Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Steven Pinker places "our weird obsession with genealogy" in a biological context in his new article up at The New Republic. It's interesting, but I find it less so than had he focused on genealogy within a particular American context.

Americans are simply more interested in genealogy than most other people in the world. In part, this is because we are an immigrant nation. Most people really aren't sure of their roots.

But there are other factors as well. First, the Mormons. Because Mormons want to trace all of their members roots back to biblical times, they are intense genealogists. More than any other individual groups, they have made genealogy accessible and popular to all Americans, since they open their databases up to the public.

What I think is most fascinating though is how Americans feel the need to validate their own status through their families. I should disclose here that I really hate genealogy. Not only is it annoying to tell someone that you are a historian and have them come back with a discussion of their family, but it is also largely fabrication and self-selective truths. Pinker quotes Oprah saying, "Knowing your family history is knowing your worth." Why? What in the living hell difference does it make if you are somehow related to Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony? How does that make you a better person? And what about all of your drunken, criminal relatives? Where's the bums, wife beaters, and drug addicts? Why is that not just as much part of your worth as your dubious connection with James Madison?

The answer is that Oprah and other genealogists are just wrong. Your family history has no connection with your worth. Your worth comes from your personal actions. Those actions are affected by your family history, no doubt. If you grew up in Watts, rural West Virginia, or Pine Ridge, you have significant social and cultural disadvantages to some rich white kid from Beverly Hills. But I'm also not saying that your worth is determined by how much money you make, what kind of car you drive, or even if you manage to stay out of the criminal justice system. Rather, given the cards life has dealt you, do you try to do right by people? That matters so, so much more than the fact that your great-grandmother once had tea with Gertrude Stein.

The Tourist's Constant Search for Authenticity

I found Karen Robinson's blog about the Pan-Am Games interesting. Not for the review of the games themselves, which I care little about. But rather it's a solid example of the search for authenticity among tourists when traveling in the developing world.

Robinson chooses to avoid the Hard Rock Cafe and other tourist traps. That's good. Instead, she did this:

"Friday night we opted for the authentic Rio experience rather than the touristy (and perhaps non-existent - I don't think our jumpers were there) party at the Hard Rock Café. Our trusty taxi driver Edmar, after giving us each a hand-made fridge magnet as a souvenir of our visit, dropped us off in the Samba-friendly neighbourhood called Lapa. We had an incredible evening of eating, drinking and absorbing the scene, which I have to say ranks up there with some of my most memorable cultural experiences. The street life was everywhere abundant: people dancing, live music inside and out, and guys walking around the sidewalks selling Tequila shots to anyone sick of Caipirinhas. We particularly enjoyed staring at the transvestite prostitutes, and bless their kinky little hearts, they appeared to enjoy our stares too."

I've been to Lapa, and it's really cool. The music is hot and it's a lot of fun. I'm sure she had a great time. However, the text is interesting for what it tells us about tourists' mentality. First, I'm not sure how "authentic" it is to be receiving refrigerator magnets from your taxi driver. But more importantly, what is authenticity anyway? Doesn't your sheer presence at Lapa change the place? Hasn't the fact that thousands of tourists go there every year had an effect? Was it ever an "authentic" thing? Doesn't that assume some sort of solid base of fact?

The answer is within the text itself. The tequila shots show how Brazilian culture has changed. I don't know if the tequila was introduced for the tourists or if the Brazilians like tequila over caipirinhas themselves. It doesn't matter. What matters is that at some point, alcohol from different nations have been introduced to Brazil. That's fine. Music from around the world, including modern American music, has affected Brazil. So has clothing, food, and speech from other nations. Brazil does things differently than other countries, as do all nations. They integrate those foreign influences into their own culture.

But let's stop pretending that something is authentic, as if we have discovered this untouched thing that helps regenerate our souls. Because that's what the search for the authentic often comes down to--westerners trying to find something real in their lives. Brazil is a great place. Rio is an awesome city. Lapa is a really cool neighborhood. Go there. Enjoy it. Have your tequila or your caipirinhas. But let's stop pretending that we are discovering something untouched in other cultures.

I should say that I don't mean to pick on this particular writer--you see this everywhere, not only in music, but in religious ceremonies, food, drink, clothing, customs, etc. And I find it really annoying and deeply condescending to people.

Via Global Voices Online

Historical Image of the Day

Cheyenne buffalo robe, 1870s

Res Ipsa Loquitur

Yesterday Erik noted the passing of Ingmar Bergman. As if further evidence were needed of Bergman's genius and significance to the art of film, John Podhoretz thinks Bergman is overrated. Yes, that's John “Cinderella Man is one of the best movies ever made! Ron Howard has become his generation's answer to William Wyler -- a classic cinematic storyteller who can work wonders in any genre!" Podhoretz.

Thoughts on Brazil and Cotton (yes, Cotton)

There will be plenty coming from me soon about the airport situation in Brazil (lots has happened in the two weeks I was in Brasília), but first, the exciting world of cotton subsidies (yes, cotton subsidies). Boz points us to a blurb on how Brazil has successfully demonstrated to the World Trade Organization that the U.S. failed to overhaul subsidies by overproducing cotton in an effort to drive down global cotton prices, hurting other cotton producing countries. Even to me, this is generally extremely boring stuff (I just don't care that much about international economies at that level), but what Randy points out gives the story a lot more merit beyond the international economics framework. Brazil didn't just represent itself in this complaint - it also represented Mali, Burkina Faso, and other cotton-producing African nations that may not have had the resources to ably contest the U.S.'s excesses.

All of this matters for one very simple reason: Brazil has spent the last 5 years building alliances with the "developed" and the "developing" world. Whereas the previous administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso was basically interested in increasing dependency on nations like France and the United States by privatizing anything and everything he could in Brazil, Lula has had a more open approach that has looked as much to relations with developing nations for economic growth and global reputation as it has to the U.S. and Europe. He has had no problem trying to set up trade deals with states like Saudi Arabia, China, and many nations in Africa. In short, Lula has talked to anybody and everybody, from Bush to Chavez, from King Faud to Hu Jintao.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Certainly, some of the efforts to trade relations and friendship-formation between Brazil and other countries may not play out, but that doesn't ultimately matter. By simply branching out and extending Brazil's relations to other developing countries, Brazil has managed to lay the foundation for a future as a global leader within the international community in ways it has never achieved thus far while increasing its economic growth via trade agreements with non-traditional (but still completely useful) trade partners.

The narrative in the United States by and large emphasizes that Venezuela's Chavez is the only leader challenging the U.S.'s hegemony and building alliances with non-European/non-North American governments. Certainly it may seem that way - without question, Chavez is more boisterous, louder, adn more confrontational. But while he launches all his rhetoric and has his photo taken with leaders of Iran or Zimbabwe, Lula has been quietly moving around the world, talking as much with Bush (see the recent talks between Lula and Bush in the area of ethanol development) as with leaders of Africa, Latin America, and Europe, even while taking on the U.S. where it hurts Brazil's own growth (as in the case of the cotton subsidies or in Lula's current insistence that, this time, Brazil will not back down in the global trade talks in Doha) and the growth of other countries in the developing world, as the filing of the cotton-subsidies case against the U.S. on behalf of African countries demonstrates. By quietly building such relationships, downplaying bombast and quietly negotiating, Lula has spent the last five years building very fruitful international relations that will only improve over time, and while the middle-class in Brazil may hate him now, there can be no question that, in this arena, Lula has done better than any president in recent memory in helping Brazil to truly grow.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Stanley Kurtz Is What Some of Us Would Call "An Idiot"

Stanley Kurtz is a complete moron. He "argued" today at The Corner that we should abolish tenure.

Kurtz cites a poll claiming that 82% of Americans want to modify or eliminate tenure. First, do 82% of Americans even know what tenure is? That is a certain no. Second, how many of those who know what tenure is understand it? I'll be generous and say half. But most hilarious to me is how Kurtz claims a democratic mandate for his argument. Clearly because more than 1/2 of Americans supposedly want to modify tenure, it means the nation should make it a top priority! Plus, I don't see Kurtz or his fellows National Review wingnuts placing their same faith in democracy when it comes to the war or Alberto Gonzales or health care.

This is an obvious attempt to destroy the one place in the nation that liberals still dominate: academia. I would think Kurtz would be more concerned though with stopping the hemorrhaging of his party in all aspects of American life.

Finally, Kurtz ends with this laugher:

"More than anything else, the conversion of tenure from a protector of academic freedom into an instrument of ideological exclusion is responsible for the destruction of the campus marketplace of ideas. Tenure is the cornerstone of the campus political-correctness problem, and even beginning a serious effort to remove it would almost certainly shake up the entire academic system. The time to consider a serious campaign to eliminate academic tenure has come."

Yep, there is just no marketplace of ideas on American campuses. It's just part of the left-wing hegemony over American life!!! If only all of America could exchange ideas as freely as the corporate office, the fraternity house, and the Republican Party.

Via Yglesias

Ingmar Bergman, RIP

I am tremendously sad to read of Ingmar Bergman's death.

For my money, Bergman was the greatest director in the history of cinema. I know he's unfashionable today. He didn't have the cool, postmodern irony that modern cinephiles seem to love. He didn't pioneer hipster violence like his contemporaries in the French New Wave. He didn't play with anything goes sexuality and gender identity like Fellini. His movies could be depressing. He made some pretty gloomy art. There is some good analysis of the disturbing nature of Bergman's decline in stature here.

Who cares. Bergman made films exploring the deepest questions humans have to face. Not only did he mine the emotional hell of his own life for amazing films about relationships like Scenes from a Marriage or the films he wrote but did not direct about his parents, he delved deep into the meaning of life. Bergman grew up as the son of a prominent Lutheran minister in Sweden. Like many Lutherans, Erik Bergman was cold to his son emotionally and this profoundly affected young Ingmar. Bergman soon gave up his father's religion and came to what I think is a deeply honest discovery: the only meaning of life is life.

I think this is key to understanding Bergman's films and is an important key to unlock why so many Americans aren't into him today. Bergman gave up on God. A lot of Americans especially are not so willing to do that. At his best, his work was not a depressing look at existence, but rather a glorious mirror his own understanding of humanity. The next to last scene in The Seventh Seal, which is my favorite film ever made, demonstrates this. The knight is desperate to understand the meaning of life before he dies. But his squire, played excellently by Gunnar Bjornstrand, tells him that his search his hopeless. However, he says, "But feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive!" The professor in Wild Strawberries realizes this as well. He has been emotionally dead to the world but as he ages, he knows he has wronged others and has not truly lived.

Isn't Bergman really telling us to live. He struggled with the very issues he rejected of course. He couldn't live how he preached either. Take this speech from the knight in The Seventh Seal:

"Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can't I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of?"

Ingmar Bergman couldn't kill the God inside him. But he dealt with it the best way he knew how, by turning his inner torture into beautiful art.

When my friend died last week, I turned to The Seventh Seal as a way to help myself mourn him and deal with the inevitably and sadness of death, while still being ecstatic at the fact of being alive. Scenes from a Marriage helped me get through a divorce. Tonight, I will watch Cries and Whispers, both because of the way it combines Bergman's themes of death and difficult personal relationships, but also because it is a perfect film to remember Bergman's greatness. The look, the actors, the story, the dialogue.

I will miss never again having the opportunity to watch a new Ingmar Bergman film.

Novak's Future

Via Zaius Nation:

Bob Novak is pondering his future:

"I’m 76 years old, and pretty soon I’m going to a place where there are no blogs."

One commenter puts it succintly, saying

"Pretty soon he's going to a place where there are no clouds, no water, and where his skin will burn for eternity."

Well, if such a place exists, I think that's right.

Historical Image of the Day

Advertisement for runaway slave, New York City, 1778

Your Autographed First Printing of "Left Behind" Won't Get You Into Heaven Any More

Following up on last week's post about Christians Impatient for Armageddon, here's an article about a letter written by group of moderate Christian evangelical leaders who support the creation of a Palestinian state, and a more even-handed approach by the United States to the Israel-Palestine conflict. By "moderate," I simply mean that they don't subscribe to a brand of eschatology that mixes populist ressentiment with a plotline drawn from a prog-rock concept album, and that they believe Jesus probably wouldn't be in favor of Israel's colonization of Palestinian land, and the misery which this produces among the Palestinians.

CUFI's ruling cleric, Rev. John Hagee, responded:

"Bible-believing evangelicals will scoff at that message.

"Christians United for Israel is opposed to America pressuring Israel to give up more land to anyone for any reason. What has the policy of appeasement ever produced for Israel that was beneficial?" Hagee said.

"God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a covenant in the Book of Genesis for the land of Israel that is eternal and unbreakable, and that covenant is still intact," he said. "The Palestinian people have never owned the land of Israel, never existed as an autonomous society. There is no Palestinian language. There is no Palestinian currency. And to say that Palestinians have a right to that land historically is an historical fraud."

Now, of course, you can hear precisely this sort of thing from hardline preachers and demagogues on al Jazeera and Hezbollah-run al-Manar television all the time, in regard to the Jews and Israel: They have no legitimate claim to the land, Palestine is Islamic waqf, "true" Muslims reject compromise witht he Zionist entity, and so on. When Islamic leaders say these things, however, they are appropriately condemned in the U.S. media as extremists. When John Hagee says them, he is invited to the White House, embraced by the Republican leadership and AIPAC, and compared to Moses by Joe Lieberman.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Was the American Revolution Bad for America?

I have been thinking about some of the implications of Michael Moore's Sicko. Specifically, why is the United States the only nation in the developed world without some sort of equitable, government-funded health care?

I am just wondering if we can look back to the American Revolution for some answers. To be exact, did the American Revolution undermine the modern United States' willingness to engage in the sort of social democracies we see throughout Europe, Canada, and increasingly other nations as well?

I don't have a solid answer for this. But I'm going to play a little counterfactual game to help think about these issues.

Let's say the American Revolution fails. What happens?

We are Canada.

Is that so bad? I don't think so.

Sure, Britain would have executed Jefferson, Washington, and the gang. That would have been terrible. But what happens after that?

First, the Declaration of Independence is still around. That wasn't going away. If those words have inspired movements around the world, they probably still would have.

Second, Britain would have solved the U.S.' slavery problem. Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833. Slavery was never as profitable in the US as it was in the Caribbean. So the US experience likely would not have affected British opinion. In addition, if we assume that the US becomes a free nation in 1867, the same year as Canada, that gives us 34 years to figure out our race relations. Do we still have racial problems? Of course. But they would be different, at the very least.

Third is the issue of westward expansion. Frontier issues played a major role in the Revolution, one that is underplayed in traditional narratives. The Proclamation of 1763, not allowing settlers access to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, really made colonists angry. We wanted to kill Indians and steal their lands. That may sound too blunt, but it is most certainly true. As Richard White has shown in The Middle Ground, the worst thing that happened to the Indians of the Ohio Valley was the American victory in the Revolution. The British didn't care about native rights of course. But they didn't want to pay for frontier wars. With the British still in charge, perhaps you see a situation between Native Americans and whites similar to that in Canada. It's still bad. But it's not as bad. It's probably not genocide.

Plus, we probably would not have Texas today. The American Southwest would quite possibly still be part of Mexico. Maybe when the Latin American nations throw off Spain, the British go in and take a bunch of Mexico. Quite a reasonable hypothesis. But in any case, you don't see a bunch of pro-slavery expansionists go into Texas to bring slavery there. You don't see a war started to protect that slavery. And most certainly, Texas is not TEXAS, in the way it is today. It's hard to argue that Texas is good for the nation.

I think more generally, what you would have seen with a US that remains part of Britain until the 1860s is a maturing of society. A growing industrial base, slowly evolving set of political rights, increased education and wealth--all of this would have made for a more stable nation than what we saw in the 1780s. As Gordon Wood has shown in Revolutionary Characters, among other writings, the Revolution got away from the Founding Fathers. We might think of this as good, as those men were elitists who felt uncomfortable with many of the pioneering aspects of American democracy as it developed in the early 19th century. But with that democracy also came a lot of bad things--the overwhelming power of money over politics, unbridled westward expansion, anti-intellectualism, the popular killing of Indians, the increasing entrenchment of slavery, seemingly endless waves of evangelicalism, etc., etc.

It's at least possible that the pushing up of the average money-grubbing white male to the top of the political process at a very early age has helped create a society focused on the individual over the group, on personal wealth over social wealth, on money over education, on white over black.

Finally, we wouldn't be basing our whole political system in the present on trying to interpret (or misinterpret) what a bunch of rich white men thought over 200 years ago. We wouldn't be trying to fit everything we do into the Constitution. We would be focusing on governing for the present, not the past.

No doubt, you can poke holes in my argument. But I think it's at least worth considering whether the American Revolution was really a good thing for the United States. It's a counterfactual, presentist argument, but one that is at least worth mulling over for awhile. And if you don't like my argument, what better answers are there for why the United States is so different from the rest of the western world when it comes to creating a decent society for all citizens?

Historical Image of the Day

Charles W. Cushman photo, "Brick Houses across from Steel Mill, Johnstown [PA], 1940.
For more on Cushman, see here

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Historical Image of the Day

NAACP pamphlet, 1944

Reimagine This

Amongst the various commercials shown to me last night as I waited for the Simpsons movie to start was a five minute spot on the new Bionic Woman, which is apparently "getting the Battlestar Galactica treatment." That is, a hokey TV show of yore is being revamped, er, excuse me, "reimagined" as serious television. (This was obvious even before I learned that BSG's executive producer David Eick is producing the show.) At one point in the ad, actor Miguel Ferrer even said "This is not your parents' Bionic Woman," as was said by every other reviewer of BSG when it premiered. (No word yet whether Lindsay Wagner will be brought on to play a conniving politician with questionable loyalties.)*

Surely, there are a host of other TV series that could use the BSG treatment, shows which at the time were treated purely as escapist entertainment, the moral and political implications of their premises left woefully unexplored. Here are some possibilities:

The Beverly Hillbillies
In this "reimagining" of the beloved 60's series, Jed Clampett, a poor, humble farmer, strikes oil on his land, gets rich and moves to LA, where he and his family struggle with the pressures of newfound wealth and power. Jed becomes active in conservative politics, eventually buying a formerly liberal magazine and using it to call for war in the Middle East. Jethro and Elly Mae are almost destroyed by drugs and cliquishness at their new high school. With nothing left to do but sit around drinking, and steadily losing her sight from a lifetime of moonshine, Granny goes slowly senile, becoming an angry prophet of doom, her physical blindness a metaphor for the moral darkness which increasingly engulfs the Clampett family. This is not your grandparents' Beverly Hillbillies.

Knight Rider
Brilliantly anticipating the looming midlife crises of this show's original demographic, in this "reimagining" of the beloved early 80's car commercial, a mortally wounded good-looking cop in tight jeans is given a new name, a gooder-looking face, and even tighter jeans, as well as a souped-up, penis-shaped sports car, which goes 200 mph, has a full bar, and talks in the voice of Demi Moore. Michael Knight travels the country, arguing with his car/lover/self, saving young kids from gangs and drugs, and then bedding their mothers. The psychological dimensions and consequences of satyriasis are explored. This is not your older brother's Knight Rider.

The A-Team
In this "reimagining" of the beloved mid-80's Hollywood stuntman full-employment program, instead of Vietnam, the team served in Iraq. This is not your second cousin's A-Team.

In this "reimagining" of the beloved occasionally moderately funny 80's comedy series, a disillusioned high-powered executive, tired of a life of moral compromise, leaves Wall Street to run a cozy little hotel in a small Vermont town. His dream of rural tranquility is shattered when he runs afoul of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, local psychotic inbred marijuana-smugglers who rule the town. While initially packing up his Benz and running for his life, Bob soon recognizes the clear moral choice before him, and is reborn as a shotgun-wielding avenger/hotelier in a place where violence is the only law, and everybody's baked. This is not your uncle from North Jersey's Newhart.

*My snark should not be taken to indicate that I will not totally be watching the new Bionic Woman.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lyrad's Random 10

Oh, what is there to say about Frenchy? Of all the Squirrel Nut Zippers, etc out there during that retro/swing craze, there's only one band worth listening to. This is Frenchy. Born from the mind of former Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray, Frenchy doesn't necessarily hold reverence for the style that others did, but they did saturate the style with as much sex as possible. Some of the songs are their own and some of the songs are older, but they are infused with as much exotica as they'll hold. The clarinet is sexy, the voice is sexier, and the marimba takes it over the top. With songs like "My Old Flame," the theme from TVs "Spiderman" and "The Devil's Beating His Wife," how can you go wrong? I wish they'd released more than two albums, but their only output was "Bumps & Grinds" from 1996 and "Che's Lounge" from 1997. Both, fittingly enough, were released on Dionysus Records.

1. Frenchy--Bumblebee
2. Radiohead--Let Down
3. Black Star--Astronomy (8th Light)
4. Elliot Schwartz--Phoenix for Basoon & Piano (Charles Kaufmann, Bn; Blair McMillen, Pn)
5. Guns 'n' Roses--Think About You
6. Evan Parker--Tumutumu Kohatu Pakohe
7. Chipper Thompson--Am I Born To Die
8. Ministry--Diety
9. Jess Johnson--My Mother and My Sweetheart
10. Alicia Keys--How Come You Don't Call Me

Friends Don't Let Friends Fly in Space Drunk


I don't know if I could laugh harder at a scandal than at this. Beautiful. I wonder which is better freeze-dried: white russians or margaritas. I can guarantee you this, though, screwdrivers with Tang just won't cut the mustard...these are classy drunk pilots.

Friday Guitar Blogging

B.B. King.

Misunderstanding Muqtada

I have a new piece on Muqtada al-Sadr over at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

RIP--Laszlo Kovacs

It’s a little late but, earlier this week, the master cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs passed away at 74 years old. Hungarian born, though he never shot an official picture there, he and his friend Vilmos Zsigmond, who would also become a noted American cinematographer in his own right, secretly documented the Budapest revolt on the Communist regime and escaped to America with 30,000 feet of unedited film in 1957 (apparently, some of this footage was used in a CBS documentary with Cronkite but, as of this writing, it’s availability is unknown).

Kovacs’ Hungarian film school training paid off in the smallest way at the beginning as he took jobs with some of the most dubious producers and directors in the history of film. Luminaries like Ray Dennis Steckler (The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies), Harry Novak (Kitten in a Cage) and Al Adamson (The Naughty Stewardesses) paid him whatever they could out of their Z-level budgets to give a surprisingly innovative look to their ridiculous films. In short order, it became clear that he was the perfect photographer for biker films (for some reason) and he was hired by B-Movie maven Roger Corman at American International to shoot a series of these pictures, including the infamous Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Most often, a second (or third) tier crew member will remain there, but at this particular time in the ‘60s, Corman had the innate ability to truly “make” casts and crews into superstars; Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Kovacs, and many, many more were discovered by the mainstream in by way of the drive-in cesspool. It was through this association that Dennis Hopper hired Kovacs to shoot Easy Rider. Though he initially balked at having to work on another biker film, it was the best choice of his career and, from this point, ushered in a new look for American film in the ‘70s, a gritty and soft-focus style that permeated his work and that of his peers throughout the decade. His body of work was broadly varied. At best, he filmed such impressive worlds as Paper Moon, The Last Waltz, Five Easy Pieces and Ghostbusters. At worst, such atrocities as Sliver, Free Willy 2, Miss Congeniality and, one of my all time least favorite films, Harry and Walter Go to New York. I will blame factors other than Kovacs for these horrible films and, to boot, most of these were at the end of a prolific and lustrous career. That he made good money shooting bad films is blameless. Better him than some hack and the movies are a little better for his efforts.

Thinking about Kovacs and his peers’ work through the ‘70s makes me long for the days when mainstream cinema was willing to take risks and at least attempt to change the status quo of what flies in the multiplex. It’s only remakes, vintage television adaptation and shoddy music video action films that make it any more, and it’s almost sickening to think back to the time when challenging, artistic films like Five Easy Pieces and Paper Moon could also be commercial successes.

Historical Image of the Day

Pet Cemetery, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, 1957

Who Would Jesus Ethnically Cleanse?

Max Blumenthal just posted this documentary taken at last week's Christians United for Israel rally in DC. As Blumenthal's footage makes abundantly clear, these people are extremists committed to bringing about the Apocalypse. Think I'm kidding? You really have to watch it to understand the bigotry, zealotry, and resentment which powers Christian Zionism. And then shudder at how many conservative leaders were in attendance.

Here's the text of Joe Lieberman's speech to the rally, in which he compares CUFI founder John Hagee to Moses. What do you think would be the response if a U.S. Senator had spoken before a gathering of Muslim fundamentalists who refused to recognize any Jewish claim to Palestine, who who claimed all of Palestine for Islam? An organization that was actively raising funds to support the expulsion of Jews from Palestine? Why do I think we'll never find out?

The mutually cynical relationship here is stark: The largely secular Israeli right cultivates support of loony American Christian fundamentalists in order to help maintain the unquestioning support of the U.S. Congress for the occupation. Loony American Christian fundamentalists support the expanionist policies of the Israeli right in order to speed the return of Jesus, at which time the Jews will be given the opportunity to convert, or go to hell. No, really, literally: Hell. At one point the rally organizers approach Blumenthal and request that he not engage attendees in discussions about eschatology, lest anyone out themselves as barking mad, I suppose. Oops, too late. In a brief interview with former Sharon adviser Dore Gold, Gold perfectly embodies Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit by denying that CUFI is at all concerned with "moving the clock of eschatology forward," claiming that "the only one who believes that [he can do that] is Mahmoud Ahmedinejad." Gold clearly knows what he's saying is false, he just doesn't care.

For the effects of the policies supported by CUFI, see this morning's Washington Post article on life in Israeli-occupied Hebron in the West Bank. Hebron provides us a view of the Israeli occupation in perfect miniature: Palestinians are coralled within a series of ghettoes, watching from behind barbed wire and concrete as their crops die, as their homes and lands are taken over by radical Jewish settlers, enduring daily harassment and violence by those settlers who are supported by the Israeli army. Any resistance by Palestinians is immediately labeled "terrorism," brutally suppressed, and used to justify more closures, stricter curfews, and the expropriation of more land. It's a considerable understatement to say that U.S. support for this sort of thing doesn't win us friends, at least not the friends that we want.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Film Review--Rescue Dawn (2007)

Werner Herzog finally returns to the jungle, and it’s about time. His documentaries have continued to be great through the years, but his features have suffered dramatically since he left the wild with Klaus Kinski’s death. Rescue Dawn, his latest film, is an adaptation of his fantastic 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Both stories are about Dieter Dengler, a German-born pilot in the US Navy just before the Viet Nam conflict who, on his first [secret] mission, is shot down over Laos. Captured and placed in a Laotian POW camp. There, he orchestrates an escape from the prison and, with one companion, fights the jungle for freedom.

Little Dieter Needs To Fly is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, so to say that Rescue Dawn doesn’t measure up in any way is not so much a slight to the latter as it is a testament to the former’s greatness. Still, it’s true. The harrowing tale of Dieter Dengler’s escape from certain death is much better told from Dengler’s own perspective than from the cold, peculiar way Herzog directs his actors. Christian Bale’s Dengler is far less intense and far less human than his once-living counterpart. Steve Zahn, however, who plays Duane Martin, the inmate he brings with him through the jungle (and a man only casually mentioned in the documentary) is an absolute revelation. I have not generally enjoyed his past work but here he channels the spirit of the grandly insane Kinski and is plain frightening with the deranged look in his eyes. Both actors clearly lost a lot of weight for the role; both look terrible with the emaciated bodies and relatively oversized heads of starvation. But it’s Zahn bravura performance that really makes these characters’ interactions memorable. The same does not hold true, however, for the other characters in the film. Unfortunately, the other members of the camp (including Jeremy Davies) are non-characters, simply in to add warm bodies to an otherwise deserted camp. Worse yet is the treatment of the soldiers manning the camp. They are nothing but caricatures of villains; there is no doubt that, once Dengler mentions the escape, there will be little to no resistance. It appears that there was more effort in making them fully fleshed characters, but it is a joke and a failure.

On the other hand, if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I must realize that the human characters really are not what this movie revolves around. The true main character in Rescue Dawn is the jungle and it is the jungle that drives the plot. Without the jungle, there is no Dengler and no journey. Without Dengler and the journey, there is still the jungle. Jeremy Davies says to Dengler upon learning of his intention to escape that “the jungle is the prison.” More than that, it is also judge, jury, and executioner. Only by sheer accident does Dengler not die; in the end, he has little control over his life. This oppressive villain is brought to life by the cinematography of Peter Zeitlinger, who also shot the documentary (as well as Herzog’s previous recent hit, Grizzly Man, no matter how much they try to claim that Tim Treadwell shot that footage). Stunningly beautiful, especially in combination with the varied, minimal music, but you can feel the wet heat coming off the screen and it’s an oppressive, foreboding experience.

Like the rest of Herzog’s canon, Rescue Dawn is the cinema of the extreme. Never in forty years has the director wavered from his position on filmmaking. There has likely never been a director with less regard for the wellbeing of his cast or himself. Like he’s done to himself and, especially, to his two main lead actors over the years, Klaus Kinski and Bruno S, Herzog puts Bale and Zahn into peril that no actor should be forced to endure. While this makes for an unsettling humanistic argument, nobody can argue with the results. The realism of his features (and the fiction of his documentaries) is what sets him apart from his peers. Maybe the dialogue isn’t natural, but the situations are and, at their best (of which this is one), they are some of most arresting and unsettling pictures in modern cinema. Rescue Dawn has its faults, worst of which is an unnecessary and lame ending that brings the whole thing down, but it’s the best feature film he’s done since 1988’s Cobra Verde (though some may argue that Verde is terrible, I refuse this argument) and the best wartime drama I’ve seen since The Thin Red Line. It’s highly recommended but, for the better experience, I would instead seek out Little Dieter Needs To Fly.

My Frustrating Night with the Seattle Mariners

Unfortunately, I witnessed Seattle getting swept by Texas in a doubleheader at the Ballpark. This was not good. A few points:

1. Raul Ibanez is a horrific left fielder. After watching the defensive stylings of Adam Dunn last year in Cincinnati, I thought I had probably seen the worst left fielder I would ever see. Not so sure now. Travis Metcalf (yes, the legendary Travis Metcalf) managed to hit a broken bat triple thanks to Ibanez's "defense." A speedy LF might have caught the ball. Ibanez thought he could. Of course, he was wrong. The ball bounced off the wall and well away from him. Metcalf scored on a Michael Young double two batters later. The play probably didn't cost the Mariners a run. But it certainly could have.

2. Willie Bloomquist sucks. Seattle gets the first two runners on top of the 5th in game 2. Seattle calls for a Bloomquist sacrifice. Of course, not only can he not get the bunt down but he misses the ball entirely, leaving Yuniesky Betancourt out to dry between 2nd and 3rd. Bloomquist then singles, which would have loaded the bases. After an Ichiro strikeout, Jose Vidro singles, scoring Jamie Burke from 2nd. That should have been a 2 run single. Bloomquist costs Seattle a run.

3. Terrible bullpen management. I hate the idea that any lefty out of the pen should only pitch to lefties. With 2 outs in the bottom of the 7th, with the game tied at 3, Mariners manager John McLaren brings on George Sherrill, who has been utterly dominant this year. He quickly retires the batter. Then in the 8th, with a righty leading off, McLaren brings in the terrible Chris Reitsma. For some reason, Mariners management has believed all season that Reitsma should be the top set up guy. Luckily, he was hurt for awhile and the bullpen thrived. Not now. Reitsma quickly gives up a run and the game.

Why do managers believe in this super-specialization dogma? Why not use the man who is clearly your best set-up man for more than 1 batter? It just makes no sense.

It was a very frustrating evening.

Links: Films and Politics

A few links for today.

First, a big RIP for Ulrich Muehe. Muehe shined in The Lives of Others. Sad to see him die so young.

Barba de Chiva discusses Maquilapolis, a film that puts together footage of Tijuana women activists filming their own lives and living conditions. This sounds like a must see if it comes around. Most people simply don't care what happens to the people who make their consumer products. I suspect showing this film as widely as possible might help change that.

Finally, I fully agree with Ilan Goldberg getting after Joe Biden for claiming that he is the only Senator who supports the troops because he voted for the Iraq supplemental funding bill. Biden has always been happy to use the Right's language for his own purposes. But by doing so, he legitimizes the idea that people who don't fund the war don't support the troops. That is, of course, hogwash.

Historical Image of the Day

Image of Massachusetts battalion passing through the streets of Baltimore, 1861

Helping the Enemy

Reading about President Bush's latest attempt to defend the Iraq war by presenting al-Qaeda as SPECTRE reminded me to link to this Abu Aardvark post from a couple weeks ago. In discussing the various groups fighting the US in Iraq, and criticizing the way that Bush and his flacks try to conflate them all into al-Qaeda ( i.e. "The folks who attacked us on September 11"), Marc Lynch made this point:

The real harm comes in the wider Arab and Muslim world, where the exaggeration of al-Qaeda's role works directly and devastatingly against American goals. It magnifies al-Qaeda's perceived power, strengthening its own media campaign and feeding its most powerful propaganda instrument. Attributing all these attacks to al-Qaeda certainly doesn't hurt al-Qaeda's image: Iraq is the one place where al-Qaeda's violence is actually widely supported in the Muslim world (a recent PIPA survey found that over 90% of Egyptians thought that attacks on American civilians were against Islam and illegitimate, but over 90% of Egyptians thought that attacks on American troops in Iraq were legitimate). The administration in effect claims more power and military success for al-Qaeda in Iraq than al-Qaeda claims for itself - for which the al-Qaeda leadership can only be bemusedly grateful. Forget al-Hurra - if you're looking for a real public diplomacy fiasco, you'll be hard pressed to do worse than the US acting as al-Qaeda's agent in promoting its Iraqi success.

We constantly hear conservatives condemning talk of withdrawal as "helping the enemy." We don't want to withdraw from Iraq and "hand bin Laden a propaganda victory," or some such. Leaving aside that it's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, whenever that may occur, is not spun as a victory by Islamic extremists, as Lynch makes clear, the propaganda victory that Bush is handing al-Qaeda is not a matter of prediction. It is happening. By continuing to cling to and defend a failed policy by inflating al-Qaeda's power in Iraq, by treating al-Qaeda as a top-down organization with command and control capability, rather than a loosely affiliated ideological network, Bush is effectively waving al-Qaeda's flag for them. He got us into Iraq by misrepresenting Saddam Hussein's capabilities, and he's keeping us there by doing the same with al-Qaeda. We know the tragic consequences of the former; we haven't begun to grasp the consequences of the latter.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The New Civil Rights Movement

I wholeheartedly agree with David Bacon's new article in The American Prospect calling for a more radical pro-immigrant movement. Bacon examines recent developments among anti-immigrant racists and argues that a stronger pro-immigrant agenda is needed to fight back.

This is the front in civil rights that we need to organize around. Treating immigrants this way is a slap in the face to every positive aspect of American democracy and history. Uniting not only immigrants, but African-Americans, union members, and people of all races who believe in justice and equality, this could create a powerful progressive coalition that would not only pass pro-immigrant legislation and demilitarize the border, but also build a broader justice movement to transform the country.

Read the whole article.

Yglesias, Art, and Red Baiting

It is well-known among many progressive bloggers that Matthew Yglesias has horrible taste in art. Movies, music, sport, books--just about everything. He's a great policy writer, but man, that's some bad taste.

He's crossed the line now. He hates Pete Seeger because he was sent to some summer camp where they had to sing some lame folk songs. And I wouldn't like that either. I'm also not the biggest Pete Seeger fan in the world. His music is fine but dated.

However, Yglesias decides to red bait Seeger, linking to an old article claiming Seeger was a hard-line Stalinist. Whether or not this is true is somewhat beside the point (and in fact the journalist involved heavily overplays his hand on the matter). What matters is that Yglesias has chosen to red bait someone simply because he does not like him. It is sort of the anti-Stalinist Aesthetic. Instead of hating someone's art strictly because of their politics, Yglesias creates bad politics for someone because he hates their art. Neither forms of criticism are acceptable.

Historical Image of the Day

New freeway near Montclair, Orange County, California. Probably late 1950s or early 1960s.

Believe it or not, there once was a time when Orange County actually grew oranges.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tim Moy, RIP

I am deeply saddened today by the death of my friend Tim Moy. Tim was the historian of science in the history department at the University of New Mexico. One of only a very small handful of faculty members at UNM that I really considered a personal friend, Tim died this weekend in Hawaii trying to save his son from drowning. Tim taught me more than anyone I know about teaching. He also set me up with a job doing historic preservation at Los Alamos National Laboratory at a time when my funding ran out and I was desperate. I could always count on Tim for a good baseball conversation too. Finally, I'll always remember with a smile something Tim did during my oral exams. I was backpedaling from something or another in a pretty serious way. It was getting a little tense. Tim found the whole thing funny and busted out laughing. It totally cut the tension.

At least the Red Sox won the World Series before he died, something that he openly wished for. It's just too bad that it had to happen so unbelievably soon.

Tim was 44 years old.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rudy the Racist

I found Michael Powell's Times article on Rudolph Giulani odd. I suppose Giulani has "confronted the question of race" as the article's byline claims. He has confronted it by being a racist. So, I'm not sure "confronting" is the term I'd use. I'd say Rudy Giulani is a racist. The article tries to muster evidence to complicate his past, but Powell can't ignore the multiple times Giulani committed racist actions, allowed racist cops to operate, and used racial code words to attack African-Americans. When he left office, his approval rating among blacks was a whopping 7%. Which makes him a perfect candidate on race issues for the Republican Party.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog has more.

Historical Image of the Day

Officers of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1930s

Saturday, July 21, 2007

David Denby on Knocked Up and Romantic Comedy

David Denby's New Yorker piece on Knocked Up is well worth reading. I'm rarely a Denby fan, but this deserves a read. Like others, I do take exception to the idea that romantic comedies are about biological reproduction. I'm not sure that the evidence backs this up. If there were some sort of premise that would get Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen together that did not include children, the movie could have been equally funny. In any case, the number of romantic comedies that do not go near children are huge.

Moreover, I disagree with Denby wistfully thinking about past romantic comedies and wishing that modern representations of the genre matched up. He finds new ones depressing. Some might say they are more realistic. Anyway, romanticizing the past rarely leads to good criticism. "P" gets it right when she says, "Man, did that Denby piece on “what’s wrong with romantic comedies today” get me steamed, and not because I find his conclusions about the “today” part completely wrong-headed. What’s wrong-headed was that it was suffused with a kind of nostalgia for the way we never were. Yep.

I guess I'm taking Denby to task a bit, but he makes a lot of good points and places Knocked Up wihtin the classics of a genre that too many people do not watch today. That is particularly true of the young people who have loved Knocked Up so much. Definitely check the article out.

I Had Almost Forgotten About David Brooks

Thanks to the wonders of TimesSelect, I had almost forgotten about the hackery of David Brooks. I caught him debating Mark Shields on Jim Lehrer last night. Brooks pulled out the ol' Harry Reid is playing partisan politics with Iraq card. I'm amazed that Republicans are brazen enough to say this since the entire war has been a partisian political project from day one.

Well, actually, I am not amazed that they would do it, because nothing they do amazes me at this point. Maybe this is a sign of desperation and they are going into their tattered old bag of dirty tricks to find something that will work. Not this time though.

Mark Shields called Brooks out:

And if somebody's feelings are hurt -- you know, I mean everyone has made a big thing out of John Warner making a big speech and Dick Lugar making a big speech, respected members, and George Voinovich. You know, Jack Kennedy said, "The easy part is making the speeches. The tough part is making the decisions and making the votes."

And, you know, there's a great test in Washington. You know, "I'm outraged, I'm upset." What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? And what are they going to do about it? What are these people going to do about it?

I mean, I'm sorry that Harry Reid didn't somehow hold Arlen Specter's hand, and Arlen Specter is upset. He talked to the New York Times about being hurt and taking umbrage. That's fine. But this is a big, big issue. And we have to be grown-ups at this point.

The so-called moderate Republicans are real good at the speeches. Not so great at actually standing up to their president.

The hypocrisy of Brooks' argument is a sign with flashing neon lights and sirens going off. Because what would the Republicans do in the same situation? Do you think they would not press their partisian advantage and try to connnect Democrats with their unpopular president? Of course they would. Absurd.

This theme has dominated political rhetoric since the all-night session on Iraq this week. Yglesias takes down the Washington Post for their stupid editorial criticizing Reid while Rob Farley points out that war is always political.

Historical Image of the Day

Women voting, Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1888

Things I Don't Get (II): Complaints of Harry Potter leaks

I, like millions and millions of people, am eager for the last Harry Potter book, to know what "finally happens" (though, unlike those millions and millions, I'll have to wait even longer - I have no access to it here in Brazil, as translations come out a few months later and there are no English copies). I also understand that, apparently, among the several "leaks" of the book before its release, one of them is in fact the true leak of the book (though it's a moot point now, as the book has been released).

However, I don't get the outrage over the leak among the massive, devoted readership. Obviously, author J.K. Rowling and Scholastic may be upset about the leak (though it's not like their sales are going to suffer), but why are all these people so eager for the physical release of the book to see how it ends so up in arms about the book being on the internets early? I just don't get this complaining about the internet leak of this book. If you don't want to know how it ends, then the solution is simple: don't look it up online. It's literally that easy. Something appearing on the internet is a passive event. Looking it up is the active event. It's not like its appearance on the internet suddenly enlightened everybody with a mass epiphany of how Harry Potter ends. It's on the internet, and if you want to know, look it up. If you don't, then don't look it up. Period.

Friday, July 20, 2007

I Am Done With Catherine Breillat

I have long argued that Catherine Breillat was one of cinema's most overrated directors. But my critics always said that I hadn't seen "Fat Girl" so I couldn't say that.

That changed last night.

Before this, I had seen 3 Breillat films. "A Real Young Girl," which was semi-interesting for a first film; "Sex is Comedy," which is pointless and boring; and the execrable, horrid "Anatomy of Hell."

"Fat Girl" actually had me interested for most of the film. It was a pretty realistic portrayal of emergent sexuality among young girls. For once, Breillat coaxed decent acting performances out of her leads. I wasn't blown away by any of this, but I was prepared for this post to be less negative.

Then came the end. Oh my God, the end. This was the worst ending to a film I have ever seen. And I've seen some bad ones. I'll give it away since it came out in 2001. So if you don't want to know it, stop reading. OK--in the end some random killer comes out of nowhere to murder the lead's sister and mother and rape the fat girl. That's it. WTF? What kind of an ending is that. There were myriad ways to end a film like this. Even have her get raped if that's what you want. How many ways can you think of to resolve a young overweight girl's budding sexuality? A lot, I imagine. But not this. This made no sense. It took a decent movie and turned it into a vehicle for Breillat's cheap shock value, this time through violence rather than sex.

Breillat has a shtick: realistic sex. That's all. If it wasn't for the shock value, no one would care at all. And they shouldn't care. It's like saying an action director is an auteur because he directs good car blowups. In itself, that's fine. But a good movie that does not make.

Catherine Breillat is like the anti-Eric Rohmer. Both directors delve into issues of love, sex, and passion. Both have a lot of conversation in their films. Rohmer doesn't usually show any sort of sex happening, but there is lots of talking about it. The difference is that you actually care about Rohmer's characters. You want the plot to work out for them. You couldn't care less for Breillat's characters. They are shallow ciphers who exist only for Breillat to have them in realistic sex scenes. Great.

May I never watch another Catherine Breillat film again.

Erik's Random Ten

I haven't done one of these in awhile. So why not go back to it.

I've talked before about the greatness of the utterly unknown songwriter Buddy Tabor. Tabor paints houses in Juneau. He also produces some of the best songs I have ever heard. "Sweet Liza Jane" isn't a particular favorite of mine I guess. But it is like many of his more average songs--much better than the best songs by many far better known singer-songwriters. Tabor is really great and I can't recommend him highly enough. I've also said this before, but his albums are almost impossible to acquire. I have an address for him. If you want to get one, let me know and I'll give it to you. Some previous posts where I've gone into more detail about Tabor are linked below:



There are more, including one when I discussed him at length, but for some reason, I can't find them now.

1. Buddy Tabor, Sweet Liza Jane
2. Greek Traditional Music and Dance, Koftos
3. Mi and L'au, Burns
4. Fleetwood Mac, Gold Dust Woman
5. Drive-By Truckers, Wednesday
6. James Gang, There I Go Again
7. Ali Farka Toure, ASCO
8. BR 5-49, Bonus Track
9. Terry Allen, The Beautiful Waitress
10. Pink Floyd, Sheep

Historical Image of the Day

Sockless Jerry Simpson, probably early 1890s

Friday Guitar Blogging: Special Drums Edition

Buddy Rich vs. Animal.

This Has Been Tried Before

Charles Krauthammer:

Maliki & Co. are afraid we are arming Sunnis for the civil war to come. On the other hand, we might be creating a rough balance of forces that would act as a deterrent to all-out civil war and encourage a relatively peaceful accommodation.

Blackadder Goes Forth :
Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent a war in Europe, two super blocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast, opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way, there could never be a war.

Baldrick: Except, well, this is sort of a war, isn't it?

Blackadder: That's right, there was one tiny flaw in the plan.

George: Oh, what was that?

Blackadder: It was bollocks.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

UAW & The Big Three

This week, the United Auto Workers start negotiations with the Big Three automakers. By all accounts, the UAW are expected to offer massive concessions to help the Big Three survive.

Yet again, working class people are expected to suffer all the burdens of American economic choices. Among the expected declines--a pay cut of $25-30 an hour. That is a huge amount. Now auto workers are decently paid, although this story severely overinflates how much the average auto worker makes. But a decline of that much! And for what? If these cuts succeed (highly unlikely), will workers see their wages rise to match the profits? Of course not!!!

UAW president Ron Gettelfinger is probably not the man for the job. He is known as a business-first leader who has a long history of caving in to company demands. He will do so here as well. As a UAW member said on All Things Considered this evening, why even have a union if they are going to cave like this. That is a great question. What's the point anymore? This is a big part of why unions collapsed in this country. All too often, they do very little for their average members. Even though there are unseen benefits, like representation and the (increasingly limited) protection of a contract, unions also need to fight for workers when it is time. Gettelfinger has never shown any sign of doing this.

One might rightfully say that the Big Three are in serious financial trouble. That's true, no doubt. But what do companies give back to workers for these concessions? Nothing. If companies want major concessions, they need to give more than just letting them keep their jobs until they demand yet more concessions and eventually move all the factories to Honduras anyway. Give workers seats on the board. Ensure in the contract that increased profits will lead to rollbacks of concessions, or free company stock, or some real tangible benefit. Guarantee that any new jobs at factories set up to save money, whether in the US South, Mexico, China, or where ever, will be union jobs that the UAW can organize with company approval. Something real so that workers know that they might be screwed now, but at least the companies aren't trying to screw them forever. Of course, this will never happen because the companies ARE screwing over workers.

It is too bad that so many unions are still in bed with big business after all these years of talking about reform.

Hey Glaciers!!! You Suck!!!

I just wanted to say how proud I am that my plan to defeat glaciers is working so well.

Glaciers are disappearing around the world at incredibly rapid rates. This can only be seen as an unadulterated good for humanity. That ice kept getting in the way of me climbing mountains. Plus, I've always had a dream for hitting golf balls off Mt. Kilimanjaro. Soon, my wish can be a reality.

Declining glaciers also help American interests abroad. Sure, we are losing our glaciers too. But who cares. God is on our side. He'll find water sources for us. But look at a place like Bolivia. Those idolatrous Catholics are losing their glaciers. Soon, they will be begging for our vengeful Protestant God to give them water. This all helps take out our greatest rival for economic and social control over South America. They may claim they are the poorest nation in South America. But it's just the hypnotic flutes they play. In fact, they are poised to attack the United States at any minute. In fact, I heard they have made a deal with Al-Qaeda to allow the terrorists access for a staging ground in exchange for a large enough supply of Evo Morales' sweaters to get through a Pakistani winter.

And look at China. The Yellow Menace is already undermining U.S. independence while drugging us with cheap, cheap consumer goods. But those Commies are about to lose all their water too with the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Good. Now U.S. dominance can again prevail over darkest Asia.

Sure, all of this means some animals die. But who cares. Doesn't a Queen Latifah narrated movie about polar bears means the terrorists are already winning?

Historical Image of the Day

Hippies, late 1960s


How absolutely wonderful.

Heads, He Wins; Tails, We Lose

While reinforcing my point from last week about Muqtada al-Sadr's significance in Iraqi politics, the deep roots of his movement, and the utter folly of attempting to stand up a government which doesn't accomodate it, this article in today's NY Times also sheds some light on Muqtada's "insider/outsider" strategy:

After months of lying low, the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has re-emerged with a shrewd strategy that reaches out to Iraqis on the street while distancing himself from the increasingly unpopular government.

Mr. Sadr and his political allies have largely disengaged from government, contributing to the political paralysis noted in a White House report last week. That outsider status has enhanced Mr. Sadr’s appeal to Iraqis, who consider politics less and less relevant to their daily lives.

Mr. Sadr has been working tirelessly to build support at the grass-roots level, opening storefront offices across Baghdad and southern Iraq that dispense services that are not being provided by the government. In this he seems to be following the model established by Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shiite group, as well as Hamas in Gaza, with entwined social and military wings that serve as a parallel government.

The Sadrists exhibit a quiet confidence, and are pulling ever more supporters into their ranks. “The Sadr movement cannot be marginalized; it is the popular base,” said Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, the chief spokesman and a senior strategist for Mr. Sadr’s movement in Najaf. “We will not be affected by efforts to push us to one side because we are the people. We feel the people’s day-to-day sufferings.”

A number of working-class Shiites reflected that sentiment in conversations about the Mahdi militia and Mr. Sadr. Their relatives and neighbors work both for the Sadr offices and for the militia, blurring the line between social programs and paramilitary activity.

Mr. Sadr’s offices are accessible storefronts that dispense a little bit of everything: food, money, clothes, medicine and information. From just one office in Baghdad and one in Najaf in 2003, the Sadr operation has ballooned. It now has full-service offices in most provinces and nine in Baghdad, as well as several additional storefront centers. In some neighborhoods, the militiamen come around once a month to charge a nominal fee — about 5,000 Iraqi dinars, or $4 — for protection. In others, they control the fuel supply, and in some, where sectarian killings have gone on, they control the real estate market for empty houses.

Sadr essentially has the best of both worlds here. His staunch and consistent opposition to the U.S. presence and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, and the confrontational stance which the U.S. continues to take toward him, allows him to credibly criticize the failure of the government to deliver services and security. At the same time, his loyalists' control of the Health and Transportation ministries provides access to government funds and resources, which can then be distributed as patronage and charity under the banner of his movement. Clever.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Arafat, AIDS and the Clown Choir

The various bozos of the wingnut circus have had their little chortle about the rumor of Yasser Arafat's having died of AIDS (much like their sporadic concern for women's rights, wingers care deeply about homophobia if and when it can be used as a weapon against their political enemies), but leave it to Marty Peretz's Mini Me to go the extra mile and try to spin the story into a slander of the Palestinians in general. I give you James Kirchick:

Of course, no amount of evidence will convince the Palestinians that Arafat was a homosexual, or that his death was caused by anything other than Israel's machinations. I found this out a few weeks ago in the West Bank, where everyone I spoke to told me that Israel killed Arafat. The denials that will inevitably spill forth about the causes of Arafat's death will mirror the rejection of a two state solution: both are part and parcel of the Palestinians' self-delusion.

Yes, those silly, delusional Palestinians. It's amazing how people whose leaders have been assassinated by Israeli bullets, missiles, bombs in telephones, poisoning, and secret lethal injection ambush will believe any damn thing. Sure, Ariel Sharon had openly declared Israel's right to kill Arafat if Israel so desired, but to actually suspect Israel of having gone through with it? That's just another example of the conspiratorial anti-Semitism which infects Palestinian society. As for the Palestinian's "rejection of a two state solution," given the fact that a substantial majority of Palestinians have for over a decade been in favor of just that, I suggest that the thing that's actually mirrored here is James Kirchick's bigotry.

Rumours about Arafat's homosexuality have been around for a long time. A number of Israeli scholars I've spoken to over the years, as well as a few Palestinians, simply acknowledged it as fact. Obviously, if true, it would be very interesting to consider how this was kept secret, or at least mostly secret, for so long. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that quite a few people knew about it, but said nothing or ignored it because they considered Arafat's leadership indispensible.

To be sure, this particular story has a suspicious provenance. To say that I was initially wary of something that I first saw posted on the Corner after it had been picked up from Little Green Footballs is like saying I would be wary of eating a ring-ding that I first saw on the floor of the Newark bus station men's room after it had been transported through customs between Bill O'Reilly's ass cheeks. Ahmad Jibril, who apparently floated the rumor in an al-Manar TV interview translated by the hatefully anti-Palestinian MEMRI, and linked by LGF, is the head of the rejectionist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command, a longtime rival of Fatah's, currently based in Damascus. It's easy to see why he might want to slander and discredit Arafat, and by extension the current Fatah leadership, by outing Arafat as having been "infected." That's not to say that the story isn't true, just that not one of the links in the chain is a source that I consider particularly, or even nearly, credible.

Thoughts on the Brazil Air Tragedy in Sao Paulo

The sadness of this is beyond belief, for certain. Flags here in Brasilia (including other nations' flags at hotels) are at half-staff, and the country is shocked at what is now its worst air disaster in history. Unfortunately, the sadness is only heightened by a number of factors.

-Reports at this moment in both the US and in Brazil (which can and will change at least somewhat as the investigation goes on) say that the pilot was unable to land and tried to take off again, slamming into the building. No word (and probably not for weeks) what combination of pilot error (if any), airplane malfunction (if any), and weather played.

-Regardless of whether this was pilot error or what, the fact that Congonhas airport (the domestic airport in Sao Paulo) continues operating is absolutely inexcusable. Pilots have been complaining about the runway since the 1980s, with the runways being closed last year (aiding to slowdowns in Brazil) to resurface them. In this regard, every president from that point to yesterday deserves blame for ignoring the problem. Lula at least initiated runway improvements recently. However, whether it was his decision or somebody else's, the runways were opened before resurfacing was finished. The grooves in the runways that help traction and drainage of rain had not yet been finished, yet the airport was still running in the name of "business". There is no good excuse for this, period. If the runways aren't ready, you do not fly, it does not matter if your company will lose millions of dollars waiting. You. Just. Don't. Do. It. It doesn't even matter if the pilot did or did not manage to land yesterday (still not clear), for even on Monday, another plane landing in the rain temporarily lost control and slid in the rain. This is just egregious and vulgar, and I understand the arguments of what that would have done to air travel in Brazil, but it doesn't matter.

-Congonhas is itself a terrible airport. While the structure is fine (they just finished rennovating the terminal, which is gaining its own criticism, given that the runway, and not the terminal, was what was posing the real danger), the location is the worst I've ever seen. Congonhas was built in 1919, far from Sao Paulo, but the city totally swallowed it decades ago. Why whatever governor did not say, "Hey, we should go ahead and block off some land from development around the city," I'll never know (well, I know - "Development" and "business" are the probable reasons, but that doesn't excuse anything). I happened to fly in and out of Congonhas on Sunday with my connection to Brasilia, and it was, to put it simply, terrifying. We kept getting lower, and lower, and lower, to the point you could see IN some of the apartment buildings, before we FINALLY were over the runway RIGHT before touching down. Upon landing, we continued going faster than any landing I've endured before, and I even thought, "Um, shouldn't we be slowing down?" Takeoff is no better. The takeoff was the fastest I've ever been on, and immediately on takeoff, we banked so far starboard to reach our flight path, I thought, "should we be at this angle?" Planes have had troubles before, most memorably when a plane went down in a neighborhood in 1996, killing 100. Once was bad enough, but twice is awful. Congonhas absolutely has no excuse to remain open, unless the city government actively razes the neighborhoods nearby (unlikely, given they are middle- and upper-class residences). The federal government spokesman last night said he wouldn't rule out that Congonhas permanently closes. That would be the best for Brazil. It doesn't matter if flights get backed up and screwy and delayed for years to come while they build a new (second - there is already the international airport, Garulhos) far away from neighborhoods. Brazil can't afford to have this happen a third time.

-There's no good time for such a thing as this, but the sadness is heightened by the fact that, until yesterday, the country was still celebrating the successful hosting of the Pan-American games (with Brazil 2nd overall with 38 medals). However, all of that has (rightfully) faded away in the wake of the disaster. Still, the mood swing from extreme happiness and pride to extreme devastation is pretty much palpable in the media and among those I've talked to.

The tragedy is awful, and one can only imagine the pain for family, friends, and co-workers (some of the victims were in the buildings or in cars on the avenue the plane crossed) must be enduring. The only thing one can hope is that people not only learn, but apply, lessons from this.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Concert Review--Made Out of Babies

Made Out of Babies, currently one of my favorite metal bands, came into town last night to perform one of the first rock shows I've seen in a long time. When I first heard about the show, it was a couple of months ago and it had fallen on the day I was leaving for a wedding in Santa Fe. I was indignant beyond measure. This is the farthest west they'd ever come, and who knows when they'd be back but, just a couple of weeks ago, I found out that I wouldn't be leaving until Tuesday for The Fe. Quickly, my indignation turned to exaltation and I'd began waiting not-so-paitiently for last night to come. Did I set my hopes too high? Thankfully no. It was a $7 cover (I was happy for the bargain, but they deserved more money than that) There were three bands with MOoB headlining.

First was a local band called Hogpen. They were a sort of cross between Clutch and Iron Maiden. They were a good, fun band and did their part to warm the crowd up, small as it was at this point. I was pretty nervous looking at the twenty people in the crowd at 10:30 when they closed, but people started to file in as the second band came on.

This band was Mouth of the Architect, a sludgy metal band from Ohio. For what they were doing, it was okay, but I do take some exception to what they did. Basically, in about 1994, Neurosis released "Souls at Zero," an album far different from anything they'd previously released, and far different from anything I'd heard at the time. They played a kind of minimalist metal, with a lot of notes but very slow changes. It's spaced out and full of sampling and odd instrumentation and, essentially, they were trying to create a full sonic experience, for all the pretention that comes with it. I loved it and, over the past thirteen years, they've gone farther and farther toward that extreme to where it's often difficult to classify them as a metal band at all. Mouth of the Architect is, as well as so many other acts, a complete ripoff of that original sound from Neurosis, with no tweaking of the style whatsoever. In the end, because of the lack of talent and vision that Neurosis had, the performance came off as monotonous, repetative and kind of whiney. There were enough people in the crowd who liked them, though, that the energy of the room stayed up, even if mine began to wane.

Finally, at about midnight, Made Out of Babies came on. Part of me was nervous, deeply hoping that I'd not be disappointed after setting this up so high. I had noticed singer Julie Christmas in the crowd, but would have had no idea had I not already known what she looked like. She is one of the most unassuming people I have seen front a rock band. Small, with a sweet look about her, the only thing that set her apart from anybody else was a head of pretty big hair, which is not seen at a show like this very often anymore. Maybe the most amazing thing about this first impression was that she had no visible tattoos; unheard of in the modern rock scene. My crush on her having remained true, she took the stage and blew the crowd away. I had previously extolled the virtues of her voice and was completely unsure how this would translate in the performance and, surprising enough, her voice sounds better live than on the albums. Part of it is in her performance style but, on the voice alone, it's because she knows how to sing dynamically. She doesn't swallow the microphone and, as a result, her words are clear and her tone is perfect. She switches from guttural noise and shrieks to cherubic whispers and sighs at the drop of a hat and it, at times, seems like there are two singers when there is one. On top of it all, her onstage persona is something to behold. In reference to her innocuous presence in the crowd, in front of them she is all poison and madness. Scratching at her face, tearing at her hair and pulling on her clothes, she contorts and stomps around the stage grasping at something unknown (perhaps her sanity) until, all of a sudden, she drops to her knees and wails some of the most blood-curdling sounds imaginable. It really was a scary sight; scariest, probably, because I was more enamoured after the display than before. Hers was not a sexual performance, though a certain kind of sexuality permeates through it all. No, it was all psychosis all the time.

And then, as soon as it started, they were gone. They probably played for 45 minutes, and I'd have loved to hear them play a lot longer, so I was disappointed at first. The more I thought about it, though, the more I understood a quote from somebody standing next to a reviewer at a previous show: "How long can she keep this up?" The answer to that is, it looks like, about 45 minutes. It's selfish of me to ask for more than she gave, which was everything, because each song she sings is one closer to when she destroys her voice, and this is the last thing I want to happen. In the end, it was a thrilling time, and evidence that I need to go to more rock shows. My friend tried to get me to go over and talk to her after the show when, once again, she had returned to her unassuming place over a beer at a table but, alas, I was shy and missed my chance. Maybe next time....

Historical Image of the Day

Dwight Eisenhower meeting with Ngo Dinh Diem, 1957

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Film Review--The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

Zatoichi is a simple man. Most days, he’s just your everyday wandering blind masseuse. But when trouble finds him (and it tends to), he’s a master swordsman ready to fight for whatever cause presents itself. This has been the subject of some twenty five movies since 1962, and it’s a great gimmick. Even at its worst, say in 1990’s Rutger Hauer classic, Blind Fury, it still makes for a lot of fun. The master of Japanese action, Takeshi Kitano’s stab at the formula is smart and funny, with gratuitous violence, just like a Zatoichi movie should be. Every Kitano movie I see makes me want to see more. He is consistently enjoyable in his deconstructions of standardized genres.

In this installment, Zatoichi (played by Kitano, who also directed, wrote and edited the film) wanders into town to find the villagers plagued by a pair of corrupt and greedy gangs. The thugs take his defense lightly, which proves to be fatal when the “masseuse” pulls a sword from his cane and strikes with blazing speed and razor precision. Along the way, he comes along a pair of geisha twins who, after unsuccessfully trying to kill him, ask his help to avenge the murder of their parents. Zatoichi dispatches increasingly tough opponents leading to the final confrontation with a newly hired, and newly married, assassin who is no slouch with a blade himself. Not the most original plot, to be sure but, as with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, there is a lot of freedom to move with the details. Kitano uses the character as a springboard for a smart, stylish and tongue-in-cheek story that doesn’t reinvent the genre, but has a lot of fun with the conventions inherent in the series.

Kitano is simply a great hero. I haven’t seen a lot of his work outside the samurai or yakuza genres, but he’s perfect in these roles. He is loveable and charismatic as he relishes in killing scores and scores of people. He’s the rare cases of action heroes who can add acting skill to the mayhem and it lends believability that makes people like Keanu Reeves fall far short. Also of note is the great performance of Guadalcanal Taka. He plays the geisha twin who keeps a big secret. He’s brilliant in the role and the most memorable, fun performance in the movie. Everybody’s great, relishing in the bloody madness the whole time.

To me, though, the use of blood is the most interesting part of the movie. All of the bloodshed is done digitally. Ordinarily, I hate computer effects, but it works really well here. There are a couple of instances where the digitization is blatant and jarring, but it is mostly seamless. More importantly, all of these pictures are full of spraying blood and nothing is different here. What is different is that the lack of need for a hose or a barrel to contain the gore. It allows for Kitano’s remarkably kinetic editing style to shine through and gives cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima the freedom to shoot from crazy angles without the restraint of the effects.

Brasília bound

I'm immersing myself in high-modernist dreams of a forward-looking society in which all can live in harmony and peace, reaping the benefits of modern development and building a better tomorrow through a futuristic vision of the world.

Either that, or I'm off to Brasília on an open-ended research trip, so blogging from me will be non-existent for the next week or two.

Woody Guthrie

I want to mention that today is Woody Guthrie's birthday. He would have turned 95.

Just so we remember, here are the full lyrics to "This Land is Your Land," anti-private property lines and all:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me


I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me


The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me


As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Chorus (2x)