Sunday, November 8, 2009

History of Madness

Death as the destruction of all things no longer had meaning when life was revealed to be a fatuous sequence of empty words, the hollow jingle of a jester's cap and bells. The death's head showed itself to be a vessel already empty, for madness was the being-already-there of death. Death's conquered presence, sketched out in these everyday signs, showed not only that its reign had already begun, but also that its prize was a meagre one. Death unmasked the mask of life, and nothing more: to show the skull beneath the skin it had no need to remove beauty or truth, but merely to remove the plaster or the tawdry clothes. The carnival mask and the cadaver share the same fixed smile.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Billy Bragg - Waiting For the Great Leap Forwards

Updated lyrics which I hated originally (they do destroy something of the song) . . . but the end left me feeling like an astronaut who's just been pushed off the space shuttle and is currently hurtling through space.

Desire II - Coveting

Horch 853 Phaeton DashboardDriving to the grocery store with my roommates last night we passed by one of the (many) new housing developments boasting luxury single family homes. It was dark and many of the homes had soft accent lights installed on their decks which highlighted them in a way which was not yet grandstanding. I was struck by an overwhelming longing to own such a place - a desire to own a home of my own with a beautiful deck perfect for entertaining or for writing or reading on late summer nights. A place where I could be married to a beautiful woman who would eventually bear our beautiful, if sardonic, children into a world where we could raise them to be the happiest, most giving people we could. I thought of my friends, many of whom have taken my path, and I was overcome by a desire to abandon the walls of thought that have kept me from taking it myself.

And then I thought about the many, myriad things which I long for in my heart.

In my mind my home, my eventual, proto-mythic home (for which I am selling the very best years of my life), is beautiful. Elegant. Posh. With stone and tile flooring in some rooms, like the kitchen and bath, and rare, hard woods in others like the dining and living rooms. The kitchen, as I've said in other venues, would be stocked with Wusthof knives and Le Creuset cookware - brands I own and adore - and feature at least two cooking surfaces and an absurdly large island. I love cooking. My kitchen would reflect this. It would also reflect the heavy, old world European styles with which I self-identify. Intricate woodwork, silver. Aged things from the Schwarzwald and N├╝rnberg. I would drive an Audi RS6 Avant - a car representing the culmination of August Horch's lifelong search for perfection. In truth, I've often thought that I would enjoy owning a Horch - one of the absolutely stunning 853's, probably - as a garaged and trailered show car. I love cars. My garage would reflect this.

Prior to going to the grocery store I'd spent some time looking through random blogs. One of them contained amazing pictures of a young couple, very much in love. The pictures managed to capture that fact perfectly with no posturing, and I was at once glad for them but also envious of what they had. The girl was beautiful and her prose, while lacking, showed energy and a lust for life that I frankly lack. Like most of us I have preset ideas about what I would expect the love of my life to look and be like and what our relationship would be like. I want to have a relationship with someone who is my intellectual equal or better - someone to pluck my wreath if you will. In my mind she's a tall girl, with blonde hair, and not very thin: something out of the Cure's Pictures of You. "Bigger, and brighter, and whiter than snow." She'd be happy, and a little razor-witted, and in love with food and at least open to car shows. I love being loved. My relationship would reflect this.

But there's the rub: looking and wanting, forming expectations, and desire. The happiest moments of my life, and probably of anyone's, have come to me as complete surprises and certainly not, as we all know, as the result of things. (How can one love a thing or an action? I would hate to think that my God feels the same emotion for me as I feel toward cooking.)

I own a Mk5 VW GTI and a 1989 VW Fox. I bought the Mk5 because I viewed it - like the RS6 - as the culmination of a long and worthy struggle. Volkswagen's return to its roots with a simple, fast GTI that didn't take aim at BMW or even the Mustang (as its progenitor had), but simply aimed to be an amazing car. Despite its weight it is. I've driven much faster cars, and lighter cars, but few have had the connection with the road that the GTI has. The Mk5 was my dream car from the moment it came out, at least in terms of cars I could ever afford. But now while driving it I often find myself gazing longingly at Audi S3s, BMW 3-series, and even Honda Fits. Similarly, the Fox started out as a simple desire to have a car to work on and understand. A little project. But it soon ballooned into an all-out, tear down project which had to have the best of everything and for which no expense was spared. I think I can claim, with the exception of some Audi Foxes, that I have spent more than anyone in North America on my Fox, and it still isn't done. And I still regret not doing more - AKA spending more - to enhance it further. Solid lifter head, higher duration cam, custom, high compression pistons. I'm not completely sure I could tell you why. At all. I know that none of it has made me particularly happy, not even in the way that preparing a well-cooked meal for others has.

I've spent more of my high-school and onward years in serious relationships than not, and every woman I've ever dated seriously has been a beautiful person entirely deserving of someone better than myself. None of them were tall, none of them were blonde, and none of them had any interest whatsoever in car shows. They have, however, made me happy.
You think I'd learn from these things. You would think that, eventually, I would realize that the happiness in my life has never been a result of the images I've created of my future or the things that fill those images. Those images, those things in them and the longing therein, are all, instead, false hopes for a future that is quickly dying - for familiar reasons - for all of us. Hopes created to keep me working toward them, and therefore working. Desires created artificially, by myself but at the behest of my culture, to fill a void in my life. A void where happiness is meant to live. A void where true human community is meant to live.

I'll put it simply: This culture is a disease. It has corrupted everything good and pure about living in this world - thrown it all away in exchange for a toxic mockery of real humanity. All the Wusthof knives and glimmering, Nordic girls in the world will never change that. If that seems like a controversial statement, consider that I live like a king compared to the majority of the world, and I still want ever more.

And as long as I accept this system, I always will.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The New German Ghetto Show - Ulrike Meinhof

Ulrike Meinhof of the Baader-Meinhof Group / RAF
Since the Baader-Meinhof Complex film is now out in select theaters I thought now as good a time as any to discuss, however briefly, Ulrike Meinhof. I suspect, from the film's sensationalized trailer, that the film will overlook the intellectual aspects of Meinhof's role in the RAF in its desire to sell a new Che to angsty young capitalists. (I hope that I'm wrong, but, even if I am, it's only a matter of time before the RAF logo appears on a t-shirt near you.)

Ulrike Marie Meinhof began her political life as a student activist and journalist long before she ever began the life of counter-violence that would later define her. She developed a strong argument that her country, for many reasons, was reverting back to fascism. Among those reasons she counted the continued prominence of many NSDAP members in the BRD, censor by the state of discussion against nuclear proliferation, the streamlining and narrowing of the country's two party system into a single party, and, as her publisher would later point out, "the extremism of those who called the debates about changing these conditions extremist." She saw her country's intellectuals again turning inward and its population enslaved with consumerism while its government again gained alarming levels of control. It's important to note that she was an incredibly successful journalist - well-reasoned, well-respected, and well-circulated. Yet, while portions of the German Left had a figure rally around, little was accomplished in terms of actual change. Her choice to enter into the resistance movement, then, was a practical decision arising from that failure and her refusal to see her homeland destroyed. Meinhof puts it best when she says: "Protest is when I say I don't like this. Resistance is when I put an end to what I don't like. Protest is when I say I refuse to go along with this anymore. Resistance is when I make sure everybody else stops going along too."

Until recently Meinhof's journalistic writing was not available in English. A recent publication of the book Everybody Talks About the Weather ... We Don't has changed all that. Put out by Seven Stories Press (Derek Jensen's publishing house as well!), the book contains a sampling of Meinhof's articles highlighting her slide from hopeful activist to determined terrorist. Because those articles aren't readily available anywhere else, I've chosen to sample one here in the hope that it will lead to increased interest. The parallels between the Rotbuch authors and the German government they represent and our capitalist media and government are frightening.

New German Ghetto Show
Ulrike Meinhof, 1960

For two months now the writing desks of newspapers, publishers, scientists, politicians, and even unionists have been graced with a new example of the authoritarian thinking and ghetto mentality of this western republic of the German nation. The people being targeted this time are not members of the Polish intelligentsia, or Jews, or even half-hearted or partial Communists; this time they are the skeptics who oppose the nuclear politics of the Federal Republic, people who maintain their positions even when these are shared by the extreme Left, people who find the issue itself more important than the world views of many of its proponents. In September 1957, the journalist Winfried Martini for the Rheinischer Merkur published melancholic mediations on the role played by our intellectuals in politics. Clearly underlying this text was the thesis of his book Das Ende aller Sicherheit, where he advocates getting rid of democracy, an act which he labels "political freedom," and calls for the establishment on an authoritarian class-based rule of law along the lines of the regime of Salazar, the Portgese dictator who "lives according to the strictly spiritual discipline of Thomism." They used to warn us about intellectuals whose statements conformed too closedly to government directives and they turned the scientist's proverbial unworldliness into a virtue; now the warnings of the Goettingen 18 have been dismissed as a scholarly gaffe. The Red Book (Rotbuch), published in 1960 by a committee that calls itself "Save the Peace" - a book that landed on our writing desk - takes a first stab at listing those public personas in the Federal Republic whom these saviors of peace consider suspicious; while this list "in no way reflects the qualifications of those who have signed it," and while it only contains a "miniscule number of Communists," the fact remains that whenever these names come up - on petitions, appeals, or invitations to participate in events or conferences - "it is wise to find out whether they may be serving as a front for Communist culture functionaries or other clandestine organizations" (p. 136-137).

Here I find it useful to recall that McCarthy was the head of a Senate Committee "for the investigation of un-American activities;" only about ten people were ever arrested, but hundreds and thousands were on those dreaded lists that broadcasters, the press, associations, organizations, and high government agencies were plied with and which caused manuscripts to be refused, promotions to be blocked, all free discussion of America's internal and external policies to be cut short, and the democratic climate in the US to be completely poisoned. The "brag list" produced by the "Save the Peace" club thus hooks into the worst traditions of a friendly country, and is published by a committee whose name would lead one to expect that it would cauterize these points of contact rather than prepare a comeback for them on German soil.

This Rotbuch is more than a monstrous index prepared by a few professional Communist-haters. Its political inspiration is all too close to the interventions perpetrated by our government in the East-West discussions and in the bills being prepared by the Ministry of the Interior to curtail our sovereignty. Even if this particular club were to close down - which is exactly what we hope will occur - its founders and supporters remain ministers in the Adenauer cabinet.

The press, broadcasting and publishing networks, unions, the military, peace movements and anti-nuclear campaigns, the "culture section" of the parties and their youth organizations have all been combed for information on the political views and curricula of their members, and where data were missing the blanks have been filled in with speculations designed to reveal the relationship between freely proclaimed opinion on the one hand and the Pankow doctrine on the other - reflecting negatively on both - the purpose being to solve the problem of democratic opposition in the Federal Republic once and for all. The book seeks to "unmask the Communist infiltration," which thrives on the "naivete" and "ignorance" of its "victims" (p. 8); it wants to help in the struggle for victory in the Cold War, for "should we lose it, a hot war will inevitably break out upon us," and it wants greater recognition for the important role played by "the infiltration sector as a determining front in our democracy's political defense system" (p. 7-8).

The book offers a pellucid picture of its underlying concept of western class-based government, and a closer look at the meaning of its content is quite frightening; but it also makes possible a clear position in the face of a wolf who has already shed his sheepskin and is about to bite.

The vocabulary is militant, reminiscent of the jargon of the Freikorps after the First World War; this is just an external feature, but frightening enough after the experience we acquired in that department and the innocence we bitterly forfeited. The attitude is fundamentally elitist; it starts with the minister of the interior resorting to a theory that has always served openly fascist countries as an irrational justification for implementing illegitimate claims to power, an approach that we actually see in use here. For who can have authorized the publishers of this book to accuse hundreds of professors, journalists, unionists, broadcasters, students, and young people of being ignorant or naive in the face of a phenomenon that these people in particular have focused on for years? It is this "group" of "chosen individuals" who feel they are responding to the "call" for a "common ideal." And their thinking is reminiscent of Stuckart/Globke's commentaries on race. Moreover, their wanting to win the Cold War rather than ending it as quickly as possible through bilateral agreements means wanting to drag it out - but how much longer? How much more time is required for the spirited that "called upon" the publishers of this book before they turn the extended arm of the Cold War into a fuse for a hot war, and bring the diabolical game of the past to its end, its final closing?

And so they take their stand: militant, if not militaristic; with elitist, if not anti-democratic attitudes; as determined cold warriors if not challengers demanding a preventative war against the GDR and the Soviet Union, a la Herr Schlamm.

The material is organized according to this perspective. Every chapter has an introduction that is meant to focus, or rather blur, the reader's understanding of how seriously our freedom is being threatened. It pillories professors who students proudly proclaim to have attended their classes; it attacks writers who have become known as "the few great ones" since Thomas Mann and Musil, as well as painters, sculptors, and composers whose names belong in the repertoire of the educated class in Germany - however little this class knows about these artists.

"The main arena of this Cold War" is allegedly public opinion, and it is allegedly the objective of Communist agitators to undermine, pervert, and confuse the public (p. 10). The publications helping to do this dirty work range from the Blaetter fuer deutsche und internationale Politik to konkret, and from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung to the Frankfurter Rundschau to Diskus. Anyone who voiced a protest against arms buildup or argues for the freedom of speech is deemed to be acting within a fifth column. Open opposition is not viewed as a demonstration of our democratic rights, even duties; instead, it is perceived as belonging to the realm of deliberate obfuscation and perversion.

Under the heading "Subverting the West Germans' Will to Defense" (sic!) every possible attitude critical of the Bundeswehr is ascribed to East Berlin agit-prop; there are references to the "fuss about generations 22" (p. 28); differences in opinion on international and national politics are shrugged off as having been "deliberately created" (p. 93), while the rejection of military and other traditional associations (in particular Verband deutscher Soldaten and Stahlhelm und Kyffhaeuser) is judged to be part of the category entitled "Subverting Defensive Thought"! (p. 94)

Anone who fights for peace "is - wittingly or unwittingly - someone who fights for world revolution," since the "peace slogan" simply conceals a "deliberate deception" of gigantically Leninist provenance, as those suffering from naivete soon learn (p. 102). And in line with the dishonesty of the supposed initiators of the West German "peace movement," the motives of the professors and teachers connected to this movement derive from attitudes that use "oppositional grandstanding" to compensate for the "lack of public attention they garner in their professional work" (p. 3).

Absolutely no one and nothing escapes censure: political parties, churches, and universities are rated failures by these "saviors of peace." Members of the Bundestag - Helmuth Kallbitzer, Helene Wessel, Arno Behrisch, and Peter Nellen - Association of German Students, the Socialist Student Association, the Falken, the Union of German Public Employees, the Association of German Unions, Association of German Catholic Youth, the Protestant Youth of Germany, the teacher-training colleges, the Further Education Centers, the Church-led community centers, the British Member of Parliament Conny Cillacus, the church representative Kloppenburg, and the former representative of the Protest Church in the GDR Probst Grueber - all of these people, and many more, their numbers are legion - are labeled with stereotyped vocabulary such as "infiltrated with Communist ideas, suspiciious, untrustworthy, susceptible," and so on.

In the spring of 1957, eighteen German physicists published a manifesto in which they warned against the Federal Republic participating in the nuclear arms race and announced they would not take part in nuclear arms production in Germany. The West German public was shocked at Mr. Adenauer's condescending response that judged the political warning issued by these eighteen German scientists to be incompetent and unnecessary, and sought to expunge it from the arena of German political discussion. This response revealed a new lack of respect for scholarship and a disregard for the lively pluralist democratic life that had supposedly been guaranteed when a parliamentary democracy was established after 1945. Media reactions followed, from people such as Herr Winfried Martini, mentioned above, and included even more aggressive reactions from the local Christian Democrat press. For instance, in the summer of 1958, when students and teachers went out into the streets to publicly proclaim their opposition to nuclear rearmament in the Federal Republic, a daily newspaper in Muenster wrote, "Don't believe the slogans of those . . . who are willing to abandon you and their family, their beliefs and their freedom, their existence and their future to the dictatorship of Bolshevism. Give these people the answer they deserve: rejection and calumny." This was directed at the local committee "fight Nuclear Death," which had been co-founded by professors at the university. This persecution of heretics spread through the local papers of all the federal German lands, while the big daily papers remained silent, hardly mentioning the protests of hundreds of thousands of citizens or describing the anti-nuclear movement as a motley group of isolated sectarians without influence. Two methods were mobilized toward the same end. When neither one work, and when the Standing Committee for the Assembly of all Opponents of Nuclear Rearmament was created in Gelsenkirchen, Mr. Schroeder pulled out all the stops and called upon the Bundestag to engage in a witch hung and inquisition - not in order to pursue enemies of the Constitution but to silence and eliminate democrats and opponents of nuclear arms.

Ideas prepared in the press and broadcasting were then formulated in the highest places in the Bundestag; at the same time the law prohibiting referenda on nuclear rearmament was passed. Voters were thus deprived of having a say on a question of life and death in German politics, and their representatives had the choice of behaving like obedient and diligent little bourgeois citizens (sine ira et studio) or suffering threats as a result of ministerial interventions both on the job and when exercising their rights to free speech.

The third phase has now set in with this Rotbuch from the "Save the Freedom" committee that lists the names of its victims in neat alphabetic order over pages and pages, mingling the living with the dead, annulling their anonymity, and opening a new German ghetto show. The "meditation" on the political role of the intellectual in our country has become an invitation to a pogrom; individual voices of warning have become grand inquisitors of the Christian Democratic persuasion; saviors of freedom have shown their true colors as pioneers of a new German fascism.

The system is clear, and quite hideous. But this is not yet enough. The opposition has accumulated facts that cannot be neutralized without the use of force. And so, when there is no proof of subversive contacts, the last resort is to take offensive action in the media, and publish lies and crass falsehoods. The Rotbuch even goes so stupidly far as to repeat libelous assertions that the federal government's Bulletin already had to deny earlier, and thus offers the reader such a plethora of naked untruths that it destroys even a potential willingness to believe what is in the book. The screw has been turned too far, the attack parried. Legal actions are coming on hard and fast; Jesko von Puttkammer procured a court order from the federal prosecutor, and word has it that the club is breaking up.

But this is not the first such case. Which is not just an innocuous fact. Let us recall that when the fuss over the Lex Soraya died down, Herr Schaeffer's much worse Law on the Protection of Honor appeared; when the anger over Herr Schroeder's 1958 Emergency Laws in Stuttgart seemed to have evaporated, he pushed for an Emergency Service Law - in other words, a law instituting a German territorial army. We do not yet know what kinds of changes in the Constitution will have come out of this Rotbuch that was put together by a disgraced committee, whose founding members are to this day cabinet ministers in the Adenauer government, ministers who are planning measures to tap telephones and censor mail; ministers who have initiated the production of West German rocket; ministers who want to mobilize the Bundeswehr against striking workers; ministers who continue to push for the nuclear rearmament of the Bundeswehr at a time of worldwide detente; ministers who proclaim the "liberation" of the German East; ministers who demand the death penalty for traitors.

We are not ready to believe that Bonn is planning a "Blitzkrieg" against the GDR although recognizing that something is unreasonable does not necessarily mean it will not happen. There has already been a time in Germany when people thought "This can't be true," and it was true, and cost millions of them their lives. Clearly, this must not happen; clearly, the political tendencies of the Federal Republic today justify every kind of fear; clearly, in this situation optimism is the reserve of fools, and all those who feel the suspicion, the mistrust, and the discomfort of the moment must come together in order to prevent what happened in the past from happening again. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and we hardly need proof that prevention is what is required today."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Here we are at the threshold.

Hannity's performance here is amusing, if typical. He is completely unprepared for the logical force that is Christopher Hitchens. How he failed to be prepared for this is telling: I'm quite sure that he, like many people today, felt that this argument was one of simple intuition where fact, research, and critical logic really didn't play a role. He feels his acceptance of God's place in the sublime wonder of the world is enough to justify everything else that he believes in - Christian or not, inherited or not. A life unexamined.

More and more this becomes a leitmotif for our world.

As the curator of Altarpiece pointed out in a not-so-recent discussion, "people have come to accept not just political opinions but pre-packaged identities from the two political poles in the US." Add to this the far more sinister idea that many people have come to accept their religious ideas, wholesale, from their parents and then allowed their political ideas to be shaped by that selfsame identity - neither of which is exactly their own.

How many people do I know who support the GOP because they're against abortion and believe, somehow, that the Republicans are, too? I'm related to at least four. I can rattle off many more. But here's the thing: Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 - 36 years ago. Of those 36 years only 13 have been under a democratic president. Additionally, of the 9 current Supreme Court justices, 7 were appointed by Republican presidents - 8 during George H.W. Bush's term in office. The GOP has had plenty of time and political clout on its hands to try and make the changes that its constituency demanded, but, for all its pandering to US Christians, it has done nothing - not even symbolically - to support the right-to-life movement that garners it so many votes each year. Yet, those selfsame people from my sphere continue to cast their votes, hoping. Meanwhile, both parties have supported measures which are clearly anti-children. Under Reagan, in fact, Detroit had an infant mortality rate of 33%, which had nothing at all to do with abortions.

How many people do I know who are Christian and yet have not read the entire Bible? Of the people I know 4 are Jews, 2 are other, and literally everyone else is Christian. Of them all only 2 have read the entire Bible: both of them are preacher's daughters.

None of this is meant as an attack specifically on Christianity or Christians or Americans or Christian Americans. None of the four Jews that I know are particularly devout, either. The atheists and agnostics, seemingly, have taken the easy road out when it comes to their devotion: they need only be true to themselves and the world around them. Yet I find it disturbing that so many people who do subscribe to religion, and who do live in states, care so little about either. Religion, on one hand, legislates their morality and the state takes care of legislating the rest. The span of control that those two bodies represent nearly embodies life here on Earth. To not care about either, to be both apolitical and atheistic (or apathetically theistic) in this world at this juncture amounts to a betrayal of their very lives. And if you don't care about God, don't care about freedom, then how could you possibly care about something like art or the environment?

"But we with holy care wish to foster the holy good of our reality, that is gifted to us for this and perhaps for no other life that is nearer truth."

Hannity wasn't sure even how to walk when he tried to go skating out on the ice with Hitchens. But many today don't have the notion that they need to walk in the first place.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Failed Letter to the Carroll County Times

This wasn't published, so why not publish it here? It's in response to this editorial.

Like Rick Blatchford I was dismayed at the appointment of Timothy Geithner to Secretary of the Treasury, albeit for different reasons. Geithner comes from the selfsame free market school of thought as Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers (his mentor). He worked for the IMF and Kissinger & Associates - names infamous to many third world countries suffering under the burden of Chicago School economics today. In short, Geithner has traditionally been a part of the ultra-rich boys-club problem that he’s now been tasked with solving. His appointment, like Summers appointment under Clinton, has signified to many that Obama’s administration will mirror our last democratic president‘s: Say change with the right hand, keep doing the same old thing with the left. I hope I’m wrong.

However, Geithner’s tax problems are hardly cause to begin questioning the integrity of the system. They’re par for the course. Under the Bush administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused to sell his holdings in Gilead Sciences, which were valued between $8mn and $39mn. During Rumsfeld’s time, however, the Pentagon purchased $58mn worth of Gilead’s Tamiflu product. There is, too, the matter of Vice President Cheney’s holdings in Halliburton, which were slightly better reported. That company saw a 300% increase in the price of its stocks as the result of the Iraq war, which Cheney was instrumental in engineering. Was media coverage for the problems of these Bush administration officials any more or less than the coverage for Geithner or Daschle’s problems? Not really. It all came up quietly and slipped out the back door quickly on both sides.

The problem here isn’t one of democrats vs. republicans. It’s a problem of the same tired, corrupt choices being flashed before our eyes as if they’re the only ones. Senators Mikulski and Cardin aren’t going to solve these problems, as they’ve proved time and time again from their automated message responses and cookie-cutter lists of issues. Real change will come when equal press time is given to third and fourth party candidates, when real issues are discussed in debates, and when Americans can be prodded to the polls in truly great numbers. When that happens, maybe our political elects will realize that if they don’t listen to us, they’ll be looking for a job next time around, instead of riding the wave to their next million dollar entitlement.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Roscoe Bartlett on the Economic Stimulus Package

“Earlier this week, I explained why I oppose the stimulus bill negotiated by Congressional Democratic leaders. I told President Obama that I believe it is selfish to saddle future unborn children with debt to pay for government spending programs that won’t end the current recession."

(As opposed to the $10,000,000,000,000 current debt for which we have . . . wait. What do we have to show for the $10,000,000,000,000 debt besides our current recession, the world's largest military, and an inability to defeat third world countries when we go to war with them?)

"I encourage everyone to visit this website and post your ideas about what government policies can help Americans launch personal and national economic recovery plans. Just saying no to bad ideas won’t help our country or Americans who have lost their jobs. So I encourage people to log on, check out the House Republican plan and provide us feedback and your ideas.”

(You can provide feedback on a total of 5 talking points! Oddly enough "drastically cut military spending, stop funding terrorism in Israel, and nationalize the banking system" aren't on the list.

“The word is getting out that ‘stimulus’ is just a diverting headline for liberal Democrats to expand government spending and control over Americans’ lives and hard-earned money.”

(As opposed to the traditional method of using tax payer's dollars and deficit spending to pay for the expansion of private companies' control over Americans' lives and hard-earned money. It's a subtle difference.)

As you probably know the Senate passed a heavily modified version of the stimulus bill today. Somehow their version of the bill, which cut billions in government spending, ended up costing more than the House's version which didn't ($838bn vs. $819bn). The difference? Tax cuts. If only we had realized before that tax cuts were the solution . . . we could've even sent everyone a check last year!

The next step is for the House and Senate to hash together a common bill to present to the President which, in my mind, means that it now goes to the House to argue for some measure of nationalization, relief for the middle and lower classes, and possibly a "new New Deal." This, in turn, is a reminder for you to write to your Representative and let him/her know exactly how you feel.

Roscoe Bartlett

Representatives by State

Friday, January 30, 2009

Stacking the Deck: The Power of Special Relationships

The January 26th edition of The Nation included an article by Naomi Klein calling for a boycott of Israel in response to their actions in Gaza. This article can be found here.

Naturally, as occurs any time Israel is criticized in the press, there was a highly emotional (and, needless to say, critical) response to Klein's article in the very next edition. This response, along with Klein's retort, can be found here.

The problem with Klein’s call-to-boycott is that it was published in The Nation and The Nation’s readership amounts to the most centrist viewpoint that would still accept the idea. As Pollin’s response shows, even readers of The Nation are sometimes too enamored of Israel to accept any real criticism of it, suffering at most to say that their brutal actions are a response to equally brutal actions brought upon them.

A “special relationship” exists between Israel and America today. This relationship, now continued in President Barack Obama’s explicit recognition of it1, is an interesting thing. It means that more American aid money goes to Israel each year than to any other country2, despite Israel‘s AA- credit rating and high levels of personal wealth3. It means that we have a constant ally in the United Nations, even when we vote to legalize absurd things like the extension of the Cuban embargo to foreign subsidiaries of American companies and nearly the whole world stands against us.4 It means that when the American press discusses Israel, it does so with a deference not granted to nations opposed to Israel. It means that when people criticize Israel, they are often faced with charges of anti-Semitism, or simply just “siding with the terrorists.”

Pollin’s response is a perfect example of the way that the special relationship translates into this one sided debate existing today. Take this sentence: “I agree entirely that the Israeli occupation is brutal. But Hamas is also brutal.” Here Pollin says little while excluding much. It is obvious on its face that the happenings in the Gaza strip are brutal to life on both sides, and saying it doesn’t hurt the Israeli occupation forces at all, because they are responding brutally to a brute attack. What they are responding to, however, is not obvious. According to Pollin Israel is responding to Hamas. Hamas is the name of the elected, ruling party of the Palestinian state as it exists in the Gaza strip today. Therefore, Hamas’ actions are the actions of Palestine. Rather than addressing this as a conflict between Israel and Palestine, Pollin addresses the conflict as one between Hamas and Israel, with a dual reaction. First, Americans recognize that Hamas is the name of a terrorist group, and so associate the rocket attacks on Israel as a terrorist action. Americans, as history has shown, have their own brutal streak when it comes to avenging terrorist attacks, and so Israel‘s actions are more easily forgiven. Second, by de-legitimizing Hamas’ sovereignty in Palestine, Pollin opens up the door to legitimizing the US-backed Fatah party’s dominance over all of Palestine.

In the remainder of the paragraph Pollin continues:

“To date, the only thing preventing Hamas from being less lethal than Israel in the damage it inflicts is its limited resources. Hamas is deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians. Should Iran, for example, succeed in supplying Hamas with more effective weapons, Hamas will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Israeli citizens.”

The first sentence here assumes that Israel has the right to be more lethal than Palestine, which is interesting. Sovereign nations have the right to defend themselves against their neighbors - but again, this is not a sovereign nation. This is the terrorist group Hamas, so building its strength represents a far more sinister view.

Can we also assume from the writer’s words that, because Hamas is less lethal than Israel, Palestine is suffering more greatly at Israel’s hands than Israel at Palestine’s? Even if we cannot, the numbers support it, as they generally do when Israel engages Palestine. A total of 13 Israeli’s were killed in the Gaza attacks - as many as 1284 Palestinians were killed5, a ratio of nearly 100 Palestinians for every Israeli. Surely greater weapons capability would have increased the Israeli numbers, but with the US on its side, you can be sure that the Palestinian death toll would have risen commensurately. But let’s look more closely, because the sentence is loaded. “Hamas is deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians.” By extension of our previous formula, we can now say “Terrorists are deliberately firing rockets into Israel with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians.” This, rightfully, is an abominable action and evocative sentence. However, the sentence can also be worded thus: “Israel is deliberately firing rockets into Palestine with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians.”6 This sentence, just as true as the first sentence about Hamas, completely neuters Pollin’s argument, while hopefully remaining just as emotive. The next sentence, “should Iran, for example, succeed in supplying Hamas with more effective weapons, Hamas will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Israeli citizens” is another stab at demonizing the Palestinians. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”7 If this history were written by the other side, the quote might well have been: “Should the US, for example, succeed in supplying Israel with more effective weapons, Israel will become more successful in killing and terrorizing Palestinian citizens.” The US, however, has supplied Israel with more effective weapons, and its Security Council position in the UN secures Israel’s immunity in using them.8

You cannot claim to fight a war against terror while also participating in terror yourself, but that brings us to the final unquestioned assumption of Pollin’s argument: that Hamas should be condemned for targeting civilians. The short, right answer is that they should. However, for an American citizen to attempt to condemn Palestinian human rights abuses is amusing at best. From the firing bombing of Dresden to the 1986 raid on Libya, from Hiroshima to nearly every interaction we‘ve had with nearly every South American country, the United States has made it a point to target and engage civilian populations as the most effective method of demoralizing opposition.

. . .

Written plainly the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine is typical to most conflict: it is not a war of ideology, of Semite vs. anti-Semite, of terror vs. life. It is a war for resources, or to use a wholly ironic word, a war for lebensraum. It is true that Palestine, under Hamas governance, has said that they do not recognize the existence of the Israeli state. But what, in the 60+ years of Israel’s existence, demonstrates Israel’s willingness to accept Palestine? The problem of the war in Gaza, thus laid out and free of the special relationship, becomes one of a thoroughly modern, militarily advanced nation suppressing the rebellion - and the right to live9 - of a smaller, neighboring, state. How this differs from past situations in Kuwait, Korea, Vietnam, Poland or Cuba - all of which provoked outrage and, eventually, US response - is not readily apparent from a humanitarian standpoint . . . Perhaps it’s just one of those quirks that develop in special relationships.

1Henry, Ed. 2008. Obama closely monitoring Gaza, adviser says. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

2United States. Census Bureau. 2009. The 2009 Statistical Abstract. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from
This fact holds true insofar as the United States is not at war with a particular country during the time frame in question. If the US is at war with a country its accounting somehow allows this to be translated into “foreign aid” to that country, so the figure greatly increases. Thus, if we exclude Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign aid to Israel amounts to USD 2.6bn versus USD 1.8bn for Egypt, the next highest country (and the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel), in 2006. By way of contrast, Zimbabwe - a country suffering so badly that it recently abandoned its currency due to hyperinflation - received USD 29.8mn.

3Bloomberg. 2009. Credit rating unaffected by Gaza war, S&P says. Jerusalem Post. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

4Pipes, Daniel. 1997. How Special is the U.S.-Israel Relationship? Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

5Younis, Khan. 2009. Final Gazan Death Toll Hits 1284. Taipei Times. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

6Associated Press. 2009. Israel Faces Heat Over White Phosphorous. MSNBC. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

7Orwell, George. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

8Larsen, Suzie. Our Beachhead in the Middle East. Mother Jones. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

9Goodman, Amy. 2008. Days After Calling Israeli Blockade of Gaza “A Crime Against Humanity,” UN Human Rights Investigator Richard Falk Detained, Expelled from Israel. Democracy Now. Retrieved January 30, 2009 from

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Right Wing Bias of the Media - HARD PROOF!

I recently had a letter to the editor published in The Westminster Eagle and its sister publication The Eldersburg Eagle. The letter was a response to yet another of Hoby Wolf's articles, which can be found here.

My response to the article, as printed by the paper, can be found here.

My actual response follows:

Hoby Wolf suggested in his most recent editorial that “legislating prosperity isn’t how the marketplace works” and that FDR (and by extension the New Deal) was not responsible for ending the Great Depression. He knows these things because he’s seen them first hand, and because he’s read about them in Adam Smith.

Living through things can make you an expert on them, it’s true. But I wouldn’t assume that a fourteen year old living in Oxford Mississippi in 1930 is an expert on William Faulkner any more than I would assume that a fourteen year old living in Baltimore in 1938 is an expert on the Great Depression. I certainly wouldn’t assume that reading The Wealth of Nations makes you an economist, either. Paul Krugman, however, is an economist - a Nobel Prize winning economist who happens to teach at Princeton - and he feels that the New Deal did in fact save us. He is one example of many, just as there are examples on the other side of the fence. The news media, for its part, tends to agree or disagree along fairly consistent lines. Left-center channels like MSNBC openly support the idea of New Deal prosperity, while right-center channels like Fox News say the exact opposite. Americans, with their typically poor understanding of history, tend to believe whichever interpretation best fits their intuitive understanding of the issue. The issue has at its heart, however, the very nature of the inequality inherent in our system and deserves more than mere intuition - and certainly more than the easy dismissal that Mr. Wolf attempted.

One thing which can be easily dismissed, however, is the notion that “legislating prosperity isn’t how the marketplace works.” Across the spectrum from neocon to socialist, it takes serious effort to overlook the consistent protectionism inherent in US economic policy. From the secured, no-bid contracts of Blackwater and Halliburton to Clinton’s ban on Mexican tomatoes, from the Spanish-American war to Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controller’s strike, the prosperity of American business has consistently been improved and protected by legislation with the government working increasingly harder to make sure that truly free markets are available for those corporations to exploit abroad. What Mr. Wolf means to say is “legislating individual prosperity isn’t how the marketplace works” - which is certainly true for the time being. The legislation insuring the wealth and prosperity of corporations removes more and more rights from individuals until, as Noam Chomsky points out in his Profits Over People, corporations have more rights than citizens. We can see the result as our middle class slides down the slippery slope as the top 1% continues to reap the rewards of their hard work in Washington, holding more wealth than the remaining 99% combined.

The sad part is that the same neo-conservative economists (Larry Summers, Paul Volcker) that presided over the economy for the past 30-50 years will be prominent in Obama‘s administration as well, which would seem to mean that Mr. Wolf has nothing to worry about. There won’t be a new New Deal - it’ll be the same old deal we got with Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and W.

. . . now that you've dutifully read all three items, allow me to point out the following changes that were made to my letter. (Point 1 is my original, point 2 is the edited version. Red text indicates changes/additions made by the newspaper, while green text indicates items that were deleted by the newspaper.)

  1. Hoby Wolf suggested in his most recent editorial that “legislating prosperity isn’t how the marketplace works” and that FDR (and by extension the New Deal) was not responsible for ending the Great Depression. He knows these things because he’s seen them first hand, and because he’s read about them in Adam Smith.
  2. In his most recent column (Jan. 7), Hoby Wolf suggests that "Legislating prosperity isn't how the marketplace works," and that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and by extension the New Deal, were not responsible for ending the Great Depression.

    He knows this because he saw them first hand and because he's read about them in Adam Smith.

In example 1 the clause "FDR was not responsible for ending the Great Depression" is grammatically correct because FDR is singular (he) and requires the appropriate singular verb form (he was). The edited version mistakenly includes the parenthetic notation ("and by extension the New Deal") in its consideration of the subject and mistakenly uses a plural verb form (they were). This introduces a grammatical error into a text that did not have one previously. The same error is committed shortly thereafter when the editor changes "He knows these things" to "He knows this." In the first example, "these things" refers to the two separate concepts mentioned in the first sentence. In the second example "this" refers to a single idea - which could be either "legislating prosperity" or "the new deal" but cannot be both. (Also: who, amongst the intended audience for this letter, doesn't know that FDR = Franklin Roosevelt?)

  1. Living through things can make you an expert on them, it’s true. But I wouldn’t assume that a fourteen year old living in Oxford Mississippi in 1930 is an expert on William Faulkner any more than I would assume that a fourteen year old living in Baltimore in 1938 is an expert on the Great Depression.

  2. Living through things can make you an expert, that's true. But I wouldn't assume that a 14-year-old living in Oxford, Miss., in 1930 would be an expert on William Faulkner any more than I would assume that a 14-year-old living in Baltimore in 1938 is an expert on the Great Depression.
It's a fine distinction, I know, but saying "living through things can make you an expert on them" is not the same thing as saying "living through things can make you an expert." My readers will no doubt be surprised, but I am all for the Strunk and White advice of "omit needless words." But they need to be needless first. And so much for parallel structure - I guess "would be" and "is" are interchangeable in this new English. Also, the change from "it's true" to "that's true" is strictly stylistic, not just a misguided grammatical error introduced by a newspaper editor.

  1. I certainly wouldn’t assume that reading The Wealth of Nations makes you an economist, either.

  2. And I certainly wouldn't assume that reading "The Wealth of Nations" makes you an economist, either.
As if I didn't start enough sentences with conjunctions on my own!

  1. Paul Krugman, however, is an economist - a Nobel Prize winning economist who happens to teach at Princeton - and he feels that the New Deal did in fact save us.

  2. Paul Krugman, on the other hand, is an economist -- a Nobel Prize-winning economist who happens to teach at Princeton -- and he feels the New Deal did in fact save us.
On the subject of omitting needless words . . . Another completely stylistic change.

  1. The issue has at its heart, however, the very nature of the inequality inherent in our system and deserves more than mere intuition - and certainly more than the easy dismissal that Mr. Wolf attempted.

  2. The issue has at its heart, however, the very nature of the inequality inherent in our system and deserves more than mere intuition -- and certainly more than the easy dismissal that Mr. Wolf attempts.
This is one of those highly technical things about the English language, I suspect, about which I might have been able to tell you four years ago but can't right now. My logic for using "attempted" is that "In his article, Mr. Wolf attempted to dismiss . . ." Hoby Wolf's article exists in the past, as does the verb form "attempted." As this letter was published on January 14, 2009, and Hoby Wolf's article was published on January 7, 2009, there is a definite issue of time at work. Time affects tense. Furthermore, as there is nothing wrong with the initial sentence, what justifies the change?

  1. From the secured, no-bid contracts of Blackwater and Halliburton to Clinton’s ban on Mexican tomatoes, from the Spanish-American war to Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controller’s strike, the prosperity of American business has consistently been improved and protected by legislation with the government working increasingly harder to make sure that truly free markets are available for those corporations to exploit abroad.

  2. From secured, no-bid contracts of Blackwater and Halliburton to Bill Clinton's ban on Mexican tomatoes; from the Spanish-American war to Ronald Reagan's breaking of the air traffic controller's strike, the prosperity of American business has consistently been improved and protected by legislation with the government working increasingly hard to make sure that truly free markets are available for those corporations to exploit abroad.
The removal of the article "the" muddles the meaning of this sentence. You wouldn't say "From contracts of Blackwater" but you would say "From the contracts of Blackwater." Furthermore, the first clause is not independent, and therefore a semi-colon cannot be used to seperate it from the second clause. Yet another grammatical error introduced for no obvious reason.

  1. What Mr. Wolf means to say is “legislating individual prosperity isn’t how the marketplace works” - which is certainly true for the time being.

  2. What I think Mr. Wolf means to say is "legislating individual prosperity isn't how the marketplace works" ... which is certainly true for the time being.
Of course I think that. I wrote it. It's a letter to the editor. If I didn't think it, I wouldn't have written it. Furthermore, if I wanted it to say "I think" I would've typed it in there myself.

  1. The legislation insuring the wealth and prosperity of corporations removes more and more rights from individuals until, as Noam Chomsky points out in his Profits Over People, corporations have more rights than citizens.

  2. Legislation insuring the wealth and prosperity of corporations removes more and more rights from individuals until, as Noam Chomsky points out in "Profits Over People," corporations have more rights than citizens.
We'll remove "the" and "his" because they're absurdly unnecessary here; however, here . . .

  1. There won’t be a new New Deal - it’ll be the same old deal we got with Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and W.

  2. There won't be a new New Deal -- it'll be the same old deal we got with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush.
. . . it's absolutely necessary to include the first names of three of the four presidents mentioned.

So what we have here is a right-wing editorial published by a news media organization. A (very) left wing response to this editorial is sent in to the editor. It is sent in with a bare minimum of grammatical errors (ok, I admit it. There weren't any mistakes at all.), yet comes out with a multitude of them - as well as a hack-job on its otherwise fluid and beautiful prose. As if this were not evidence enough, said media organization then goes on to expand the names of three out of four presidents in the final, perception-shattering sentence. The fourth, last-name only president? Bill Clinton. You guessed it - a democrat!

Armed with this new-found truth, I suspect that I will be doing the tour circuit between Olbermann, Colbert, Stewart, and O'Reilly soon. Look for my upcoming schedule and book tour!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Charge of the Rough Riders (tm)

Sinking of the USS Maine - precursor to the Spanish American War
Terrorist Attack on US
Iraqi Tanks Entering Kuwait
Communist Attack on Korea
Communist Attack on Vietnam
Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor

Sinking of the USS Maine

It's fitting to note on this, the 50 year anniversary of Castro's revolution in Cuba, that President-elect Barack Obama apparently plans to continue on with our now 47 year old embargo on that country.

In response to the 50th anniversary celebrations, the Bush White House released this statement: "Many political dissidents are in jail. The economy is suffering and not free. And the United States will continue to try to seek the freedom of the people of Cuba, and support them."

Yes, it's true, many political dissidents are in jail. Of course, more are in jail - or just dead - in China, but rest assured that the Chinese will still be supplying stuffed gorillas that sing "Wild Thing" for you and yours this Valentine's Day - and for only $9.99!

The Cuban economy is suffering, but then they have been through just a few hurricanes this year. Oh, and there's that pesky embargo (which is somewhat the opposite of free economy) that prevents American companies from trading with Cuba, just 90 miles off US shores, instead forcing them to procure food, medicine, etc, at far higher prices elsewhere. That embargo has "resulted in a serious reduction in the trade of legitimate medical supplies and food donations, to the detriment of the Cuban people." It is also against international law, which bans the use of food to exert "political or economic pressure." But we're supporting them!

The embargo-causing problem with Cuba, as we all know, isn't the humanitarian abuses (which I recognize and protest) or their struggling economy. The problem is that last bit about their economy not being free. That is, not free for US companies to exploit. So when the country is devastated by hurricanes Bechtel can't be sent in on a preordained contract to rebuild, GE can't be brought in to privatize the power grid, and Blackwater can't be contracted to provide police forces. The economy which provided those corporations with the massive wealth that they have isn't free, either, of course. Most of the jobs provided to them are secured without any contractual bidding, and when they screw up - as they have from Iraq to New Orleans - their contracts still get paid.

The US position on this was established well before the embargo of 1962, though. In 1898 - when Cuba's revolution against Spain was coming to a head - Cuba accounted for 10% of our total export economy, having nearly doubled in only three years. Businessmen, anxious to ensure that the country remained the exploding market that it was, pushed the US government to intervene. Then, as with our embargo, we acted under the guise of seeking Cuban freedom. The USS Maine was sent to show America's interest. It mysteriously exploded. This caused a public outcry which enabled the Spanish-American war and, consequently, America's control over Puerto Rico and Guam - unlike Puerto Rico and Guam, however, the Cubans were allowed to enter into free elections for their leaders. Naturally, free trade with Cuba was also secured.

(Then, as in now, there were some who saw past the outrage of a possible attack on America. Bolton Hall, the treasurer of the American Longshoremen's Union, said this:
"If there is a war, you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out of it - that is, out of you. Men will get high prices for inferior supplies, leaky boats, for shoddy clothes and pasteboard shoes, and you will have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you will get is the privilege of hating your Spanish fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of Cuba as you have."
. . . which might as easily translate into:
"If there is a war, you will furnish the corpses and the taxes, and others will get the glory. Speculators will make money out of it - that is, out of you. Men will get high prices for inferior supplies, lawless private 'security', for shoddy powergrids and pasteboard hospitals, and you will have to pay the bill, and the only satisfaction you will get is the privilege of hating your Muslim fellow-workmen, who are really your brothers and who have had as little to do with the wrongs of the Middle-East as you have."
Then, as in now, America went to war.)

Cuba became a free nation in 1902 - with the provision that the United States could still intervene whenever it felt like it, which it did only 4 years later. For 57 years it suffered political turmoil, until Castro's revolution. Of course once Castro took over Washington reacted famously - since it is our right to overthrow any government of any country, if said government does not serve our best interest.

And we continue to react, by supporting the Cuban people with starvation and disease.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Val Lewton - The Seventh Victim

Jacqueline's noose in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
Just Remember - Death is Not the End!

This is part one in a series of articles relating to Val Lewton and the mark he left upon the horror genre. In this series I will concentrate on Lewton as the auteur of the films he produced: the arguments for this are perfectly compelling and generally accepted . . . I will also assume that you have seen the films in question; otherwise, there will be spoilers.

After Orson Welles had nearly bankrupted RKO with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons the studio was forced to turn to other venues for capital. Universal had made money hand-over-fist with their unique brand of horror: RKO decided that they could do the same. To that end they brought Val Lewton on board from MGM (where he'd worked for David O. Selznick), assigning him to the B-horror segment. As head of this unit, Lewton had three mandates. All films had to be under 75 minutes, cost less than $150k, and all film titles would be assigned. Universal had just released The Wolf Man with great returns, so RKO demanded Lewton's first film: Cat People. You can see what their plan was.

Lewton, however, did not exactly comply, instead producing the kind of atmospheric, subtle films that Jonathan Rosenbaum argues create, and constitute, an entire branch of the horror genre. I will touch more on this subject later, but for now let me say that on their surface all Lewton horror films seem a reaction to the Universal Pictures standard of horror and also to Orson Welles. There were two other mandates that modulated Lewton's primary three: RKO's post-Welles' motto of "showmanship before genius" and Lewton's own rule of "no horror heaped on horror." Universal had made it a point to create world's wholly separate from our own where horrific creatures like the wolf man existed realistically by fact of his world's own alien horror. These films were deeply popular with the WWII crowd because they allowed an escapist pleasure from the terror of day-to-day life, but they could never truly create horror because their world was so detatched. Conversely, Lewton spent most of his movies creating realistic worlds where, it's true, some people could maybe turn into cats, become zombies, or return from the dead. This model is certainly a departure from Universal's and met with good effect in the box office. It's this grounding, also, that makes the films equal reactions to Welles - simple movies made on simple, leftover sets, with little departure or granduer. It was because of Welles that Lewton had to fight for every penny he got to make these films, and even at times artistic control, which certainly didn't help matters.

The Seventh Victim, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson, was released in 1943 by RKO Radio Pictures. It is the fourth film Lewton made with RKO and the greatest departure from the "reality with a twist of the supernatural" mode which had made Lewton's first films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man) box office hits. It is also, I think, Lewton's greatest film, although flawed. His later films come together more successfully in terms of fit and finish, but this, I think, is where we come closest to seeing a true artistic attempt.

In The Seventh Victim, Lewton creates a wholly insular world wherein there is no solace, no light. Unlike his other works, he approached this film with a clear message: "Death is good." And then proceeded to seep the goodness out of all life in reaction to this. The idea of familial love is lost: Mary's love for Jacqueline (accentuated by a kind of hesitant indifference) amounts to an interest in where she might be, Jacqueline's love for Mary is lost in her own ambivalence, the Palladist's love for Jacqueline lost in her betrayal. Romantic love is lost: Ward's love for Jacqueline lost to his love for Mary, Hoag's love lost to insanity . . . New York is an empty place totally void of anything but shadow produced by unseen light. God is a facet of Dr. Judd's intellect, brought forth only in defense. Jean Brooks' Jacqueline is nearly as alive at the end of the film as she is during it, her suicide an escape from nothingness to nothingness.

Shadows in the alley of The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh BeaumontShadows In The Alley

There are many precursors to film noir here, most from Fritz Lang's work - and they inform the aforementioned sense of atmosphere in a way familiar to fans of German cinema. The subtle horror that the film attempts comes from the complete meaningless of life within it and the equally meaningless horror of death.

A friend pointed out that the oddness of the film's beginning is not well maintained throughout, and I agree. The beginning of the film sets a breathless pace, with a near-instant change of location, the introduction of a whole cast of characters with intricate, preformed relationships to themselves but not to the protagonist (who we cling to because we have no one else), and a vaguely sinister overtone. But from the time where Jacqueline is reunited with Mary we gain a sense of normalcy that even the Palladists cannot overcome. If Jacqueline succombs to them and drinks the poison we know that there will be a reaction: Mary will find out, she will know why, as will Dr. Judd and Ward. There will be interactions, formulaic reactions - possibly prosecution, retribution, resignation. The materialization of Jacqueline from the shadows provides a point from which the random, colorless chaos of the world can be ordered. That order, and those reactions, create meaning to both Jacqueline's life and death. It will still be bleak, but the terror is now steeped in a familiar tone with familiar outcomes. Where is the terror in the familiar? That, I fear, is far beyond Val Lewton's grip.

Jacqueline contemplating her forced suicide by poison in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
Jacqueline Facing Death

Fritz Lang's Destiny - twenty-two years this film's senior - has at its heart the selfsame message, as would Bergman's The Seventh Seal fourteen years later: Death is inescapable and indeed to be welcomed as a relief to the awful strife of this world. Destiny does not attempt to show the supposed-horror of death in a nihilistic world - a virtually unattainable goal. Rather, it works to show that the bittersweet pain of the world is ended in death, replaced by a utopian beauty where love is forged anew in green pastures. God in this film, rather than a cold intellectual force, shows that "love is strong as death." Conversely, The Seventh Seal creates Death itself as a facet of life, the terrifying part of the-God-within with whom we carry on a constant monologue, praying for a response to our call. That response is the melancholy, everyday beauty of our own lives that prods us ever gently back to the Earth at the same time that it calls us home to Him. "Death is good" by contrast becomes a childish mantra by a man with a vision, but without the words to speak it.

(. . . did I mention speaking the vision? That aforementioned friend also mentioned the film's lack of filmic quality - that it was, at times, merely filmed theater, hardly aware of its transient abilities. One rare exception is the shower scene where Mary is confronted by the unknown quantity of the satanist. This scene has the true potential for horror, and it seems hardly possible that Alfred Hitchcock had not seen it before creating his own in Psycho.)

A precursor to Hitchcock's shower scene in The Seventh Victim produced by Val Lewton for RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Mark Robson, starring Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, and Hugh Beaumont
The World Beyond the Veil

Everybody's Waiting for the Man with the Bag . . .

I'll catch you with my death bag.  You may think I've gone insane.  But I promise - I will kill again.. . . Christmas is here again!

Saturday, December 13, 2008


This is a story of the grocery business, and I apologize for that. But the grocery business does consume a lot of my time, and the things with which I am preoccupied outside of it certainly apply inside of it as well.

A friend of mine, we‘ll call him Skip, just celebrated his 83rd birthday (the exact same day on which I celebrated my 27th) and - partly out of celebration, partly out of other commitments - his daughter had taken him to Philadelphia to spend the day with her. Skip spent a large part of his life in Philadelphia as a grocery store manager and later as a corporate officer for the same grocery chain. Going back, it seems, evoked a few memories from him that he wanted to share, and I’ve made it a point to always share his memories with him. It was 1968. Skip was the director of merchandising for his company, which is not a small rung on the ladder by any means. He was in charge of setting profit margins for merchandise, setting sale prices, and establishing schematics for store layout. Additionally, he oversaw the pool of buyers who, as their title suggests, buy everything that comes into the warehouse, working out the myriad deals that are intrinsic in that system. Even in 1968 this was a problem: corporations vying for top market position even in small companies like Skip’s were already beginning to slip money into the coffers of those in charge to make sure that their product was top dog. Once there, it becomes difficult for another product to take over. The public buys what they are told to, generally, and it’s very difficult to break that cycle. Make the kid’s parents buy it, lock them in, and the kids will never trust another brand. Their kids won’t even know that another brand is possible.

Skip first encountered this problem when he decided to reset the canned soup sections in his stores. At the time he was selling Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, Tomato, and Vegetable Beef soups at cost everyday. These soups, even today, represent the core of the condensed soup business (a very large and growing category - in 2005 Campbell‘s had revenue approaching $8bn) and a store with everyday low prices on these is sure to net customers en masse. Selling at costs, of course, means losing money, because the cost of each item must also bear the cost to transport it, the cost of labor to warehouse it - and any applicable inventory taxes involved -, and the cost of labor to stock it. The industry calls these items loss leaders - items for which the company is willing to lose money in order to get people into the store. The idea of a loss leader is to get as much exposure for the item as possible while selling as few as possible, thus maximizing profits. Skip, in turn, placed his loss leading Campbell’s cans on the bottom shelf of the set, and the other Campbell’s soups on either side. In the middle he placed the sundry soups, including broths and stocks. Traditional supermarket logic tells us that the middle area - anything from shelf three up - is where customer’s eyes are. Therefore items which do not need help selling are placed on the bottom, because customers are looking for them anyway. In the middle are placed items which do not already have a dedicated following (in cereal, for instance, you will always find large family sized boxes of Cheerios on the bottom shelf, children’s cereals in the middle, and adult cereals on top. Children’s cereals are the only part of the category which consistently change, in order to reflect the newest fad cartoons, movies, etc.). The problem which Skip encountered with this fairly sensible product alignment came from his company’s VP, who had been told that the arrangement could not continue by the president of Campbell’s soup. Attempts to explain the logic behind his choices fell on deaf ears. Nevertheless, and somewhat to the company’s credit, Skip’s new soup schematic was implemented in all of his stores and was a success, but his reputation with that VP had been tarnished.

This small victory was put to the test in a later incident, where the company’s president decided that Crest toothpaste should be placed on sale for 39c. Skip again refused, citing that he could place Close Up toothpaste on sale for the same price with a greater profit margin. The problem with this response is that Crest (incidentally the first toothpaste to include fluoride) is, and was, owned by the multinational juggernaut Proctor and Gamble while Close Up is made by Church and Dwight - even then a much smaller company. Skip’s plan to place Close Up toothpaste on sale was implemented against the president’s wishes, and the resulting row nearly placed Skip on the street. Today he credits these two events as the main reasons why he was unable to achieve a senior executive position within the company - and all because he made it more money than if he had followed the alternative plan.

There are benign reasons for a CEO wanting to place one product on sale over another, but the most obvious reason for this is that there were kickbacks in place about which Skip was not aware. Money talks. Even a few years ago it was common practice for vendors to give grocery managers gifts in exchange for better display spaces, increased shelf space, etc. Companies, purportedly realizing that this created an unfair advantage, have broadly banned this practice. Instead, the corporate offices of those vendors now send huge checks to the company owners in order to get better displays. These kickbacks, which pad the bottom line quite nicely, have resulted in a very narrow field of products (take a look at the detergent or shampoo aisle of your local market and see how many different companies are represented there. For most, non-specialty, markets the answer will be no more than 3 or 4 for both aisles combined) which excludes smaller competition offhand. More importantly, they have resulted in industry standard wages that are only marginally above minimum wage for most positions, generally awful benefits (or, in the case of some well known companies, hardly any benefits at all), and a general cronyism on executive row where the wage divide becomes quite evident.

Of course, these are moderate players in moderate examples from a moderately regulated government. History provides us with better, more telling examples, of what else can happen when that flow of corporate money catches the eye of the right person. In the very same decade that Skip fought for his Close Up sale, the Ford Motor Company had established a prison camp in its Argentina factory, where the military tortured and murdered members of the Union who had forced the company into providing the workers such luxuries as an hour lunch. They were declared enemies of the state.

As for Skip, the moral of his story, as he enunciated it, was to not be smarter than the boss. I told him that I felt the greater imperative was to know who the boss was. He laughed at that and agreed. I felt horrible for him. He came from an era that had told him that he had only to don a suit, go to business school, and he would be initiated into the elite. There was a certain sense of infallibility and empire to his generation, but now he sees - as should we all - that the rulers of the empire only ever were a select, predestined few.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I Come from Great Darkness and Deep Peace

"Foreign monopolies impose crops on us, they impose chemicals that pollute our earth, impose technology and ideology. All this through the oligarchy which owns the land and controls the politics. But we must remember - the oligarchy is also controlled, by the very same monopolies, the very same Ford Motors, Monsanto, Philip Morris. It's the structure we have to change. This is what I have come to denounce . . . I believe that truth and justice will eventually triumph. It will take generations. If I am to die in this fight, then so be it. But one day we will triumph. In the meantime, I know who the enemy is, and the enemy knows who I am, too."

-- Sergio Tomasella

Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday

Wal-Mart Worker Dies in Rush

While doing my own Black Friday shopping (just to keep this fair), I stumbled upon an discussion on this article. Naturally the purpose of this discussion was to establish blame, and its placement was fairly evenly split between those who blamed corporations for inspiring this level of rabid consumerism and those who blamed the crowd for losing control.

What do you think?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In - Oskar and Eli the 12 year old vampireAllow me to rescind, fleetingly, my previous disappointment with the horror genre. Let The Right One In is an exceedingly rare and beautiful example and it earns its place in the pantheon of great horror films. I don’t want to say that it’s a film obsessed with things, because in truth it’s not. It’s subtle. But it is a film about our obsessions or, at least, a film which touches on mine.

There are things about childhood that we never can manage to leave behind: our first kiss, our first love, the teasing, scorning words of our schoolmates. For some these things provide comfort and for some a nauseous looking back. For myself, I have yet to think on my first love without regret and sorrow: I have yet to be truly free of it. The pain I felt at its end, of course, is not nearly so great and has been replaced by a kind of nostalgic sadness, because age has conspired to alter me. But it is still there, and I can imagine what the outcome might have been had I never been able to move on from that awful age of transition where my first love had its inception. Therein lies the horror of this movie: a 12 year old girl vampire who is neither a girl nor 12 years old - who can never grow old and never leave the dismay of that age, who can never escape the memory of that time, who can never transcend her appalling hunger and its violence - and a 12 year old boy who is taunted viciously by his schoolmates, who cannot escape them, is impotent against them and their own violence. Natural cycles. Let The Right One In is a movie about natural cycles. The first, blushing hint of love in the playground. The shy awkwardness of its approach. Its hesitant acceptance and the subsequent uncertainty. The discovery of our true natures. The vampirism of the female. Consummation. Symbiosis. All steeped in the horrible flesh tones of memory.

I don’t want to ruin a film which is still in theaters. Go. See it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wolf Tracks

The Northern News is a small newspaper with circulation in Hampstead, Manchester, Lineboro, and Upperco. I have never seen it before now and frankly hope to not see it again; although, it is apparently mailed to my house regularly.

I mention it today because of an editorial in the November 6th edition (Vol. 1, No. 13), which I will quote here in its entirety owing to the extremely limited circulation of the paper and my intent to critique the whole of the article. It is reprinted with all its myriad grammatical errors and missteps.

Michelle Obama as First Lady is My Last Choice

Wolf Tracks
By Hoby Wolf

“As I write this I have no idea about who will win the election for President of the United States. I know what the polls say is a projected winner, I also know what my heart and hopes tell me.

From the comments I receive on this column I know I’m not exactly alone in my prayers.

Frankly, when I heard Michelle Obama make that speech after her husband won the Iowa primary election that, ‘for the first time in my life I’m proud of my country.’ Then and there I figured if Sen. Barack Obama was dumb enough to pick a wife, so unfeeling to make that statement, he wasn’t smart enough to run for this country.

My first thought was she must have slept through every history class. Evidently she thinks those few patriots that stood fast against a British onslaught at Bunker Hill were chicken livers. The fact that Mrs. Obama isn’t an agriculture worker today is the result of men who lived and died that would make anyone proud of America.

Guess I’m not the only one she turned off in a big way. If you noted while Cindy McCain was at her husband’s side during his speeches, the mean spirited Obama was not visible with her husband.

If Obama wins and they have a television picture of her in the White House, my advice is that you not be down wind of me, for surely I will “frow-up” on the spot!

My hope is that the polls of prospective voters are wrong. All of the people who have skin that is not black have been pushed in such a defense role that we no longer can say what we believe.

Over the years I have worked with some very talented African-Americans There was ‘Mr. Henry’ who showed “city folks” how to run the Fairbank Dairy in Eldersburg. Then there was Stirling Collins, who took the time to show me that any block or brick that was even a fraction of an inch below the line level had to be reset.

That was a masonry lesson, but also a life lesson in demanding that keeping a beginning standard is what made your end results worth having.

Dave Ward will always be a fond memory. He won a Julliard music scholarship and was furious when later scholarships were awarded on the basis of color, because as he put it, “it makes my winning less valuable.”

My closing thought is just this question. Why didn’t Bill Cosby have presidential ambitions? He certainly would have had my vote. If your kids are following what he advocates, your family is a winner right now.”

. . .

Mr. Wolf, I will agree with you on one point in this article: Michelle Obama’s comment that “for the first time in my adult life, I’m proud of my country” was a stupid thing to say. However, it was only stupid because she chose to say it at a time when her husband was so politically vulnerable. Otherwise, I’m quite fine with it, really, and even endorse it. Up until Election Day of this year I can’t myself think of a time in my adult life when I was proud of my country, and even now I can’t be sure that I wasn’t just caught up in the emotion of Obama's win. That’s right. I am not proud of America, Mr. Wolf. But then, I did notice in your article that even you have trouble finding relevant things about which to be proud. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783. Slavery was abolished in 1865. These are the most recent examples of American heroism and greatness that you could muster. If they occurred in your adult lifetime then I can understand your pride in America, if not exactly how you wrote your editorial.

Of course, slavery was abolished in the other British colonies in 1834, and the French abolished it in 1848. The Jews at Masada chose to die rather than live under Roman rule in 73CE. Should Michelle Obama pay homage to them, too? What America did was hardly without precedent: what America became was. There is something to be proud of there, and I am. I firmly believe that our country once was the greatest nation ever to stand on this Earth. But sadly our shared belief in yesterday is not enough to save today.

What we are is not what we once were, and it is a dangerous folly to lull yourself into the belief that because America once was great it will ever be. We have allowed our military to enter into a union with our industry that neuters the will of the American people. We have allowed our greed for resources to turn us into a colonizing force far more sinister than the one we shook off. We have allowed our media to be overtaken by corporations and in doing so dominated the will of our free press. We overthrow sovereign nations in the name of those businesses. We rob our own people blind in their name. If you are proud of those things, Mr. Wolf, then more power to you. As Thomas Mann says below, there is always a feeling of inherent adoration for one’s country and a belief that it is somehow exempt from the history of the world. But truth be told America is not special, America is not great, and America can fail. What once was worthy of pride in this country is gone yet remains the same thing that could be worthy of pride in it today: its people. However, so long as they are allowed to believe that America remains the City of God and that wearing a flag upon their lapel marks them as an initiate into that greatness, America will be doomed to its fate.

Our founding fathers believed that government was “for the people and by the people” not that the state was a sovereignty onto itself, its authority preceding that of the individual. Yet here we are in a country where our current President was never elected and who, in his autocratic wisdom, tells us we must give our money to the industry or we will surely perish. Somehow, this is not America.

And as much as I would love to end this commentary here, you sadly chose to extend yours beyond the reach of your title. You were irate that Michelle Obama had the audacity to not show unerring and sorely deserved pride in her country and felt the need to write an editorial about your frustration that she will likely end up as the First Lady. Your editorial was published. The newspaper it was published in will go out to over 10,000 homes (and a few hundred more now that it’s online).

. . . And yet you chose to end your piece with a rant on how “all of the people who have skin that is not black have been pushed in such a defense role that we no longer can say what we believe.”

Didn’t you just say, in your first 246 ineffectual words, what you believe? And do you really speak for “all of the people who have skin that is not black”? Only 11% of America is black - so 89% of the American population - including all those other weird people who ain’t white or black - were repressed by Barack Obama’s candidacy? If that’s the case, then we need to open up a complaint with the UN and implore them to have the election redone with foreign non-blacks presiding over the polling stations to ensure that the great black conspiracy (which somehow mustered 7.2 million votes more than the great white conspiracy, no doubt thanks to the liberal media) cannot prevail!