Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Report from the Front of the War on Christmas

Check out this special report by Frank Conniff, broadcasting from the front lines of the War on Christmas, featured on last night's edition of Countdown on Keith Olbermann:

Friday, December 03, 2010

Taking a WikiLeak on Your Parade

Anyone watching the news cycle in the past week has undoubtedly come across the story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. His site "dumped" secret communications between the United States and other countries into the public sphere and as a result the chatter circuit has been literally screaming for Assange's head. Sarah Palin suggested Assange be hunted like Osama bin Laden and Mike Huckabee has called for Assange to be executed. (I think this says less about the severity of Assange's actions and much more about leading Republican's lack of respect for due process.)

But as Glen Greenwald points out in this article at Salon, the anger at Assange is misplaced, inconsistent, and hypocritical. Greenwald writes:
The ringleaders of this hate ritual are advocates of -- and in some cases directly responsible for -- the world's deadliest and most lawless actions of the last decade. And they're demanding Assange's imprisonment, or his blood, in service of a Government that has perpetrated all of these abuses and, more so, to preserve a Wall of Secrecy which has enabled them. To accomplish that, they're actually advocating -- somehow with a straight face -- the theory that if a single innocent person is harmed by these disclosures, then it proves that Assange and WikiLeaks are evil monsters who deserve the worst fates one can conjure, all while they devote themselves to protecting and defending a secrecy regime that spawns at least as much human suffering and disaster as any single other force in the world. That is what the secrecy regime of the permanent National Security State has spawned.
As Greenwald intimates, the outrage seems like a superficial excuse for a deeper offense. For the politicians and governments involved, the anger seems less about any actual security breach or empowerment of anti-American movements and more about Assange's audacity to demand transparency and honesty. Some of the anger is to be expected. Much diplomacy is based on controlling perceptions and misdirection. WikiLeaks is like a friend who gets too drunk during a night out and inadvertantly spills all of your embarassing secrets to the girl you are trying to impress. But to suggest that this is some kind of major security risk, when most of what was exposed in this installment amounts to geo-political water cooler gossip, is rather ridiculous.

But the mainstream news media also appears caught up in this hysteria over the leak. In their case, the outrage seems more like scoop-envy. Traditional media institutions have yet to reclaim the trust of the public after the embarrassing cheer leading session that passed for news coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq. And rather than attempt to recover their credibility in the aftermath, most mainstream media sources have all but blocked out coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan from daily news reports despite the fact that 2010 has been the deadliest year for American troops. Assange and his sources have disrupted the media's complicit silence on this story and reminded reporters and consumers alike that a responsible press must take risks to get at the truth, even if it is unpleasant or damages advertising income or comes with the threat of legal action.
Ultimately, Assange is no Daniel Ellsberg, but he's not Julius Rosenberg either. A previous WikiLeaks dump exposed the extent of cruelty and misbehavior by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan but they also included the actual names of American allies on the ground in Iraq. This is an instance where the safeguards of old media would have been beneficial, as they would have been able to disseminate the necessary and news worthy information while also using editorial judgment that would protect sources. And yet, I think the public and the world is much better with Assange and people like him in it especially if hackers and anarchists are the last remnants of a responsible press.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yeffet: Pat Downs and Body Scans Don't Work

Check out this interview with Isaac Yeffet, the former director of global security at El Al Israel Airlines. He comments on current airport security guidelines and calls procedures like pat downs and body scans worthless:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Exorcism Conference

I've previously blogged about the resurgence of exorcism in the Catholic Church here and here. Now the Associated Press is carrying this story about a Catholic exorcism conference taking place in Baltimore next week. Here is an excerpt:
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference, said only a tiny number of U.S. priests have enough training and knowledge to perform an exorcism. Dioceses nationwide have been relying solely on these clergy, who have been overwhelmed with requests to evaluate claims. The Rev. James LeBar, who was the official exorcist of the Archdiocese of New York under the late Cardinal John O'Connor, had faced a similar level of demand, traveling the country in response to the many requests for his expertise.
I would speculate that there is some connection between the Church returning to these medieval roots and the rise of secularism and religious plurality. Church attendance numbers are dropping off, diocese are being forced to close their facilities, and the religious character of America has become less defined by traditional sectarian labels. When the Enlightenment threatened the Church, it dragged fears of witches and devil worshippers out of the basement to frighten the masses. The same thing happened in the 1980s with the Satanic Ritual Abuse hoax. And now it's happening again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

This Week in Blackness: George Bush Doesn't Care About Earthlings

In response to George W. Bush's memoir and his claim that Kanye West's criticism was the lowest moment of his presidency:

And check out this piece by Melissa Harris Perry about Bush's reaction to Kanye's comments. An excerpt:
President Bush describes Kanye West's statement as his presidential low, a personal nadir. Recall that the nadir of American history is the time between 1877 and World War I. These are the decades immediately following the end of Reconstruction. . . . Empirically, racism may be as American as apple pie, but morally, ethically and philosophically, racism is a betrayal of America. In this sense, when Kanye West pointed to the Bush administration's non-response as an act of racism, he called Bush a traitor.

* * *

As an observer, I find the 2010 midterms uncomfortably familiar to the era of Redemption that followed Reconstruction. Current calls for small government and states rights during the administration of a black president sound suspiciously like nineteenth-century efforts to weaken the state so that racial terror could be enacted with impudence against the black men who were then governing. After the aggressively anti-immigrant and more subterranean anti-black sentiments of the healthcare debate and the midterm election, I have wondered if we lost our ability to be shamed by open displays of cultural bigotry and political action motivated by white anxiety.

In this sense I welcome President Bush's comments. At my most optimistic, I can read his comments as an assertion that nothing is more harmful than racism, nothing more embarrassing, nothing more un-American, nothing we must more fully and completely renounce. I know that is not exactly what he said, but I take a glimmer of hope from the idea that President Bush has reminded us that to be called a racist is not a badge of honor.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010

Today is Halloween, one of the most widely celebrated holidays on our calendar and one of the most unique.

Most holidays in American culture can be divided into two categories, religious (Easter) and historical or national (Independence Day, Thanksgiving), and there are a few that overlap and exist in both categories at the same time (namely Christmas, which simultaneously exists as a religious holiday but is widely celebrated in a nonreligious fashion). And like most holidays and traditions, they serve a cyclical function in the culture as they remind and reinforce our myths and beliefs about ourselves. Every Thanksgiving we reenact the mythology of the Pilgrims and their feast with the Native Americans, even though the facts of history have little to do with the story that we keep retelling each generation. Christmas, in the religious version of the holiday, retells the story of Christ’s birth and represents renewed hope; the secular Christmas, in its most positive incarnation (as opposed the crass commercialism of the season), expresses a vision of America as a giving culture that cares for the unfortunate (while simultaneously giving Americans an excuse to ignore those in need in the other eleven months of the year).

Halloween is unique in that it is not explicitly religious—spiritualists who actively celebrate the holiday in a religious or semi-religious manner are few in number—but it also isn’t historical, at least not in an American context. There is a tradition of American Halloween celebration but it is not deeply rooted in our identity the way Thanksgiving is. There isn’t a cultural story or myth about Halloween that is attached to it like the story of the Pilgrims or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. No figure of national importance represents Halloween the way George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are linked to Presidents Day, although references to Hollywood movie monsters like Frankenstein and Michael Myers often suffice. And yet, Halloween has become one of the most popular holidays on the calendar.

Halloween’s rise to cultural prominence has been largely based on economics. The holiday is extraordinarily profitable for retailers of all kinds. But that isn’t all of it.

The rise of Halloween to the cultural status it now possesses primarily occurred in the 1970s through the present day, and it plays out against a background of seemingly contradictory cultural trends: the rise of politically active conservative Christianity and the collapse of traditional religious structures in people’s lives.

Throughout the 1980s, social conservatives pushed back against Halloween, decrying Halloween celebrations in public schools and putting forth urban legends of razor blades in candy bars and satanic ritual abuse. The result was partly effective. The tradition of children trick or treating, a staple of Halloween celebrations in suburban neighborhoods since the 1950s, went on the decline. In the short term, it would seem that the social conservatives had won.

But while social conservatives of the 1980s were taking Halloween away from children, the holiday adapted into an adult celebration. As open expressions of sexuality became increasingly accepted in mass media and by the culture at large, retailers found that they could profit off of it and provided the means for the public to indulge it. As the demand grew so did the supply—and vice versa. This of course had an escalating effect that lead to Halloween becoming the carnival of flesh that is has become today.

At the same time, religion’s place in the traditional social structure continued to erode. Church attendance was and is in free fall and the number of people publicly identifying themselves as atheists has risen. The effect of this on the culture is wide ranging, but the angle of it that relates to the rise of Halloween is the search for something sacred. In an environment where the traditions and symbols of spirituality have had their meanings diluted, the culture is in search of something to believe in. Robbed of the myths that traditionally gave them comfort, Halloween has been adopted as a replacement.

The various ways we celebrate Halloween reveals an attempt by a post-religious culture to retain its sense of wonder and mystery. Gathering around the television set to watch horror movies is not all that different from sitting around a campfire and listening to an elder convey the myths of our ancestors. And horror films often create the most visceral reactions in the viewers, either of fear or disgust, making them emotionally rather than intellectually stimulating. Dressing in costumes while drinking an elixir that undermines our mental faculties and then parading, strutting, and thrusting about on a dance floor has all the characteristics of a “primitive” ritual. In these acts we construct a sort of post-modern sacrament, using the same signifiers but always conscious that it is a cultural ritual.

It’s not that the culture is regressing. In fact, it is at some level maturing as it adjusts to a world after the death of the gods. Mankind, for all his technical achievements and philosophical advancements, still has, and perhaps always will have, one foot in the cave. Halloween provides an outlet for Eros and Thanatos to work themselves out. It’s true that not all of this is healthy; our month long love affair with fear and sex can be a bit like binge drinking behavior. But like an inexperienced drinker who overcompensates, hopefully we’ll eventually reach a point where everyday has a healthy recognition and acceptance of desire.

What we see in the present day Halloween is a new sacrament emerging. It is Dionysian in its values and post-modern in its orientation, but it also represents the emergence of a uniquely American holiday. The liberation of American culture from the tyranny of superstition while also allowing for the satisfaction and pleasure that indulging superstition brings could be the most sacred thing of all.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's 1692 Somewhere

Just in time for Halloween, Salon features this story about the new book Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps by Karen Palmer.

The villages Palmer writes of are not recreational get-togethers for actual witches, but refugee camps for women who have been driven out of their homes under under the accusation of witchcraft. From the article:
At Gambaga, the town Palmer moved to when she decided to dedicate a couple of years to the subject, there are more than 3,000 accused witches living in unenviable conditions. The residents aren't prisoners, exactly, but they can't go home. Unless they can convince their former neighbors that they've given up cannibalizing other people's souls in the spirit world or flying through the night in the form of a fireballs (a common practice of Ghanaian witches), they're likely to be beaten or stoned to death if they return.
Should this story get the attention it deserves, I hope that it shuts down some of the cheap shot attacks on Delaware's Senatorial Candidate Christine O'Donnell, namely referencing her asinine comments about dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager. While I am no fan of O'Donnell (far from it), the liberal wing of the media needs to realize that it is engaging in essentially the same game as right wingers who try to "slander" President Obama by labeling him a Muslim. This example from West Africa shows where this kind of rhetoric can lead.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Supplements for "Cannibal Holocaust" Screening

I have made two items related to the screening of Cannibal Holocaust publicly available.

First is the audio from the panel discussion  that followed the screening. The panel includes Nick Ozment and Andrea Wood of the Winona State English Department and they discuss the controversy of the film and how to evaluate and understand it. You can download the audio file here.

Second, I have published an essay about Cannibal Holocaust on Winona360.org. In the essay I explain why I screened the film and why I think this is an important movie. Here is an excerpt:
Cannibal Holocaust is not troubling to the audience for any one charge made against it, but for its cumulative effect. The barbarity of the animal killings, the display of economic and sexual exploitation, and the parallel acts of violence craft a vision of humanity darker than the stories of Joseph Conrad or William Golding. There is a totality to its nihilistic presentation of humanity that stamps out hope.

When a viewer watches a horror film, he or she intentionally submits him or herself to trauma. Most mainstream horror films like Jaws or Psycho scare us and thrill us but in the end leave viewers knowing that good has triumphed over evil and all is right with the world. More challenging horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes do not offer quite the same solace of a closed resolution but generally there is a survivor who we can empathize with and whose self preservation is a source of relief. These films have a cathartic effect on the viewer, allowing him or her to experience terror and fear from the safety of the theater seat or the living room sofa and then walk away to carry on with his or her life.

Cannibal Holocaust refuses to engage in this kind of pattern. It piles on the awfulness and as the rapes and murders accumulate, the film abandons all unwritten agreements of propriety between the filmmaker and the audience. For those who expect to see a liberal humanist notion of human decency emerge from the darkness, the film offers a moral black hole. For those who demand a meaningful resolution where death is not in vain, the film offers none. And for those who want to preserve hope in humanity, Ruggero Deodato cinematically gives his audience the finger. In short, Cannibal Holocaust tells the truth.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cannibal Holocaust Screening Oct. 18

Remember that your chance to attend a free screening of Cannibal Holocaust occurs tomorrow, October 18th, at 7pm in Science Lab 120 on the Winona State University campus. A panel discussion about the film will follow.

Please keep in mind that the screening is limited to viewers over 18 years of age.

More information on the film and the screening can be found here.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Meghan McCain's Sarah Palin Problem

Meghan McCain has written this interesting piece for The Daily Beast about the reaction to the book, Dirty, Sexy Politics, and what she refers to as the "fetishization" of Sarah Palin by the media. Here is a key excerpt:

I thought two years after the election there would be something or someone more interesting. But there isn’t, and now the question remains will there ever be? Must we, as Republican women, clone ourselves in every way as Sarahbot’s to have a serious chance of running for office? And if so, what kind of dangerous message is this sending young women? It isn’t that there is anything wrong with Sarah Palin as a politician per se, it is that there apparently isn’t any room for anyone else in 2010 and beyond. The majority of the questions I was asked from the people I met during my book signings were not about Sarah Palin. And this is important to note because it seems that the media’s obsession doesn’t necessarily correlate to what Americans want to know.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

October Programming on Sounds of Cinema

It is October and Sounds of Cinema is in Halloween mode. Here is a run down of this month's episodes and events:

October 3 - Friday the 13th and The Shining
Released within weeks of each other in the spring of 1980, Friday the 13th and The Shining came from completely opposite ends of the film making scene. Since their release, both of these film have become classics of the horror genre and represent both the beginning and end of respective eras of the American horror film.

October 10 - Psycho and Peeping Tom
Psycho and Peeping Tom were released in 1960 and the two films are remarkably similar in their examination of psychologically disturbed characters. Although both films are now considered important entries in the horror genre, Psycho was tolerated by the critical establishment while Peeping Tom was not and the failure of the film critically and financially ended director Michael Powell's career.

Update: Those listening to the show from 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato will hear a special pledge drive edition of Sounds of Cinema on October 10th.

October 17 - Bride of Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Universal Studios released an entire catalogue of horror films such as Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and all of their sequels and spin offs. Widely considered among the greatest of these films is Bride of Frankenstein. Influenced by Bride of Frankenstein as well as many other monster films of the 1940s and 50s, Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975 to a disastrous reception but in years that followed it became the ultimate cult film.

October 18 - Film Screening: Cannibal Holocaust
A public screening of Cannibal Holocaust will be held at 7pm in Science Lab Auditorium 120 (between Pasteur and Stark Halls) on the Winona State University campus. Admission is free but no one under 18 will be permitted to see the film. A panel discussion will follow the screening. Find out more about the film and the screening here.

October 24 - Cannibal Holocaust and American Psycho
This episode will take on two films known for their controversial material. Released in 1980, Cannibal Holocaust quickly became one of the most widely censored films of all time. Its highly realistic scenes of human murder as well as actual footage of animal cruelty were cause for protest and even legal prosecution. In years since, the film has gained renewed relevance as a commentary on documentary films and the exploitation of developing cultures by industrialized cultures. In 2000, director Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, probably the most controversial piece of literature in the last quarter of the 20th century, into a commentary on the culture of greed of the 1980s. On the tenth anniversary of the film's release, that commentary has found renewed relevance.

October 31 - Lucifer Rising
Lucifer Rising was one of the final films by experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. His production of Lucifer Rising was complicated by rivalries and disasters big and small. This episode will include the complete score for Lucifer Rising composed by former Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil.

Remember that you can find out more about the show at http://www.soundsofcinema.com/

Monday, September 27, 2010

Let Me Entertain You

The Congressional Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security invited Stephen Colbert to testify--in character--about the working conditions of illegal immigrants on America's farms. Colbert participated in a United Farm Workers awareness campaign, and spent a day laboring at a vegetable farm in New York in August 2010.

Here is Colbert's statement to the committee:

You can find the entire two-hour hearing here. At 1:56:43 in the video you can find California congresswoman Judy Chu's exchange with Colbert (including her point that Clint Eastwood and Sesame Street's Elmo have testified before Congress and his very serious points about the gravity of the immigration issue).

Colbert's testimony comes on the heels of Lady Gaga's rally to end the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell policy, in which Gaga made salient points about the injustice of the law.

Celebrity activism is often ridiculed and sometimes it ought to be, especially when arguments are made on the basis of star power alone. But we should not slip into ad hominem arguments and refuse to engage with important and relevant arguments just because they come from someone in the entertainment business.

The documentary Poliwood, directed by Barry Levinson, explores how the celebrity and the politician have merged into a single entity; there is no clear distinction between the two anymore, if there ever was one. The celebrity adopts and dramatizes public issues, the politician is required to present their arguments with the skills of an entertainer, and both are required to perform on camera.

Some have bemoaned this development, as evidenced by both Fox News and MSNBC's negative reaction to Colbert's testimony. Both shamed the appearance as detrimental to the integrity of the instituion. But I have to wonder if Colbert's testimony, especially his final exchange with Congresswoman Chu, was really worse than condemning immigration reform to superficial lip service. For that matter, it is hard to argue that Lady Gaga's remarks--and her tendency to scream them into the microphone--were really more crass than representatives enabling homophobia by upholding the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell policy.

Outside of the primary issues at hand, Gaga's rally and Colbert's testimony are very good indications of where we are as a people and how media has so saturated our lives. At the risk of sounding cynical, it seems like only a matter of time before our elections take the form of reality television. But if the entertainers are making better arguments than our politicians, then we might as well take them more seriously.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Race, Age, and Taxes

Check out this article by Ronald Brownstein at National Journal Magazine on the projected changes in America's ethnic makeup over the next few decades and how it relates to our economic future. Here are a few key excerpts:

Two of the biggest demographic trends reshaping the nation in the 21st century increasingly appear to be on a collision course that could rattle American politics for decades. From one direction, racial diversity in the United States is growing, particularly among the young. . . . At the same time, the country is also aging, as the massive Baby Boom Generation moves into retirement. But in contrast to the young, fully four-fifths of this rapidly expanding senior population is white.

Although cultural disputes often generate the most heat, government budgets are likely to become the central point of conflict between younger minorities and older whites. At the state level, where governors are grappling with persistent deficits, the strains revolve around the choice between raising taxes or cutting spending. At the national level, Congress faces not only that familiar debate but also the competition between investing in education and other programs that benefit children, or spending on those that benefit seniors, primarily Medicare and Social Security.

* * *

This competition for resources takes place amid a stark divergence in the political preferences of the old and the young. . . .  And yet, as Davis and Rosenberg both note, Republicans are generally pushing to retrench entitlement programs that benefit the senior population that is increasingly leaning toward them. Democrats, meanwhile, resist constraints on entitlement costs that could help fund investments in the younger, heavily minority, generation that has become the foundation of their electoral coalition.

* * *
"The Baby Boom has a tremendous stake in investing in the education of young Latinos and African-Americans so they will get good jobs and we can tax the daylights out of them to support [the Boomers'] retirement," [Stephen] Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist, says. "The [racial] gap in achievement has to be narrowed if there's any serious hope for American competitiveness in the global economy."
Indeed, Frey projects that if the U.S. does not significantly improve college completion rates for African-Americans and Hispanics, the overall share of American adults with college degrees will decline "very sharply in the next 10 or 15 years." That's an ominous trend in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

* * *
If anything, the nation's evolving demography may wind these tensions even more tightly. While the share of the population represented by young people is expected to stabilize at just under one-fourth, the senior share is projected to steadily rise from about one-eighth today to one-fifth by 2040. By Frey's projections, that will slowly shrink the working-age population -- those who provide the tax base for young people and seniors alike -- from about 63 percent of the society now to 57 percent by 2030.

In that world, the generational and racial implications of the choices between tax cuts and spending reductions, and between public spending aimed at the old or the young, could grow increasingly explicit and explosive.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Al Franken on Don't Ask Don't Tell and DREAM

Here is Senator Al Franken's full statement, made on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, calling for the end to the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy and the passage of the DREAM Act.

Friday, September 10, 2010

No Porn for You

On the subject of empty political posturing, the Winona County Board has altered its employee travel policies, requiring its employees to choose from a list of lodging services that do not offer pornographic pay-per-view programs.

The implication here is that employees were previously allowed to watch pay-per-view materials on the county's dime. Putting a stop to that, whether the employees were watching HustlerTV or Nickelodeon, or at least making them pay for their entertainment out of their own pocket, is reasonable.

But let's have a quick reality check. First, the county's new policy doesn't just forbid employees from ordering porn in their hotel room while on business; it forbids them from staying in a building that has porn available. So let's say an employee travels to a location where there are two hotels available, and one is significantly less expensive than the other but it has porn accessible in the room. At a time of tightening budgets, where services are being cut for lack of funds, the employee would be bound to spend more of the county's money just so they can stay in a room that doesn't offer porn.

Second, pornography is really in the eye of the beholder. To carry on with the earlier example, an employee may spend more of the county's money to stay in a hotel that does not carry pay-per-view porn, but what if the hotel they patronized had HBO or Cinemax? Or what if the employee decided to relax after a hard day's work with an in-room screening of Blue Velvet, Basic Instinct, or Lolita? Already it should be clear that the board's new ruling is capricious and does little to curb the behavior it's seeking to stop.

Third, despite some local organizations petitioning the county board to the contrary, there is no causal link between pornography and violence. That's not to deny the existence of violent pornography but for the policy's advocates to say that this measure will protect women is nonsense. In fact, the March 2010 issue of The Scientist included an article that showed an inverse relationship between the consumption of pornography and the rate of violence. To say it simply, the more pornography society uses, the less sex crimes it has.

While I can commend the board for having it's heart in the right place, clearly its head was somewhere else. And all of this will be a moot point in months and years ahead as the hotel pay-per-view industry is dying out anyway. But as admitted by council member Marcia Ward (who abstained from the vote), the policy has further implications. Should the county also file restrictions that employees, while traveling on county business, cannot drink or smoke or stay in hotels that have bars or smoking rooms? And what purpose does this serve?

If the board was really interested in really helping women it could do so much more. But this isn't about helping women. It's about politicians conspicuously polishing their good-guy badges.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Maddow: Stop DADT Now

Here is the wrap up to last night's episode of The Rachel Maddow Show, in which the host calls for an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and questions why, if the president intends to end the policy, why he does not at least suspend anyone from being discharged for their sexual orientation.

Setting aside the ethical problems of DADT, consider this quote:
"The $25 million that you and I, the taxpayers, have spent on Victor Fehrenbach's training as an F-15 fighter pilot is down the tubes. The decade of investment that you and I paid for that built Jonathan J. Hopkins into a striker brigade combat team commander -- that's down the tubes. That's over. The $350,000 investment that you and I made in building Cadet-Sergeant Katie Miller into a top-10-at-West-Point, Yale-caliber scholar who could also bench press you, if need be - that's down the tubes. All of that is over."
With the faux-hysteria about out of control government spending, this argument ought to be enough of a reason to abolish this policy.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Hef's Revolution

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is a new documentary about the founder of Playboy. This piece by Andrew O'Hehir at Salon doesn't have very positive things to say about the film but it does have some interesting perspectives on Hefner and his importance to American culture. A couple of excerpts:
Hefner's near-naked pictures were revolutionary in the '50s, no doubt about it -- but in a specific and limited way. There was no subjectivity to those girls, who were lovely in an almost identical style. Like they used to say about Miss America, Miss October was "the symbol of all we possess." You, the reader, were of course supposed to be the bon vivant who had so impressed this young lady that she was now, for some reason, standing in the empty bathtub wearing only a fuzzy cardigan and high heels. And just to prove -- to her? to yourself? -- that you weren't some small-minded creep only interested in what happened between the sheets, she came wrapped in 18,000 words by Norman Mailer, or a conversation between Alex Haley and Malcolm X.
*  *  *
But all revolutionaries run up against the limits of their imaginations at some point. Lenin imagined a workers' paradise, and instead handed off his newborn totalitarian state to a murderous monster. Hefner's legacy is more complicated: He helped create a world in which white people by the millions were willing to vote for Barack Hussein Obama, and one in which all teenagers have not merely heard of anal intercourse but have seen it performed. By midgets. In Croatia. He dreamed of a nation set free from generations of Puritanical repression. But American freedom so often degenerates into slimy Burger King self-parody, covered with dubious condiments. Now Hugh Hefner is an 80-something dude in pajamas who until recently cohabited with identical twins named Karissa and Kristina.
This article reminds me of a clip from the documentary Inside Deep Throat in which Hefner participates in a televised debate with feminists. In the clip, the participants talk past each other; Hefner is confused by why these women--who he views as liberated by the sexual revolution that he helped lead--are so antagonistic with him, while the feminists see Hefner as a dinosaur and part of an oppressive system that exploits women.

I think there is an important point here about revolutionaries and the movements they lead or participate in. Revolutions so often begin with the best of intentions and those intentions may even be accomplished. But the paradox of any successful revolution is that it becomes the status quo and its symbols and figures become a part of the institution. And in American culture, where revolting against the system is as ingrained in our national identity as apple pie and baseball, that can create a regressive situation that allows for the undoing of whatever progress a given generation or movement has achieved. (Tea Party and Prop 8 advocates, I'm looking at you.)

Revolutions are also, as O'Hehir indicates, subject to commoditization and commercialization. The symbols become t-shirts and posters and the movements are adopted by celebrities, politicians, and other public figures and are sold back to us. And as that happens, the symbols are diluted of whatever potency they once possessed. Think of t-shifts with prints of Che Guevara's image sold by retailers on the same racks as designer jeans produced in sweat shops or Hugh Hefner and the Playboy brand turned into reality shows selling us the celebrity lifestyle.

Is there a cure for this cyclical adoption of the revolutionary symbols? I'm not sure, although I tend to think no. It's an inherent part of cultural "progress," even when that progress is regressive. And most societies, especially the grand ones, tend to suffer from cycles of impressive cultural construction followed by its destruction in the name of progress. And where we are right now doesn't look good.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mid West Music Fest in Winona this Weekend

Mid West Music Fest will be held in Winona, MN from July 30th - 31st. Over eighty music groups from the region will be participating, playing at various venues in the Winona area.

Fish Frye, the official band of Sounds of Cinema, will be playing on Saturday, July 31st on the Winona State University grounds at 4:30pm.

You can find out more about the Mid West Music Fest, including schedule and ticket information, here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Take on Shirley Sherrod-gate

Last week, the political news scene had one of its regular (and increasingly frequent) nervous breakdowns over the Shirley Sherrod non-scandal scandal. It was another example of news media not doing its homework and politicians and pundits racing to judgement without the facts in an effort to beat the pace of the news cycle.

For those not paying attention, video surfaced of this African American woman, currently an employee of the USDA, speaking at an NAACP function and her remarks were excerpted by right wing media hacks to make it appear that years ago she had denied aid to a Caucasian farmer based on racial tension between them. After the excerpt went public, Sherrod was immediately forced to resign but within days the full tape aired, showing that she did in fact help the farmer and in her speech she was using her own feelings of racial resentment as an example of what not to do. Her acceptance of a new position is still pending.

There is a lot to get upset about in this debacle, but Melissa Harris-Lacewell has written this piece for The Nation about it, finding the optimistic side of  the story. Harris-Lacewell writes:
Do not miss this: when Shirley Sherrod's video clip was first released to the mainstream press, the NAACP denounced her; the USDA, with complicity of the White House, fired her; the white farm family against whom she had supposedly discriminated jumped to her immediate and vigorous defense. These white farmers were the first to speak on her behalf. While others were saying she should be ashamed of herself, they loudly declared her an ally and a friend for life. The defense of Mrs. Sherrod came most effectively and fully from the white farming community. She had been their ally for years. They did not hesitate to return the favor. 
The roller coaster of this story and the sentiments it has stirred provoked my own sense of the rut that race relations and popular racial discourse have become trapped within.

America has moved very far in a few decades. To put it in some perspective, when my parents were born (in the post-war years), whites and blacks could not drink at the same water-fountains and lynchings still occurred. Now we have an African American president and interracial relationships have been largely normalized. That isn't to say that racism is gone but rather to say that the bell curve has shifted; the kinds of hideous racism that were normalized into the everyday have been largely driven to the margins of society.

This ought to give us a sense of pride, and rightly so. But the civil rights movement that had burned so bright and hot in the 1960s was largely diminished by the end of the 1970s. Important and permanent changes had been made, and although they had provided the basics (voting rights, equal protection under the law, etc.) the long term work of deconstructing institutional racism was left. And that is pretty much where we've stayed ever since.

Racism is America's most sensitive issue, the source of some of the ugliest moments of our national history, complicated by America's sense of being a "city on the hill." It is hard to square those two things together and our attempts to do so (especially in national and popular media) often succumb to an either-or fallacy in which America is either a hypocritical nation of false hopes or it is the beacon of national and cultural perfection. Of course neither of those is true and the absurd absolutes polarize people into ideological camps, unable to communicate.

What Harris-Lacewell's remarks point to are the positive: that among Americans there is generally a good will and a desire for reconciliation. But in order to get there, we're going to have to face some of the ugliness and we're going to have to give up this unattainable illusion of perfection, either for some post-racial utopia or of a nation without a blemish in its character or its history.

Maddow Responds to O'Reilly

Watch Rachel Maddow respond to Bill O'Reilly's criticism. A couple of days earlier, Maddow ran a story examining how Fox News manipulates coverage to conform to political agendas. O'Reilly responded by impugning MSNBC's ratings, as though that matters or is in any way pertinent to the argument.

Here is the money quote from Maddow's response:
You can insult us all you want about television ratings, Mr. O'Reilly, and you'll be right that yours are bigger for now and maybe forever. You are the undisputed champion. But even if no one watches us at all, except for my mom and my girlfriend and people who forgot to turn off the TV after Keith [Olbermann], you are still wrong on what really matters and that would be the facts, your highness.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Identity politcs divides us, fiction connects." - Elif Shafak

Here is the Ted Talk by writer Elif Shafak, author of The Bastard of Istanbul, in which she talks about the way stories can overcome national and ethnic divisions and how identity politics shapes the way we perceive stories:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Your Tin Foil is Showing

Conservative group Minnesota Majority has put out a "study" claiming that felons voted in the 2008 election and their ballots put Al Franken in the U.S. Senate.

Except they didn't.

According to this article at Salon, Minnesota Majority "could only identify hypothetical felons on voter rolls by name and year of birth. Half of Minnesotans are named Peterson, Johnson, or Olson. There are plenty of Minnesotans with the same name, born in the same year. And Minnesota Majority didn't have access to changes in sentencing, meaning some of the people they correctly identified as felons could've had their probation reduced, at which point they would've become legal voters again."

And further, "270 of Minnesota Majority's 475 supposed examples of felons voting "were just not accurate." Which leaves 205 possibly illegal votes. Franken won by 312."

So members of a special interest group did not do their homework and manipulated their findings to adhere to a preconceived narrative. No surprise there.

But what's more important is looking at this claim in the context of the birther movement (claiming Obama is not a U.S. citizen and therefore ineligible to be president), the "take our country back" slogans of the Tea Party, spurious accusations that the Gulf Coast oil spill was an inside job, and general animosity toward anything suspected of being "socialist."

This adds up to a view that the federal government of the United States, and specifically this administration, is somehow illegitimate. And while a lot of us look at Glenn Beck and the Tea Party and all of their shouting and tears as infantile and detached from reality, it's important to remember that they are serious and in all likely hood believe what they are saying.

During the Cold War, McCarthyism swept the culture and for years people's lives were destroyed just on the accusation that they were a communist or had communist ties. In the Middle Ages, the Inquisition tortured and executed people suspected of witchcraft; an accusation alone could be enough to get someone killed.

It is important to remember that anti-communists and inquisitors believed what they were saying, even if those beliefs had no basis in fact. Instead, reality itself was molded by authority and propaganda and what was a delusion shared by a few became a fact of life for everyone else. And when the leaders of those movements found themselves in positions of power, they were able to administer a reign of terror that was far worse than anything they were afraid of.

This hysteria over the legitimacy of our own government has the potential to be Red Scare 2.0. It isn't yet because the loudest advocates of it are limited to television shows, talk radio, and blogs. Although these media figures hold a significant sway on some segment of the population, they don't have legal authority. Should the upcoming elections in 2010 and 2012 turn out in favor of these new inquisitors, that bottle could be opened and there is no telling when or if we will get the cap on it again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Wisdom of Matt Taibbi

Rolling Stone editorial writer Matt Taibbi has recently written two complementary pieces attacking the journalism establishment.

The first, "Lara Logan, You Suck," is a retort to Logan's appearance on CNN's program "Reliable Sources" in which she made accusations and insinuations against Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone article on General Stanley McChrystal. Logan's comments came as a disappointment to me; she has done some stellar reporting from Afghanistan and Iraq and has even made her own harsh criticisms of mainstream news. But her rant on "Reliable Sources" tasted like sour grapes.

Taibbi replied to Logan, saying:
Anyone who wants to know why network television news hasn't mattered since the seventies just needs to check out this appearance by Logan. Here's CBS's chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that's killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.
Taibbi then elaborates on the Pentagon's enormous public relations wing; according to Taibbi, it spent $4.7 billion in 2009 and employs 27,000 people. But despite the size of that impressive spin machine, the Pentagon has also brought most major media sources under its wing, granting them access in exchange for favorable treatment. The same holds true of political campaigns and coverage of corporate news. Speaking directly to the reporters in mainstream news organizations, Taibbi writes:
They don't need your help, and you're giving it to them anyway, because you just want to be part of the club so so badly. . . . Meanwhile, the people who don't have the resources to find out the truth and get it out in front of the public's eyes, your readers/viewers, you're supposed to be working for them — and they're not getting your help.
Taibbi's more recent piece, "The Five Funniest Things About the 'LeBron James: Global Superdouche' Broadcast," is related to his Lara Logan takedown. Taibbi reviews ESPN's special on James' decision to go to the Miami Heat and links the coverage of this sports story to broader news coverage. Taibbi observes that ESPN was paid by LeBron for the coverage (making this an infomercial disguised as sports news) and Jim Gray was selected as the host "because he has a 'special sales relationship' with one of the sponsors, the University of Phoenix."

ESPN's public immolation of its integrity for the sake of ratings, publicity, and star fucking is really not all that different from what "hard news" sources have been doing for decades by softening the impact of political and military stories and allowing outside or parent corporations to dictate the terms of news coverage. It's not doing a service to anyone and it's only bound to get worse. Taibbi concludes:
It's the prototype for all future news coverage-- one or two dominant news networks pushing sensational fairy-tale versions of reality in a race for ad revenue, competing with a few scattered hacks on the internet covering the much less important parallel "real story," i.e. the truth. In order for the networks to push their version most effectively, they have to genuinely believe that what they're spinning is real. Which is why you see them starting to mistake fake drama for real drama from time to time -- they're beginning to drown in their own bullshit.
And old media hounds are still surprised and confounded when newspaper subscriptions plummet, network news viewership dries up, and The Daily Show and Rolling Stone outmaneuver them.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cave Men Were Sluts

Salon features this interview with Christopher Ryan, the co-author (with Cacilda Jethá) of the book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Sexuality. Ryan argues that pre-agricultural mankind had non-monogamous sex lives and that our contemporary mixture of sexuality with absolute monogamy in marriage distorts both. Here are some excerpts of Ryan's comments:
Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage. Certainly growing up in the '70s and '80s there were very few kids I knew whose parents weren’t divorced at least once. The economic, emotional, psychological cost of fractured relationships is a major problem in American society — with single mothers and single-parent families. . . . The American sense of relationships and sexuality tends to be very informed by Hollywood: It’s all about the love story. But the love story ends at the wedding and doesn't go into the 40 years that comes after that. . . .And the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Statue of Jesus Falling Through the Ice Destroyed by Lightning

Okay, so maybe he wasn't supposed to be falling through the ice, but that's what I think of when I look at this pre-lightning strike image:

Here is an excerpt from the story in The Washington Post:

The sculpture, about 62 feet tall and 40 feet wide at the base, showed Jesus from the torso up and was nicknamed Touchdown Jesus because of the way the arms were raised, similar to a referee signaling a touchdown. It was made of plastic foam and fiberglass over a steel frame, which is all that remained Tuesday.

Church officials said they didn't know exactly what prompted the nickname commonly used by people in the area. The nickname is the same used for a famous mural of the resurrected Jesus that overlooks the Notre Dame football stadium.

The fire spread from the statue to an adjacent amphitheater but was confined to the attic area, and no one was injured, police Chief Mark Neu said.
Any chance we can get Pat Robertson to blame the strike on the church member's sinful ways?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Aren't They Arresting the Wrong Guy?

According to this article at Reuters, Army Specialist Bradley Manning has been arrested for leaking the video of American soldiers firing on civilians in Iraq. An excerpt:

The video, which included an audio track of conversation between the fliers, showed an aerial view of the men moving through the square. The helicopter opened fire on the group, killing several people and wounding others.

A military spokesman said the helicopter crew mistook a camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Minutes later, a van approached and began trying to assist the wounded. The fliers apparently became concerned that the vehicle was occupied by militants and fired on it.

WikiLeaks said it obtained the video from military whistleblowers and had been able to view and investigate it after breaking an encryption code.

Some international law and human rights experts say the helicopter crew may have acted illegally.
It should not be much of a surprise. I just finished reading The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, a book about how social systems may perpetuate unjust actions and condition those involved to fight to protect those systems. Zimbardo recounts how Warrent Officer Hugh Thompson intervened in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, saving the lives of civilians. Thompson was punished for it by his superiors and it was thirty years before his heroism was recognized by the military. The book also recounts how Joe Darby, who exposed the abuses at Abu Grhaib prison, was put in protective custody and his family members were harassed for what was viewed as treasonous activity. But his actions exposed and largely ended widespread abuse in military prisons under Bush and Cheney.

Like Prometheus bringing fire to man or Lucifer liberating Adam and Eve through fruit of the tree of knowledge, the real heroes of civilization are sometimes the ones who are perceived as a threat to it. They'll never appear on a Wheaties box, there won't be songs sung in their honor, and they won't make it into a textbook approved by the Texas board of education. But as Anton LaVey once wrote, "They say a villain is bad but an apathetic drone is far worse."

Monday, May 31, 2010

Andrew Roberts Defends Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Historian Andrew Roberts has written this article for The Daily Beast, defending Ayaan Hirsi Ali and critiquing Nicholas Kristof's review of Ali's new book, Nomad. (You can find Kristof's review here.)

I have not read Ali's new book so I'm not in a position to evaluate either writer's claims about it. But this selection from Robert's piece leaped out at me:
The word “provocative” is often a term of approbation; here it is clearly intended pejoratively. The only people who could possibly be “provoked” by Nomad are Islamic fundamentalists who abuse women and beat children; much of the book is a passionate denunciation of the way violence is routinely used against children in the Muslim world. Of course, equally provoked are ultra-liberal Western commentators who regard any criticism of Islamic practices whatsoever, especially those specifically sanctioned by the Koran, as “provocative” and thus somehow illegitimate.
Roberts articulates a concern that nags at me both personally and professionally. As someone who has worked on multicultural issues in higher education, which is becoming increasingly more diverse, I worry that in our rush to create a peaceful and stable environment we end up sacrificing our ability to think critically about culture.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Meghan McCain on Rand Paul

Meghan McCain has written this piece for The Daily Beast on Rand Paul's political faux paus over his comments about the Civil Rights Act (see Paul's full interview with Rachel Maddow here). McCain writes that although the Tea Party and the mainstream Republican party do share some ideals, they have very different ideas about governing. An excerpt:
With the midterm elections fast approaching, and the 2012 elections around the corner, let’s hope Paul isn’t a canary in the coal mine, if you will, for Republicans, but a cautionary tale. The lesson is clear: If we don’t nominate formidable candidates with wider appeal and a broader message, our party is dead in the water.

Yes, Rand Paul could just be an anomaly; the next Tea Party candidate who rises to national prominence could be the answer to the movement’s prayers. Yet I believe that Paul offers a lens into the Tea Party’s broader problems. While anger over the way the country is run is valid, when it comes to specifics—and to direct, clear solutions—things fall apart.
There is a difference between libertarianism and anarchism. The former advocates an extremely limited role of government but it does nevertheless allow for a government to do the business of governing. The latter is opposed to any government whatsoever. But many of those calling themselves libertarians, including elements of the Tea Party, are leaning much more toward anarchy than libertarianism. And if you want an example of anarchism in action, take a look at Somalia and how well it has worked there.

The biggest trouble with these anarchist-leaning libertarians is not racism or white supremacy; it's naivety. Listening to Rand Paul's interview with Rachel Maddow, he constantly states how he does not approve of racist activities but also does not approve of government intervention into private business. I am willing to take Paul at his word on this. But, since Paul claims to be an ardent supporter of the Constitution, I have to wonder how he squares government's role to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty" with the circle of anarchist ideology.

Apologists for the Confederacy have argued that the Civil War was fought not over slavery but over state's rights. And in some respects they are right: the war was fought to preserve the union and to assert the federal government's authority over the states. But on behalf of the Confederacy, the Civil War was fought to preserve the state and private industry's rights to engage in an activity (slavery) so heinous that even so-called libertarians like Rand Paul claim to be embarrassed by it.

The political can of worms reopened by Paul's interview with Maddow is essentially the same argument made in the 1960s over civil rights, and the same argument made during and after the Civil War. And in all cases some very smart people are able to make the anarchist-libertarian argument not because they view minorities as inferior but because they have turned a blind eye to the moral, ethical, or just plain practical implications of their positions.

Check out Maddow's analysis of Paul's comments and on the libertarian movement as a whole.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Muslim Miss America

I'm not a fan of beauty pageants. I see them as an elaborate version of online "Are you hot?" quizzes, leading women onto stages to be evaluated like cattle at the state fair. They reinforce the idea that a woman's value is based on her physical appearance and embody the institutionalization of oppressive gender roles. What's worse, Miss USA and similar organizations have the pretension that they are something other than that, and to my eyes that hypocrisy makes them worse than the average spring break wet t-shirt contest.

So I have a mixed reaction to Tunku Varadarajan's piece in The Daily Beast which tries to spin the crowning of Rima Fakih, a Muslim American, as the newest Miss USA into a sign of cultural progress. According to Varadarajan:

So to have a Shiite Muslim girl from Dearborn, Michigan—born in a Lebanese village to parents who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 7—take part in a Miss USA contest is a cultural phenomenon of considerable interest and value. If you choose to come and live in the U.S., it is broadly desirable that you live in an American way. And that, for some, includes taking beauty contests seriously. After all, these parades of temptation are precisely the sort of exercise that hard-line Islamist zealots hate most about Western civilization, and which they deploy as cautionary ammunition in the repression of their own women: Were it not for the burqa, you would all be naked harlots.

Varadarajan has a point. A Muslim woman in a bikini--especially one getting an award for it--is a subversive action in the Muslim community. It flies in the face of sexual repression and is a freeing of the spirit. And it does cast an olive branch to the rest of (but mostly to white) America.

And yet I can't help but feel as though this is two steps forward and one step backward. Yes, it is assimilation and can be viewed as some sort of acceptance or validation. But is this the kind of validation that Muslim women are looking for?

"Congratulations, ladies," we might say. "You've moved out of the sexual repression of the 15th century and into the sexual repression of the 1950s."

I guess it's progress.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Maddow: "Some Dreams Are Bad Dreams."

Check out Rachel Maddow's commencement speech at Smith College. She puts a new spin on commencement speeches; rather than telling students to blindly follow their dreams, she encourages them to think about the broader consequences of their actions.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

Hell's impressive musical roster has just increased by one.

Former Black Sabbath frontman Ronnie James Dio has passed away. From The Chicago Tribune:

Dio’s neo-operatic voice was one of metal’s most distinctive instruments, an over-the-top stylist perfectly suited for a genre that demanded excess.

He fronted some of metal’s most revered bands, including a Deep Purple offshoot called Rainbow, the second incarnation of Black Sabbath and his namesake group, Dio. As a result, he had a hand in a half-dozen of metal’s greatest albums, including Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” and Dio’s “Holy Diver.” Most recently he was heard fronting a Sabbath offshoot, Heaven and Hell, which released a fine 2009 album, “The Devil You Know,” and toured extensively in 2008-09.

Dio’s piercing voice and equally flamboyant persona – he is sometimes credited with popularizing the two-fingered “devil’s horns” gesture – made him fodder for affectionate parody, most notably by the best-selling comedy duo Tenacious D.

Here are a few notable performances:

Holy Diver

Heaven and Hell

Rainbow in the Dark

The Devil Cried

Kickapoo - Tenacious D featuring Meatloaf and Dio

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pawlenty To Veto Gay Rights Bill

As some of you might have heard, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty plans to veto a bill that would give same sex couples equal end-of-life rights as heterosexual couples.

The first paragraph of this article at Salon sums up the rationale behind Pawlenty's veto quite nicely:

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty isn't seeking re-election. He is seeking the Republican Party's 2012 presidential nomination. So he's no longer obligated to give a shit what his constituents think -- he's governing solely for the editors of the Weekly Standard and our nation's conservative newspaper columnists.
It's important to remember that this bill does not do any of the things that the "defenders of traditional marriage" are so scared of. It does not redefine marriage or recognize a second class marriage (a.k.a. civil unions); it's not even about marriage at all. It does not allow them to adopt children or require the state to approve of boys kissing. All it does is grant homosexual partners the same legal recourse as heterosexuals in matters of end-of-life care.

But Pawlenty has to limbo under the same bar as other 2012 Republican hopefuls, a bar that has been continually lowered by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the Tea Party crowd. This is a race to the bottom, pandering to the worst in American politics.

Friday, May 07, 2010

AZ Immigration Law to Come to MN?

According to this article in the Winona Daily News, Minnesota state representative Steve Drazkowski has introduced a bill similar to the Arizona "Show Me Your Papers" anti-immigration law. According to the Winona Daily News:
The bill, called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, is designed to target the estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants in Minnesota, said Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. It would establish a Minnesota illegal immigration enforcement team with at least 10 officers, and includes the controversial provision that all law enforcement officials determine the immigration status of any person they have stopped, detained or arrested "where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present in the United States."
The Arizona law, as stupid as it is, can at least be understood as an overreaction to the drug-related violence and kidnappings on the Arizona-Mexico boarder. But there is no reason for this in Minnesota, unless Drazkowski is really worried about illegal Canadians. But the Minneosta bill is unlikely to pass, since there isn't much time left in the session and there are much bigger issues on the table right now.

Speaking of the Arizona anti-immigration bill, check out this report from The Rachel Maddow Show about the link between the Federation for American Immigrant Reform (FAIR), which had major influence on the language of the bill, and the white supremacist subculture:

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Feminism, Tina Fey, and Ivan Drago

This article by Rebecca Traister at Salon summarizes a recent online backlash at Tina Fey, mostly by women who she resembles and targets in her comedy and public persona (educated, middle and upper class, professional, white women). Traister covers some of the accusations against Fey but then turns the tables on the critics, arguing that they have made a false feminist idol out of someone who never sought the mantle in the first place.

An excerpt:

In the eagerness to embrace a star who seemed to think briskly and amusingly about gender, who was not afraid of showing off her smarts or her ambition, who reminded some young professional women of ourselves, some of us may have briefly forgotten that she is not, nor was she ever, us. It is a testament to the paucity of role models available on the pop culture landscape that many young feminists – including me! – cleaved so quickly and so closely to a woman who made some pretty smart jokes about women. But Fey was not elected Celebrity thanks to the support of EMILY's List; I am not confident that she has ever read, much less written or commented on, a feminist blog. She has been far less voluble about her personal feminism than her compatriot Amy Poehler, who has done a lot more talking than Fey about her feminist beliefs. While it might be fair to argue that Fey has profited from a feminist embrace, she did not ever pretend to be a standard bearer for contemporary feminism. We're the ones who made her that, who overidentified with her, or with Liz Lemon, or with the Weekend Update host who declared that bitch was the new black, and attached to her a passel of our highest expectations and ideals.
This gets to the heart of a wider matter: the inherent short-coming of looking to art and artists as a symbol for political ideology. For many artists, but especially for those working in corporate owned mass media, their first allegiance is to create good work and the second is to net the biggest possible audience. For a comedian, this means getting a laugh wherever one finds them. This immediately sets up a problem for artists with an awareness of or a concern for social justice issues; in the case of a comedian, the biggest laughs may come from jokes that are contrary to their principles. In these moments, artists have to choose between getting the laugh or indulging and reinforcing systems of oppression.

There is a way out of this dilemma, however. And that is to change the joke in such a way to make the underlying issue the object of ridicule. The best moments of Chappelle's Show and South Park have done this, and Traister cites examples from 30 Rock (the premiere episode) and Saturday Night Live (the Brownie Husband skit) where Fey has done this as well.

But to return to the issue of adopting entertainers as symbols of ideology, divorced from the corporate realities, artists also must have some degree of independence from ideologies and social movements. If the artist--be it a comedian or dramatist--is really to penetrate society and critique it in his or her work, then they cannot afford to drink from the same Kool-Aid as everyone else. He or she must retain a degree of sobriety that gives him or her enough of an outsider's vantage point as to see society's short comings. And when the self-proclaimed standard bearers of feminism or any other organization, movement, or ideology adopt an artist who was never explicitly on their team, expect some response in that artists work, which will then be met with some kind of backlash like we are witnessing against Tina Fey.

But maybe Ivan Drago said it best:

(The clip is not subtitled but to translate, the Soviet bureaucrat scolds Drago because the crowd is cheering for Rocky, and Drago replies, "I win for me! For me!")

Friday, April 16, 2010

McKibben: Earth is Dead

I guess we can cancel Earth Day: according to this article at Salon, environmentalist Bill McKibben has declared the planet, at least as we've known it, dead. An excerpt:

McKibben’s hair-raising new book "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," is a scrupulous and impassioned account of the severely compromised globe on which we now live. He lays out the myriad ways in which climate change has remade our world, but he also goes much further, chronicling its current and future human toll. He explains how droughts in Australia helped precipitate the 2008 food crisis and put 40 million people at risk of hunger, and how the rapidly melting glaciers of the Andes and Himalayas may soon threaten the water supply of billions. Our only hope for survival, McKibben suggests, is a reversion to small scale, local ways of life. "We simply can’t live on the new earth as if it were the old earth," he writes. "We’ve foreclosed that option."
This is not really a proclamation of the end of the world but it is a sort of apocalypse; McKibben's argument is that the reality and lifestyle we ("we"meaning the industrialized world) have been accustomed to is over.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

ALA: Most Challenged Books of 2009

This is National Library Week and the American Library Association has released their list of the ten most challenged books of 2009:

  1. ttyl, ttfn, l8r, g8r (series) by Lauren Myracle
  2. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
  3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
  6. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  7. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
  8. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler
  9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  10. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
I am somewhat surprised to see Twilight on the list since the books actually embody a conservative sense of sexuality. And it's interesting how some books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple have remained on this list for so long.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Smokes on a Plane

From The Guardian:
Two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled after a passenger apparently trying to sneak a smoke in an aircraft toilet sparked a massive security scare over the US last night.

Air marshals on board a Boeing 757 seized a Qatari diplomat who was questioned by security officials for hours after the incident. Investigators were told the man was asked about the smell of the smoke and joked he had been trying to light his shoes – an apparent reference to the 2001 shoe bomber Richard Reid
I find this really funny. Maybe because his alleged smart-ass remark sounds like something I would do.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Happy Cruci-fiction Day 2010!

It's that special Sunday of the year in which Christians get together and celebrate the torture, execution, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and look forward to the day he returns to earth to lay waste (read: commit mass genocide) upon those who refuse to honor and obey him.

One of the many ironies of religious life in America is the way that the totalitarian authority of the Christian (and for that matter Jewish and Muslim) god is either ignored or embraced by those who will readily scream and shout about the government taking away their liberty. Ancient notions of supreme gods are the template for fascism and totalitarianism: an unquestionable authority who demands absolute obedience and will punish anyone who refuses to submit. All aspects of life are controlled including our diet, clothing requirements, sexual orientation, and even our desires. The behavior of the Christian deity in the Old Testament is much more consistent with the acts of men like Joseph Stalin than any of the social workers who claim to do their work in the name of God. And Jesus Christ, whose message is supposedly about peace and love, exposes his true nature in the ending of the Bible by slaying all who refuse to recognize him.

Imagine if one of our political leaders proclaimed that Americans ought to love him without condition and anyone who dissented would be tortured and executed. Based on what has been seen recently, Americans would fill the streets with flags and guns and demand the surrender of such a leader, as they should. And yet many people readily accept a symbol of oppression under the guise of love.

But the Christian concept of love is not worth obeying. To draw upon a Biblical example, the story of Job is considered a prime example of Christian faith and devotion. For the unread, God and Satan make a deal in which Satan tortures Job, testing his faith while God watches. Job is mercilessly tormented with physical ailments and his children are killed, but he never gives up faith in God. In the end he is rewarded for his faith.

Now imagine a woman who is beaten by her husband on a regular basis. She could get away and her friends encourage her to do so, but she stays with her husband because she believes that he loves her, that the abuse will eventually end and he will treat her right, and that because she has entered into the marriage with him that she must never give up. The facts tell us that such a woman will likely end up dead.

The narrative of Job and this hypothetical abused woman are essentially the same story. Job has an abusive relationship with God and his reward at the end of the story is the mythical redemption that an abused spouse dreams of, but will never come. And although God does not torture Job directly, he enters into the agreement with Satan and stands by while Job suffers, making him guilty by proxy. This demand of devotion in contrast to loveless actions is consistent throughout the entire Bible and is ultimately the real definition of Christian love.

In short, such a god--if he actually existed--would not be worth loving. And now, with the history of violence and corruption stretching across the religious spectrum, the time has come to break the cycle.