Thursday, December 29, 2011

Upstairs Downton Revisited...

Recently I began to rewatch, for the first time since the 1970s, the classic London Weekend Television and ITV television programme Upstairs Downstairs. Upstairs Downstairs, as virtually every television historian knows by now, was the brainchild of actors Jean Marsh, who would go on to play Rose the downstairs parlour maid in the show, and Eileen Atkins, who was supposed to play the downstairs cook but was unable to because of other commitments.

Upstairs Downstairs, which ran on ITV from 1971 to 1975 and was recently revived by the BBC, was originally going to centre on two maids in a Victorian country house--remnants of this remain in the show in the relationship between Rose and her parlour maid comrade in arms Sarah in the early episodes of the show--but by the time it aired the shows focus had broadened out to include not only the lives of two servants but also the lives, travails, and times of all the other servants downstairs and the masters, Sir Richard, later Lord, and Lady Bellamy, 165 Easton Place, Belgravia, London, upstairs.

Surprisingly, at least to those involved in the show (commentary on the first episode by actors Jean Marsh and Evin Crowley (Emily) and writer Fay Weldon on the Network and Acorn DVD's), Upstairs Downstairs became a hit not only in the UK but in the US. Upstairs Downstairs was one of the first shows broadcast on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, in fact, it was the show that put Masterpiece on the television map. It also became popular in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some 65 other countries across the globe. As a result the show spawned a number of clones including the short lived Beacon Hill (1975) on the US CBS network and more recently Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is the creation of British actor--he played the Scottish aristocrat Kilwillie in the BBC's Monarch of the Glen (2000-2005) and politician Claud Seabrook in the BBC's superb Our Friends from the North (1996)--writer--he wrote Robert Altman's Gosford Park itself heir to Upstairs Downstairs and prequel to Downton Abbey--and director Julian Fellowes. It premiered on ITV on 26 September 2010 and was broadcast in America on PBS's on Masterpiece in January of 2011.

Even before Downton Abbey premiered a number of critics pointed out that in many ways Julian Fellowes new series was the grandchild of Upstairs Downstairs. After rewatching the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs, "On Trial", it is quite easy to see why. Both Upstairs Downstairs begin with a new downstairs arrival, Sarah (Pauline Collins), the new parlour maid, in Upstairs Downstairs and Bates (Brendon Coyle), Lord Grantham's new valet, in Downton Abbey. The arrival of Sarah and Bates at Eaton Place and Downton Abbey allow the writers of the first episodes of each series, Upstairs Fay Weldon and Downtons Julian Fellows, to introduce viewers in a very elegant way to the main characters and dynamics of both houses. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have downstairs run by prim and proper yet humane butlers, Mr. Hudson (Gordon Jackson) in Upstairs and (Charles Carson) in Downton. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have mature and crusty if not nasty cooks, Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley) in Upstairs and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) in Downton, and somewhat dim and clumsy kitchen maids, Emily (Evin Crowley) in Upstairs and Rose (Sophia McShera) in Downton. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have scheming and rather "sinister" footmen, Alfred (George Innes) in Upstairs and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) in Downton, both of whom have homosexual relationships with aristocratic foreign visitors to Eaton Place and Downton Abbey. Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey have ladies of the house who involve themselves in modern radical causes. In Upstairs Downstairs Miss Elizabeth (Nicola Pagett) gets involved in "radical" causes like the suffragist movement while in Downton Abbey Lady Sybill (Jessica Brown-Findlay) involves herself with "radical" labour and women's rights political movements. And in both Upstairs Downtairs and Downton Abbey the sinking of the Titanic has an immense impact on the Bellamy and the Grantham households upstairs. In Upstairs Downstairs Lady Marjorie Bellamy (Rachel Gurney) dies while sailing on the Titanic to New York to visit daughter Elizabeth in America while in Downton Abbey Lord Grantham’s cousin and heir presumptive James Crawley and his son Patrick die when the Titanic sinks in the Atlantic setting in motion the chain of events related to the entail that will dominate the first series.

There are also, of course, differences between the two costume dramas about life upstairs and life downstairs. Upstairs Downstairs was, as was the case with British television in the 1960s, 1970s, and some of the 1980s, a kind of "electronic play" largely shot in the studio and largely recorded on videotape, and is leisurely in pace while Downton, as has been common in British television since the 1990s thanks, in part, to the impact of film, is filmed in the studio and on location at Highclere Castle, has substantially more editing than Upstairs, and is, as a result, much quicker in pace than Upstairs Downstairs. It takes, for example, two series of thirteen episodes each for Upstairs Downstairs to get from the Titanic to World War I while it takes Downton Abbey one series of seven episodes to do it. Additionally, where Upstairs Downstairs was much more critical of the British class system with its masters and servants and the impact of this distanced paternalistic system on the servants, Downton, while engaging in a bit of critical distance, seems to me to romanticise the relationship between upstairs and downstairs, allowing its masters and servants to touch on occasion, wrapping the relationship between master and servant in a kind of nostalgic haze which seems to view the paternalism of the Grantham's (and the aristocracy in general?) in a largely positive light, at least in the first series.

The similarities between the two shows clearly cannot be chalked up purely to genre, purely to the fact that both shows focus on the lives and interrelationships of those upstairs and downstairs and are set in aristocratic homes, one in London, the other in the country, in Edwardian England. Downton Abbey is, as so many critics have pointed out, an Upstairs Downstairs for the new millennium. But while Downton may be an Upstairs clone, at least initially, that doesn't mean that Downton Abbey is any less enjoyable for being an Upstairs Downstairs for the twenty-first century. Personally I love the show and I can't wait for series two of Downton to begin on PBS in January of 2012. It is for me one of the best English language television shows out there along with Sherlock, Doctor Who, Outnumbered, The Thick of It (all British) and Being Erica (a Canadian show).

As to re-watching Upstairs Downstairs, this has been a joy. It is great to see one of the finest television shows ever made again after some forty years in an excellent transfer with tonnes of extras from Acorn.

Monday, December 26, 2011

How Apologetics and Polemics Really Work: Mormon Apologists and Polemicists as a Test Case

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the LDS, the Utah Mormon Church, there are four basic holy scriptures: The Bible, as far as it is translated correctly, the Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham, and the Doctrine and Covenants, the revelations that the Church Prophet, Joseph Smith was the first, has received over the years from God and Jesus Christ. The divine origins of all of these have been quite controversial over the years with Mormons willing to believe them divine in origin, and Gentiles, the term Mormons use for non-Mormons, generally unwilling to accept their "divine" status.

In the rest of this short essay I want to concentrate on the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham has its origin in an Egyptian manuscript that Mormon prophet and first Church President Joseph Smith purchased from Michael Chandler, the proprietor of a traveling mummy show that passed through Kirtland, Ohio, one of the earliest Mormon communities, in July of 1835. In November Smith began "...translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients". You can, by the way, buy Smith's Egyptian alphabet and grammar from the Tanners, those famous ex-Mormons turned evangelical who believe their calling is to convert Mormons from "false" pseudo-Christianity to "true" evangelical Christianity (

With the help of this alphabet and grammar Smith was able to "translate" what he called the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham ( tells the tale of the life of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and his sojourns throughout the lands of Canaan, the land promised by God to Abraham and his progeny, and Egypt. Chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Abraham tell the story of Abraham’s early life and his fight against the idolatry in both his family and in society at large. It recounts how pagan priests tried to sacrifice Abraham and how an angel came to his rescue. Chapter 2 contains information about God’s covenant with Abraham and how it would be fulfilled. Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the Book of Abraham, delineate the vision of the creation of the world and the creation of man that God gave to the Hebrew patriarch.

The Book of Abraham that Smith "translated" is more than simply a text. It also contains three important pictorial facsimiles. According to Smith the first pictorial "translation" depicts the attempt by the idolatrous priest of Elkenah to sacrifice patriarch Abraham while he is tied to an altar ( Pictorial translation 2 contains representations of celestial objects including the heavens and earth, 15 other planets or stars, (including Kolob; Kolob would become Kobol in Mormon Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica), the sun and moon, the number 1000, and God's revelation of the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood ( Pictorial translation 3 portrays Abraham in the court of Pharaoh "reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy" ( All of these facsimiles are central to the rituals and symbols of the Mormon Temple ceremony as one of my Mormon friends and informants told me.

The Book of Abraham was first published in March and May of 1842 in the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons and was accepted as scriptural by the Utah Church in 1880. Believing Mormons, of course, have generally believed that Joseph Smith was given the gift of divine translation by God and that the "Book of Abraham" is literally true. The facsimiles of the Book of Abraham have become central to the Mormon Temple ceremonies, rituals and symbols at the heart of Mormon culture. Non-Mormon and Mormon critics, of course, have not generally accepted that the Book of Abraham has divine origins. Critics of the Book of Abraham have long pointed out the historical problems with the Book of Abraham. Critics have noted, particularly after the rediscovery of the "Book of Abraham" papyri in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1966 that Smith had made his translation from. These rediscovered manuscripts show that the documents Smith had translated the Book of Abraham from were actually common Egyptian funerary texts and that Smith's translation bore no relationship to the literal words of these funerary texts.

Defenders of the Mormon faith have responded to the rediscovery of the Book of Abraham manuscripts in a number of different ways over the years. Some have argued that Smith did not translate the documents. Instead, he interpreted the manuscripts through the medium of divine revelation in the same manner as he had "translated" the Bible earlier. Others have claimed that the Museum of Art papyri represent a corrupted version of a document originally written by Abraham and translated by Smith. Still others have argued that the are other messages and meanings embedded within the text of the funerary manuscripts. Still others have argued that the fragments found at the New York Museum of Art are only part of the complete original papyri and that it was the missing manuscripts that Smith translated (the proving something from nothing argument). And still others have argued that underlying the Egyptian funerary texts is a Hebrew document about the patriarch Abraham and this is the one Smith "translated".

As an outsider, a Gentile, who has listened to and explored, or once listened to and explored, the apologetic side of the Book of Abraham as an authentic document argument, there are, at least for me, several problems with the arguments of Mormon defenders of the Book of Abraham faith. The fundamental problem with them all is that all of them are, in the final analysis, apologetic and polemical. In the end almost all arguments of the believing defenders of the faith enunciated above show, have to take refuge in the god did it through divine revelation argument, "the limits of human understanding" argument ( Such an argument, of course, will not satisfy empirical critics like myself though it may satisfy the minds of some intellectually oriented believers. And this, of course, is the real purpose and function of the apologetic and polemical arguments.

It is, of course, typical of apologists and polemicists, including Mormon apologists and polemicists at FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, and FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, to avoid the give and take of real empirical debate (one example: and to sometimes resort to ad hominem rather than empirical arguments. If you don't believe me just listen to right wing political debates in contemporary America. It is common in much of this apologetics and polemics for statements to be made with little if any empirical evidence to back them up, with little if any debate over, response to, or dissection of contrary arguments, and for ad hominem arguments to be the far too common final resort of the apologetic and polemical mind. Of course, this is demagoguery, apologetic and polemical demagoguery, in its fundamental form and it is the dominant form of "argument" taking place in cyberspace, in the blogosphere, and on the Fox News Channel.

I do realise that not all apologists and polemicists are alike or equal. Once upon a time when I was a biblical studies major. In biblical studies classes we talked about the need for beginning analysis with exegesis, textual analysis, the study of texts and textual variants in their historical and archaeological contexts, then moving on to hermeneutics, the study of texts and their meanings, their sometimes changing textual meanings as some texts, like the Bible or Shakespeare float through new textual contexts, and finally moving on to homiletics, "preaching" about texts on the basis of a sound understanding of a text's exegesis and hermeneutics.

Polemicists and apologists do sometimes engage in this form of more careful and historically sensitive textual analysis but even at their best, in my opinion, these apologists and polemicists tend to engage in a weird sort of exegesis which mixes ancient contexts with modern ideology (in this instance religious belief) and engage in a hermeneutics that mixes time and space in a kind of Doctor Whoy sort of way. Don't get me wrong I love Doctor Who but I don't mistake it for sound academic and intellectual analysis. Even the "best" religious oriented apologetics and polemics, in other words, seem to me to engage in a rather a weird sort of ahistorical apologetics and polemics which, in its practise, creates a ahistorical hybrid monster that conflates exegesis, hermeneutics and homiletics and tells us more about ourselves today and the beliefs and hopes some have about the Book of Abraham, than about the historical texts of the past, in this case Egyptian funerary papyri.

Some questions and some responses to certain interpretations of the Book of Abraham...
Hmmm, this [the notion that Smith "translated" a Hebrew tale hovering within and beneath the Egyptian funerary texts from which the Book of Abraham was translated] sound like an episode of Dr. Who. So Smith was not "translating" an Egyptian funerary text, he was looking at an Egyptian document but was really seeing a "Semitic" document that inhabited the same time/space as the funerary text? was this "Semitic" document brought into Smith's consciousness by the Egyptian text? stimulated by it? Was this "Semitic" document written by a Bedouin despite the fact that historically speaking, writing and Bedouins generally aren't spoken of in the same breath?

Archaeological question: what Bedouin group has bequeathed to the world a body of astrological speculation? So is the argument here that Abraham the Bedouin learned to write in Egypt? the Ancient Near East? Ur of the Chaldees? Any evidence of Bedouin picking up writing skills in the Ancient world and using this to engage, in writing, in cosmological speculation?

Several questions remain beyond the issue of Bedouins and writing? Texts, of course, as we know can be orally transmitted. Examples; the Iliad, Odyssey, likely parts of the Torah (Jacob Saga, the Joseph Saga). What evidence exists, beyond the Biblical text, that Hebrews were ever in Egypt? Is there evidence for Hebregyptian in the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms? Is there any evidence for an Egyptian and Hebraic text existing in the same time/space beyond this controversial one?

It seems clear that so much of the Torah and Ketuvim were indeed influenced, deeply influenced, by the larger and much stronger (imperialistic, colonial) Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures around them. Examples: Wisdom literature, the second creation story. But is there anywhere in the Middle East evidence for a text in one language (Egyptian) underlain by another entirely different one (Hebregyptian)?

Yes, the Tanakh has been much influenced by its broader Mediterranean contexts. The Mediterranean was clearly a region marked by economic, political, and cultural interactions. The question becomes when did those influences impact Israel, a state in which writing, as opposed to oral recitation, did not begin until the time of David and after. I agree interaction and, to use that academic fad term, hybridity, does not prove the "ancientness" of the Book of Abraham. It proves that Israel, a small and relatively powerless state, was influenced by cultures, more powerful cultures, in its Mediterranean environment.

All this [arguments that the Ancient Hebrews were impacted by more powerful cultures (Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia) in its broader cultural environment] is not unlike the cultural, economic, and political power of the West in the World today. Dallas was the number one TV programme in the world in the 1980s while Upstairs Downstairs was shown on, if memory serves, over 100 TV channels around the world. In an article by Katz and Liebes, by the way, those two scholars show how different ethnic groups in Israel, to use another trendy academic term, imbibed and used Dallas in different ways.

Speaking of the TV show Dallas, I once met a Algerian who matriculated at SMU because he liked the show Dallas. His image of Dallas, however, and the reality of Dallas he found when he got there caused him a bit of cognitive dissonance.

A general question...
Why do so many Mormon apologists and polemicists come from the legal profession?

The Dixiefornication and Texasification of America...

A spectre is haunting America, the spectre of Dixiefornication and Texasification.

In a cultural war that has been going on since before the Civil War the anti-federalist and states rights mantras dominant in the South, the same anti-federalist and states rights mantras that underlay Southern justifications for going to Civil War with the North over slavery, the religion of the lost cause, Southern opposition to Reconstruction, Southern institutionalisation of Jim Crow segregation, and Southern opposition to the dismantling of Jim Crow, are slowly but surely creeping across the American cultural and political landscape if in a kindler and gentler and more politically correct form and taking it over. This Dixiefornication and Texasification has resulted in the increase of anti-federal governmental rhetoric in the American West and the American Midwest as doublspeak right to work legislation that makes it almost impossible for workers to organise thanks to right to work laws, attacks on abortion, contraception and Planned Parenthood, the triumph of the neo-liberal corporate state with its wet dreams of dismantling the social insurance state built by American progressives and new dealers from the 1920s throught 1970s, and the increase of an even more parochial, xenophobic, and strident muscular nationalism than has been seen on this scale since the 19th century and early 20th century. Dixiefornication and Texasification is returning us to the laissez faire nineteenth century world of Ebenezer Scrooge and Montgomery Burns. It is returning us to the Bah Humbug state, a state where the rich get richer and the poor get blamed for being poor, where deregulations to protect Americans against the unbridled and dangerous greed of neo-liberal capitalists (if you don't believe this unbridled greed is dangerous study the Great Depression and the Depression of 2008, both of which were caused largely by capitalist hyperspeculation, big capitalist manipulations of the market, and a lack of regulation of the markets by the federal government, the only thing big enough to check and balance such insidious and often catastrophic and certainly not nationalist elite big business capitalist behaviour) increasingly go the way of the dinosaurs, and where neo-liberal capitalist driven inequalities that help create such poverty are blissfully ignored. Welcome to the Modern World. Texas Never.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Musings on the Death of Liberalism and the Triumph of the Corporate State

I recently had my Comparative History class read Chris Hedges's book The Death of the Liberal Class. I had not read it before, which is one of the reasons I had my class read it. I have wanted to read Death for sometime and assigning it to a class for reading and discussion seemed a good way to make myself read a book and to get class discussion going about what has happened in the US since the "Reagan Revolution".

Hedges nicely lays out the thesis of The Death of the Liberal Class in the first chapter of the book, “Resistance”. In that chapter Hedges argues that the liberal class, which, he claims, arose as a response to the decline of feudalism and church totalitarianism, has, over the last thirty years of neo-liberal dominance, betrayed its very reason for being. Once the defenders of the rule of law, the supremacy of supreme reason, universal moral values, individualism, and moral egalitarianism, the liberal class has, argues Hedges, become, since the Thatcher and Reagan "revolutions", complicit with the corporate state. The liberal class in good corporate state fashion, claims Hedges, has helped purge leftists, leftists who once kept it honest, from its midst and from American mainstream political and economic culture in general. In the process it has given up its once cherished belief in human progress, and it has allowed the virulent right to capture populist rage, legitimate populist rage, against the government and against Wall Street. This failure of the liberal class has, argues Hedges, left the poor that the liberal class once sought to protect and whose vulnerable position it once sought to meliorate through social insurance and regulatory schemes, particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalist oligarchic boom and bust society.

With the triumph of the corporate state a contradiction has reared its ugly head in Corporate State America, claims Hedges. Liberals, claims Hedges, are necessary to maintain several cherished liberal myths including the belief that everyone in America has an equal opportunity to become a millionaire or at least have a comfortable middle class life, and the myth that constitutional reforms that benefit the disenfranchised are possible through legal channels. After its successful purge of the American left by the corporate state, a purge founded on fears generated by the corporate state about communism, anarchism, and socialism, however, the corporate state, which always requires an enemy, has now turned its ire on its once liberal ally in the war against the left, and made it, the new internal enemy, an internal enemy, they claim, that is undermining the American way of life.

By turning liberals into the enemy at home, however, the corporate state has lost the buffer that liberals once provided, thanks to its promises of the possibility of reform and progress, between it and those who haven't by and large benefited from the joys of corporate America. And now that those liberal myths, liberal myths that were once partially true, that myth that every American can live the American dream and that the legal system can protect us from the worst aspects of corporate oligarchy, have been shattered, many populists, many disenfranchised populists, perhaps even without realizing it consciously, are angry at liberalism for failing them.

All of this has left liberals in a precarious position. Today all emasculated liberals can do is to go along with the main political arm of the corporate state, the Republican Party, and support things like deregulation, including deregulation of the banks, the elimination of firewalls between investment banks and commercial banks, acts that let loose casino capitalist speculators, welfare "reform", anti-union and anti-working class free trade agreements which have destroyed American manufacturing, the American working class, and American unions. And all the while, claims Hedges, they still haven’t fully recognised the obvious, that in the wake of the Reagan Revolution corporate elites fully control America ever more firmly, corporate elites who aren’t interested in the common good but only in their own financial gain, and that reforming this American corporate state is almost impossible. What we are left with, claims Hedges, using a term first used by political observer Sheldon Wolin, is “inverted totalitarianism”.

Hedges argues that liberal complicity with the constantly at war corporate state has corrupted once liberal churches, colleges and universities, artists, the media, and labour leaders all of whom have been allowed, by corporate oligarchs and their political minions, to play roles in the corporate state if they don’t play the class war card (think here about the criticism of Obama by Republicans for fanning the flames of class war recently). All of these once liberal institutions now speak the language of corporate accountability, of individualism and self-realisation, of getting ahead, and of the need for war, rather than the language of justice for the disenfranchised. Universities and colleges have become a breeding ground for systems managers for the political and economic bureaucracies of the corporate state. Professors gaze into texts as though they were crystal balls, praise multiculturalism, which is not a threat to the corporate elites, and write essays and tomes in languages that only they can understand rather than damn the inequality and injustice around them. Artists ever more detached from the wider world in which they live, have traded in social realism and a call for justice for abstraction and detachment from social issues.

After reading Hedges's The Death of the Liberal Class I have been thinking a lot about the liberal class and, in particular, about the academic liberal class. Some of the most incisive analyses of bourgeois academics and intellectuals, at least for me, are contained in two films made by Luis Bunuel, The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I have always found the characterisation of bourgeois dinner parties, bourgeois dinner parties as the opiates of the wanna be aristocratic less than masses (academic dinner parties have a bit more trendy intellectual and academic discussion), in both films to be a fairly accurate representation of this ritual.

I have to admit, nihilist that I am quickly becoming, that I am somewhat amused and bemused by academia, or at least parts of academia--I consider myself more of an intellectual who has been fortunate to be able to teach part time in the ivy halls (though perhaps, after writing this, not for much longer). I am amused and bemused by the apparent fact that some academics seem to think that by writing about (an imagined) ageism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, essays read by perhaps 200 people, they can change the world into an (equally imagined) utopia.

While "left leaning" academics have been navel gazing the right has, as Hedges notes, out manoeuvered them capturing, like pied pipers, the public discourse and the rhetorical contours of governmental policy (the government as evil rhetoric) and has used these as springboards to political power. As I write the corporate right is now living out its wet dream of cutting government, cutting education (ah, good old American anti-intellectualism or anti-higher education), and savaging the few unions that remain somewhat visible and viable in America today. Amidst the neo-liberal carnage academics, leftists, and social insurance liberals stand like deers before headlights. Occupy Wall Street is (was?) perhaps the only realistic attempt by those on the left to assault and escape this prison house of neo-liberal public rhetoric. It will be interesting to see whether OWS has provided the key by which liberalism can escape the gilded neo-liberal cage they have been imprisoned within and by which the American left can be reborn on a broader and less sectarian scale. At the moment it looks such a prospect doesn't have a proverbial snow balls chance in hell since, at least according to several polls more people fear big government than big corporate business and more people think the US is more a country of haves than of have nots. Apparently many Americans tune out any talk about inequality in America because they believe it to be inherently liberal or inherently socialist in nature. What can I say, ideological illusions generally trump reality.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hollywood Works Its Mythic Magic on Lisbeth?

In a recent review of David Fincher's Hollywood version of Stig Larrson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the popular culture online magazine PopMatters ( critic Bill Gibron claims that Fincher's version is more bracing and brutal and more "ick[y]" (the last two not surprising given the director and his filmographic past) than the 2009 Swedish original directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Gibron goes on to claim that Fincher turns Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, into someone "literally not of this earth", into an "extraterrestrial "Alien".

I have to say, though I say this with some trepidation since commenting on something one has not seen--and I haven't seen Fincher's take on The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo--is problematic and potentially dangerous, that I am really not particularly interested in seeing Fincher's version of Stig Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Fincher's version of Lisbeth Salander. I saw the original Swedish version with its superb performances by Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist as Lisbeth and Mikael and have no interest in seeing yet another Hollywood remake of a great "foreign" film.

Turning fact into "myth", reality into Hollywood unreality, if that is what is going on in Fincher's treatment of Larsson's work as Gibron claims, is exactly what one shouldn't do to Lisbeth since one of Larsson's motives in writing his trilogy was to foreground the real Sweden and its fascist past, which included eugenics, and its fascist present--the xenophobia Larsson the journalist explored and exposes in his book Extremhögern (Extreme Right)--with the Social Democratic Sweden and the broader world's mythic and utopian image of happy and neutral contemporary Sweden. In exploring Sweden's fascist past and somewhat fascist present, by the way, Larsson shares much with Swedish novelist Henning Mankell and Larsson's Mikael Blomkvist shares a bit with Mankell's Kurt Wallander. I guess we should be thankful for the small miracle that Fincher didn't transplant Lisbeth and Mikael from Sweden to say Venice, California thereby eliding any reference to Larsson's broader contexts in the process.

One thing that has really struck me as I have thought about the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Hollywood's promotion of the film. In the PopMatters review of Fincher's film and at the top of this blog one can see one of the promos for the film. The promotion poster shows a naked above the waist Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) standing in front of what appears to be a fully clothed Mikael (Daniel Craig). Mikael has his arm around Lisbeth just above her naked and pierced breasts. So in Hollywood does there always have to be a man behind the woman shielding and protecting her?. It should not be surprising that Hollywood, in addition to turning fact into mythic fiction, appears also to be playing up the female sexual angle, Rooney Mara's naked body (Lisbeth the bisexual for the male gaze?). Given that Fincher usually works in the slasher/serial killer subgenre, making films that appeal more to male demographic than the female just like heavy metal music the use of female sexuality to promote Fincher's latest film should not, I suppose, be surprising. This is somewhat ironic since the book and the 2009 Swedish adaptation rightly, in my mind, plays down sex, sexy, and romance and portrays rape in all its ugly power and brutal reality. But hey this is Hollywood and Fincher is supposedly one of Hollywood's "literate" success stories.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Is Small Really Always Better When It Comes to Workers???

I have long thought that there is a fundamental problem with those who romantise local businesses in the US. There is, of course, a widespread belief amongst some smaller is better apologists and polemicists that local and small businesses, in and of themselves, are inherently good and treat their workers fairly and justly while big businesses are, in and of themselves, inherently bad and treat their workers badly. But is that really the case?

What I'd love to see from these small is better apologists and polemicists is some real statistics about how real small and big businesses actually treat their employees. What percentage of local small businesses pay their employees a living wage? What percentage provide reasonably priced benefits to their workers? What percentage limit their owners or CEO's salary a reasonable percentage of entry workers wages?

Once upon a time I worked for a "local" business. The wages I received were not even close to a living wage. The benefits available to me, specifically the health benefits offered at this local small business, were unaffordable on my salary. The CEO's wages compared to mine? Not sure but I have my suspicions.

Compare this to national chains. In the early 2000s Half Price Books, a national used and remaindered book chain store, started their employees above the minimum wage and above the wages of the local bookstore I worked for, gave their employees benefits at no and later at low cost, and offered their employees profit sharing. The Portland used bookstore Powell's, which has gone national thanks to its website, is unionised. The national supermarket Whole Foods limits their CEO's wages to 18 times the wages of their average worker. Ben and Jerry's, the national ice cream firm, used to limit CEO to employee pay to a five to one ratio but dropped this in 2000 when they became part of the international conglomerate Unilever.

There are of course anomalies to what I am arguing here. But they are anomalies that seem to me to prove the rule. Albany, New York's independent bookstore provides employees with reasonably priced benefits, profit sharing, bonuses, and time and a half on Sunday.

In the end the issue for me is not some abstract idea about the inherent beauty of the local and the small versus the inherent ugliness of the international or national. It is how do businesses small or big, local or national, treat their workers? And the fact is that by and large local small businesses don't treat their workers any better than national businesses do and in many cases they treat them worse. This fact inevitably raises the question of why should I keep Austin weird and why should I buy locally if the local and small treat their workers as bad if not worse than big national and international corporations?

Musings on Saint Christopher...

Christopher Hitchens, the noted polemicist and apologist died of pneumonia after a long struggle with cancer on the 15th of December 2011. The rush to turn him into a kind of secular saint by the media, old and new, is moving at typical contemporary advertising, MTV, and post Jaws and Star Wars action adventure Hollywood speed.

There were things I admired about Hitchens, his intelligence and public speaking and debating skills amongst them. I admired Hitchens criticism of Israel and his criticism of anti-Semities. As an apologist and polemicist Hitchens stands kilometres above demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, and others of that ilk. But there are things about Saint Christopher that trouble me. Hitchens defence of the war in Iraq was pathetic. Afghanistan, I can understand, but Iraq? Hitchens tendency to make far too great a use of English public school boy ad hominems (shades of a BYU political scientist) is disturbing. Hitchens love of the aristocratic lifestyle even while masquerading as a socialist makes one wonder whether Hitchens was more of an intellectual chameleon or a zelig or even a hedonist than someone committed to social justice. Hitchens sometimes seemed to have been more interested in hobnobbing with Britain's and America's aristocratic and intellectual elite and with his favourite brand of whiskey than almost anything else. Hitchens self confidence seemed sometimes to border on narcissism, another characteristic of English public schoolboy and aristocratic culture perhaps.

Hitchens was, in may ways, the embodiment of the myth and even the reality of English public school culture. He even seems to have modeled and patterned himself, zelig like, after another product of English public school culture, that old Etonian, public intellectual, and iconoclast George Orwell. But Hitchens never, as far as I know, took on all of Orwell's traits. Unlike Orwell, Hitchens never named names to the intelligence apparatus of the British and American state. He just, like Orwell, called his opponents names (including "homosexual" in Orwell's case). But unlike Orwell, again as far as I know, Hitchens never fully committed to a more just and less exploitative society.

So before we turn Hitchens into a secular intellectual saint lets look at Hitchens the man in all his glory, inglory, and vain glory. Celebrate the real man not the manufactured saintly illusion being purveyed by friends and media, who tend to, in the first flush after death, turn a flesh and bone human being into an inhuman non flesh and bone saint. I think even Hitchens himself would have, or should have, wanted this given his take on religion and saints like Mother Teresa. But perhaps I am wrong.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt Toots...

So Newt Gingrich thinks Palestinians are an invented group? Hmm, well yes but all peoples, including Americans and !Kung Bushmen, are invented peoples. Why? Because there is only one human race on the planet. Conclusion: All tribes, ethnicities, nations...are "invented".

I think the problem with Newt is that he fancies himself a historian while he is really, like most politicians, a demagogue, a demagogue, in Gingrich's case, of the worst sort. Clearly, as I mentioned, all peoples and cultures are invented unless, presumably, like Newt, you believe in American exceptionalism, unless you believe, in other words, that the US is in some way, shape, or form, god's chosen people who he (Newt's god is always masculine) has picked to be a light to a dark world (more Newt demagoguery or does he really believe this?). So the question is why Gingrich is singling out the Palestinians and why is he hypergeneralising about them by calling them all terrorists? Pandering for Jewish votes? Gingrich is after all running for president and the myth of a vacant Palestine has become an article of faith for many in Israel and in the West. Does Newt really believe his very selective take on identity?

What is ironic in all of this, and being a Niebuhrian I love ironies, is the fact that Gingrich has a PhD in history from Tulane and claims to be a historian. He is actually, however, a victim of amnesia when it comes to the history he claims to know. The blood and soil nationalism of which Gingrich hints does not derive from some god figure, the god gave us this land for time and eternity ideology. It is actually the product of Europe, the manufactured product of Europe. Blood and soil nationalism is a creation of a particular time and place, specifically Europe after the French Revolution. And ironically, given what happened just before and during World War II, this European nationalism created not only French, German, and Italian nationalisms but also Zionism, Jewish nationalism, in its secular and eventually religious forms, the nationalism that would build Israel in part by cleansing the land of Palestinians.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Musings on Watching the New Who

I have been watching the new Who (BBC) recently thanks to my recent purchase of the British Doctor Who series one through four box set. As someone who grew up watching and loving the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh doctors (Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy) in the 1970s and 1980s--I wasn't old enough to watch the series when it debuted in November of 1963 with William Hartnell as the Doctor--I had some trepidation about watching the new series when it was revived in 2005. As a result I started watching it only recently.

My reaction? Since I have only watched series one and series two and just finished the two part Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (3:4 and 3:5) episode at this point I need to point out that my comments must remain tentative but here I go anyway. There are, as some critics have noted, differences between the new Who and the old. Yes the new Who is more "American" than the old. Its pace is much faster with lots of jump cuts and makes extensive use of CGI. Yes the new Who clearly has higher ups at the Beeb on its side. Classic Who, as many critics have noted, wasn't much loved by the powers that be at the "staid", at the time, old BBC. It thus has a higher budget and superior sets and much better special effects than the old. And yes, the new Who is a bit coy about its relation to the old. The drawings and photographs of the Doctor in the past in the first episode of the series, Rose (1:1), are images solely of the ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), something that bothered an old Who viewer like me who wanted the new Who to do a shout out to the old.

On the other hand there are some continuities between new Who and old. The new Who like the old has a bit of the pedagogic in it. The new Who like the old is aimed at the young demographic but can also be enjoyed by the older crowd like me. The sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS (if with a somewhat different look), the Doctor's human companions, the most "beloved" of the Doctor's enemies, the Daleks, and even K-9 and the most beloved Doctor companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) are back. The Doctor (Eccleston and David Tenant) remains a bit arrogant, a bit eccentric, a bit wide-eyed, and a bit self-involved at times even if he is much more emotionally scarred (and somewhat scary as a result) in the new series thanks, in large part, to the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. The new Doctors also seem much more emotionally attached (almost romantically) to his companions, particularly Rose (Billie Piper) than the old Doctors.

So what is my reaction to the new Who's that I have watched so far? I liked series one and two of the new Who quite a bit. Series three, however, has seemed to me to quickly descend into repetition. Perhaps it is because the show really misses Rose, who was separated from the Doctor in the outstanding series two finale Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2:12 and 2:13) ending up in an alternative dimension with her alternative father, her mother, and her sometime boyfriend Mickey. The relationship between the Doctor (David Tenant) and Rose's companion successor, Martha (Freema Agyeman), just doesn't seem to me to click at least at this point in my viewing in the same way that the Doctor's and Rose's relationship did on so many levels including the emotional one (Dr. Who channeling Buffy?; Buffy was, as Who revival creator Russell T. Davies has said, one of the templates for the new Who). Oh well, I will keep watching to see if it rises again to the levels it reached in series one and two but it is hard for me not to be somewhat disappointed in the revival of Doctor Who at this point. C'est la vie.

So I finally finished series three of Doctor Who and I have to say that my claims about the demise of Doctor Who were a bit premature. The last six episodes of series three were very good to excellent and "Blink" (3:10), written by Stephen Moffat, was, like Moffat's series two episode "The Girl in the Fireplace" (2:4), and Moffat's series one episode "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (1:9 and 1:10), brilliant, some of the best television I have ever seen.

What was so interesting about series three is that Doctor Who is really starting to look a lot like Buffy. Something that Buffy and its creator and writers did so well, particularly in seasons two through seven, was to lay down clues in earlier episodes that would culminate in later episodes and in particular in season finales. Series three of Doctor Who uses the same strategies and it is in the three part series three finale that we finally get to see what all those clues that were being laid down through out the course of series three were leading to, the resurrection of the Doctor's moriarty, The Master.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

This Ain't Your Daddies Corporation: Musings on Power in the Occupy Movements

The problem with writing and talking about Occupy is that it is so different from what most Americans are used to. As I understand it Occupy movements are not structured in the way the US government, IBM, GE, Microsoft, the Methodist Church, the Mormon Church, the New York Times, or CBS are. All of those institutions are hierarchical bureaucracies. Occupy, on the other hand, drawing on radical democratic forms of the past, are democratic and leaderless, at least officially.

Occupy, in Weberian terms, is a charismatic movement like Quakerism where charisma was conceptualised as spread throughout the entire group Occupy is highly democratic and decision making works within it like it works in a Quaker silent meeting for business. Decision making is by consensus and decision making is local.

Since Occupy doesn't work, like economic, political, and cultural bureaucracies, from the top down, from the leader down, Occupy doesn't centre around a cult of hierarchical celebrity personality. occupy consciously avoid cults of celebrity personality with leaders celebrated by the media and the masses.

For this reason the media, as was the case with the early SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in the 1960s which was, like Occupy, consensus oriented and non-hierarchical, can't get their head around this movement. They can't imagine a world without bureaucracies, hierarchies, celebritised leaders. They can't understand why some leader of the movement cannot issue a position paper. They simply can't comprehend how positions in real democratic movements originate out of consensus rather than decision making by celebrity leaders.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Our Masters Voices...Musings on Doublespeak in Corporate America

Living in Corporate America, which, George Calin once said, "was bought and sold and paid for years ago", is a trip. Here in the land of doublespeak some people can be beaten and pepper sprayed simply for "camping" in parks while those who camp and wait for Black Friday deals, entertainment tickets, or sports tickets, often on public sidewalks, are a media item as Naomi Wolf says in her recent article. And most citizens, or should I say most consumers since that is what corporate America sees us as, don't even see or hear the corporate lies right in front of them.

Naomi Wolf in her Guardian piece lists several things Occupy has called for. "...No 1: get the money out of politics". Occupy protestors urge this reform as a response to the Citizens United court ruling "which allowed boundless sums of [corporate] monies to enter the campaign process". Number 2 "reform...the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation." In particular Occupy calls for the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, "the Depression-era law, eliminated during the Clinton administration, "that separates investment banks from commercial banks". "This law", claims Occupy, "would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create...derivatives out of thin air and wipe out the commercial and savings bank" sector. Number 3 Occupy pass "laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors”. Number 4, one Wolf doesn't discuss, to move your monies from too big to fail banks like CitiBank and Bank of America, banks involved in creating derivative and real estate bubbles out of thin air and banks which continue to pay their investment labour force millions in bonuses, to local credit unions and community banks. Clearly, as Wolf notes and as anyone with eyes can see, Occupy has a political programme.

So why is it that the talking heads on TV, on the radio, and in the blogosphere keep claiming that Occupy has no "plan" when Occupy, as Wolf notes again and again, clearly has several plans to reform Washington? So why this charade? Could it be that corporate America and its political minions, particularly on the right, and its demagogues are sticking to a message and keep promoting it even in the face of empirical data to the contrary? Could it be that the fiction that Occupy has no plan is exactly what America's elites want to manipulate the "silent majority" into believing? Is this fiction becoming reality just another example of postmodernist manipulation in the service of corporate control and power? And why are the media not challenging the falsehoods being peddled and parroted by the the handmaidens of Corporate America? Is it because media news readers and news men and women simply aren't aware of this data? If so why not? Or is it because the media are simply parroting the corporate party line manufactured by the public relations courtiers of the corporate class in a regimented way that was not even possible in the Stalin era USSR? After all Big Media are controlled by and large by corporations and America's public broadcaster, PBS, has to be careful that it doesn't bite the hand that feeds it too hard because the hand that feeds sometimes bites back as PBS occasionally finds out? Is this the way the corporate media world goes round? And about that additional significant question: why are the masses swallowing this elite generated crap as though it was a chocolate truffle? Because postmodernist demagoguery in the service of economic and political elites creates reality even if that reality is patently false?

I am sure that Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist who once claimed that reality doesn't matter, that what really matters is what you can convince people is true, is enjoying all this doublespeak from the corporate class and its media acolytes about the Occupy movement and the fact that so many Americans seem to be eating it up wherever he is. After all before he died he trained a number of Corporate American technocratic spin doctors in the fine arts of demagoguery and reality manipulation including George W. Bush and Karl Rove.

One blogger questioned Wolf's speculation that the Department of Homeland Security may have helped coordinate the military operations against Occupy movements in several American cities ( However I find it hard to escape the thesis that there was coordination between the police departments who ran Occupy out of Seattle, Portland, Oakland, the City. If not, why did they occur at around same time? Winter coming? They all realised that tents and tenters were hazardous to human health simultaneously? Jean Quan, the "activist" mayor of Oakland has, in fact, admitted that the offensive against Occupy was coordinated by "proper" authorities in eighteen cities (,, ).

This raises the question of why did the militarised "forces of order" brutally push Occupy out of public and private spaces in similar ways? Coincidence? Accident? While Wolf's thesis is tentative and based on "coincidences" like those above it is an interesting thesis particularly given what we know about how the government worked in the past. Remember the centralised campaigns against dissidents in the 60s and 70s? Recall that the CIA and FBI helped quash dissidents? during the 60's and 70's?

Naomi Wolf, The Shocking Truth About the Crackdown on Occupy, 25 November 2011,

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thimble Full of Snarky Ron...

Forgive me but as you will see I am in a really snarky mood today. It happens sometimes, perhaps too often...

*In response to a Globe and Mail question on facebook (23 November 2011) as to whether Occupy Toronto should have been evicted from a "public" park Snarky Ron wrote: Oh god yes. Nothing is more dangerous than tents in parks in the morning, evening, or afternoon. It is more dangerous than the avian flu, mustard gas, anthrax, and sexually transmitted diseases. We must protect our law abiding citizens from such health hazards.

And of course while a wonderful democracy like Canada allows public displays of political and economic non-affection we simply can't allow people in tents to threaten our national bodily fluids just like fluoridation once did.

Bravo, virtuous police men and women of Toronto for protecting us from such menaces. But could you use a bit more pepper spray and beat a few more heads the next time? I mean we must keep up unhumanitarian appearances and we can't look wussier than our American cousins. And remember where they lead we will follow.

Ah, country love. Do I hear a Captain and Tennille song coming? Everybody sing.

By the way, can we evict these mother nature loving granola eating and starbucks slurping hippie types from Jasper and Banff too? I mean who do they think owns this country? Citizens? And what do they think parks are for? Camping?

*The muse hit Snarky Ron again about this subject and he wrote,
Obligations of class, culture, and civilisation mandate that I ask what is happening to this country. Who is this rabble that thinks it can occupy and set up tents in our parks? Who do they think parks are for? The rabble? Certainly not. Our parks are, or should be for, proper Canadians. For proper Canadians to stroll in. For proper Canadians to acknowledge with that civilised tip of the head to other proper Canadians of an equal social station that we are indeed civilised. That this long-haired and ill-washed rabble thinks they can take over these parks to protest against the economic system God and nature put in place for time and eternity is what happens when a civilisation has fallen into a state of decay and decline. We need to return, fellow proper Canadians, to those days when kings were kings and H.R.H. Victoria ruled the waves and she and Prince Albert modeled for us how proper English gentlewomen and gentlemen should behave even in the dominions.

Ah the joys of mythic and simple minded nostalgia...

*And it hit him again thanks to Ken Harper comment: "Of course they [the Occupy Toronto protestors camping in a St. James Park] should be evicted. They are encroaching on public park space and their point is ridiculous at best. They'd be better off to pool their resources and hire a communications consultant." Snarky Ron replied with, ah yes indeed mr. harper all proper Canadians should behave like good little economic and political bureaucrats since god and nature has indeed ordained that the PROPER Canadian way is his and nature's way and the only way. When will citizens learn that all proper Canadians should defer all of their decisions to those elect economic and political elites god and nature in their infinite wisdom have put in place like the stars in the heavens.

*Upon learning that Fox's Bill O'Reilly had recently, but not surprisingly, defended the actions of the University of California, Davis police who pepper sprayed non-violent student protestors, and I quote "I don’t think we have the right to Monday-morning quarterback the police. Particularly at a place like U.C. Davis, which is, you know, a fairly liberal campus, and they’re not running around. They camp to the point where … the Chancellor said “Look, you gotta get them out of there. We can’t operate a college like this”--Snarky Ron said, Casablanca Moment 5,987,897,775: I'm shocked, shocked, that Bill O'Reilly and Fox news would defend police brutality in the US. I didn't realise the F in Fox stood for fascism and fabrication. Does anyone know whether the knee jerk ideologically correct demagogues at Fox are bashing the attempts by the police to restore order in Cairo? God don't you just love the smell of dayglo orange doublespeak in the morning?

*Learning that some 40 plus Hoosiers are suing the country folk band Sugarland after the collapse of a stage at the Indiana State Fair in August of 2011, a collapse that killed several Hoosiers and Hoosierettes, Snarky Ron wrote, hmm, I would think that Hoosiers would sue god instead. But hey, you can't potentially roll in the dough if you sue god can you? This suit leaves Snarky Ron wondering, why Hoosiers, well known for their love of small government and promoters of good old boy Southern states rights, aren't suing the state of Indiana? Does it not own the State Fair Grounds in Indianapolis? Or has it rented out the State Fair to Australians who raise the entrance fees significantly from what they had been when the state ran?

*Learning that David Cameron, the prime minister of Great Britain, wanted parents to take their children to work during public sector strikes in the UK, Snarky Ron wrote: Question, can the western world get any more looney??? Answer: yes. Cameron now wants children to help break strikes. Got to teach those younguns about the joys of casino capitalism and its distaste for, eww, dare I say it, worker organisations early on.

Of course, we also have to teach the young that workers acting to protect pensions are acting irresponsibly while those political and economic elites who spend trillions of taxpayers dollars and pounds on wars that kill civilian workers, leave countries crippled and destroyed, and enrich the killing "privately owned" industries of the western world act in totally responsible ways. Yeah right.

See we don't live in a surreal world turned upside down.

*In a post on a friend of mine's Facebook page Linda Gee, speaking of Republican plans to force everyone in the state of Wisconsin to have a photo ID with them when they vote said, "Why don't they simply require a Republican voter registration card? You can keep it in your pocket next to your gun. (Of course your gun doesn't need to be hidden in your pocket.)" I responded with this: Hey Linda they can also stick it next to their Obamacare Death Panel card. I am hoping that the death panel cards will have a image of a Dalek on them. Card technologists can, I am sure, develop a chip which can be embedded within the credit card like Death Panel card which, when pressed in just the right place, proclaims, in Dalekese, "exterminate...exterminate...exterminate". And hey perhaps the Republicans, when they regain control of corporate imperial America, can figure out a Death Panel card that when pressed will automatically exterminate liberals. I know our government will have to pay that evil socialist BBC significant sums of money to use the Dalek image but hey wouldn't it be cool?

*On reading about a woman in who pepper sprayed her competition at a Los Angeles area WalMart during the annual fun for consumer goods on Black Friday (25 November 2011),, Snarky Ron wrote, hey if the cops can do it even to nonviolent protestors why can't we use it on "competitors" on one of the most important days of America's civil religious calendar in order to get those much sought after and sacred consumer goods? I mean if the the divine corporation didn't want us to fight over consumer goods why would they give us Black Friday and pepper spray anyway?

*On reading a post about the joys of Blu Ray Snarky Ron wrote: Some time ago Dave Kehr wrote a piece on the DVD and Blu Ray formats which appeared in the NY Times. He raised, I thought, several valid questions about the supposed superiority of Blu Ray to the DVD.

Personally, I am not that taken with Blu-Ray yet. I don't think that newer technologies (digital, cd) are better than earlier technologies (film, vinyl). In fact I think the old way of blowing up cars done in the era before CGI, the era when they blew up real cars, is more "realistic" than CGI big bang car explosions. Moreover, I am skeptical of industries which sometimes seem to pimp "newer and better" remasters/masters/restorations/technologies to sell you the same stuff you already bought. Ah, modern consumer capitalism.

As to the quality of Blu Ray transfers, I have read a goodly number of reviews of poor quality Blu-Ray transfers particularly from corporations like MGM, Universal recently. These companies, after all, are the same corporations that produce very poor quality DVD transfers and I wouldn't expect anything more than mediocrity from them.

Criterion and MoC, clearly, don't fall into this category. Those companies still have a sense that quality matters and that a not every consumer is an opiated semi-automaton that will buy anything regardless of the quality because they have to have it.

Have you seen some of these DVD sets that corporations release? Sets where DVDs are stuck into cardboard slats and ruined in the process. "Consumers" still buy this crap and corporations take this as votes of consumer confidence. And that is exactly what they want. On that note, happy Black Friday (I wrote this on 25 November 2011).

By the way, I find it interesting that so many reviews rarely talk about the packaging or even the quality of DVD or Blu-Ray packages and transfers. They tend to concentrate exclusively on the film or TV programme assuming, I guess, that nothing else matters. This a rather weird kind of fetishisation that occurs far too often in a consumer society.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

PBS Does Woody: Musings on Woody Allen: A Documentary

I spent part of Sunday and Monday watching the four hour two part Woody Allen: A Documentary on PBS. I enjoyed it a lot. It certainly didn't, as more and more PBS documentaries are doing these days, whitewash its subject. And I liked that.

When I first went to college way back in the 1970s I usually made it a point to see all of Woody's films. I saw the wonderful mockumentary Take the Money and Run, the satirically hilarious Bananas, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Sleeper, and Love and Death. Like so many others I recall being disappointed when Woody seemed to make the transition from comedy films to serious films in Interiors and Stardust Memories. It is been a long time since I have seen either so my memory of both is rather hazy but I think I was among those who saw both films as retreads of Bergman and Fellini in American guise. I recall loving Annie Hall and Manhattan (a film that takes on new meaning, perhaps, in the wake of later events in Woody's life), both of which I thought nicely mixed Woody's comedic and serious sides.

I haven't seen many of Woody's films since Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy, a film I loved. I saw Sweet Lowdown and thought it was good though it didn't move me. I saw Manhattan Murder Mystery but again it didn't move me. I did like the Welles Lady of Shanghai redo at the end of the film, however. I have many of his later films thanks to the $3 dollar bin at Big Lots, but haven't seen them yet. Perhaps this documentary will push me to watch them. I would like to see Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, and Midnight in Manhattan.
Like so many bio-documentaries these days Woody Allen: A Documentary was limitedly critical. There is no engagement in the documentary, for instance, with the claim of some critics, most notably Jonathan Rosenbaum, that Allen has become an auteur who is acceptable to Americans who simply refuse to watch foreign films for a variety of reasons, parochialism, a bizarre fear of subtitles, their slow pace, their intellectualism.

By the way, one of the things I, at least in part a New Yorker, found really interesting in Woody Allen: A Documentary was Martin Scorsese's quip that he didn't really understand Woody's Manhattan. It was not, he said, his New York City. I found Scorsese's statement interesting because Woody's cinema is more like my life, the life of the nerd, and Woody's Manhattan is more like my Manhattan. To turn the tables a bit I just don't quite understand Scorsese's violent mob New York City and am not sure I really want to. I have never really been into the mafia and gangster film and television genre beyond Once Upon a Time in America. But hey, that's me.

Musings on Due Process and Human Rights Violators

Hello Dear unreaders. I know that by calling for the immediate firing of the police officers who perpetrated a violent crime against a number of students protesting wealth inequality and the cuts in education that America's most recent economic bust has brought about nonviolently at the University of California, Davis will be met by cries of what about due process and what about union and management agreements and process from my critics.

Let me say straight off that I fully understand the concerns of my critics. I am a member of a proud union, United University Professors, and am normally in favour of due process in such matters. However, in the case of the cops at UC Davis who perpetrated this violent act against students and in the case of a professor of law at UC Berkeley who was complicit in the torture of human beings I am not sure I am in favour of union due process within, and this is an important distinction, academic institutions.

Academic institutions should be places where freedom of speech is cherished, within limits, and where freedom to protest is cherished, again within limits. I do, by the way realise that historically academic institutions have often cherished neither. Academic institutions, however, should not be places where violence perpetrated against students for no good reason is acceptable. And this is why I strongly believe that the cops who violated the human and civil, rights of students at Davis, and the chancellor, who set in motion the events which violated the human rights of Davis students, should immediately be fired and stripped of all benefits they have accrued at the university over the years. Violent violations of the human and civil rights of others by those who have an obligation to protect them (in loco parentis) are simply beyond, or should be, the pale of civilised behaviour. As a result their presence on college campuses should not be tolerated. By firing those who violate human rights, even if the dismissal is purely symbolic, the university is making a statement about the importance of protecting human rights. They are making a statement that the violation of human rights on college campuses is simply unacceptable.

While some may regard this as a violation of due process I don't. It is not that the cops and the chancellor have no other recourse to challenge their dismissals. They can go to the union if they are part of a union. They can go to the courts to challenge their dismissal. They can, in other words, get their due process.

I recognise that what I am calling for raises a number of issues. I recognise that protecting freedom of speech requires protecting the freedom of speech of those who verbally express the worst form of speech, the White Supremacist speech of Nazis, for instance. In the past I have actually argued that freedom of speech is a zero plus game and that as a community we must protect the speech even of racists because if we don't we could be on the slippery slope toward criminalising other less offensive forms of speech. 1984. However, and this in my mind is an important thing to realise, protecting freedom of speech doesn't require that we protect those racists whose speech and ideologies lead them to attack those who they categorise as subhumans. For me firing those who physically violate the human rights of others by pepper spraying them fall into the same category. They have engaged in violent acts and, in my mind, have abrogated, in the process, their right to due process at a university and to hold a job at an institution that should appreciate and vouchsafe freedom of speech and freedom of protest.

As I said, the perpetrators of such violence still have the option of going to the unions, if they are in a union and I recommend that all Americans join a union if they can. If the unions want to fight for the civil rights of the perpetrators of human rights violators, fine. I would just say, however, that fighting for the rights of violent "perps", to use a term the cops and the media love to throw around, may give and probably will give unions even more of a bad name than they already have. It is important to recognise, as much as I like and appreciate what unions do (and there are limits to what unions can do given inequalities of power as I well know), that unions, particularly police unions, sometimes do things to protect workers at the expense of justice and what is right. In the case of the cops at Davis who perpetrated violence on peaceful students, what is right is that they lose their jobs. In the case of John Yoo, official in the Department of Justice during the Bush pere years who gave his approval to the violations of the human rights of others and now law professor at Berkeley, what is right is that this massive human rights abuser should not be allowed to teach students about the law, the very law he so blatantly and violently violated.

Alternatively, perhaps we can make the punishment fit the crime. Perhaps we can let the students, with the agreement of the cop perps, pepper spray the cops in the same way the cops pepper sprayed them. And perhaps we can let those tortured on the basis of judgments given by a John Yoo, again with the perps permission, torture him in the same way that they were tortured thanks to him. But that would be eye for an eye justice, wouldn't it? And we can't have that in an increasingly dixiefornicated America, can we?.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Tragedy of the Republican Party: How the Republicans Went From Honest Abe to Cynical Newt

I have long thought that one of the most interesting historical transformations that has taken place since World War II was the transformation of the Republican Party from the once upon a time party of anti-slavery, free labour, and progressivism into a somewhat kinder and gentler, or at least more politically correct, version of the Dixiecrats, a transformation that is clearly on display for all to see in the Republican primary at the moment.

There were two major events which turned the Republican Party into the Dixiecrats. The first was Harry Truman's integration of the military after World War II. The second was Lyndon Baines Johnson's push for and eventual passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Both events led to challenges to the Democratic coalition that Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had built in the early and mid-twentieth century, a coalition which included Northern ethnic machine Democrats, reformist progressive Democrats, and the Dixiecrats.

The Dixiecrats were, of course, a Southern White Supremicist party that governed the American South where slavery by another name continued under the guise of Jim Crow laws which, to paraphrase singer Randy Newman, kept Blacks down by segregating Blacks and Whites and criminalising certain Black behaviours (the law in the service of racial apartheid). It was all justified by White Supremicist Dixiecrats on the basis of notions of White superiority and "states rights", and "law and order" rhetoric. Truman's integration of the military and LBJ's civil rights and voting rights legislation struck at the heart of the Dixiecrat apartheid system in the South and their ideological justifications for their racist system. Both played major roles in alienating the solid White Democratic South from the broader Democratic Party. Truman's decision to integrate the military led directly to Democratic Strom Thurmond challenging him for president in 1948, one of the reasons that most pundits didn't give Truman much of a chance to win the election, on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket. Truman surprised almost everyone when he defeated Dewey and Thurmond despite Thurmond taking 39 electoral votes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.

The revolt of the Dixiecrat South from the national Democratic Party did not end with Thurmond and Truman. Illinois liberal Democrat Adlai Stevenson recovered most of the South for Democrats in 1952 and 1956 winning the electoral votes of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1952 and the electoral votes of Arkansas, Mississippi, all but one of the electoral votes of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1956. In 1960 former Virginia governor and Virginia senator Harry S. Byrd, a segregationist who was never an official candidate for president, took the electoral votes of Mississippi and more than half of the electoral votes of Alabama. Democrat John F. Kennedy won all of the Southern states save Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. In the 1964 election Republican Barry Goldwater, in a foreshadowing of things to come, won the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

LBJ's attempt to put an end to Jim Crow likewise led to challenges within the Democratic Party from the Dixiecrats. This challenge and its role in bringing Johnson down has been masked, at least in popular understanding, by another factor which helped bring Johnson crashing down, the Vietnam War and the growing animosity toward that war in the United States. Vietnam and Johnson's Second Reconstruction both helped force Johnson, the man who helped revive the New Deal, out of the 1968 race for the Democratic nomination for president.

Johnson's mantle was picked up by his surrogate in the 1968 Democratic primaries, vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey was a politician who had long been a proponent of civil rights and who helped get Johnson's civil rights bill through the US Senate. After winning the Democratic nomination for president (one of his main rivals, the anti-war and anti-segregationist Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June) was, like Truman, challenged not only by a Republican candidate for president, in this instance Richard Milhous Nixon, but also by a Dixiecrat, Alabama governor George Wallace, the man probably most famous for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in order to turn back a Black man who had, thanks in part to the federal courts, been admitted to the university. Remember Brown v. Board of Education (1954) had made the separate but "equal" segregation of the US unconstitutional but also remember that the South simply ignored the rulings of the Supreme Court related to segregation. Wallace, of course, was the man who once promised that Jim Crow segregation in the South would exist now, tomorrow, and forever. In one of the closest elections in terms of popular vote in American history Nixon defeated Humphrey by 43.$5 to 42.7%. Wallace took 46 electoral votes all of them in the solid Democratic South.

Wallace's success in the South, one that paralleled Thurmond's, is not, at least in my mind, the most interesting aspect of the 1968 election. The most interesting aspect of the election is that except for Texas, which went for Humphrey, Nixon took the electoral votes of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina,and Florida as well as the lions share of North Carolina's electoral votes (12 of 13).

Nixon and Republican strategists took note of the problems the Democrats, now seen as the party of anti-war and civil rights, the latter a position the Republican Party, the party of the First Reconstruction, the party Southerners, in the wake of the Civil War, once regarded as the party of carpetbaggers, had once held. As a result Nixon and in particular Republican strategist Kevin Phillips developed a strategy that would lead to the Republican conquest of the South and, as a result, take them into national political dominance.

The strategy worked at least in part. Today the Republican Party, the party that had led the attempt to desegregate the South after the Civil War, the party that had once been the party of American blacks, the party that once had a significant progressive wing, has become the second coming of the Dixiecrats and has been transformed into a party of states rights, law and order, damn those liberal courts which keep legislating from the bench, and White evangelicals and today the party dominates political culture in the South just like the Dixiecrats once did from 1877 to the 1980s.

The former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, symbolises well this transformation. Gingrich was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1979 at the height of the Southern backlash against one of their own, the evangelical Democrat Jimmy Carter. Today there is a lot of Dixiecrat George Wallace, before his conversion, in Gingrich's recent statements that Occupy Wall Street protestors need to go home, take a bath, and get a job. Wallace had once said the same thing about hippies in the 1960s. Nixon, of course, took Wallace's sentiments and translated them into a more highbrow and dignified form, if that is the term for it, in his references to the "silent majority" and the "silent majorities" demand for "law and order" in the streets, code words, of course, for getting tough on hippies, anti-war activists, and Black power activists. Republicans in the wake of Nixon have become very good at uttering code words and phrases.

Gingrich and other Republicans continue to play the Nixon law and order card for the simple reason that it seems to work. Presumably Gingrich thinks that by following the Wallace and Nixon and Archie Bunker playbook by telling Occupy Wall Street and education activists to go home, take a bath, and get a job (does he know that some of them are in college?) that he thinks it can take him to the promised land of the Republican nomination.

This strategy may work. Gingrich, however, does have a potential problem on the horizon with his attempt to sell his right wing populist message to the Republican masses and this problem says much about who Republicans on the national level really are. Like Nixon Gingrich is, at least in part, a Washington insider. Gingrich for all his reform Washington rhetoric has benefited financially from his Washington insider status. For instance, Gingrich was apparently paid a "consulting fee" of $1.6 million dollars by one of the institutions that helped bring yet another bust to America in 2007 and 2008, and one of the institutions that right wingers in the Republican Party have long railed against, the home mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Additionally, Gingrich's dealings with the elite jeweler Tiffany's--he once owed them some $500,000--may raise questions among the Republican faithful about just how populist Gingrich is. On the other hand, Gingrich's cynical strategy may, as is often the case, work because the American voting public and Americans in general have often shown themselves to be more than willing swallowers again and again of the demagogic populist rhetoric that now dominates the Republicrats. I guess only time will tell whether Gingrich's strategy will work.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Culture of Law and Order: Musings on Police Brutality

The pepper spraying of students by police officers at the University of California, Davis police force recently ( has forced me reflect about how one human being can engage in such brutality against other, in this case non-violent, human beings.

The brutal actions of these cops can only be explained, in my opinion, by reference to a culture and a sentiment that is not dissimilar from that which we saw in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. When one "human being", and I use that term advisedly here, can pepper spray protesters in the way the cop did here this clearly means that the person engaging in such violence against protestors sees protestors not as human beings but as non-human in some way, shape, or form just as the Nazi's saw Jews as subhumans if not non-humans.

How did the cops justify their aggressive actions against those protesting education cuts and police brutality at the University of California, Davis? The students locking of arms apparently was interpreted by the cops as an act of aggression. Interpretations like this show what a surreal world we live, a surreal world where the locking of arms can be seen by elites and their minions as violent, where protestors can be regarded by the powers that be as health hazards (a demagogic strategy to get mass support via the tried and true method of doublespeaking?).

That so many Americans accept the justifications the authorities are offering for their actions, do nothing to stop such police brutality, or simply ignore the violence that is being perpetrated by the police is not unlike those many Germans in the 1930s and 1940s who knew about the genocide of Jews, leftists, and homosexuals but did nothing to stop it and even participated in it later claiming that they were just following orders suggests that they too were socialised into a culture that dehaminised certain others. It also means that they have abrogated any sense of moral obligation or moral responsibility for their or their nation's actions.

Whoever is responsible for setting the cops on these young people like this should take responsibility for it, apologise for it, and immediately resign. The cop perp who engaged in this brutality should be immediately be fired and stripped of all of his benefits if he has any. And what of UC Davis's finest who stood and watched while violence was being done and did nothing? As for me I don't think I could ever, in good conscience, work at a university that allows their cops to engage in such brutal and immoral behaviour. I guess this is what you get in a culture that has increasingly militarised its police force, a culture which gives police extraordinary power, a culture in which the cops appear to get their rocks off by brutalising others. Power, as the old saying goes, corrupts and it corrupts absolutely. That such militarisation is occurring now on college campuses, a space often regarded as a haven of free speech, should frighten and offend anyone connected in some way, shape, or form with the academy.

This police violence against dissidents in the US (and in the Western world in general) is hardly new. In the US it certainly goes back in form at least to the crusades against loyalists during the revolutionary era, crusades against religious dissidents like Mormons, crusades against religious outsiders like the Catholics and outsider groups like the Freemasons in early nineteenth century America. In the late nineteenth century vigilantism and state brutality against dissidents (Weber explores the process by which state violence is given universal legitimisation) were allied in the anti-leftist and anti-union elite and populist (the elites as pied pipers) crusades during which the police, the national guard, and the military were used to try to crush worker movements. Some pro-union anarchists were even executed by authorities in the jihad against left and union dissidents. After the Haymarket Square protests of 1886 turned "violent" a number of anarchists were tried, found guilty, and executed without any evidence against them whatsoever. Such things can happen, I guess, when political and economic elites whip up a culture of fear and hate and the masses eat this fear and hate demagogeury up as though it was chocolate candy.

Elite jihads against dissidents did not end in the nineteenth century. Crusades against communism were common in the US after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia and during the paranoid years of the Cold War. It continued into the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. During the civil rights movement of the 1950s cops beat, set dogs on, and sometimes killed protestors, some of them teens. In Chicago in 1968 Mayor Richard Daley set Chicago's "finest" on protestors resulting in protestors and journalists and passers by being beaten in the streets of that city in what an Illinois state commission later said was a police riot. At Kent State University over 13 seconds four students were killed by the National Guard in 1970. Today miltarised police violence is being directed against those protesting increasing inequality in the United States and the results of that inequality, the savage cuts to America's educational system, in New York City, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington, Oakland, California, Berkley, California, and Davis, California. I think it is hard to see this elite brutality against dissidents and the vigilantism that often accompanies it as anything other than a long term policy of political and economic elites (the one percent). America's own culture of the banality of evil? Oh and speaking of Oakland I hope that voters make sure that we have seen the last of Jean Quan, Oakland's liberal leaning former activist Democrat mayor who seems to have become a soldier in the violent police war against dissidents.

On a different subject: Why do I sneaking suspicion that the same people who decry and rail against police brutality in say Cairo or in Syria are the same people who justify police brutality right here at home, in our backyards at places like UC Davis, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland?

Call for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi by UC professor Nathan Brown,

UC Davis Aggie coverage,

Davis Enterprise coverage,

The New Disaster Movie: The Celebratory Documentary

I watched the PBS Fall Art Festival centring on Cleveland, Ohio last night (18 November 2011) because as a historian, social scientist, and cultural studies nerd interested in the history rock and roll I thought the documentary that was at the heart of Cleveland night, "Women Who Rock", might be interesting, educational, and insightful. It was definitely interesting but I am not sure it was particularly educational, save in a very simplistic and surfacy way, nor am I sure it was particularly insightful.

In an earlier blog I wrote that I thought that one of the failings of the PBS documentary series "Pioneers of Television" was its too celebratory tone about the medium of television and its practitioners and that this celebratory quality of the series undermined, at least in part, "Pioneers" potential for educating viewers about television genres. The same problem and others undermined the PBS "Women Who Rock" as well.

As is sometimes the case with PBS documentaries and documentary series "Women Who Rock", like the PBS Fall Arts Festival programmes in general up to this point, has been more celebratory than analytical and critical. Granted the Fall Arts Festival is meant to celebrate a contemporary American art scene under threat from decreasing funding and an animosity toward funding for the arts these days--funding was perhaps contingent on celebration and PBS's Fall Art Festival has celebrated arts scenes in Minneapolis, Seattle, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Cleveland. And while I am not opposed to celebration I also like to see, at least in documentaries, a more critical appreciation of their subject. I didn't find much in the way of a critical sensibility in "Women Who Rock". It was largely just a you go girl celebration.

The celebratory nature of "Women Who Rock" was not the only problem with the documentary. As is often the case with one hour documentaries, 55 minutes or so was simply not enough time to really explore the important role women have played in rock even before there was "rock". The programme's history of women and rock, as a result, was sketchy and perfunctory. If it was meant to be a documentary history of American women in rock then where were the Runaways? Where was Joan Jett and why was she absent save for the playing of her song "I Love Rock and Roll" in the background as the documentary celebrated a summer rock camp for young women? Where was another one of those early hard rockers Pat Benatar? Where were the Bangles, the Go-Gos, and the Donnas?

Another problem with "Women Who Rock" was its focus. By and large the focus of the documentary was on American women who rock, which makes sense given that "Women Who Rock" was part of Cleveland night. However, the occasional Canadian woman (Joni Mitchell), Icelandic woman (Bjork), and British women (P.J. Harvey and Adele) were thrown into the mix for some reason during the documentaries 55 minutes raising the question that if this documentary was intended to be an international history of women in rock.

If the focus of "Women Who Rock" was intended to be international or Anglo-North American then where were Dusty Springfield? Where was Petulia Clark? Where were those British women who fronted and wrote songs for punk bands in 1970s and 1980s Britain, women like Poly Styrene, the front woman of X-Ray Spex who turned punk almost singlehandedly in the direction of a critique of consumer culture, Siouxie Sue, front woman of Siouxie and the Banshees who brought a filmic sensibility to punk, and the all female punk band The Slits? As front women for their bands and as primary songwriters Polystyrene and Siouxie Sue opened up roles for women in rock, transformative roles for women in rock, that had not, for the most part, been available to women before the late 1970s, the pouty Leslie "You Don't Own Me" Gore from New Jersey and the tough and streetwise Shangri-las (Remember (Walking in the Sand" and "Leader of the Pack") from Queens both of whom made no appearance in "Women Who Rock", aside. Was an acknowledgment of the fact that women like Polystyrene and Siouxie Sue had an immense influence on American female punkers like Kathleen Hanna of Olympia, Washington's seminal riot grrrl punk band Bikini Kill, enough of an acknowledgment given the significance of their impact on women who rock?.

In the end I found "Women Who Rock" interesting if fatally flawed even if its intent was to focus exclusively on the American female rockers scene. That said, and this is a big caveat, I appreciated and appreciate PBS's attempt to do a history of women in rock because very few other television networks are doing what "Women in Rock" and PBS's Fall Arts Festival are doing or trying to do. So in spite of all their flaws PBS's "Women Who Rock" and Fall Arts Festival deserve our appreciation despite all their warts. Keep thinking outside the stale over the air TV box PBS because despite all of your worthy failures you are still the cherry bomb PBS.

Oh before I forget, the reason PBS put "Women Who Rock" on PBS during Cleveland arts night is because Cleveland is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.