos (or so I imagine).

I have not watched any of the subsequent replaying of and commentary on the inauguration … by design. Having watched the event once through is enough. The practice of news media (particularly television) to replay such occasions ad nauseum tends to dull feeling and discourage thinking. (Admittedly, blogging about the event is subject to the same charge, though I’d hasten to point out crucial distinctions—such as the difficulty of filtering the barrage of television noise compared to the act of will involved in choosing whether or not to read this blog.)

Weeping, cheering Obama, and booing Bush aside, the nation now has serious issues to face and problems to solve—as Obama’s speech tried to emphasize. Issues and problems require disciplined thinking more than heartfelt emoting. They also require resolve, not just the heat of a moment. But without feeling, even a feeling of outrage at Bush’s epic betrayals, without a sense of bonding with fellow Americans and with the whole world of humanity, all we’d have of liberty and democracy would be bloodless documents and marble monuments.

I don’t think Thomas Jefferson himself would mind if twenty-first-century American democracy included a bit more of the spirit of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” and a little less unblinking, unthinking “Hail to the Chief.”

Monday, January 19, 2009

"God of Our Many Understandings"

The first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, opened yesterday's inaugural concert with a prayer. The prayer was not included in the HBO broadcast of the event, which included readings by, among others, Jamie Fox, Laura Linney, Tom Hanks, Rosario Dawson, Queen Latifah, Jack Black, and Forrest Whitaker and songs by, among others, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Garth Brooks, U2,, Usher, Beyonce, and Josh Groban (singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee," backed, though unbilled by HBO, by the DC Gay Men's Chorus).

Personally, I would have preferred a less star-studded event, with greater emphasis on community choirs and group dance. The stars could have been there, of course, spotted interspersed in the crowd (the way Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte marched with the people in Martin Luther King Jr's 1963 March on Washington).

I was particularly cheered by the presence of Pete Seeger, singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," with his grandson and Springsteen. Seeger, an American communist folk singer, age 89, wrote "Turn, Turn, Turn," "If I Had a Hammer," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and, along with Joan Baez, helped popularize the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" in the mid-twentieth century.

Here is the complete text of Robinson's prayer, also available at

"O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

"Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

"Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

"Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic 'answers' we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

"Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be 'fixed' anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

"Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

"Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

"Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

"And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

"Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

"Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

"Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

"Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

"Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

"Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

"And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The 12 Ice Creams That Matter

1. vanilla
2. chocolate
3. spumoni
4. Haagen Dazs® Pineapple Coconut
5. Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia®
6. Creamsicle®
7. butter pecan
8. strawberry
9. pistachio
10. dulce de leche
11. rum raisin
12. peach

Discuss …

Revolutionary Road (Movie Review)

What you really don’t want to do is compare Sam Mendes’s film adaptation of the 1961 Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road to the AMC series Mad Men, which it superficially resembles in time and setting. I am a big fan of the TV series and found myself wrongly criticizing the first 30 minutes of the film on the basis of its lack of sharpness and sizzle.

Like Mad Men, Revolutionary Road is about America, post-Korea and pre-Beatles. The film, however, narrowly focuses on existentialist angst—two characters, the Wheelers (Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio), a young, upwardly mobile couple living in the suburbs, face the fact that they have compromised their true characters and adopted the false fronts society expects of them.

The film’s talkiness, its focus on dialogue over action, is part of its technique for revealing the ways language insists on and then reinforces conformity to norms. The story’s 1955 setting, like Mad Men’s early sixties setting, emphasizes for us, though, just how transient and circumstantial “norms” are.

The timeliness of both the film and the series is that now, in the early twenty-first century, we Americans find ourselves again steeped in pressures to conform—a definite stake has been driven through the heart of the free-wheeling sixties and seventies. Our society today is again intolerant of eccentricity that does not follow prescribed (even marketable) formulae, intolerant of those who refuse easy categorization, and insistent on the rightness of rather narrow and rigid codes of conduct, prefabricated opinion, and a notion of personal success defined by wealth, family, comfort, and security.

The couple’s surname, Wheeler, and the name of the street they live on, Revolutionary Road, both symbolize the circularity of custom and the arbitrariness of personal destiny.

The film begins with an explosive confrontation between the young and outwardly successful husband and wife. Subsequent scenes, through flashback and counterpoint, dissect the compromises expected of them—through nuances of word choice and diction and through the silences they accept—the slow alienation from self that society oppressively demands … in the names of “sanity,” of “duty,” of “common sense.”

Winslett, especially, and DiCaprio are richly deserving of whatever prizes and awards Hollywood chooses to throw at them in the next few months. Equally deserving are supporting performances by Kathy Bates (who costarred with the other two in Titanic, another sort of shipwreck) and Michael Shannon. Bates plays the real-estate agent whose doll’s-house sense of normality and decency is a torment to both herself and those around her. Shannon plays her mentally ill son, victim of numerous electro-shock treatments, whose lack of “balance” stems from society’s bad faith—and his mother is the archetypal emblem of that bad faith.

Bad faith, of course, is what the existentialists called the denial of one’s total freedom of will. It’s the tendency people have of blaming circumstances for failing to remain true to their own natures and dreams. As a character in the film points out, money is often posed as the reason we choose to do what we know is untrue to ourselves, but it is never the real reason.

Duty to work, children, parents, friends, and abstract ideals are likewise traps—convenient traps—to spare us from responsibility for our lives. We blame these things when we lack faith in what we know to be true in ourselves. Revolutionary Road is an intelligent, literate film about two people who face this dilemma.

Sunday Beefcake

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Here’s a word I have a sad fondness for all of a sudden.

It smells of milk money and raincoats.

I was in the hospital (pneumonia) during multiplication tables, and that I blame for my persistent inadequacy in math.

It has an aged elegance, like Bakelite and polka dots.

It’s like an insect you might want for a pet.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Today Barack Obama, four days before his inauguration as 44th President of the United States, said he always thought Bush was “personally” a “good guy.”

I wish the President-elect would give his Jesus-wrapped-in-sunshine shtick a rest already. Sure, I admire Obama’s air of unruffled calm, his zen-like grace under stress, his ability to inspire hope in the midst of crisis. Even I, a conscientious pessimist, hope that Obama will be the Chesley Sullenberger of the financial crisis that Bush and his cronies launched with two expensive wars and eight years of handouts to obscenely wealthy “capitalists.”

Bring the plane down, Barry, and save the passengers, if not the geese—but nobody, not even you, is ever gonna top Hayley Mills as Pollyanna. All right?

Bush is not a good guy. I’ve never understood how anyone ever accepted that he’d be a neat guy to have a beer with. Sure, if I really really needed a beer, I could do it … but for the beer, for Christ’s sake, not for some arrogant, privileged 62 year old with daddy issues who thinks he’s still at the frat house.

Not for some asshole who thought it was funny to snuff out cigarettes on other guys’ skin while he was at the frat house.

Not for a guy whose every achievement has been a free ride provided by his family and his family’s CIA, Fortune 500, and Saudi contacts. A fat Rolodex never made anybody neat or even basically decent.

Not for a guy, who as Texas governor, boasted over presiding over more death-penalty executions (152) than any modern-era governor and even had the vilely bad manners to make fun of one of them (Karla Faye Tucker) by imitating her in a high squeal: “Please please don’t kill me.” Damn, dude, even if I did back capital punishment, adding insult to injury is just mean.

Not for a guy who now brags that we haven’t had a terrorist attack on U.S. soil … at least not since the one he presided over on September 11, 2001. He may as well take credit for no more catastrophic hurricanes since Katrina.

Not for a guy who launched an unjust war against Iraq, sold to the world with falsified info, which has cost 4226 American lives, not counting the 90,000+ civilian deaths attributable to the war.

Not for the guy who defended extreme interrogation techniques like waterboarding so long as we didn’t use the “T” word.

Not for George Double-yuck Bush.

Why in the name of all that’s good and decent does Barack Obama think he has to say nice things about this guy? Admittedly, he qualified the remark by saying he thought Bush loves his family (Bush’s, not Obama’s) and the country. Faint praise indeed, when it’s common knowledge that despots generally love children and dogs—and no doubt their countries too as long as the citizens are flattened under their dictatorial thumbs. But why any praise at all?

Does he have his eye on a Nobel Prize or something? Or does he expect the Vatican to canonize him? Can’t he just be stiffly polite to Bush the way he is around the gay press—to which he communicates in “open letters,” issued like fiats?

OK, President Obama (and, yes, God, that still sounds awfully good), nobody really expects you to throw a shoe at Bush. That thunder’s been stolen. And I get it: you’re a nice guy, who reaches out, who includes everybody, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only United States. I respect that. America respects that.

But, listen, it’s enough that you’re our President. Be a good one. And give up on trying to be our personal savior, Boddhisvatta, and high-school counselor rolled into one.

Monday, January 12, 2009

“Things do not change; we change.” Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau

An NPR report this morning put Obama and Bush talking points side by side to show just how alike the outgoing President and incoming President are beginning to sound.

Obama, for instance, campaigned saying he would shut down Guant√°namo Bay and ban torture, upon taking office, but now says he won’t be closing the controversial prison during his first 100 days in office. “It’s more difficult than I think a lot of people realize,” he says. (No shit.) He’s also beginning to show a lot more admiration for the security and intelligence community, and while still vowing to ban torture, he says he doesn’t want these highly “talented” professionals to constantly be looking over their shoulders.

I saw this coming a long way back. It’s not just that things start looking different after one gets a White House briefing, though there is that, and it’s not just that Presidential candidates say anything to get elected, even things they can’t possibly back up, though there is that too.

Fundamentally, it’s a matter of there being a narrowly constricted prototype for who gets to run for President in either major party, superficial differences of style and tone aside—ambitious, narcissistic, malleable front men (and women) for the interests of the real (mostly out of the spotlight) powerbrokers. “Liberal” and “conservative” stopped being anything more than branding at the top levels of government long ago. Goodbye, Adlai Stevenson. Goodbye, Barry Goldwater. Hello, Mickey Mouse.

I’m not saying there weren’t important differences between Obama and McCain. There were. But the principal differences were stylistic, tonal, and symbolic—citrus-scented gel versus ocean-breeze foam.

McCain downplayed the God theme (letting his running mate pick it up in alto), while Obama played it up—not so much as to carry the whole tune, but certainly enough to be resoundingly heard, particularly in churches in the South. Both candidates swore to keep America rich, heterosexual, family centered, and gun toting … if not bearing those arms in Iraq, then perhaps in Iran. No less than the Republicans, the Democrats find it necessary to assuage the key lobbies—for China, Israel, oil, and banks and other lenders … what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” in his unheeded warning to Americans as he left office back in 1961.

And I’m not saying that the Presidency cannot be a tool for real change. It can … and usually is. The change, however, is mostly subtle and cultural—not so much a revolution, as emerged repeatedly with varying success during the Enlightenment, as a makeover … you know, like pink is the new tan, or whatever.

In my cynicism, I believe that no substantive change will happen in America without another bloody revolution and that Americans today have no stomach for revolution, bloody or bloodless. Like “liberal” and “conservative,” the word “change” (bandied by both parties last year) has become just another unique selling proposition, like “new and improved,” which legally requires only a change of marketing—i.e. adding “new and improved” to the package makes a product new enough and improved enough to satisfy government standards for truth in advertising.

Still, it is my “hope” (vague word—desperately in need of substance) that Obama’s symbolizing of change can stimulate real systemic and cultural changes for the better of the nation and the world. As a student of art and literature, I know that symbols have considerable weight—they affect behaviors, attitudes, choices, and meaning, and they can sway history. But we have to remember that change is not inevitably for the good, so we need to bolster our hopes with wariness, inquiry, and shitloads of clamor.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Funniest Blogs ... Ever

Ever seen a cute animal that needs to be put in its place? Ever wondered what Jesus really thinks about Christmas? Ever wondered why white people like The Wire? These blogs may be the lifeline for you.

Fuck You Penguin

Mrs. Betty Bowers America's Best Christian

Stuff White People Like

Sunday Beefcake: Jonathan

Saturday, January 10, 2009

King Julien and Jay

101 Google Hits: Male Model

“nude male model” 204,000 hits
“Asian male model” 154,000 hits
“gay male model” 101,000 hits
“black male model” 76,500 hits
“straight male model” 60,400 hits
“shirtless male model” 42,100 hits
“Indian male model” 34,100 hits
“sexy male model” 33,000 hits
“Brazilian male model” 26,300 hits
“blond male model” 21,500 hits
“athletic male model” 21,400 hits
“muscular male model” 18,600 hits
“porn male model” 15,400 hits
“white male model” 15,400 hits
“American male model” 13,200 hits
“handsome male model” 11,800 hits
“heterosexual male model” 10,800 hits
“Argentinian male model” 10,050 hits
“Italian male model” 8,710 hits
“beautiful male model” 8,330 hits
“European male model” 6,840 hits
“Russian male model” 5,490 hits
“hairy male model” 5,470 hits
“Chinese male model” 5,000 hits
“Australian male model” 4,970 hits
“Austrian male model” 4,740 hits
“Japanese male model” 3,910 hits
“African male model” 3,850 hits
“Canadian male model” 3,670 hits
“deaf male model” 3,210 hits
“British male model” 3,120 hits
“Greek male model” 2,510 hits
“Thai male model” 2,220 hits
“Czech male model” 2,210 hits
“French male model” 1,970 hits
“50-year-old male model” 1,950 hits
“fat male model” 1,870 hits
“brunette male model” 1,570 hits
“homosexual male model” 1,530 hits
“Scottish male model” 1,170 hits
“dressed male model” 1,160 hits
“Spanish male model” 1,150 hits
“Korean male model” 1,080 hits
“clothed male model” 838 hits
“Turkish male model” 758 hits
“bisexual male model” 741 hits
“German male model” 682 hits
“Portuguese male model” 649 hits
“20-year-old male model” 647 hits
“Irish male model” 640 hits
“Indonesian male model” 584 hits
“thin male model” 556 hits
“tall male model” 487 hits
“Venezuelan male model” 423 hits
“mean male model” 422 hits
“dumb male model” 286 hits
“Swiss male model” 264 hits
“Pakistani male model” 226 hits
“English male model” 225 hits
“Mexican male model” 215 hits
“Swedish male model” 203 hits
“ugly male model” 198 hits
“Christian male model” 197 hits
“Welsh male model” 193 hits
“Norwegian male model” 164 hits
“short male model” 144 hits
“Jewish male model” 142 hits
“Iranian male model” 123 hits
“beefcake male model” 110 hits
“Cuban male model” 109 hits
“red-haired male model” 100 hits
“intelligent male model” 30 hits
“Afghani male model” 29 hits
“Arabic male model” 9 hits
“bald male model” 9 hits
“blind male model” 9 hits
“Persian male model” 9 hits
“Native American male model” 8 hits
“smooth male model” 8 hits
“Croatian male model” 7 hits
“mixed race male model” 7 hits
“kind male model” 6 hits
“balding male model” 5 hits
“Moroccan male model” 5 hits
“Ukrainian male model” 5 hits
“30-year-old male model” 4 hits
“Chilean male model” 4 hits
“Egyptian male model” 4 hits
“Hindi male model” 3 hits
“Iraqi male model” 3 hits
“Mormon male model” 3 hits
“paraplegic male model” 3 hits
“transgender male model” 2 hits
“40-year-old male model” 1 hit
“anarchist male model” 1 hit
“Democratic male model” 1 hit
“Muslim male model” 1 hit
“Palestinian male model” 1 hit
“Republican male model” 1 hit
“Somali male model” 1 hit
“toothless male model” 1 hit

As of 10 January 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Misfortune 500

Barack Obama’s proposed stimulus package promises me, a single man earning less than $200,000 a year, a tax break of Five Hundred Dollars. That’s $41.66 per paycheck.

The phrase “stimulus package” makes me think of sex toys, and $41.66 falls $3.33 short of what a jelly vibe strap-on dildo costs.

Now, if I were a business I could get $3000 tax credit for every new employee I hired—at whatever wages a new employee could expect in 2009. Imagine my joy if, in addition to my $500, I would get a minimum-wage job with a company that pays less in taxes than I do.

Nancy Pelosi reports that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the current Bush tax cuts, which mainly benefit the rich, is largely responsible for the great big deficit that appeared out of nowhere in the past eight years. That depends on whether you think having a $450,000 minimum annual income makes a person rich (from where I stand, I’d say I do) … and whether $10.6 trillion strikes you as great big.

Obama’s people are considering not pulling the plug on the Bush tax cuts, but rather let them expire naturally, in 2011. Pelosi wants them repealed “as early as possible”—whatever “as possible” means.

Every indication is that Barack “So Help Me God” Obama puts a lot of faith in both God and Reagan-era “trickle-down” economics. The truth is the money never did manage to trickle down … not under Reagan, not under Clinton or the Bushes, and probably not under Obama.

Somewhere high up there’s a clog. Perhaps Obama can unclog it, perhaps all we need is to dribble some Drano at Dick Cheney’s armpits—might work, might be good for laughs anyway.

Pumping government money into American corporations is not the answer—especially in the absence of adequate oversight to where the money’s going and how it’s being used. Every attempt so far to resolve the world financial crisis has been motivated more by panic than by thoughtful analysis leading to sound judgment.

The state where I live and work is currently experiencing its own financial crisis, and states, unlike corporations, are promised nothing in the package, so, forgive my lack of optimism here, I don’t think the $500 the federal government is willing to let me keep this year will go unclaimed for long.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"The universe … makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid." Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852)

Baby Doll with Syringe (my first photograph, ca. 1958, taken with a Kodak Brownie camera)

I think I may be ready for whatever 2009 has to offer because I’ve been living like there’s no tomorrow for most of my life.

Periodically shamed by my own lack of providence, I find myself now in nearly the same boat as my peers who day by day put something by for a rainy day—all of us are soaked now, umbrella-less in the cold showers. Their investments are disappearing; mine, such as they ever were, went kaput at the end of the 1990s.

I’m OK with this. I’m used to it. It may even be my element. I’ve always had a fondness for inclement weather. Clement weather’s for wusses.

I’d like to say my amused pessimism is the product of a hard, tragic life. But it isn’t. Most Somalis would envy my childhood, but by post-WW2 US standards, it was no great shakes. I was brought up an only child in a working class environment (i.e. US military bases) by emotionally stunted parents (asocial, uncommunicative, distant, occasionally berserk) and from time to time, when the folks were strapped for cash, I had not-quite-Dickensian holidays: once I got just an orange and some unshelled pecans for Christmas, and in the eighteen years, give or take, of childhood, I had precisely one (modest and cheerless) birthday party. I was different (i.e. gay) and raised in a series of hellfire-and-brimstone churches we usually fled once my mother decided they were too liberal.

I suspect it was in my nature to be bleak from early childhood. This was brought home to me recently when I happened to pay attention to a large framed picture of me at age seven or, at most, eight. My eyes stare placidly ahead, not even a shred of a smile on my lips, not miserable, though, more matter of fact. Maybe too much phlegm, as Hippocrates might have diagnosed my appearance.

Even as a child, I looked a bit like a character in Charles Addams cartoons—macabre New Yorker drawings republished in books through the 1960s, and I checked out every one of them multiple times from the base library. By the way, “macabre” was my favorite word as a child—and I’m fairly certain that I was the only seventh grader at my school who knew what “black comedy” is.

In adolescence I was Harold without Maude. I was convinced that I would die before age eighteen, so now, 37 years later, it’s all gravy. Thin, flavorless gravy. But gravy.

So today I live in a world where the government is bailing out once intimidatingly successful corporations so the CEOs can go home with nothing less than the full $28 million they were led to believe they deserve. As little as I watch the news on television, I’m struck by the number of gray, drawn faces under $500 haircuts, flickering in the cathode rays, terrified that their gross worth may soon fall short of a million.

Did you see The Big Chill? The 1983 comedy of alienated idealism in the Reagan years. I loved that movie, but I haven’t seen it in ages. One part I remember fairly vividly was Richard, the character played by TV actor Don Galloway, who, commenting on a friend who’s taken his own life, says, “The thing is... no one ever said it would be fun. At least... no one ever said it to me.” Of course, in the story’s context, Richard is a philistine, a reject among the radicals-turned-yuppies whom the film glorifies.

But I say, “Well said, Richard. Well said.”

I live in a culture that fights terrorism by shopping and visiting Disney World. A culture where six figures is the cutting-off point of the middle class. Even Richard was a successful Republican businessman, whose stoic values were out of step with the new brand of conservatism epitomized by Ronald Reagan.

My frame of reference is several floors down from this. My favorite movie of all time is Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville, in which a song, written by actor Keith Carradine*, recurs as a kind of motif. The song is tongue in cheek, but it does reflect an existential truth about our society’s little people. It goes like this:

“The price of bread may worry some, / But it don’t worry me. / Tax relief may never come, / But it don’t worry me. / The economy’s depressed, not me. / My spirit’s high, as it can be, / You may say that I ain’t free, / But it don’t worry me / …. / Y’say this train don’t give out rides / Well, it don’t worry me. / All the world is taking sides, / But it don’t worry me / Cause in my empire life is sweet / Just ask any ’bo you meet. / And life may be a one-way street, / But it don’t worry me.”

*It’s worth a side note to add that Carradine’s father, John Carradine, played Jim Casy, the “lousy-with-the-spirit” vagabond preacher in John Ford’s 1940 film of The Grapes of Wrath. And Keith’s brother, David, played the hobo minstrel Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s 1976 biopic Bound for Glory.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Frost/Nixon (Movie Review)

Director Ron Howard’s film based on Peter Morgan’s 2007 stage play Frost/Nixon (Morgan wrote the screenplay also) makes a compelling case for television as a medium for truth-telling without over-simplification (as is often charged—by, among others, me, to be frank).

The movie has the usual Hollywood idea of “balance,” but I guess the slash in the title is fair warning of that. Frank Langella plays Nixon as human, haunted, and smart, while taking nothing away from his being crooked. He’s also handsomer than the real Nixon (or any of his subsequent impersonators) ever looked.

The plot centers on the conflict between Nixon and television interviewer David Frost (played charismatically by Michael Sheen—both Sheen and Langella acted in the original London stage production).

Nixon and Frost are represented as alpha-dog competitors who pulled themselves up from humble, working-class backgrounds, tasted great success, and, in 1977, the time setting of this story, hit upon the idea of an epic four-part television interview as a way perhaps to regain the limelight—at a time when both stink of failure, Nixon in disgrace, Frost as a laughingstock.

One small point of interest (to me, anyway) is that Pat Nixon is played by Patty McCormick (who, 52 years ago, played Rhoda Penmark—another Type A personality gone wild—in The Bad Seed). I have to wonder if that’s a bit of trick casting—if so, I got it and enjoyed the hommage, and even if not, McCormick conveys a lot in a very small role.

We see a team of writers and researchers who assist the former President—but his firmest support appears to be former Marine Lt. Col. Jack Brennan (played by Kevin Bacon), a man of respect and stoic loyalty. Bacon’s performance is understated, with nuances of reserved emotion that Bacon has become a master of.

The film more fully develops Frost ‘s support team, as that is where the drama lies—we have the show-biz professional in producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), the pragmatist in journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt), the idealist in academic researcher James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell), and the unconditional support of girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall).

The film is riveting—tightly directed by Howard, with smart, insightful dialogue by Morgan, engrossing character work by all the players. At several points the movie had me near tears—though this is not a tearjerker—notably when Reston states his zeal for seeing Nixon brought to justice and, later, when Frost, not a particularly deep man, but spending money out of his own pocket to produce the interviews, while hammered by his own team for producing schlock television, simply wants to celebrate his birthday.

As I said, the film makes a compelling case for television—its ability to convey nuance, the truthfulness of its “eye” (which “never blinks,” as TV newsman Dan Rather once famously noted). In my view, the film more convincingly supports a claim for television’s cathartic power, to exercise and purge painful emotions—particularly through the use of the close-up shot.

Ultimately, Frost/Nixon argues for the importance of feeling in reportage, an aspect of understanding that television is uniquely able to provide. I think this much is unarguable—as the film proves with horrific real footage of the Vietnam conflict, the sort of heartbreaking pictures that have been disallowed for every other conflict the United States has been involved in since then.

In the end, however, catharsis is not really enough, is it? We must accept that the real Nixon went unpunished for his crimes, that the Frost interviews sped up the rehabilitation of the scandal-ridden Republican Party, and that Nixon’s concept that, when the President does something, it is thus not illegal, an unpopular idea in the 1970s, has become accepted truth for subsequent US Presidents.

I think Frost/Nixon is a brilliant and timely film. I only hope it does not provide audiences with a false sense of closure for our latest scandal-ridden Presidency.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Sheer Terror

I’ve been stumped ever since the United States decided to defeat terrorism by using “shock and awe.”

“Shock and awe” is the phrase the Bush administration presented to refer to spectacular displays of military force in order to paralyze the will of the enemy. Like terrorism, it relies on spectacle, specifically the spectacle of destruction and violence, to psychologically traumatize (i.e. “terrorize”) an entire population to get the people to capitulate to the will of the aggressors.

The main point of difference between terrorism and shock and awe is the difference between “military”—the defense mechanism of recognized and approved states—and “paramilitary”—an unofficial, criminal, or makeshift military.

One might also question who or what the targets of shock and awe are, vis-√†-vis terrorism. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War endorses a strategy of “instant decapitation” of “military and societal” targets. The 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, large urban centers, which were, apart from their occasional usefulness as army depots, of no strategic military importance, is an example of American use of the strategy to cut short the war with Japan. But, then, can the argument be made that the Pentagon and White House as targets in 2001 were likewise military and societal targets—or, for that matter, the World Trade Center?

Were the American colonial minutemen terrorists? I suppose that depends on whom in the late eighteenth century you asked. Was Geronimo a terrorist? Oliver North?

Zionist paramilitary units were “terrorists,” so called in the early twentieth century—first against the Palestinians who lived on the land the Zionists believed God had given to them alone, and then, following the Second World War, against the British, who attempted to block the immigration of European Jews to Palestine, in principle to protect the balance of Palestinian Jews and Arabs.

With the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, supported by the United Kingdom and the United States, Zionist terrorism became nationalized and, dropping the “para-“ prefix, militarized—and then, for the most part, nobody called it terrorism. Longstanding friction between Jews and Arabs heated up—as, after the post-war influx of European Jews, Palestinian Arabs found themselves minorities on their own land, not unlike white settlers’ encroachment on Native American lands in the nineteenth century—and the heat’s been up ever since.

Hamas or the Islamic Resistance Movement is a paramilitary and political organization that the United States and other Western powers now label as “terrorist.” Like the early Zionists, Hamas believes God gave the land to them alone.

Unfortunately, God has kept mum on the matter while millions of Jews and Arabs have slaughtered each other and each other’s children with the kind of zeal only possible when religion and politics mix. If you can look up to a parent who gives a present to two children and sits by and watches while the kids fight each other to the death over it, have we got the Heavenly Father for you!

In 2006, in response to the demands of the US government, Palestinians held democratic elections and thus empowered the political wing of Hamas, who gained a parliamentary majority. However, the United States refuses to accept the legitimacy of this government and has sought to negate the election that brought it to power.

Hamas displaced a rival group, Fatah, a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization founded in 1954 by Yasser Arafat and others, all of whom used to be called “terrorists,” but now the United States and Israel claim Fatah as a friend and ally. Who could have guessed?

And as the US government has embraced torture, too, albeit under the name of “enhanced interrogation,” I think the distinction between what WE do and THEY do has become even blurrier.

Even once Bush is out of office, the “war on terror,” which has proved such a successful manipulative (and pliable) piece of propagandistic cant, can go on indefinitely, since the locus of terrorism shifts with each new change in alliance—and from different points of view.

Quick, tell me: Libya, terrorist or antiterrorist state? Pakistan? Iran? China? Cuba? Forget that the expression “terrorist state” appears to contradict some part of the fundamental definition of terrorism—unless, of course, terrorist state refers to nations who engage in shock and awe or whose civilian intelligence agencies engage in “black ops”—secret political actions outside ethics, law, and agreed-upon conventions of fair and just war.

Is the United States a terrorist state? Who’s asking?


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