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Category: Politics

on the death of irony

I’ll correct this one for accuracy, which I still need to do with my previous post, but today’s scorn-inducing statement from Bush heard by me on NPR in my car is his mention of (again, non-key words may be slightly inaccurate) “the mission we are accomplishing here” in talking to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki about that country’s prospects. Seriously, has he no shame?

on the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

I can’t find an official transcript, but what’s burned into my brain from hearing his statement live on the radio driving in here is that our prez sez, “May God bless the Iraqi people and continue to bless America.” I know I have the total lack of parallel structure there right because I immediately yelled at the radio, which is not something I generally do.

Yeah, now that we Americans have killed a terrorist by means of an air strike, that is what Bush calls “justice.” He still seems pretty keen on the trial of Saddam Hussein, which makes sense to me, but I guess blowing people up makes for better press conferences. However the really important thing is that now that this decidedly unsavory fellow has been wiped off the face of the earth we can finally start hoping that Iraq gets some special treats from God, who had previously been withholding his divine support for fear it might accidentally land on a Jordanian terrorist when he (and while I’m pretty sure Bush’s second phrase didn’t have a pronoun, let’s not kid ourselves about which one he’d choose) wasn’t paying attention or something. But hey, don’t let anyone forget who has God’s Most Favored Nation status. I was and continue to be sad and furious.

Continued unblogging

So I’m definitely not back to regular blogging—OK, I’ve never managed to blog very regularly, but anyway, I’m definitely not prepared even for monthly blogging at this point. We’ll have to see how it goes when my semester ends in a couple weeks. In the meantime, I’ve decided to join the world of Web 2.0 and start participating in Flickr (see also the rose and steven group) and So far I’ve only uploaded the photos from our trip to New Orleans and many photos of our pet cat.

As long as I’m writing, I might as well write a little more. I think the only movie other than Brokeback Mountain that Rose and I have seen in a theater this year is V for Vendetta. Oh, no, we also saw Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I need to read Laurence Sterne’s novel so I can understand how it works as an adaptation, but it works well standing alone too. As far as this kind of movie goes, I think it’s more frivolous than and probably less frivolous than Adaptation.

But V for Vendetta. We weren’t initially planning to see it, because it looked pretty stupid. But William Gibson recommended it and John Pistelli at Maxims and Reflections had a whole series of entertaining posts (“Ideas are Bulletproof,” “Re-review,” “Brands are Ideaproof,” “A Shamanic Soldier Priest” [tangentially related]) that really made me want to see the movie. So I did. Twice, in fact: once on my own because Rose was otherwise occupied and then again with Rose. I think Alan Moore’s book doesn’t translate well to cinema—it might have worked better as a much longer movie or a miniseries. It needs an ensemble cast and time to develop several protagonists. The movie jettisons pretty much everything from the book except V’s story and follows a more conventional heroic adventure format that misses much of the book’s political sophistication. I guess Evey’s story is largely intact, especially her imprisonment, but it suffers in comparison with Evey’s story in the book. Movie Evey is older than Book Evey, and this allows her to be less dependent on V. But the filmmakers replace Book V and Book Evey’s coercive power-imbalanced relationship with a more conventional romantic subplot that appears unexpectedly and arbitrarily near the end of the movie. (I certainly wasn’t expecting that kiss, anyway.) I prefer the movie’s less Stockholm Syndrome-esque version of Evey’s escape from prison, but I prefer the book’s less sentimental version of Evey’s final crisis and climax after V’s death.

Other V for Vendetta thoughts, maybe for writing about in the future:

  • The prologue and epilogue with Evey admonishing the viewer that the man is more important than the man’s ideas: why do the filmmakers undermine V’s claim that ideas are bulletproof?
  • The surprising prosperity and invisibility of class and poverty in this fascist dystopia which lost at least several tens of thousands people from its population to plague and genocide, in a world where the U.S.A. has disintegrated into civil war and the Middle East has presumably done the same or been destroyed entirely. I’m sure it’s U.S. culture’s typical blindness to economic inequality—everybody’s middle class in TV land—but it seems especially egregious in such a political polemical movie.

I am Curious (…)!

Anonymous commenter says (in reference to Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #106, “I am Curious (Black)!”):

Live this next 24 hrs. as a black woman… Man, just live the next 24 hrs. White, black, red, yellow… It don’t matter what color.. Just live!!!!

Thanks to you, O commenter: we will take these words of wisdom to heart.

Except…. This comment arrives, fortuitously, soon after I complained about excessive attention to universal themes in Brokeback Mountain. The exhortation to just live suggests that we ought to pay more attention to our universal, shared experience of life and not worry so much about differences—don’t live in some other person’s skin for a day, but consider what you share with that other person. Good advice. Exclusive attention to differences leads at best to alienation and lack of empathy and at worst to hatred and oppression: racism, sexism, homophobia. But exclusive attention to universal or shared experience and ignorance of difference leads to the subtler oppression of whitewashing. By living in some other person’s skin for a day, figuratively or literally, we may find and celebrate the diversities and the universalities of our lives. “I am Curious (Black)!” for all its clumsy preaching, makes this worthwhile point.


Ah, not blogging is fun. Maybe blogging can be fun too?

Um, but what to blog about? Rose and I saw Brokeback Mountain a few days ago. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are so brave! Fah.

I was going to mention how it’s not exactly a universal love story, since people whose love doesn’t deviate from normative restrictions aren’t encouraged to fear and despise themselves, aren’t murdered for the crime of existing or driven into a traumatized unlife in the closet. Then I read the New York Review of Books review, so I’ll just link to that instead. Because I’m lazy.

I will say this: universality is overrated. Universal themes: who cares? They’re generic, we’ve seen them a million times before. The specificity is what makes stories worth reading! And the specificity is especially important in Brokeback Mountain, where the specific story is real and happening right now. There are people—maybe not as many as there used to be, but still far too many—who would watch Brokeback Mountain and rejoice in Jack and Ennis’s misery. (They’d probably be sad about the broken marriages, though.) There are many men who won’t see the movie because they fear the image of gay sex. That’s what the story’s about: denial, hatred and fear of sexuality, a man who can’t overcome his fear and kills his own soul as thoroughly as other fearful men kill his would-be lover.

I just thought of something. Did anybody praise Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard for playing bisexual in Kinsey?

Isn’t it sad that the little girls can’t read Wonder Woman? (Um, what about the little boys?) I was gonna say the little girls are being denied their veiled bondage quasi-porn, but it occurred to me they they must be getting plenty of that in their manga.

Abraham Lincoln (from Posivite Atheism):

My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.

When the Know-Nothings get control, it [the Declaration of Independence] will read: “All men are created equal except negroes, foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure….

If today he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us,” but he will say to you, “Be silent; I see it, if you don’t.”

Thomas Jefferson:

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise … without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Dr. Rush told me (he had it from Asa Green) that when the clergy addressed General Washington, on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never, on any occasion, said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to disclose publicly whether he was a Christian or not. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice.

Purple USA

Purple USA: Lots of purple states, a few almost-red states. No blues.

See also: Bruce Baugh: Against Maps
See also: Purple Counties

4 November 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

Mr. Solid Citizen and Rose

Well, the election’s over and only 75 percent of Kentucky voters thought we needed an amendment saying that the only marriages in these parts will be between one man and one woman (and that’s already in the commonwealth constitution) and that domestic partnerships of any sort are unacceptable in that they’re in marriagelike situation. I hope the wording is bad and overexpansive enough that this will get overturned quickly, but the county breakdown shows that it’s pretty much only in populous, urban/suburban counties that more than 25 percent of the population is opposed to such a measure. We’re in Campbell County with 12,133 like-minded individuals. I’m trying not to say more about this, because it’s just saddening, but I assume only some of the majority are aware of all the implications and still support the amendment. For the rest, there’s still hope.

And while I’m complaining about politics, I had a minor problem with both the concession and acceptance speeches I wanted to mention. Kerry talked about the message he gave to “President Bush and Laura,” while Bush’s later parallel-structure speech expressed good wishes for “Senator Kerry and Teresa.” What is with the weird title imbalance? Did it not sound goofy to the speechwriters? Can we blame Kerry or his people for both and say that Bush was just following suit, or do they both just really respect their opponents and their little women? Or were the honorifics a subtle irony when they’d both have preferred to be more unkind? I don’t know, but it was awfully annoying no matter what.

William Gibson returns to blogging

William Gibson returns to blogging: "Because the United States currently has, as Jack Womack so succintly puts it, a president who makes Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln. And because, as the Spanish philospher Unamuno said, 'At times, to be silent is to lie.'"

Via: Boing Boing

14 October 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

The Manchurian Candidates 2: Corporations

Part two of a two(?)-part post. See The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists. Yesterday was John Frankenheimer’s 1962 The Manchurian Candidate, today is Jonathan Demme’s 2004 version.

First of all, a question. Does anybody know what year the new movie takes place? Rose is convinced she saw a “2008″ somewhere in the movie, but I did not and assumed the year was 2004. When the events of the movie occur is important. The 1962 Candidate is set in 1956, making it alternate history. It’s not about what is happening or what will happen, but about what might have happened. The movie’s concern is not paranoid speculation about Communist plots, but criticism of that paranoia.

I wrote yesterday that the movie validates McCarthyist fear even as it criticizes it—except that the validation is subverted by the fact that the object of fear is created through manipulation of fear. The alternate history further subverts. If the movie were set in the future, there would be room for speculation as to the possibility of a real Communist plot. But set in the past (or the present time, creating an alternate present), the movie explicitly discourages such speculation by emphasizing the fictionality of the threat. You can still speculate about possible Communist plots, certainly, but the alternate history is a subtle warning that speculation isn’t the point.

The 1962 Candidate, set in 1956, is about a Communist conspiracy that manipulates anti-Commie fear to turn a fictional threat of Commie infiltration into a real threat. The 2004 Candidate is about a plot to manipulate fear that’s going on now, in the real world. The United States government is manipulating public fear and insecurity, for good or ill, to promote the War on Terror(ism). (This isn’t a new tactic for the governments—in fact, it’s exactly what Senator McCarthy was doing.) If the movie is set in 2004, it’s metaphorically about that manipulation of fear. If it’s set in 2008, it enters the scary realm of possibility. The movie’s residence in the realm of implausibility does little to soften its speculative power. Rogue government officials and corporate officers are probably not going to be endorsing a science-fictional mind-controlled candidate in the 2008 elections—but people with power are capable of inventing, and have actually and will continue to invent, more viable and no less drastic conspiracies.

The modern equivalent of Commies would be Islamic terrorists (although planting sleepers in the White House isn’t really their style), but the new movie abandons the old movie’s specter of an outside threat. Terrorism is a constant present in the movie, but never a direct one. There are news reports of terrorist attacks, orange and red terror(ism) alerts, the familiar political debate of security against outsider terrorist vs. civil liberties for American citizens—but there are no terrorists or terrorist attacks. The terrorists are phantoms, much less substantial than the fear of terrorism. The old Candidate is resolutely anti-Communist even as it criticizes McCarthyism, but the new movie focuses its critique solely on current American political rhetoric. (An absence of anti-terrorist sentiment is not the same as implicit approval of terrorism.)

The older movie is at least a little optimistic, letting rationalism and democracy save the day as Ben Marco breaks his brainwashing and breaks out Raymond Shaw as well. It’s not a great victory for America—the government would probably have fallen to the Commies if not for Raymond’s desperate intervention—but it’s more than the new movie offers. Frank Sinatra’s Ben Marco is basically a good guy who seems to be going crazy for a while but manages to pull himself together and convince his Army superiors about the Commie conspiracy. Denzel Washington’s Ben seems to begin along the same trajectory, but he never pulls out of the descent into madness—he never manages to convince the Army, and most of the people who believe either disappear or turn out to be working for the other side. Delp seems to be Ben’s friend, but he used to work for Manchurian International making brain implants. And after Delp helps Ben recover his hidden memories, Delp disappears—did the conspiracy get rid of him, or was he working for them all along, Ben’s recovery of his memories merely part of their plan? Rosie seems to be helping Ben—but why is she helping? (More on Rosie below.) Ben seems to be the only character in the story definitely not in on the conspiracy—until that scene in the classroom on election day, when Raymond asks him why he never wondered if the conspiracy knew he was going to discover the truth. What if Ben’s discovery of the truth and attempts to convince people of it are only another part of the conspiracy’s byzantine plot? Frank Sinatra saved us from the Communists, but now there’s nobody to save us from ourselves.

The Rosie subplot in the new movie may be the most brilliant evocation of conspiracy-theory paranoia I’ve seen on film. Janet Leigh’s Rosie is intriguing and worrying, but Kimberly Elise’s is downright scary. This Rosie is definitely spying on Ben—she works for the FBI. She seems to be trying to protect him. Why? The obvious answer is that she was sent to keep an eye on him after the Army decided he was unstable and dangerous to Raymond, and that she gradually becomes convinced that Ben is right about the conspiracy and decides to help him defeat it or at least protect him from it. The Manchurian Candidate is the sort of movie that makes you distrust anything that can be described as the “obvious” answer, especially if the obvious answer makes somebody seem trustworthy. Rosie is as untrustworthy as any character in the movie, but the disturbing thing about her is that her allegiance is genuinely unknowable. Her actions make it look superficially like she’s working against the conspiracy or at least doesn’t know it exists—she never does anything that makes her obviously a conspirator. She never even does anything that might arouse suspicion. But she also never does anything that can’t be interpreted as benefiting the conspiracy. Why does she shoot but not kill Ben after he assassinates Raymond and Eleanor Shaw? Was it an panicked impulse reaction, or was she trying to make it look like he’d been killed? For whose benefit? Why does she erase all records of his being in the building where the assassination took place? Is she simply protecting him from the consequences of the murders he was brainwashed into committing (or hiding him from the remnants of the conspiracy), or is she covering up for the conspiracy? Who’s really in charge of the investigation of the secret brainwashing hospital at the end of the movie?

The new The Manchurian Candidate isn’t exactly pessimistic. It doesn’t preclude the older Candidate’s guardedly optimistic ending, but it doesn’t offer the luxury of security as the older movie does. After all, Eleanor Shaw is the movie’s foremost proponent of security.

The Manchurian Candidates 1: Communists

Roger Ebert, in his review of Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, writes, “To compare Demme’s version with Frankenheimer’s is sort of irrelevant.” This is a ridiculous statement. As J.W. Hastings pointed out when somebody asked him why on Earth he was comparing apples and oranges J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Howard, “I firmly believe that it is not only okay but a critic’s duty to compare apples and oranges.” Indeed. Of course, John Frankenheimer’s and Demme’s movies aren’t like apples and orange, they’re more like—oranges and grapefruits? At any rate, they’re both based on the same novel by Richard Condon, they have similar plots, they engage related political themes in very different political climates. What’s not to compare?

If Frankheimer’s Candidate has a flaw, it’s that it seems to want to criticize McCarthyism even as it validates McCarthyism’s worst nightmares of Communist infiltration. The movie conjures a paranoid fantasy of Cold War politics in which there don’t seem to be any genuinely Communist politicians in the U.S. government, but there is at least one who’s married to a Communist. Senator Johnny Iselin, a bold caricature of Senator Joseph McCarthy, is a drunken buffoon easily controlled by his wife Eleanor, who is the American handler for a brainwashed Soviet sleeper agent planted in the United States. The sleeper happens to be Eleanor’s son Raymond Shaw. The plan: get Senator Iselin on the ballot as the vice-presidential candidate, then send Raymond to the convention to assassinate presidential candidate Ben Arthur, leaving Iselin to ride a wave of freedom-loving hysteria right into the Oval Office, where he will be controlled by the Communists through Eleanor. (Except that Eleanor, upon learning her own son is the assassin, vows to avenge her son and destroy her Communist allies who destroyed her son.) This ridiculous plan would have gone off smoothly if not for the intervention of Major Ben Marco, who was leader of Raymond’s platoon during the Korean War and who, when the platoon was captured and taken to Manchuria for brainwashing, was instructed to award Raymond the Congressional Medal of Honor (part of the plan to make Raymond’s stepfather Senator Iselin look like a good vice-presidential candidate). Ben, plagued by nightmares—a ladies’ gardening club meeting mixed surreally with a meeting of Russian and Chinese military leaders in which a Chinese doctor does Freudian brainwashing/hypnotism on Marco and his platoon—figures something must be wrong. At first he fails to convince his Army commanders anything but that he’s going insane, but he eventually convinces them he’s onto something and an investigation of Raymond begins. Ben tries to unhypnotize Raymond, thinks he must have failed when Raymond disappears on a mission with instructions from his evil mother—only to discover, to his relief and horror, that he had succeeded in breaking Raymond free, but that Raymond decided the only way to stop the Commie plot was to assassinate his mother and Johnny Iselin himself. He explains to Ben, “You couldn’t have stopped them, the army couldn’t have stopped them—so I had to.” Then he shoots himself. Not a happy ending, but at least a victory for the good guys, such as they are. The movie suggests that the United States is vulnerable to Communist infiltration—not least because hysterical fearmongers like McCarthy make it easier for infiltrators to manipulate the public—but that there are a few good people willing and able to stand up and fight back for America.

I said that if the movie has a flaw, it’s the simultaneous criticism and validation of McCarthyism. This isn’t quite a flaw, but it is a little weak. If the Commies had been capable of orchestrating and nearly carrying off such an intricate plot to seize control of the White House, Joe McCarthy would have had reason to be worried. On the other hand, the movie makes a good point that those who wish to take power unscrupulously could easily adopt McCarthyist tactics to cultivate public fear and manipulate political paranoia to their advantage.

The good guys win in the end, but there’s one worrying thread left untied at the end: Rosie, Ben’s weirdo girlfriend he meets on a train. The common theory to explain Rosie’s strange behavior is, maybe Ben has also been brainwashed to receive post-hypnotic instructions, and Rosie speaks to him in code to trigger instructions. The biggest problem with the theory is that, if it’s right, Ben’s hypnotic triggers are nothing at all like Raymond’s. Raymond always responds to a suggestion to play Solitaire, and the sight of the Queen of Diamonds (a symbol associated with his mother by way of a massive oedipal complex) puts him in a receiving state where he obeys any command he hears. Rosie’s dialogue with Ben is much more complex, and Ben never enters a trance state as does Raymond. There is one tenuous coincidence which seems to support the theory: The first thing Rosie says to Ben when they meet on the train is, “Maryland is a beautiful state.” Ben replies by pointing out that they’re in currently in Delaware—why would Rosie mention Maryland? Later in the movie, Raymond and his love Josie fly overnight from New York to Maryland to get married. Why go to Maryland? Ben is waiting to arrest Raymond when they return, and Josie informs Ben they’ve just returned from Maryland. Raymond ended up marrying Josie after years of estrangement only because his mother invited her to a party. Is this some absurdly convoluted subplot put in motion by Eleanor Iselin? Get Raymond and Josie married and then hypnotically command Ben to believe that the power of love may cure Raymond of his brainwashing? The idea is even more implausible than the rest of the movie, but it’s the sort of paranoid speculation the movie seems to encourage. Nevertheless, nothing more than paranoid speculation ever comes of it. Ben tells Rosie everything he plans to do—she could easily have prevented him from helping Raymond. Rosie may very well be Ben’s handler, but there’s no indication that Ben can be controlled as Raymond can.

Eleanor Iselin (and Johnny, unwittingly) are apparently the only Americans involved in the Communist conspiracy. If the conspiracy remains intact after their deaths, that fact remains buried deep in the movie’s subtext. More likely, this plot has been defeated. (But will there be more?)