Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Thursday, December 20, 2012
There is something quietly totalitarian about community grief. In the aftermath of a calamity, a consensus emerges out of the sorrow that calcifies how we talk about the event and, more importantly, what that event is taken to mean. Any suggestion contrary to the popular understanding is ignored, ridiculed, or criticized. This was certainly the case following the 9/11 attack, as it was (and in some ways still is) considered rude to ask serious questions about what happened or why. It may be too early to say what the Connecticut shooting “means” although the keywords are already disseminating through the airwaves and creating a frame work. At the very least media figures and politicians have declared that a rubicon has been crossed, and that in the aftermath our perspectives and priorities have somehow been irrevocably altered.
In all circumstances, but especially the tragic and the unexpected, we want death to mean something. After all, funerals are not about honoring the dead. They provide comfort for the living. When someone dies we are confronted by our own mortality. The thought that death is the end of our existence is too terrible for our egos to handle. The world couldn’t possibly go on without us, could it? The denial is evident in all levels of culture. We build monuments and print stickers proclaiming “We will never forget,” acknowledging that forgotteness is the equivalent of death. We invent fantasies of afterlives in which our loved ones live on and eventually we with them. One of the most popular motifs in our stories is the martyr, someone whose deathly circumstances have a meaning that ensures him or her a historical or ideological immortality. This isn’t about compassion. It’s panic in the face of sand slipping through the hourglass.
This egoism is at the heart of obsessions about the end of the world. There has been a minor hysteria going around about tomorrow’s supposed Mayan apocalypse. Set against public panic over other end-of-the-world rumors like the Y2K scare or the May 2011 rapture, the reaction to the Mayan calendar is comparatively staid. It may be that after so many false alarms and a glut of apocalypse movies like 2012, The Road, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World that we’re just Armageddoned-out. Or it could be that the concrete horrors of actual disasters like last week’s shooting and the impact of Hurricane Sandy eclipse abstract ideas of global destruction.
News stories about atrocities in a far off land always invite a degree of distance. The shooting in Connecticut, with its suburban school setting, is disturbing because it traverses that distance. But further disturbing is how the details of the case amplify the underlying fear of oblivion. The randomness of the murders emphasizes the callousness, chaos, and bloodlust that define much of life. That the victims were children makes that reminder harder to take. Just as natural death highlights our own impermanence, the death of the young reveals the futility of our attempts to create a legacy. Children represent the future and we ascribe onto them our hopes and dreams. We seek to protect them from the savagery of the world and keep them “innocent.” Failing to do that and seeing them slaughtered in such pointless circumstances does not upset us just because of the loss life. The wanton murder of children is the destruction of the future and ultimately the annihilation of ourselves.
In the throes of grief it is important to remember that whatever explanations we accept or social reforms we adopt are ultimately self-serving attempts to impose meaning on a meaningless event. In the past week there has been talk about violent media, gun control, and mental health. In the coming weeks and months there will be more talk and perhaps legislation. There is even the off chance that something constructive may come of it. But whatever explanation we settle on and whatever measures we impart as a result will ultimately be about restoring the illusory matrix of security.
It is also important to remember that our grief is really about ourselves. Aside from the survivors directly impacted, the tears shed over the Connecticut shooting are not really about the dead of Sandy Hook Elementary school. The tears are shed for the idea of them. We cannot feel love or empathy for those we do not know and pretending as though we can is mere arrogance. Even if we could experience this kind of wide ranging empathy it would make the world, with all of its catastrophes, injustice, suffering, and madness, unbearable.
This is at the heart of our passionate reaction to stories like the Connecticut shootings. It isn’t just the murder of children. That much happens every day in some corner of the world, sometimes at the hands of our own government, but the culture does not keel over in grief. It’s the way this story confounds our ability to rationalize it, thereby obliterating illusions of security, cutting through fantasies of everlasting life, and dissolving hope, that makes it so traumatizing. Moments like this reveal our own powerlessness against life’s ravenous appetite for its own destruction no matter how many guns we buy or ban.
Monday, November 12, 2012
Today film criticism finds itself at a crossroads. For most of the history of cinema, film criticism has been limited to a select few but with the advent of the internet, digital forces have democratized film criticism, flooding the market with new voices. And as digital sources erode print media, many film critics are finding themselves out of work. Simultaneously, films that are panned by both traditional and digital critics do extraordinarily well at the box office. This presentation will look at the change in film criticism and speculate on its value and function for the future.
Monday, November 05, 2012
The debate over this amendment has been costly, intense, and passionate and at this point it is a crapshoot as to whether or not it will pass. However, given polling data and the history of success for amendments like this, supporters of the ballot initiative should be prepared for its passage. Yes, you read that correctly: supporters of the amendment, those who want to ban gay marriage, should steel themselves for success, because if it passes the coming backlash could get ugly.
It is important to point out that the support for the marriage amendment is really about opposition to gay marriage and this opposition is entirely rooted in religious, and particularly Christian, organizations. Among the amendment’s major financial supporters is the Minnesota Roman Catholic Church which contributed more than $1 million to the campaign; church leaders even wrote letters to the laity soliciting donations. The Minnesota Catholic Conference, dioceses outside of Minnesota, individual churches, and chapters of the Knights of Columbus have also pledged support. Other organizations supporting the amendment include Minnesota Pastors for Marriage, the Minnesota Family Council and Minnesota for Marriage. All of these organizations, either directly or implicitly, frame the case for the amendment in religious terms. If there is a non-religiously-based argument to be made on behalf of the marriage amendment, I have not been able to find it and it certainly has not been part of the popular discourse.
The advocates of this amendment have so thoroughly seized the religious lectern that they have overwhelmed any dissenting religious voices. Even though some religious leaders have opposed the ballot measure (see here, here, and here), religion has been inexorably tied to the amendment’s rationale as though it were decreed by Jesus himself. (Note: It wasn’t. Jesus had nothing to say about gay marriage or homosexuality for that matter.) In short, if the marriage amendment passes, the religious community of Minnesota will have to own it and that means reaping the consequences. When Proposition 8 was passed in California there was a rash of vandalism against Mormon churches. Let me be clear: I do not condone this behavior. Vandalism and activities like it are unconstructive, unfortunate, and stupid but such violent outbursts are also understandable when one’s humanity is denigrated by second class citizenship.
If the marriage amendment passes, the more serious blowback that religious organizations had better prepare themselves for will not manifest itself as vandalism or threats. It won’t manifest itself at all. The reality is that church attendance and religious affiliation are in free fall and the younger generations—Generation X, the Millennials, and generations to come—support gay marriage in droves. This fight over gay marriage, a fight that did not have to be fought but the religious leadership picked anyway, will not improve or preserve heterosexual marriages nor will it strengthen the religious character of the state or the nation. All it will do is drive a wedge in between the church and the younger laity that will cut so deep that religious organizations may never recover from it.
America’s religious leadership hasn’t yet wrapped its head around the idea that the public has figured out that they can live their lives without religion, that they can walk out on their relationship with their church and even their god, especially if they are forced into a choice between supporting their loved ones or supporting an organization that spends its money fighting their loved ones. That failure by those in the hierarchy of American religious life, whatever denomination they might be a part of, has become the defining feature of religious life in America today. And should the Minnesota marriage amendment pass, it may be the decisive insult with which America’s religious leaders finally and permanently drive the youth out of their churches, thereby ensuring their own self destruction.
So go ahead and vote yes. I dare you.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
In the past few weeks I have come across a number of articles in which Christian apologists and similar writers attempt to annex Halloween as a part of their own traditions. At USA Today, Presbyterian minister Henry Brinton writes that the most important part of Halloween is that “the day points us to All Saints' Day.” Fr. Robert Barron writes that the origin of Halloween is “not ethnic or nationalistic. It is Catholic. Certainly there were regional appropriations of the festivals of the Church and Halloween was no exception, but bottom line these festal days belonged to the Church.” Writing at Christianity Today, Anderson M. Rearick III advises his readers to “Give up nothing,” claiming that Halloween is in fact part of a Christian tradition and that it is being taken over by Satanists and neo-pagans.
These writers are correct about the contemporary holiday known as Halloween sharing Christian roots. The American celebration of Halloween grows out of Christian, and particularly Catholic, All Saints Day celebrations. However, it should also be remembered that All Saints Day grew out of pre-Christian festivals linked to harvests and other agrarian events. The same is true of other holidays, namely Christmas. The December 25th date is not really the date of Jesus Christ’s birth; in truth we don’t know when he was born (assuming he ever was) but December 25th is also the birthdate ascribed to several pre-Christian deities. Christmas trees were also an adaptation of pre-Christian traditions. That does not make Christmas any less of a Christian holiday but it does indicate that there is a greater complexity to the history and origins of the tradition, as is the case with most holidays. It also demonstrates that a holiday’s origins do not necessarily determine its future meaning.
The emphasis on the Christian elements of Halloween’s history reverses trends of past decades. Starting in the 1980s, Evangelical leaders and others—namely Jack Chick—made an effort to scare the public away from Halloween with stories about razor blades in apples and satanic ritual abuse. These stories were nonsense but they had a powerful effect, putting a damper on community traditions like trick or treat. These rumors were also important to the development and transition of Halloween into what it is has become. As kids were shut out of Halloween “for their own safety” it gradually became a more adult holiday. What was a matter of costumes and candy corn has become a carnival of the flesh.
Whatever its origins, the idea that the contemporary Halloween is somehow a Christian holiday is ludicrous. The values that the holiday has come to embody are not Christian nor are they values of any mainstream religion. Where most conventional religious faiths, including many neo-pagans, imagine spiritual enlightenment by emphasizing salvation through self-denial, the contemporary Halloween is a refutation of the spiritual and the embrace of the carnal. When Halloween celebrants adopt costumes they are casting their lot with the dark side, if only for a night. Costumes of evil signify the rejection of social norms of goodness while erotic costumes embrace the wearer’s sexual nature. An attempt to assimilate Halloween into Christianity is like participating in an orgy to affirm your belief in abstinence.
Why this sudden attempt to annex Halloween after such a concerted effort was made to suppress it? As with most things, the answer is found at the end of a trail of money. Halloween is now the second most profitable holiday in the United States behind Christmas, with $6 billion in retail sales. While Halloween is booming and celebrations get wider and more raucous each year, religious affiliation and church attendance continue to decline. Seeing everyone leaving their house for the better party, the religious have no choice but to claim Halloween for their own. But they can’t, not without either radically changing their own beliefs or altering the nature of the holiday.
As I have written in the past, Halloween is the last good holiday because it embraces evil and evil is above all resilient. Religious types tried to slander Halloween but the holiday only grew bigger and more subversive. Attempts at assimilation are unlikely to change its nature; if anything Halloween will more likely transform its assimilators.
But don’t take this as a pretext to run away from Halloween. It’s just the opposite, in fact. There is little time left in this year’s Halloween season, but before boxing up your decorations and discarding your jack-o-lanterns, take a moment to consider which holidays actually bring you joy and which are merely a drain on your time, energy, and pocketbook. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has the ability to choose our own gods.
Friday, September 14, 2012
Agitprop documentaries often preach to the choir and are usually hailed or condemned depending on whether they confirm or conflict with the petty partisan allegiances of the viewer. But the problems with 2016: Obama’s America go beyond politics. There is a serious conservative documentary to be made criticizing the presidency of Barack Obama but this is not it. This is the kind of picture that is poisonous to the culture and its filmmakers tap into some of the ugliest facets of American politics. 2016: Obama’s America should not be categorized with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 or Frank Capra’s Why We Fight; instead, this film ought to be regarded with the same ridicule as Reefer Madness. (Read the full review here.)I always put my best effort into each film review but while writing my critique of 2016: Obama's America I was more thorough than usual. Reviewing films like this fill me with a sense of both responsibility and trepidation because it puts my credibility on the line in ways that reviewing other films do not. With that in mind I've written an essay on the Sounds of Cinema blog about the intricacies of reviewing overtly political films. Here is an excerpt:
Reviewing a film like 2016: Obama’s America is intimidating because it requires me to be much more conscientious and rigorous about how I evaluate it. In this case, approving or disapproving of President Obama may predispose me to like or dislike the film; in the interest of full disclosure, I have mixed feelings about Barack Obama’s presidency but more than likely I will vote for him this November. But if that is the only criterion upon which I evaluate the film then I am no different from the partisan apologists who crowd the airwaves and my credibility as a film critic is diminished.
Reviewing this film is categorically different from reviewing Obama and his presidency. A documentary whose perspective I ideologically disagree with can be well made and ethically argued and as a critic I have to acknowledge that. The reverse is also true; in my review of Fahrenheit 9/11 I commented that Michael Moore’s filmmaking is exceptional but the director has a tendency to jump to conclusions in his argumentation; when I reviewed An Inconvenient Truth I noted that the argumentation was solid and the information was important but it wasn’t much of a film. As it is, the cinematic merits of 2016: Obama’s America are uneven as the sound is often poor and the dramatic recreations frequently look ridiculous. But the more serious problems with the film are found in its arguments which are intellectually dishonest and appeal to underlying racial prejudices in the American electorate. As I concluded in my review, there is a serious conservative documentary to be made criticizing the presidency of Barack Obama but this is not it.You can read the entire post here.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Of the ideas in this talk, the main one, and the one I find most interesting, is how Krastev pokes a hole in one of the major talking points of the internet age: that transparency will inevitably lead to a better government. Here is a key quote (starting at 10:45 in clip):
“Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is politics’ management of mistrust. . . .But when politics is only management of mistrust then—I’m’ glad that 1984 has been mentioned—now we’re going to have 1984 in reverse. It’s not going to be the Big Brother watching you. It’s going to be we being the Big Brother watching the political class. But is this the idea of a free society? For example, can you imagine that decent, civic, talented people are going to run for office if they really do believe that politics is also about managing mistrust? Are you not afraid that with all these technologies that are going to track down any statement the politicians are going to make on certain issues? Are you not afraid that this is going to be a very strong signal to politicians to repeat their positions, even the very wrong positions, because consistency is going to be more important than common sense? And the Americans who are in the room, are you not afraid that your presidents are going to govern on the basis of what they said in the primary elections? I find this extremely important because democracy is about people changing their views based on rational arguments and discussions. And we can lose this with the very noble idea [of] keep[ing] people accountable.”Transparency is often helpful but in an environment where ideology is more valued than critical thinking, transparency can become a stick used to beat those who try to break out of established ideological and political trenches.
Thursday, August 09, 2012
A couple of years ago the documentary Waiting for Superman caused a stir for its portrayal of American education as a failed system. When I reviewed it for Sounds of Cinema, one of the flaws I noted about the picture was its incomplete examination of the youth culture in which education and intelligence are undervalued. While not as alarmist as that film, Academically Adrift is a complementary piece of work in that is suggests systemic ways that higher education (and to an extent the K-12 system) is failing to produce the citizenry required by a contemporary economy, an innovative culture, and a healthy democracy.
Here are some provocative quotes from the book:
“Students often embraced a ‘credentialist-collegiate orientation’ that focused on earning a degree with as little effort as possible. Academic ‘success’ was achieved through ‘controlling college by shaping schedules, taming professors and limiting workload . . . by doing no more than is necessary.’” (pg. 70)Click here for the listing at University of Chicago Press website.
“Decisions [by students] are indeed based on personal preferences, but student perspectives are often exceedingly myopic and focused on short-term gains, understood as increased freedom for strenuous academic effort.” (pg. 76)
“The financial and social experiences of the students in our sample suggest that they are relatively hard-working and motivated. As a college class, they deserve and have earned our sympathy. Unfortunately, their inflated ambitions and high aspirations have not institutionally been met by equivalently high academic demands from their professors, nor have many of them found a sense of academic purpose or academic commitment at contemporary colleges.” (pg. 89)
“Thus, students’ college experiences and institutions attended make almost as much of a difference as prior academic preparation. If the blame for low levels of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills of college students is to be placed on academic preparation, then almost an equal amount of responsibility rests with what happens after students enter higher education.” (pg. 119 - 20)
“If [individual instructors] raise course demands on their students but their peers do not, they will potentially be disadvantaged by course evaluations in which students express dissatisfaction.” (pg. 134)
“The results from our work show that learning is related first and foremost to academic activities, and particularly to individual studying. Social activities, including studying with peers, have either no consequences or negative consequences for learning.” (pg. 135)
“What conservative policy makers have missed, however, is that market-based educational reforms that elevate the role of students as ‘consumers’ do not necessarily yield improved outcomes in terms of student learning.” (pg. 137)
Monday, August 06, 2012
If there is one word to describe this entire ruckus, it is “stupid.” To start, making a fast food restaurant the center of a national civil rights debate is worthy of the satire of South Park or The Onion. But the stupidity of Chick-fil-A-gate went beyond the ridiculous and became one of the most dramatic examples in recent memory of just how stupid the arguments and rhetorical tactics of a public conflict can be.
Moving through this more or less sequentially, the first person to earn the stupid label is Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy. Setting aside religious liberty or even personal integrity for a moment, consider what happened in terms of public relations: the Chief Operating Officer of a national company went on record saying that he opposed gay marriage. In most recent polling, the majority of Americans agree that gays should be allowed to marry, and that majority is only going to get bigger. Although Chick-fil-A did great business on August 1, let’s not lose sight of the long game. The crowds that showed up on Huckabee’s day of activism aren’t going to be there every day. As gay marriage becomes more widely accepted the opposing crowd is going to shrink if not go extinct altogether (and not simply from dying of cancer due to eating at Chick-fil-A). The company seems to have recognized that and issued a statement saying that they endeavor to “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect –regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender” and plan “to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” It’s a well-meaning statement but the media attention given to Cathy’s comments has tainted Chick-fil-A with an anti-gay image and in the long term their business may suffer for it.
Although Cathy’s comments were the kind of thing that give nightmares to public relations professionals, the reaction of gay rights activists and their allies was stupid as well. This is a movement that has been notoriously bad at two things: succumbing to knee-jerk reactions to any and every conceivable slight and exercising poor judgment when it comes to picking battles. I don’t want to diminish the challenges that the gay community has faced and continues to face, but the way their advocates responded to this story made it worse. Cathy was not instituting a company policy or actively discriminating against a demographic group. He framed his comments as a statement of his Christian faith and no one in the gay rights movement bothered to come up with a counter-narrative. When GLBTA activists and their allies went after Cathy they effectively went after his religion as well.
The optics of this approach were disastrous as gay rights activists played into the hands of their opponents. Members of the religious right have long fancied themselves victims and in this instance they were correct: their values were under attack and they responded to the call to mobilize. Cathy became a martyr and Chick-fil-A was transformed into a front in the culture war, which in the short term was very profitable for the restaurant. Instead of using this story to demonstrate entrenched homophobic attitudes and the importance of extending civil rights protections to homosexuals, the story became a fast food passion play. Worse, GLBTA advocates came off as bullies. A video of a protester harassing the wait staff of a Chick-fil-A restaurant went viral and the push by some high profile mayors to block Chick-fil-A from opening restaurants based on the religious convictions of the company’s COO was correctly viewed as a form of religious discrimination not only by the rightwing media but by center and leftwing outlets as well. In short, whatever goal gay rights activists hoped to achieve—and I don’t think there was any goal beyond showing Dan Cathy that they didn’t like his opinion—backfired.
But the menagerie of stupidity in the Chick-fil-A farce would be incomplete without those hungry hoards of chicken-eating homophobes. While those people might bristle at the “homophobic” label, this is precisely what they showed up to advocate on behalf of. Rightwing and religious commentators may try to cast the narrative as a matter of religious liberty but that is ultimately a minor point. Yes, the Bible forbids homosexuality; yes, many religious leaders disapprove of homosexual marriage; yes, individuals have the right to believe those things and even to say them out loud. Individuals in a free society also have the right to burn books and desecrate flags and stand on street corners with signs that say “God Hates Fags.” But just because a belief is held as a matter for faith does not make it a good idea nor does it excuse that belief from criticism. What should be at issue is the quality of that belief. There is no way of getting around the fact that denying marriage equality is homophobic just as denying ethnic minorities the ability to marry is racist. In the short term, the images of customers lined around Chick-fil-A restaurants were an impressive show of religious solidarity but in coming years (and I would guess sooner rather than later) those images are going to be regarded with the same confusion, anger, and embarrassment with which contemporary viewers regard images from anti-integration protests from forty years ago.
We can and must support tolerance for religion, including religious ideas that are unpopular, outmoded, or stupid. We tolerate them as a matter of social stability; everyone gets to hold their beliefs and practice in their own way. Using the mechanisms of government to force a particular religious belief on others or out of the culture is dangerous, it undermines the state, and it never works anyway (just ask the Inquisition). But tolerance is not and should not be the same as acceptance or agreement. I can tolerate that some people believe women are inferior, that homosexuality is evil, that the earth is 6000 years old, that bread and wine turn into flesh and blood, or that I will spend eternity in a lake of fire. I can also tolerate that others believe in reincarnation, magic stones, and Tarot cards. But I will not accept any of those ideas as valid, factual, or credible and they should not be granted critical amnesty just because their advocates hide behind a cross or the Constitution.
If anything useful has come out of the Chick-fil-A debate it is the way it has demonstrated how absurd our public debates have become. It is popular to call for “coming together” and “having a dialogue” but between the web, television news, print media, talk radio, and public protests there is already plenty of that. What we need is a better discussion. In this case, that starts with both the religious constituency and gay rights advocates pausing before they protest and considering exactly what message they are trying to send. Protests and counter-protests are fine but if you can’t contribute meaningfully to the discussion, then shut up and eat your chicken.
Monday, July 23, 2012
Part of what is interesting here is the acknowledgement by men with very different political perspectives that pop culture matters and that it shapes public opinions about issues that are apparently unrelated to the content of the film. Limbaugh’s predictions are mostly laughable, at least in the way that they insinuate a coordinated effort to slander Mitt Romney, since the Bane character was created in the 1990s and the script for The Dark Knight Rises was finished by early 2011. But Harrison’s comments are off the mark as well, and not just because his definition of “revolution” has less connection with reality than your average superhero flick. There is an undeniable political subtext to The Dark Knight Rises and to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that has very much to do with reality.Read the rest of the piece here.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
“We have grafted a multibillion dollar entertainment industry onto higher education. It is inherently discordant with the mission of the university. It is inherently corrupting and you’re going to get this and elsewhere different forms of corruption, but always forms of corruption because big time football has no business on college campuses.”You can watch the discussion in the embedded clip below, starting at 18:36.
Sunday, July 08, 2012
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Here is an excerpt:
The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.
Who are these companies? They are sites like The Pirate Bay, or Kim Dotcom and Megaupload. They are “legitimate” companies like Google that serve ads to these sites through AdChoices and Doubleclick. They are companies like Grooveshark that operate streaming sites without permission from artists and over the objections of the artist, much less payment of royalties lawfully set by the artist. They are the venture capitalists that raise money for these sites. They are the hardware makers that sell racks of servers to these companies. And so on and so on.
What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned a police force. So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it. And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?The essay is lengthly but I encourage you to read it.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Predictably, Hayes comments elicited anger from some right wing commentators and Hayes eventually apologized. He shouldn't have. Memorial Day has degenerated into a national barbecue and anyone with real respect for the sacrifices of the troops or who cares about the consequences of warfare ought to appreciate the attempt by Hayes and others on the panel to be thoughtful about what we actually mean when we say we "support the troops" and what Memorial Day is supposed to represent.
The Memorial Day related segments from the show are embedded below. The panel includes Liliana Segura, Michael Brendan Dougherty, John McWhorter, and Michelle Goldberg.
Update: On the June 2 episode of Up with Chris Hayes, the host responded to criticism of his earlier remarks. The rest of the episode continued the discussion about sacrifice, service, and civic engagement that had begun the previous week.
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
The culture wars are back. Truthfully, they never really went away but as Tea Party Republicans swept into state and federal legislatures in 2010 the presumption by the mainstream press had been that they would ignore cultural issues like abortion or civil rights and focus on the economy. As it turned out, little to nothing was done with the economy while record breaking numbers of laws were proposed on culture war issues.
In the past few weeks gay rights has moved to the center ring of the media circus, swapping places with a virulent (but largely unresolved) public debate on birth control which had replaced the Trayvon Martin case before it and the Kony 2012 movement before that. Like most issues, the media will play with gay rights like a child with a new toy, squeezing as much talking head drama from it as it can muster, and then discard the issue for another without ever reaching even the semblance of a conclusion.
The story blowing up talking head television at the moment is President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. It’s tempting to wait for this to blow over but the reactions to this story are telling of the ways in which certain segments see their place in the cultural shift. In a speech at Liberty University, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made passing mention of the issue within remarks about the role of religion in public life. The themes of this speech were consistent with a similar speech that Romney made in 2007 in which he erroneously claimed that religion (read: Christianity) and freedom were intertwined. His 2012 speech was an improvement in coherence and delivery but it shares with his former speech a bland naiveté and a pandering approach to his audience. Romney said:
The protection of religious freedom has also become a matter of debate. It strikes me as odd that the free exercise of religious faith is sometimes treated as a problem, something America is stuck with instead of blessed with. Perhaps religious conscience upsets the designs of those who feel that the highest wisdom and authority comes from government.This perception of religious liberty coming under attack is a mischaracterization. For centuries a few select religious movements have had a monopoly on the public square and as a result they have largely gotten their way and been treated with deference. As the culture has become more pluralistic these powerful cultural elites are now being asked or required to share stage space. The newfound competition is confused with an attack on religious liberty while it is actually the extension of that same liberty to other views. Romney’s remarks reinforce his audience’s self-image as victims and highlight the presumption that the culture war is a zero-sum game: either a culture has specific Christian values or it has none at all. This mindset prevents its adherents from seeing victimization of anyone except themselves.
But from the beginning, this nation trusted in God, not man. Religious liberty is the first freedom in our Constitution. And whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action.
An example of this worldview was seen a few weeks ago when a video clip of GLBT rights advocate Dan Savage surfaced in which he criticized the use of the Bible to justify anti-gay positions:
As the video went viral, some criticized Savage for his comments, with the common thread being that Savage had become the very bully that his “It Gets Better” movement had rallied against. (See this, this, and this for examples of the reaction.) But this I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I response to Savage is inappropriate. First, Savage is correct in what he says. From prohibitions on shellfish to advise on slavery, believers and nonbelievers alike have learned to ignore the content within the Bible that they know to be philosophically or factually wrong. Second, and perhaps more importantly, viewing Savage’s rant as on the offensive is an exercise in false equivalence. Savage's comments come in the context of ongoing harassment. The gay community has been and continues to be under attack by those who justify their bigotry with their faith. Accusing Savage of bullying is like telling a person who throws a punch while being mugged that he is as bad as his attackers. Dan Savage didn’t start this fight and he is right to call people names like “pansy-assed” when they cry foul in the face of fair resistance.
Most of the news media this week has contrasted Romney’s commencement speech with the one given by President Obama at Barnard College, but I think a far better comparison is to be made between Romney’s remarks and a recent essay by Peter Gilmore of the Church of Satan about same sex marriage and religious politicking. Gilmore observes that rights are issued and managed by the state, “and so it is quite a simple matter for special interest groups to lobby to have more for themselves or to remove them from other.” In that same vein, he writes that “[marriage] is also a legal contract with broad power and obligations in the secular sphere.” As he sees it, this conflict is about the expansion of rights in such a way that creates a society in which all members have equal status under the law. Gilmore concludes that:
If the secular folk win, no one will force the spiritual religions to change their stultifying viewpoints. They can hold to their faith and definitions. But they would not be able to force others to comply with their dictates, and they’d simply have to buck-up and deal with the fact that there are others who do not share their point of view. If that is offensive to them, too bad. Rational, secular people are frequently offended by the nonsense promulgated by the various faiths of the world. By contrast, the limitations of many religions on their adherents would be ever more obvious and might foster an exodus of clear-thinking, equitable people from their ranks. If the bigots win now and again, then whoever does not agree with them might need to migrate to other places which do have laws promoting tolerance for different modes of living.As Gilmore indicates, the expansion of marriage and its attendant rights and privileges to homosexuals comes at little cost to those who oppose it so vehemently while the denial of that expansion will create ongoing hardship for minorities and establish second class citizenship within our laws and our culture. What religious leaders stand to lose is their place as the sole arbiters of morality and ethics. As Gilmore hints at the end of his remarks, the legitimization of marriage equality may cause its opponents to lose their own legitimacy as they find themselves unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas. What that reveals, finally, is that the fight against gay marriage is not about preserving the family or stabilizing society. It is ultimately about a religious group trying to preserve its own authority.
What Gilmore and Romney represent in their remarks is a key underlying issue of the culture war: the reality from which its participants proceed. Romney articulates a view in which one group’s values are the only valid ones, the state is subservient to them, and in fact it exists to uphold those values. By contrast, Gilmore envisions a culture in which the state exists as a referee, a pillar around which participants in the marketplace of ideas set up shop and various interest groups conduct their business without subsidy from the establishment. Gilmore’s position is the truly democratic position. Romney’s position is a few short leaps from theocracy.
The culture wars exist because the values of society are in flux and they challenge established elites with new or contrary ideas. These debates remain vital in part because they are more interesting (and entertaining) than subjects like tax reform but especially because they speak to our very identity as a nation. Some bemoan the partisan and polarizing state of the culture and see Obama’s recent show of solidarity with gay rights as pouring fuel on the fire. That may be but it is a fight worth having and it deserves a deeper examination than a primetime lecture from the hysterics and carnival barkers that inhabit cable news.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
The influence of the relationship [between celebrity, news media, and politics] does not flow in a single direction; this isn’t just politicians cozying up to entertainers or celebrities adopting causes they may or may not believe in for photo ops. This is a complete system in which the three are bonded together in a triple helix and there is no pulling them apart.Click here to read the whole thing.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
PoliWood is sponsored by Winona State University's English Department, Political Science Department, Mass Communication Department, and Sounds of Cinema.
Sunday, April 08, 2012
Sunday, April 01, 2012
Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Good Morning, Vietnam, You Don't Know Jack), PoliWood examines the overlap of politics, entertainment, and celebrity. Shot during the 2008 presidential campaign, the documentary follows members of the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan organization of entertainers, as they visit the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Along the way, the film explores the ways in which entertainment and celebrity culture have shaped contemporary politics and what that means for the future of democracy.
See this page for more information about the film and subscribe and share the Facebook event page.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
My primary complaint about Project X isn’t about sex or even the film’s homophobia and misogyny, although the filmmakers regard for women and for masculinity is horrific. The complaint isn’t even really about this particular film. Project X is awful but it represents the end point of a pernicious trend in the comedy genre that extends back over a decade.
To read the entire piece, click here.
Thursday, March 08, 2012
After the screening I wrote an essay about the film. With the recent resurgence of interest in the abortion issue, I encourage you to take another look at the film and the essay. Here is an excerpt:
Lake of Fire also suggests something amiss about the pro-abortion side of the debate. Most of the pro-abortion speakers come across as rational and calm and speak from seated positions with academic props like books and chalkboards behind them. These images of calmness and rationality contrast with the visceral sights and sounds of the abortion clinic in which the remains of aborted fetuses are shown. While reactions to this footage may be dismissed as entirely pathos-baiting, in the context of the film this footage occurs alongside admissions of ignorance by the pro-abortion advocates, such as Alan Dershowitz who claims that he saw his own unborn child as a person but did not see someone else’s fetus as possessing the same personhood. This is consistent with the general absence of a definitive answer from the pro-abortion advocates, who consistently admit that they don’t know when life begins or what the moral or legal status of a fetus is or ought to be. That creates a vacuum in the marketplace of ideas in which the anti-abortion campaign presents moral absolutism against the relativism (or nihilism) of the pro-abortion argument. In the panoramic view that Lake of Fire offers, a cynic could describe the debate as waged between insane religionists who claim certainty and rational academics who do not claim to know anything. Neither side is particularly comforting.Read the rest of the essay here.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
The fact that the Oscars are decided by old white men is not exactly a surprise and the lack of diversity has been a longstanding issue for the Academy. As the article details, very few actors of color have been nominated or even brought on stage to present awards. Whether the Academy should more accurately represent the racial and gender constitution of the American population or if it should represent those working as professional filmmakers regardless of their identity is something that I’ll leave to be debated among people who specialize in ethnography and gender studies, at least for now.Read the full essay here.
However, the nugget from the Times article that is really most damning about the Academy has little to do with the race, gender, or age. Within the piece, the writers observe that hundreds of academy voters haven't worked on a movie in decades and some are people who have left the movie business entirely but continue to vote on the Oscars. What this means is that the institution that calls itself “the world's preeminent movie-related organization” of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema" and that the mainstream press treats like the definitive judgement on motion pictures does not make its annual award decisions based upon the opinions of people who are currently working in the business.
Monday, February 20, 2012
There is no question that Houston had great commercial success, as she was among the bestselling recording acts of all time and was the most awarded female musician. But this does not make her a great artist. Album sales are no measure of artistic talent. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that McDonalds makes good food because the fast food giant sells a lot of cheeseburgers or Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a good movie because it sold a lot of tickets. As for Houston’s accolades, most of these can be dismissed because the major awards ceremonies, especially for music and motion pictures, have little credibility. (Consider this: Ben Affleck and Nicolas Cage have Oscars for writing and acting, respectively, but Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells were only recognized with generic achievement awards.) These ceremonies are little more than three-hour advertisements for media conglomerates in which their most lucrative acts are displayed and awarded.
There is also no question that Houston, at the height of her fame, had impressive singing talent. Her performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV remains one of the most impressive renditions of the national anthem and many people who were teenagers in the mid-1990s will remember “I Will Always Love You” as a high school dance favorite (although the motion picture it was associated with isn’t remembered so fondly). But being a great performer is not the same as being a great artist. To be artistic requires creation or at least the arrangement or rearrangement of existing content into something new. Houston only wrote or produced a handful of her songs and none of those were her hit singles. She had talent and a voice, and sometimes it was a quite beautiful voice, but that is no more distinguished than the many forgettable winners of American Idol.
There is another important aspect of artistry that Houston, and much of pop music, fails to possess: substance. As she didn’t write the songs, Houston cannot be credited or criticized for their content. But even as the courier of music written by other people, there was nothing innovative or provocative about the music. Lyrically, her music consisted of cookie-cutter love ballads that had only the most superficial meanings. Pop music is generally intended to be filler, the kind of music that listeners appreciate more for the beat or the emotion it evokes rather than the lyrics. There is a place for that in the music scene; someone has to provide the tunes that young people listen to while dry humping on a Friday night. But the music’s utility is no excuse for its vapidity and we should not confuse it for great art.
The imbalance between Houston’s lack of artistic accomplishments and the importance being ascribed to her career are not new or unique. Plenty of dead celebrities get more recognition than they are due, especially if they pass under tragic circumstances. But the praise and significance being heaped on Houston’s memory does provide an opportunity to address the shallowness found in popular music and more broadly across the culture. I recently had the opportunity to examine the book and CD set Next Stop Vietnam – The War on Record, 1961 – 2008, which is a compilation of music and other audio artifacts from the Vietnam era. As I went through the thirteen (!) discs in the set I was astonished by the volume of music produced about the war, with some musicians supporting America’s military intervention (“It's America, Love It Or Leave It” by Ernest Tubb), others opposing it (“War” by Edwin Starr), and still more or reflecting on specific events or repercussions (“The Ballad Of My Lai” by Matt McKinney). I doubt a compilation of mainstream music reflecting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would exceed a single disc.
Music does not necessarily need to deal with headline news in order to be great. Affairs of the heart are just as worthy of examination. But there is a significant divide between the pop music that is being thrust at us by media companies and the realities of consumers’ lives. Case in point: in the fall of 2008, when the American economy was collapsing, the song topping the Billboard chart was “Whatever You Like” by T.I., an anthem to mindless consumption if there ever was one. Aside from Bruce Springsteen’s recent track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” I cannot come up with a single pop artist (especially one who is under forty years old) who has addressed life in the post-TARP era or the general feeling of frustration, betrayal, and anger embodied by the Tea Party and the Occupy movements. That kind of disconnection renders pop music artistically irrelevant.
Pop music seems doomed to this irrelevancy for the time being. Part of what art is intended to do is to challenge the audience. Pop music has an inherent problem because it is a product that large media conglomerates aim to sell without getting into trouble with politicians or shareholders. When an artist attempts to challenge the listener, he or she risks his or her standing with the corporate masters. And as CD sales dry up and the profits from legal downloading fail to make up for the shortfall, major labels will be inclined to make safer choices. This means less challenging work and more irrelevant music.
One last thought: Whitney Houston’s one major claim as a performer was her singing ability and many major vocalists of previous generations made their mark on pop music on that talent alone. But in recent years even that has become a diminishing commodity as voices are digitally altered in post-production facilities. This renders even a performer’s musical skill superfluous and ultimately reduces him or her to a spokesperson for a product.
This very issue was addressed on Grammy night. Because Houston’s death overshadowed most everything else at the ceremony, one acceptance speech went largely unnoticed. Accepting the award for Best Rock Performance, Dave Grohl of The Foo Fighters proclaimed that “learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. . . . It’s not about what goes on in a computer.” Grohl’s comments, although nuanced and polite, were far more provocative than any outfit or stage piece employed by otherwise brain dead pop acts. This statement, spoken to a roomful of people who have made careers and fortunes from music as digitally altered as a cover model on a beauty magazine, was a moment of true rock and roll rebellion.
Artistic music will continue to be written, recorded, and listened to by a receptive audience. It may not find its way onto local Top 40 radio stations and it may not be as profitable as in the heydays of Bob Dylan or John Lennon or Nine Inch Nails or Tupac. But the fact that it exists might be more important than its level of exposure. Great art is usually countercultural to some degree anyway, so pushing musicians out of the mainstream or to its margins may effectively liberate them from the trappings of corporate culture and ultimately free musicians to be the artists that they want to be.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Thursday, February 09, 2012
I’m sure the last thing you want is another white male commentator suggesting what you should or should not do with your vaginas. Don’t worry – this isn’t that kind of letter. Instead, I want to lay out a few observations I’ve made since birth control has re-entered the public discourse, specifically the birth control mandates as a part of the Affordable Care Act. It seems to me that this is a critical gut-check moment and I hope the next few paragraphs will lead all of us to a more intelligent discussion.
The first thing to be said is that the fundamental conflict here is one of freedom. In letters such as this one, the government mandate is described as an assault on religious liberty. According to Catholic leaders, the government will violate the separation of church and state by requiring that Catholic employers and hospitals provide contraception or contraception insurance coverage. What these opinion holders want is for Catholics to be able to decide, based on their own conscience and convictions, whether or not to provide birth control and not have that decision made for them by the government. And that leads to the following irony: the Catholics are essentially making a pro-choice argument. The elevation of personal freedom and empowerment of individual conscience is fundamentally what the pro-choice crowd has been arguing for since the abortion debate began nearly forty years ago. This is also the same argument used by those who advocate euthanasia or birth control. So on the one hand the Church has finally recognized how grave it is to rob an individual of his or her ability to self-determination but on the other hand it still demands absolute obedience to its own dictates.
Second, this is not really a matter of religious freedom because providing health care is not a religious exercise. The administration of medication or the performance of surgery are not sacraments or rituals. Let me illustrate this with a hypothetical example. Say that a Christian Scientist became a medical doctor. (Granted, that may be a stretch, but go with it for now.) As a certified physician he or she must follow basic practices mandated by professional organizations and by government agencies. If this Christian Scientist decided that he could not perform the basic expectations of his job or follow professional guidelines, then he or she should not be seeking an exception. He or she should be seeking a new career or a new religion. So too should Catholics who cannot stand to be compelled to provide contraception. The religious clause of the Constitution reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” by mandating coverage of birth control, government is not prohibiting Catholics from the exercise of their religion. They can abstain from using birth control themselves. They can also choose not to administer it but that may require Catholics to make a choice between their career and their religion. That may sound like a cold proposition but religion is a lifestyle choice.
This leads to my last point, that this conflict is leading to a much bigger reckoning for Catholics and other religious communities. Although women are often shut out of religious leadership positions, they do make up the bulk of the active laity. According to studies, women are more religious than men and about half of Catholic women attend mass weekly while only about a quarter of men do the same. Since the clout of a religious institution is largely based on the size and loyalty of its members, that means women are the backbone of the Catholic Church. The mainstream reporting of this news story would have us believe that the majority of the Catholics are up in arms over this mandate, but there is a startling contradiction in the numbers. According to surveys, most American Catholics actually agree with the mandate and about 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives even though the Church tells them that using contraception is a sin. This brings me to the most delicate of my observations: you cannot have this both ways. You cannot call yourself a Catholic, which by definition requires submission to the Vatican’s dictates, while flagrantly ignoring its rules. As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m not going to suggest that you flush your birth control pills down the toilet and get to church. Quite the opposite: I want you to be honest about where you place your allegiance. That means aligning with those who actually share your priorities and values. If you use contraception or believe in the integrity of controlling what does and does not go into your body, then there is a gulf between you and your church and it isn’t going to be resolved in an easy or coherent compromise.
There is a choice to be made here but it isn’t between religious freedom and national health care. The choice is between the status quo of pseudo-freedom in which men and women’s minds and bodies are subject to the whims of others and a new consciousness that is liberated from dead philosophies and ruined institutions. Breaking up is never easy but it’s the only way to get out of an unhealthy relationship.
Sunday, January 22, 2012
On today's episode of Sounds of Cinema I counted down my picks of the best and worst films of the past year:
- Margin Call
- The Artist
- A Better Life
- Page One: Inside the New York Times
- Jack and Jill
- Your Highness
- The Hangover Part II
- Sleeping Beauty
- Bad Teacher
- Road to Nowhere
- Mr. Popper's Penguins
- 30 Minutes or Less
- Sucker Punch
Here is a clip of Margin Call director J.C. Chandor and actor Kevin Spacey discussing the film on Hardball with Chris Matthews: