Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Just Dræbe Me: Musings on "The Killing"/"Forbrydelsen"

I have spent the last four days or approximately thirty hours of my life watching the two series/seasons of the Danish television series Forbrydelsen, The Killing (DR, 2007-2013). That itself should tell you what I thought about the programme and how addictive I found it.

Forbrydelsen is the latest in a long line of serial stories that, I suppose, one could argue, go back at least to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Ancient Greece if not to the stories of the Tanakh. Closer to our own times serial melodramas like those written by Charles Dickens, and, in the crime thriller drama, the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle centred around the cerebral detective Sherlock Holmes, fall into the serial category.

Serials, not surprisingly, given the influence of serial melodramas, on other media, have not only been a staple of various genres of literature but they have also found their way into film, radio, and television. In film there are Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Thin Man, and James Bond serials. In radio and television, the communication media perhaps best suited to seriality given its episodic nature, the list is long and includes radio soap operas like Guiding Light (radio, 1937, television 1952), various adaptations of literary works that go back to almost the beginnings of British television such as I Claudius (1976), the original series of Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975), and more recently, Edge of Darkness (1985), Cracker (1993-2006), Prime Suspect (1991-2006), X-Files (1993-2002), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), 24 (2001-2010), and even Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963).

The first series or season of Forbrydelsen is centred on the brutal murder of the 19 year old Nanna Birk Larsen, the 20 day police investigation over 20 episodes into its many twists and turns, the impact of Nanna's brutal rape and murder on the Larsen family, and the impact of the murder and police investigation on the mayoral election in Copenhagen. The first ten episodes of the first series, which were broadcast between January and March of 2007, proved so popular that the last ten episodes, which were intended for broadcast in January of March 2008, were pushed up to September to November 2007, because close to half of the population of Denmark had watched the show and had become obsessed with knowing who killed Nanna Birk Larsen, the tag line for the series. A second series of ten episodes, centred around the death of Danish soldiers who may or may not have witnessed a massacre of civilians by Danish soldiers in Afghanistan which the Danish government is trying to cover up, followed on DR in September 2009 and a third series, the last apparently, is in production as I write.

In 2011 Forbrydelsen was broadcast by BBC Four where it attracted around one million viewers per episode, more viewers than the American television programmes Mad Men, Glee, and Boardwalk Empire, becoming a media and "water cooler" sensation with The Killing blogs of Vicky Frost on the Guardian generating hundreds and thousands of posts, as British viewers and media pundits, like Danes and other Scandinavians before them, became obsessed with figuring out who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. In 2011 American cable network AMC, American Movie Classics, debuted an American adaptation of the show called The Killing. Only American English language remakes need apply in the United States.

There is so much one could say about Forbrydelsen beyond its serial structure, a lot of which has already been said by critics and bloggers before me. There's its stark and moody noir atmosphere, it's hues of black and blue, and it's ensemble cast and their brilliant acting (too many fine actors to single out but let me give a shout to Ann Eleonora Jørgensen and Bjarne Henriksen who play the parents of the murdered Nanna) to name a few. But more than anything else it is the shows main character, Detective Sarah Lund, played by the superb Sofie Gråbøl, that, at least for me, is the hub around which the show revolves.

Lund is one of the great characters, in my opinion, in detective and crime thriller history. She is right up there with Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) and Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Cracker). Gråbøl, who in an interview notes that she had a lot of input into the character of Lund, becomes, in Gråbøl's very very capable hands, somewhat of a combination Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennison, Eddie Fitzgerald, and Endeavour Morse (Morse), obsessed, as she is, with solving crime, an obsession that essentially controls every waking moment of her life destroying any thing that gets in its way, including her relationship with her twelve year old son, her ability to defer to authority, and her relationship with her partners. Like Holmes, Tennison, Fitzgerald, Morse and her Scandinavian cousins Kurt Wallander, Lisbeth Salander, and Saga Norén (Bron/Broen/The Bridge), Lund is rather aloof.

Lund is not simply a copy of obsessed, intellectual, and aloof detectives of the past. She is a different from her detective forefathers and foremothers. Lund, even more than Holmes, who had his Watson, Tennison, who had her squad, Fitzgerald, who had his Penhaligon, Morse who had his Lewis, and Saga who had her Martin is the ultimate outsider (there's a little bit of Lisbeth Salander of the Dragon Tatoo Trilogy in her here) in a world of insiders or insider wannabes. And that, the fact that Lund isn't a crusader, and its combination with the theme of compromise, ethical compromise, that runs through Forbrydelsen is one of main things that makes Lund different from Wallader and Mikael Bloomkvist (Dragon Tatoo Trilogy) and makes Lund and "Forbrydelsen" so intellectually stimulating and narratively compelling.

Lund, who never compromises in her obsessive search for the truth wherever it leads her makes her a bit like another detective/policeman from the television past, Benton Fraser, the Canadian Mountie hero of Due South. Lund, like Fraser, may be an incredible role model but she, like Fraser, is, in the end, a very lonely and virtually singular role model, and in Lund's case a lonely and virtually singular role model amidst a very dark world of corrupt men and women of compromise almost all of whom are on the make in some way, shape, or form, and some of whom are never brought to justice.

As a result of Forbrydelsen's success on British television, the remake of the show by cable channel AMC in the United States as The Killing, and the success of two other DR shows on BBC 4, Borgen (Government/Castle, DR, 2010-) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge, DR/SVT, 2011-), there has been an explosion, if I can use that term, of interest in Danish TV and Nordic Noir in general in the British press and online as Maggie Brown's "Borgen: Inside Danish TV's Thriller Factory" (14 January 2012, the Guardian) and Emma Jane Kirby's "The Killing" and "Borgen": Danish Drama Wins Global Fanbase" (27 April 2012, BBC News Magazine) make clear. Forbrydelsen has been blogged about extensively in the Guardian and has been extensively written about in the British press and online in general. Some in the press and in cyberspace have been obsessed with Forbrydelsen's heroine Sarah Lund's Faroese jumper some even offering patterns on how to make it to others who want there own. The maker of the now infamous Sarah Lund jumper, the Faroe Island Gudrun og Gudrun, named after its two female founders, has, according to Tim Ecott ("Gripping Yarns: On the Trail of a Killer Jumper", the Telegraph, 5 November 2011), seen a tremendous jump in sales since the debut of Forbrydelsen.

Others have not surprisingly focused on gender issues in Forbrydelsen given that Lund, a female police officer, is the heart and soul of the show. For two interesting articles which maintain that Lund is like no other female detective before her see Emma Kennedy, "The Killing Has Given Us a Heroine to Remember" (5 November 2011, the Telegraph) and Gerald Gilbert, "Nothing Like a Dane: New Thriller Borgen Centres on a Trailblazing Female Politician" (5 January 2012, the Independent). Kennedy notes that "...Sarah Lund...is a woman who is allowed to spend 20 hours of television in nothing more enticing than a pair of old jeans, a cream and navy Faroese jumper that has achieved cult status in its own right, and an anonymous short black coat." As to the jumper/sweater Sofie Gråbøl, in an interview with Vicky Frost in the Guardian, ("The Killing: Sarah Lund's Jumper Explained, 10 March 2011), explains that "We had a costume meeting and I saw that sweater and thought: "That's it!. The reason it's so perfect is because it tells so many stories. It tells of a person who doesn't use her sexuality – that's a big point. Lund's so sure of herself she doesn't have to wear a suit. She's at peace with herself...I wore this sweater and so did my parents. That sweater was a sign of believing in togetherness. There's a nice tension between those soft, human values and Lund being a very tough closed person – because to me it says that she's wanting to sit around a fire with a guitar; it gives a great opposite to her line of work and behaviour."

The American remake of Forbrydelsen, The Killing has prompted some in the American press and in the blogosphere to compare the two. For the Daily Beast's Jace Lacob ,("The Killing": How AMC's Adaptation of "Forbrydelsen" Went Wrong", 14 May 2012) The Killing essentially went off the rails and suffered a massive decline in viewership as a result, after the pilot. The New York Times's Mike Hale blames the artistic failure of The Killing in his "The Danes Do Murder Differently" (28 March 2012) on the shortness, changes in the plot lines, and the less complex narrative and character arcs if The Killing in comparison to Forbrydelsen. Some bloggers have blogged about Forbrydelsen and its American remake and re-imagining The Killing simultaneously. For one example see the Forbrydelsen vs The Killing blog posts at "Opinionless", http://www.opinionless.com/forbrydelsen-vs-the-killing-week-one/. Like Lacob and Hale "Opinionless's" bloggers come down on the side of Forbrydelsen in the which is best debate. The general critical consensus seems to be that Forbrydelsen wins over the American version hands down.

What really interests me more than the fact that the contemporary American television industry remade Forbrydelsen rather than show the original on American small screens as in the UK is the question of why American television is so parochial and xenophobic when it comes to foreign television shows, including British, Australian, and Kiwi television shows, and television shows with subtitles, in the first place. American television as is clear has had a long aversion to subtitled shows appearing on the small screen and has a long tradition of remakes, a tradition that stretches back at least to All in the Family and runs through Three's Company, Big Brother, Survivor, The Office, Dancing With the Stars, Kath and Kim, and Scoundrels among others. Now American television is busy remaking the latest in international television's hits, Danish television. According to Nick Edwards the American over the air network NBC is apparently interested in remaking Borgen ("Liked the Bridge: Get Ready for the Nordic Drama Remake Invasion", 6 August 2012, the Guardian). Apparently American television doesn't think that Americans drugged up on the notion of American exceptionalism can handle television shows from other countries, particularly from those nations whose language is not English, can handle foreign television despite the success of Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970s and Downton Abbey on PBS recently. American exceptionalism as hermetic tautology.

One last point, for some critics like Margaret Lyons and David Bianculli see Forbrydelsen’s American stepchild The Killing, and, by extension, since a significant amount of The Killing is a literal remake of Forbrydelsen, Forbrydelsen itself as the children of Twin Peaks. Forbrydelsen creator Sveistrup has admitted to watching and liking, up to a point, Twin Peaks but he also notes that he liked Steven Bochko’s, Charles H. Eglee’s, and Channing Gibson’s Murder One (ABC, 1995-1997), 24, and Prime Suspect and that Forbrydelsen, unlike Twin Peaks, doesn’t deconstruct the noir genre or have the humour Twin Peaks has. I find the critical perspective that Forbrydelsen is the child of Twin Peaks, to be problematic on a number of levels. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's—good Danish name, by the way—riposte to Dan Quayle, I know Twin Peaks and Forbrydelsen is thankfully no Twin Peaks. Yes the rain and darkness of Twin Peaks are there in Forbrydelsen and The Killing but that may be because Twin Peaks and The Killing were filmed in the Pacific Northwest, the former in Washington state, the latter in Vancouver, both of which have rainy climates, while Forbrydelsen is filmed in rainy København/Copenhagen. As to the darkness, both physical and metaphorical, that characterises all three shows this may simply be a product of the literary noir, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and their American descendent film noir. What makes Forbrydelsen very different from Twin Peaks is that Forbrydelsen doesn't have any of the supernatural surrealist elements that were a central part of Twin Peaks—something Lyons and Bianculli note—and Forbrydelsen has a much more linear narrative as opposed to the surrealist narrative "structure" that was at the heart of Twin Peaks.

Forbrydelsen is, in my opinion, one of the best television programmes (or films for that matter) I have seen in years. I haven't been this addicted to a TV show since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, the Thick of It, or Outnumbered. I can't recommend this slice of intellectual mind candy enough. Local PBS affiliates should be showing this so more Americans can see what they are missing. By the way, Borgen and Bron/Broen are just as addictive. The Danes, with a little help from the Swedes and Germans, just may be making the best television shows in the world at the moment.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Documentary as Emotionally Wrenching

There have been times in my life when I have been incredibly moved by works of fiction whether a book, a film, or a television programme. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", for instance, would occasionally move me to tears. I have also occasionally been moved by nonfiction documentaries. Three of the most emotionally powerful documentaries that I have seen in recent years are Patty Kim's and Chris Sheridan's "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/abduction/), Socheata Poeuv's "New Year Baby" (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/newyearbaby/), and Patricia Flynn’s "Discovering Dominga" (http://www.pbs.org/pov/discoveringdominga/).

Kim's and Sheridan's "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota documentary from 2006 is a tale of family, families, family obsessions, government secrets, state lies, and North Korean spies. "Abduction" begins its tale of Megumi Yokota by backtracking to the day in November of 1977 when the thirteen year old Megumi never returned home from school. The camera follows Megumi's mother and father as they retrace the route she usually took home from school.

Megumi's parents, of course, thought, as we viewers think at first, that Megumi must have been kidnapped and possibly even murdered. But her body is never found. Soon a disturbing wrinkle in Megumi's disappearance appears. A Japanese journalist whose has been researching and writing on North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens and a former North Korean spy who has defected to the West say that they believe Megumi may indeed have been kidnapped, but kidnapped by a North Korea that has been abducting Japanese citizens for years.

Believing the journalist and the spy Megumi's parents and the parents of other abductees organise and begin to put pressure on the Japanese government to find out what has really happened to their children and whether North Korea has them, something the Japanese government is hesitant to do for larger foreign policy reasons. They want the Japanese government to put pressure on the North Korea in order to force them to admit that they have been abducting Japanese citizens for years. Finally, there is a break in the story. In September of 2002 North Korea admits to the Japanese government that they have been abducting Japanese citizens, the Japanese government claims 17, the North Korean government admits to 13, and that they did abduct Megumi. The number of Japanese kidnapped by the North Korean government, however, probably numbers over a hundred.

Things begin to move quickly in the film once North Korea officially admits to abducting Japanese citizens. In October of 2002 the North Korean government flew five of the abductees home to Japan to very emotional homecomings. The North Korean government claimed that those not returned, including Megumi, were dead, Megumi by suicide. They produced Megumi's husband and daughter to confirm that Megumi was indeed dead.

Soon after the reunions, however, the former North Korean spy who was among the first to reveal that Megumi had been abducted by the North Koreans adds yet another wrinkle to the Megumi Yokota story. He claims that the North Korean government is lying, that Megumi was still alive, and that he had seen her after the date the North Korean government claimed she committed suicide on. Megumi's parents hoping that their daughter may still be alive now demand that the Japanese government put pressure on North Korea to allow DNA tests to be made on Megumi's remains. After some prodding North Korea agrees but the DNA tests performed on what the North Koreans claim are Megumi's remains prove inconclusive. So at the end of this very emotional roller coaster ride of a documentary we are still left with one part of the mystery the film began with: Is Megumi still alive?

"Abduction", to say the least, packs an incredibly powerful emotional punch that will have most viewers in tears several times during its 85 minutes as we learn during its roller coaster like ride that Megumi was not murdered, that Megumi was abducted by the North Koreans, that Megumi may be alive, that Megumi is dead, and that Megumi may be alive after all.

Poeuv's 2006 documentary "New Year Baby", which also packs an incrediable emotional punch, is part biography, part autobiography, and part tale of the Kampuchean Genocide. It tells the story of a family secret. On Christmas Day 2002 Poeuv's parents revealed to her and her brother that they were related but related in ways they were not aware of. The brother Poeuv thought she had, she was told, was really her half brother. The sisters Poeuv thought she had, she was told, were actually her cousins, the daughters of Poeuv's mother's sister. The family Poeuv thought was her family was actually, she was told, a family created by the Khmer Rouge during the Kampuchean Genocide of 1975 through 1979.

In order to find out more about her family secrets Poeuv convinces her mother, father, and half-brother Bros to return with her to their homeland. In Kampuchea Poeuv, after some resistance, uncovers the real story of her family. Her mother, "Ma", a Chinese Cambodian, had been married to a man before her father. She had had a son during her previous marriage, Bros, the brother she thought was her brother. Her brother's father, "Ma's" first husband, had been, it turns out, murdered by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide. So too was the mother of her sisters Mala and Leakhena. He father,"Pa", a Cambodian Cambodian, and her mother were forced to marry by the Khmer Rouge in their attempt to integrate Cambodia's various ethnic and classes strands in order to end ethnic and class prejudice and strife in Kampuchea. It would be "Pa" who would find Male and Leakhena, who had been separated from "Ma" for months after months of searching Khmer Rouge camps. It would be "Pa" who would make four trips across the border between Cambodia and Thailand bringing "Ma", Bros, Male, Leakhena, and "Ma's" sewing machine to safety in a a refugee camp in Thailand close to the border with Kampuchea. There on the Cambodian New Year in April of 1980 Socheata Poeuv was born making her, in Cambodian tradition, the lucky one.

Interwoven into this emotional and moving tale are interviews with Poeuv's family. Mala, and Leakhena, who were ten and thirteen at the time of the genocide and vividly recount their memories of their experiences and fears of execution in the Khmer Rouge work and reeducation camps. "Ma" recounts her experiences in the Khmer Rouge camp and explains the tricks she used to survive, one of which was to tell stories she remembered from films to the Khmer Rouge leader in charge of her group. "Pa" recounts how he survived in the camps by following the middle way, talks about and shows Soceata the camp where Mala and Leahkena's mother is buried, recounts, as he and Socheata visit a Khmer Rouge commander of the camp he was in, what it was like in the camp, and, at the end of the film, shows Socheata the path the family took to safety in Thailand and the refugee camp where Socheata was born.

Flynn’s 2003 documentary "Discovering Dominga" is a film about discoveries. It is a documentary in which Denise Becker, a 29 year old from Iowa who was adopted when she was eleven by an Iowa minster and his family, discovers that her name is not really Denise but is instead Dominga Ruiz. It is a documentary about how Dominga discovers and uncovers, thanks to memories that come back to her and thanks to the research she undertakes as her memories come flowing back. It is a film about how Dominga remembers the family she once had, a family that had been massacred, along with most of the other residents of her village of Rio Negro in 1982 so the government could build a dam in the region. As Denise/Dominga begins to remember who she was, how she escaped from the soldiers who wanted to kill her—her mother told her to take her sister and run—how her sister died during her exodus to life, and how she came to America Dominga joins with other victims and survivors of the genocide to uncover her parents grave and to take legal action against the perpetrators of the genocide under General Rios-Montt that killed some 200,000 Guatemalans in the Guatemalan courts. "Discovering Dominga", as a result, is an incredibly moving and gut wrenching experience to watch as we, along with Dominga, uncover the mystery of who she is and how she came to be an adopted orphan in Iowa.

"Abduction", "New Year Baby", and "Discovering Dominga" are all emotional roller coaster rides. If they don't make you feel something about the human condition, if they don't make you cry while you watch them, well then, I don't know what can. I can't recommend them both enough. By the way, for you students of film, television, and documentaries out there in cyberspace, their is a lot of grist for the how films and television programmes manipulate viewers through subject matter and structure in all three of these superb documentaries. Enjoy.







Another Tale From Kafka's America...

We live, I am convinced, in an America in which the state at all levels has become far too powerful, far too impersonal, and far too arbitrary in its actions. Let me give you one example of why I think this is so.

In July of 2009 I bought the first car I had purchased in years from Rensselaer Honda in Troy, New York, a Honda Fit. At the time that I bought it I still had a Texas driver's license. I had moved from Albany to Austin after I was laid off at SUNY Press where I was an acquisitions editor in the hope of finding a job. It didn't work out so I returned to Albany in 2006 to take up a lectureship position in History at SUNY Albany. I didn't immediately get a New York driver's license because my Texas driver's license, which cost me an arm and a leg, wasn't close to expiring and I wanted to milk it for all it was worth. And anyway, a New York State driver's license was even more expensive, if memory serves, than a Texas driver's license was.

My Texas driver's license turned out to be a problem in more ways than one. When Ren Honda submitted my title application to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles in Troy along with my two pieces of identification, my Texas driver's license and my passport, the DMV decreed that I needed to get a New York State driver's license before they issued me a title. Additionally, the DMV questioned my identity because my driver's license, which I gave to prove my identity to Ren Honda, gave my name as Ronald G. Helfrich Jr. while my passport, the other document I gave to Ren Honda to prove who I was, gave my name as Ronald Helfrich. Because of this inconsistency in my name the DMV refused to issue me a title. Welcome to the land of the surreal.

So off I went to the local DMV office on South Pearl in Albany to get a driver's license and to convince them that me, Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. was me, Ronald Helfrich. After several hours of pleading, cajoling, and hassling the DMV I finally managed to get a NY State driver's license thanks to my birth certificate and my social security card both of which confirmed that I was Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. and Ronald G. Helfrich Jr. They would only give me a driver's license, however, in the same name as that on my Texas driver's license, Ronald G. Helfrich Jr.

I thought this would solve the curious case of New York State not wanting to give me title to my car. Needless to say, it didn't. The DMV in Troy was still resisting issuing me title to a car I had already paid for because of the differences in my name on my driver's license, my new New York State driver's license issued by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, and my passport. Just as I thought the forty plus dollars I had paid for a NY DL was down the drain Ren Honda came through and finally convinced the DMV to give me title to my car. Miracles really do happen sometimes. Relief.

But it turns out I breathed a sigh of relief way too soon. I still had a passport that gave Ronald Helfrich is my name. I wanted to get the name on my passport changed from Ronald Helfrich to Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. Ironically, the passport I had before I renewed the one I have now in 2003 does give my name as Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. For some reason, however, the State Department changed the name on my passport when I renewed to Ronald Helfrich.

Since my passport expires next year in 2013 I have been trying to figure out what I need to do in order to get Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. restored as my name on my next passport. And if you think that that would be a relatively easy task you would be wrong. I recently contacted the Department of State Passport Office via email where I got very unhelpful canned responses and claims that the Department couldn't discuss the specifics of "changing" a name on a passport and promptings for me to call the Passport Office by phone given the lack of online security. Isn't it quaint that an office of the US government thinks that phone lines, the same phone lines they tap, are any more secure that the World Wide Web, the same World Wide Web they trawl for information? Only when I cajoled the Department did I get some relatively helpful information. And though this information brought down my anxiety levels about getting the name on my original passport restored a bit I still have a sneaking suspicion, given my experiences with governmental bureaucracies in the past, that getting my passport with the name of Ronald Gail Helfrich Jr. restored on it is not going to be easy.

So there you have it dear unreaders. Thanks to the America that has developed as a result of the Cold War and the "war on terror" I now live in a looney USA where I, Ronald G. Helfrich Jr. and I, Ronald Helfrich, are no longer, at least to some government bureaucracies and some government bureaucrats, the same. Welcome to Kafkaland.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Triumph of the Lame

I recently watched a bit of the Intelligence² debate on the question of whether the US Congress should pass President Barack Obama's jobs legislation on PBS between Cecelia Rouse, Princeton economist and former member of the Clinton White House National Economic Council and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics who argued for the affirmative and Richard Epstein, Law professor at NYU and Daniel Miller, a fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute, yes the "think tank" owned, in part, by the infamous Koch Brothers, and former member of the George Bush-Dan Quayle transition team who argued that it shouldn't (http://intelligencesquaredus.org/index.php/past-debates/congress-should-approve-obamas-jobs-plan/). I have to say that it was one of the lamest debates I have ever witnessed.

A little background first. I am a trained historian, though some of my teachers and my History colleagues would probably disagree finding my interests in social theory, the sociology of knowledge, social movements, culture wars, and comparative sociological history, well beyond the traditional historical pale. What is really beyond the historical pale, in my not so humble opinion, however, is much of what passes for economics discourse these days.

There are a number of problems with the discourse of much contemporary Economics, and these limitations were on display in all the debaters on both sides of the issue in Intelligence². First, there is the belief of many economists that Economics is a science of the quantitative sort. Second, there is the belief of many economists that humans are rational and that markets are a reflection of human rationality. And third, there is the abstract and ahistorical character of much contemporary economics discourse. Several of these problems rear their ugly head in the debate over the Obama jobs bill on Intelligence².

One of the main contentions of Epstein and Miller, and others of their ideological ilk, is that governmental attempts to stimulate the economy have simply never worked. This contention is simply false. A few examples drawn from real rather than ideologically made history. In the early years of the nineteenth century the government of New York financed and built the Erie Canal stimulating economic development and job creation in upstate New York and beyond into Ohio and Illinois, an economic stimulus which helped make New York City even more the financial capital of the US than it already was and eventually made the City one of the financial capitals of the world. In the 1860s and 1870s the US federal government stimulated economic development, created jobs, and stimulated population growth in areas of the United States with limited settlement by giving railroad companies federal lands to sell in exchange for railroad construction, railroad construction that by the 1890s would tie the United States together and create, for the first time in American history, an American national economy. During the 1930s and 1940s FDR and his New Deal put Americans to work by creating jobs for the unemployed, jobs which provided new workers wages and which in turn stimulated consumption and stimulating the economy making the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1940s much less worse than it would have been otherwise and giving those without hope, hope.

As to Epstein's and Miller's other contention that high tax rates and economic growth have never gone together, that too is simply false. In the 1950s under Eisenhower the US had tax rates of 91% on the very wealthy while still experiencing significant economic growth, the expansion of the housing market, declining unemployment, increased productivity, and the expansion of education among other things.

By the way, the contemporary conservative argument, not all conservatives have historically mouthed the austerity mantra in dealing with budget deficits and debt, that austerity is the best way to deal with recessions and imbalanced budgets, is, empirically speaking, a problematic argument as well. US President Herbert Hoover tried austerity during the Great Depression in the 1930s with little success and eventually had to do an about face and, if limitedly, try to spend his way out of depression. It should also be remembered that in 1937 FDR, thinking that the Great Depression was under control, tried to balance the budget with disastrous effects, FDR after all was a balanced budget sort of guy. The economy almost immediately began to collapse and FDR was forced to resort once again to Keynesian deficit spending. The economy improved.

So why do Epstein and Miller and millions ideologically like them continue to believe in things that contradict the historical facts? The answer is actually quite simple. They really believe the ahistorical and ideological nonsense they utter. Their "reality" has been constructed not fully from empirical facts, in this instance, but out of their own ideological beliefs in much the same manner that ideology constructs the reality of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Social theorists and sociologists of knowledge, of course, have long known that culture and ideology constructs the reality of many if not most humans on this planet. Epstein's and Miller's polemical and apologetic rhetoric is simply more empirical proof of this simple empirical fact. It is a pity that these ideologically constructed hermeneutic circles or cages in which many, unconsciously, find themselves mentally imprisoned cannot be broken but that is not how human ways of seeing usually work, something that the continuing vitality of evangelical religion, fundamentalist religions, John Birchism, the belief that Obama is a Muslim, the belief that Obama is not an American, the belief that America is moving toward Muslim shari'a law (we are in Kansas evermore), and the belief that government stimulus never works, clearly shows.

Postscript
Just so you don't get the wrong impression, I have seen debates on Intelligence² that I thoroughly enjoyed and was stimulated by. I enjoyed the debate over whether men are finshed between Dan Abrams and Hanna Rosin on the yes side and Christina Hoff Sommers and Dan Zinczenko on the no side and I enjoyed the debate over whether too many people are going to college between Peter Thiel and Charles Murray on the yes side and Vivek Wadha and Henry Bienen on the no side. I thought both sides in the debate on whether men are finished made some good points though I thought the Abrams and Rosin side underemphasised the impact of deindustrialisation on men in the US and I agreed with Thiel and Murray that too many people are matriculating into undergraduate programmes across America. Personally I think the US really does need to create a vocational and apprentice educational alternative to the bachelor's degree like they have in Germany and Switzerland. Perhaps if we had this alternative we could stem the black tide of the businessification and professionalisation of the academy and return colleges and universities to their true liberal arts roots.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Sound You Hear is New York State Sucking...

I recently received a decree from New York State demanding that I pay them over one thousand dollars in taxes, interest, and penalties for tax year 2008. I couldn’t figure out from this decree why the state was demanding this pound of flesh. It seemed to me they were claiming that I had made some $17,000 dollars in salary in 2008 than I actually did. Only after a lot of research and lot of contacting of politicians and New York State Tax and Finance Department (NYSTF) bureaucrats did I learn, and this from a kindly tax accountant in the bowels of the NYSTF I talked to by phone (the NYSTF online service is next to useless), finding kindly bureaucrats in the NYSTF bureaucracy, by the way, is not an easy task, did I discover that I, someone who had never made a mistake in forty previous years of submitting taxes, had been making a mistake on my tax forms for several years. I immediately amended my tax forms for 2008, 2009, 2010 and paid the tax amounts I calculated I owed. But that, of course, was not the end of it. Now I am now experiencing the joys associated with the nonchalant and arbitrary ways the NYSTF Department really works.

I believe I should not be held liable for interest (NY State, by the way, does not calculate interest the way the Fed does and banks do, no, they have their own little method for calculating interest on taxpayers taxes) and penalties NYSTF charges as a result of the mistakes I made on my 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 tax forms. In fact, I think I should be refunded the monies I paid to the state for my mistakes and I think that I should be allowed to keep a cheque for the incorrect refund amount New York State recently sent me for 2011 AFTER I had amended my return on 12 April. The reasons are two.

First there's semantics. The line in question, the line that refers to “federal deductions”, says “federal deductions”. I took this phrase on line 10 of IT 150 and line 17 of IT 201 literally and put my and my wife’s federal standardised deductions on those lines. Why, the tax department asked and you, dear unreaders, may ask did I not look at the instructions for those lines? I didn’t think I needed to. I only go to the instructions when the line in question is unclear. This line did not seem unclear to me whatsoever. It asked for “federal deductions” and that is what I put on those lines. It is my contention that if the New York State Tax and Finance Department (NYSTF) wanted only federal itemized deductions in that box that is what they should have asked for.

I would, by the way, be interested in knowing how many other taxpayers have made the same mistake I did. I suspect that the reason the NYSTF has added a box at the top of the new tax form asking if taxpayers itemized deductions suggests that I am not alone in making this error. And if I am not alone this alone should be reason enough for NYSTF to clarify NYS tax forms and change the phrase on the forms from “federal deductions” to “federal itemized deductions”. I am not, as you can imagine dear unreaders, holding my breath waiting for this to happen.

NYSTF incompetence doesn’t extend only to semantic domains. The amount of federal deductions I put in the line asking for how much federal deductions I was claiming not surprisingly equaled the amount that me and my wife took on the federal standard deduction line on US tax form 1040EZ. These are always in round numbers and always add up to the amount of two federal standard deductions. The amount claimed in deductions on this line should have raised a red flag to any competent bureaucrat or any competently written software programme that the NYSTF computer system uses. That it took the state years to realise that I made a rather obvious mistake says again much about the levels of incompetence at NYSTF. And they are, in my not so humble opinion, substantial.

Second, there’s intent. I had no intention to defraud the state or the state tax and finance department. I interpreted the line asking for federal deductions literally. Intent, in my estimation, must be taken into account in any case like mine. If it isn’t, and I don’t think the state is taking this into account in my case, than the state is, in my opinion, approaching if not crossing into tyrany.

Given the poor instructions (asking for “federal deductions” rather than “federal itemized deductions”), instructions that, if they were part of a question on an exam in any college or university in the nation, would be considered evidence of incompetence and would drive students mad, given the failure of NYSTF to discern the obvious, that I put a federal standard deductions amounts standard on the lines asking for “federal deductions, I charge the NYSTF bureaucracy with gross incompetence.

There are some other things related to taxation in NY State that concern me. When I returned from Texas, a state I retrospectively appreciate for not having a state income tax, to New York in 2006 I discovered that the short and sweet easy tax forms that I had used for years had disappeared to be replaced by ever longer and ever more complicated tax forms. This has made me wonder whether the politicians of New York State and lobbyists for corporations like H&R Block and Liberty aren’t in bed together. I find it fascinating that NY State tax forms keep growing larger and larger and more and more complex making them more and more difficult to do for someone like me and I find it bizarre that while the US federal government can offer an EZ tax form for its citizens to use the smaller, yes I realise not much smaller, New York State cannot.

My recent experience with New York State and its bureaucracy has given me a new perspective on the state. I now know what those on the right are talking about when they talk about the state having too much power, too much arbitrary power. Hey, maybe I have had a conversion experience. Call it the miracle on Morton Avenue. But hold on. No, no road to Damascus like conversion has taken place in my life. I have long had a Weberian and Foucauldian wariness of, a cynicism about, and not so good experiences with bureaucracies of all types, state, corporate, educational, academic, whatever. I have long felt that bureaucracies of all types limit human freedom.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity History?

As you probably know by now, dear unreaders, I have a thing for documentaries. And since I have a thing for documentaries (and British television) I also have a thing for PBS. I rarely miss an episode of Independent Lens, P.O.V., American Experience, American Masters, or Global Voices even when PBS moves them to ungodly broadcast hours. Thankfully I have access to PBS World which reruns documentaries broadcast on the main PBS channel at more godly hours.

Recently I watched a documentary directed by Erin Isobel McGinnis and Ari Luis Paulos (Beyond the Border) called "Precious Knowledge. McGinnis and Paulos use their camera (the camera as participant observer) to take us viewers into the La Raza/Mexican American Studies classrooms of high schools in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).

"Precious Knowledge", which debuted on Independent Lens in March of 2012 (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/precious-knowledge/), begins in struggle and triumph. According to one educational analyst in McGinnis and Paulos speak to studies have shown that an education that gives students a positive sense of self raises student grades and student graduation rates. What has happened in the TUSD since the institution of the La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme in 2002 seems to bear this statement out. Students interviewed for "Precious Knowledge" talk about how Tucson's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme helped them understand who they were, helped them understand where they came from, was more interesting than what they had been learning in school previously, and gave meaning to their school work and their intellectual lives. One parent told of how her son, who had never spoken about school work before, couldn't stop talking about what he was learning in La Raza/Mexican Studies classes. By 2011, claims the TUSD, La Raza/Mexican Studies had helped raise graduation rates for Tucson's Hispanic/Chicano/Chicana students from around 50% to 93%.

Despite the supposed successes of TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies programme not everyone was happy with what they thought was going on in in Tucson's high school La Raza/Mexican Studies classrooms. By the way, I say what they thought was going on in the classrooms because few of La Raza's critics ever actually went to a Mexican Studies classroom to see what was really going on in them. Serendipitously, as it turns out, McGinnis and Paulos were in the midst of filming what was going on in TUSD La Raza classes just as a culture war over illegal immigration and what it means to be an American was cresting once again in Arizona and in the United States. Tucson's La Raza programme was one of the things, it turned out, that concerned many Arizonans already concerned with "illegal" immigration and the impact of Hispanics and others on the nature of "America" itself.

Criticisms of TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme took a number of forms. For Arizona Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme divided rather than united students thanks to its emphasis on ethnic pride and its us (Hispanics) versus them (European colonialists and imperialists) mentality. Horne believed the programme to be dangerous because it emphasised ethnic solidarity rather than good old fashioned American individualism. Others like Republican Arizona Senator (later Horne's successor as Superintendent of Public Instruction) worried that Tucson's La Raza/Mexican Studies Programme was filling students minds with hate for the United States by having them read books like Paulo Friere's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed", a book which, he notes, mentions Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Che Guevera, and teaching students to hate America's founding fathers because they were racists. Huppenthal, who was one of the few critics to visit a TUSD La Raza classroom, told the filmmakers that it was simply inappropriate to trash America's heroic founding fathers in a public high school classroom. Others accused La Raza of inculcating revolution in Tucson students. One critic of the programme goes so far to claim that the brown shirts, masks, and sunglasses some student wear during protests over the attempt by critics to make La Raza illegal, are the kit of revolutionaries. Others accused La Raza of being the racist stepchild of the KKK. La Raza teachers, students, and advocates responded by claiming that what the programme was actually teaching was critical thinking, thinking about all systems of oppression including racism, sexism, and classism, history with warts and all, and social justice.

In one way the critics of TUSD's La Raza/Mexican Studies programme do have it right. Like so much history what seems to be going on in Tucson's Mexican Studies classrooms is vanity history, history, in other words for social solidarity, for pride in identity, and for pride in community. In truth, much of what passes for history is and has long been vanity history. That is why most of those who teach and study Jewish history are Jews, most of those who teach and research Mennonite history are Mennonites, most of those who teach and study Mormon history are Mormons, most of those who teach and research worker's history are sympathetic toward worker's movements, and most of those who teach and study American history are Americans. History has long had a clan, tribal, ethnic, or nationalistic pride aspect to it, something reflected in the very ways we categorise history into little boxes like American history and World history and in the way we teach history.

It turns out that the critics of Tucson's La Raza as vanity history are less interested in the sociology of knowledge, however, and have rather substantial vanity motes in their own eyes. Huppenthal's teach the founding fathers as heroes history is whitewhashed and amnesiac vanity history. Horne's notion that American history should be taught to emphasise individualism rather than group solidarity is amnesia history. The history both Huppenthal and Horne prefer is as much a group solidarity history as that as TUSD's La Raza. It is a yeah, rah America is wonderful version of American history. And it is an American history with all of the racial, classist, and sexist blemishes that have characterised American history (these traits are not, by the way, a monopoly of US history) taken out. It is, of course, hard not to read Horne's and Huppenthal's whitewashed White man's history in the context of the wider xenophobia sweeping across Arizona and the US today.

"Precious Knowledge" ends in tragedy and hope. It ends with Arizona's state legislature passing bills mandating vigourous action against illegal immigrants and those who hire them and the shutting down of Arizona's ethnic studies programmes including Tucson's La Raza. But all, the documentary suggests, is not lost. One of the students the documentary has focused on throughout its 50 plus minutes is admitted to the University of Arizona, something she attributes, in part, to La Raza. The final shot of the film depicts people marching in the street in opposition to Arizona's immigration and ethnic studies bills over which plays a recording of the love yourself and love others mantra that was chanted at the beginning of one of the La Raza classes in one of Tucson's Unifed School District high school's. Proponents of Tucson's Mexican Studies programme may have, the film seems to be suggesting, lost the battle but they have not yet lost the war. The next battle in the ethnic studies war, by the way, may be at the college and university level since, according to reports in the press, Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction John Uppenthal now blames the "toxic" ethnic pride "indoctrination" he found in Tucson's high schools the result on the indoctrination of teachers in university Mexican Studies programmes throughout the state of Arizona (http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2012/03/28/arizona-official-considers-targeting-mexican-american-studies-in-university/). Welcome back to politically correct McCarthyland.

A Historian for the Post MTV Generation or Niall Ferguson Does the Making of the Modern World

He's back. The he being Niall Ferguson, the Magdalen educated professor of modern history and business history at Harvard University, professor at the new private New School of the Humanities in London, author of many tomes including a massive one on the Rothschild's, educational advisor to Cameron's current Tory/Liberal Democrat government, and academic celebrity. Ferguson is back on PBS with a new documentary, the snappily rappily titled "Civilization: The West and the Rest", an American version of his Channel 4 series "Civilization: Is the West History?" and followup to his previous documentary on a similar subject, "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World" (Channel 4, 2008, PBS, 2009).

"Civilization: The West and the Rest" (I haven't seen "Civilization: Is the West History", March-April 2011, and don't at this point know whether, like "The Ascent of Money" the British and American incarnations are slightly different) debuted on PBS last night, 22 May 2012. Parts three and four will be transmitted on 29 May. The series is, in many ways, a bit of a throwback to the history and sociology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in that it addresses a question that stimulated so much early sociological work and so much debate in early social theory, why and how did the West become so powerful? It is also a poke in the eye of those who, in the wake of the rise of cultural and social anthropology with their relativist sensitivity, developed an aversion to the use of terms like civilisation, a term Ferguson uses intentionally and in a rather in your face way kind of kind of way, because of its historic embededness in notions of cultural, read Western, superiority. This makes Ferguson, to some extent, a latter-day Sir Kenneth Clark, who, drawing on cultural and art critic John Ruskin, in his famous 1969 BBC/PBS documentary "Civilisation: A Personal View", linked the greatness of the West with the the greatness of its "higher "art, its "civilisation". In a point of trivial pursuit, Walter Benjamin influenced critic John Berger critiqued Clark's perspective, in part, in another BBC/PBS documentary, "Ways of Seeing".

Analysts in whose footsteps Ferguson is following into the labyrinthian question of how and why the West, Western Europe, and Western European settler societies, became so powerful and dominant have answered this question in a variety of different ways over the years. In the tale as traditionally told and believed by many Westerners, Western dominance was set in the stars, set in motion by the hand of god. In this rather metaphysical, ideological, and ethnocentric narrative Europe’s peoples, well Western Europe’s peoples, were god’s chosen people and superior to others in their religion, their civilization, their culture, their technology, and their military skills because they were god’s chosen peoples. A secular variant of this ideology arose in the nineteenth century with the spinning of Social Darwinism out of Darwinism, a perspective which flowered in the 20th. This secular version of European superiority saw Western European military, technological, and societal success as evidence that Western Europeans were the most fit, the notion of fit here being an adaptation of and unilinearization of Darwin’s survival of the fittest notion. Here the god of the metaphysical argument was replaced by godlike unilineal evolution, the notion that all humans began at the same point on the evolutionary ladder and that Western Europeans, as their power, prosperity, and dominance shows, had risen to the top rung of the evolutionary ladder and were thus the most fit, the most fit, in particular, to rule over a global empire. Needless to say many have seen Social Darwinism as a rationalisation of and justification for class inequalities and colonialism and imperialism.

Others with a more secular and multilineal bent were less sure about the divine or evolutionary origins of Western power. Karl Marx attributed Western dominance to the development of capitalism. German Comparative Historian and sociologist Max Weber attributed it to a host of factors including capitalism, industrialisation, the development of “modern” accounting procedures, increased urbanization, increased autonomy in European city-states, particularly those in Northern Europe, increased bureaucratization with its professionalisation and meritocracy, rationalization for efficiency, and the Protestant ethic of asceticism and hard work. It was the last, Protestantism and specifically capitalism that for Weber, in particular, explained why all of this happened in the West and not in Asia or the Middle East.

Weber's multifactoral approach to the rise of the West and the birth of modernity--intellectuals and scholars have generally seen modernity and the modern world as a product of the rise of the West--has had an immense influence on comparative social scientists and historians in his wake. Many, including myself, who have been influenced by Weber, continue to attribute the West's rise, power, and influence to a host of factors. In many of these multifactoral approaches European dominance becomes the end product of the West’s increasing control over its environment (an environmental or geographic argument), the awakening and mobilization of the Western masses through rituals, symbols, propaganda, patriotism, nationalism (a cultural argument), Western European beliefs in their own civilisational superiority (a cultural argument), industrialisation (an economic argument), Western technological developments (an economic and technological argument), institutional developments such as double entry accounting (an economic argument), the use of money for commerce, the rise of banks, financial institutions and joint stock companies all of which allowed for investment with limited liability and the mobilization of vast amounts of capital (all economic factors), the collapse of the church’s ban against usury or loans (a cultural and economic argument), a renewed interest in the Western past especially Ancient Greece and Rome which came to be seen as the hearth of Western Civilisation, a tendency seen as early as the Renaissance (a cultural argument), a belief in progress through science and technology (a cultural argument), Europe’s lack of centralization (a political argument), competition between the Western powers (a political argument), the hemming in of Europe by the Islamic Empires of the West, a hemming in which forced them to innovate particularly in terms of ocean exploration (a political and economic argument), the expansion of European agriculture (an economic argument), increases in Europe’s population (a demographic argument), the development of overland and overseas trade between various parts of Europe (an economic argument), and European Christianity’s missionising impulse (a cultural and ideological argument). All of these, claim scholars devoted to multifactoral approaches to the rise of the West to power, led to Western political, economic, cultural, social, military, scientific, and technological might.

Recently two academics have tossed their hats into the how and why did the West become so powerful and dominant ring and they have done so not only in the standard scholarly ways, by publishing scholarly papers and scholarly books, but also through documentaries. Geographer Jared Diamond argues that Western power and dominance can be summarised in three little words, guns, germs, and steel, the title of his prize-winning book. Diamond’s "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1999) and the documentary of the same name that followed the book (July 2006, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/). Diamond emphasises geographical, technological, and military rather than genetic factors to try to understand Europe’s political, social, economic, technological, military, and cultural power in the fifteenth century and afterwards. Diamond rejects notions of unilinear evolution, the notion that everyone evolves along the same lines (biology plus geography), arguing instead, like most contemporary evolutionary and cultural anthropologists, that humans have evolved to where they are today along a variety of paths, multilinear evolution (biology plus geographies). Diamond argues that it was food production and herding which has ultimately led to Western and European dominance.

Diamond points out that food production has developed at different rates in different parts of the world. Some people developed it independently others acquired it through cultural diffusion, others through culture contact. Diffusion of food production (and domesticated animals), claims Diamond, followed east-west axes in Europe versus north-south ones in the Americas and Africa (geography). In Europe food production was aided by the fact that over much of the peninsula irrigation is unnecessary for cultivation. Moreover, most of the cultivable land in Europe lies at low altitudes. The domestication of livestock in Europe provided, over time, Europeans with immunity to several diseases—measles from cattle, tuberculosis from cattle, smallpox from cattle and other livestock, flu from pigs and ducks, whooping cough from pigs and dogs, and a type of malaria from chickens and perhaps ducks. The fact that the West developed an immunity to these diseases played an important role in the making of the modern world because it was diseases more than guns and steel which decimated native populations in the English and Spanish New Worlds and beyond. For Diamond geography and geographical variations really do matter.

Niall Ferguson's documentary "Civilization" comes out of the what might be called the "kitchen sink" school of explanation for Western dominance. For Ferguson there are six reasons, Ferguson hiply refers to them as "killer aps", for Western power and dominance: economic and political competition, science, notions of private property, consumerism, democracy, and the work ethic. Conceptualising the rise of the West in this six broad ways allows Ferguson, like Weber before him, to note a number of factors which contributed to the rise of the West and changed Western and the world forever since Western ways of thinking and doing have gone global. These factors within factors, theory as Russian matryoshka dolls, include capitalism (competition), English and Scottish liberalism (competition and science), the Enlightenment (science), the rise of the university (science), guns and steel (science), ideologies of progress (science), medical advances (medicine; I would actually classify this under science) colonisation and imperialism (property), the extension of the franchise (democracy and property), secularisation or the separation of church and state (science and democracy), blue jeans and popular culture (consumerism), and the Protestant work ethnic (work ethic).

All of this comparative analysis of the rise of the West and of modernity, of course, hasn't gone without criticism. Some commentators have criticised Marx for his overemphasis on capitalism as the culprit for the rise of the modern world and for reducing politics and culture to the machinations of the capitalist class. Weber has been criticised for linking capitalism and Calvinism and for ignoring the role Catholicism played in the rise of capitalism particularly by Catholic historians and social scientists who are far too often cheerleaders for Roman Catholicism, capitalism, and the West. Some have criticised Diamond for his limited attention to culture and the role culture played in the rise of the West. One can criticise Ferguson for some of the same "sins" of omission and commission.

Ferguson tends to emphasise economics, politics, and most of all culture, particularly the culture wars associated with the clash of civilisations At one point, in fact, Ferguson compares contemporary Israel surrounded by Muslims to the Vienna of 1683 surrounded by Muslims. He argues, for instance, that it was not technology that made the West more powerful than China in the East since China developed gunpowder, the printing press, encyclopedias, and massive ocean going vessels for exploration but that it was political and economic competition. He argues that it was the notion of private property and its dominance in North America that distinguished North America from Latin America where the elite monopoly on property (Ferguson is drawing on the argument of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto here) led to the rise of a decadent elite idle rich who made their money off of what was essentially slave labour. He claims the Ottoman Empire, like Latin America, was inhibited in developing in a direction similar to Europe because of the dominance of an elite political and economic elite, the decadence that brought, and theocratic and anti-scientific Islam in that multicultural empire. And then, of course, there was good old European and Western greed. But was it simply competition that distinguished the West from the East? Was it simply a lack of private property and elite decadence that led to the differences between Latin America, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe? Was it simply that Westerners were more greedy than others around the world? What about the geography and natural resources Ferguson dismisses in a sentence in his discussion of property, North America, and Latin America? What about climate? What about capitalism? What about modern accounting practises?

One could, of course, criticise Ferguson for other reasons as well. He, for instance, downplays Western colonialisaton, the Western theft of land from the natives they found in the various "New Worlds" they "discovered" at the same time that he celebrates English property rights liberalism, the same property rights liberalism that justified the theft on the basis of use versus lack of use. It can't be said, however, that Ferguson entirely ignores the inequalities associated with the rise of the West. In what is almost an afterthought in the second hour of the first part of the series Ferguson does note that slavery existed in a United States that, at the same time, ostensibly at least, raised freedom, liberty, and property to the level of secular divine laws. Finally, one could and should criticise Ferguson's for his use of ideologically and culturally loaded terms like "dumb", "drab", "worst dressed", and "civilisation", terms which are, it can be readily be argued, in the eyes of the beholder rather than the transcendental notions Ferguson seems to think they are. And anyway, aren't the blue jeans of Westerners, their standard operating kit, akin to the "pajamas" of Mao era communism? Conformist?

Ferguson ends his excursion into the rise of the West by asking several questions about whether the West can and will survive the spread of the six Western killer aps he delineates around the globe and the adoption of some of these "killer aps" by countries like China and Turkey. Will the decline of Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic (shades of Max Weber) in Europe, he asks, kill that which allowed for Europe's rise to "civilization" in the first place? Will the spread of greed, narcissism (shades of Christopher Lasch), the obsession with pleasure (shades of Sigmund Freud), relativism, and vacuous consumerism in the West spell its demise? Will the decline of morality in general in the West lead to the collapse of Western civilisation for the first time since civilisation collapsed with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Will the pollution and climate change, caused by pollution spell the end of modernity? Or will the West revive those things that made it great and continue to lead the world toward the radiant future of science, the work ethic, private property, freedom, and autonomous legal systems that protect private property and freedom since after all, claims Ferguson, it is only the West that still has all six of his "killer aps" that made it great? Only time, I suppose, will tell.

I want to end this brief discussion with a few brief remarks on the style of Ferguson's "Civilization". Like Ferguson's earlier "The Ascent of Money" "Civilization" is structured rather like a popular music video or an episode of "The Hills" with their many jump cuts, jump cuts, for instance, from Ferguson in Spain to Ferguson in the City of London to Ferguson in Lima Peru to Ferguson in Charleston, South Carolina. In its style and form "Civilization" is heir to the Western advertising tradition, particularly Western television advertising. And this is why Niall Ferguson is a if not the documentary historian for post-MTV generations and their age. With Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money" and "Civilization" the documentary as James Bond action adventure film with Ferguson playing the role of Bond amidst exotic and not so exotic locales, has truly come of age. Welcome to the world of the action adventure history documentary. Welcome to the era of the historian as hero celebrity.





Sunday, May 20, 2012

We Will Always Forget...

Recently I watched the superb documentary "Comrade Duch" on PBS World (http://www.itvs.org/films/comrade-duch). Like so many documetaries these days Adrian Maben's "Comrade Duch" does several things during its hour and a half length. On one level "Comrade Duch" offers viewers a biography of Duch, born Kaing Guek Eav (1942), a promising student of mathematics who became a leading figure in the Kampuchean Communist Part and head of the Khmer Rouge government's internal security branch and who oversaw the infamous and brutal Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp where thousands were held for interrogation and torture. On another level it provides viewers with a history of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Kampuchea from 1975 until 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the regime. On still another level it allows viewers to follow search of the Irish photojournalist and author Nic Dunlop for Duch, a search which finally ended in 1999 with Dunlop's discovery of Duch in Samlaut, Kampuchea. And finally it takes viewers to Duch's trial before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia with UN sponsorship in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, a trial which found him guilty of "crimes against humanity".

Amidst the biography, history, search, and trial the documentary details, through paintings, photographs, detailed documentary records, and survivor testimonies, the tortures, confessions, and executions that took place during the years the Khmer Rouge ruled Kampuchea and Duch ruled the security apparatus of the Kampuchean state. Under Duch's watch "traitors to the party and the state" were beaten with cables until their bodies bled, had their heads stuck in water pots, had plastic bags stuck over their heads and water poured over them, and were forced to eat feces in order for the Kampuchean state gain "confessions" of their counterrevolutionary crimes. Then most of them were executed.

As I watched "Comrade Duch" I couldn't help but think about punishment and torture in general. As the documentary makes clear torture, and the slavery which the Khmer Rouge to some extent revived, were present in Kampuchea as early as the 12th century as reliefs on the walls of the famous Hindu temple complex at Angkor Wat makes clear. There, as in the 18th century BCE Mesopotamia (think the Code of Hammurabi), body parts were cut off to make punishments fit a variety of crimes.

Torture, of course, has a long history. If we concede that the dismemberment of bodies is torture than it has a very long history indeed. And it usually goes along with "interrogations" and the attempt to gain "confessions". Beyond Ancient Mesopotamia the Phoenicians, Persians, Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Mediaeval Christians (remember the inquisition), the Protestants of Civil War Era England, who tortured Quakers like James Nayler, and the Puritan Christians of Colonial American, who tortured those they believed to be witches in Salem Village, used torture to obtain "confessions" for a variety of "crimes".

The birth of the modern world may have stimulated the development of a conception of civil and human rights (one could argue that what we today call India has long had some conception of tolerance thanks to religious diversity and, with respect to the West, one could and some have argued that Western notions of tolerance arose in the Anabaptist conception of the separation of church and state during the Protestant Reformation) but despite the rise of the modern world and its conception of human civil and general human rights this has not ended torture. The Soviet Union, for instance, tortured "traitors" to the communist cause in order to gain confessions of treachery while the United States and Great Britain have tortured and aided and abetted torture in order to pursue their fight against the "terrorist" cause they see as threatening contemporary America and Britain.

One of the things I found particularly interesting about "Comrade Duch" is that at one point in the documentary Nic Dunlop, the journalist who tracked down Duch and who has had a longstanding interest in torture and genocide, comments that torture generally does not work, generally does not obtain accurate confessions. Many of those who survived the tortures of the Khmer Rouge and Comrade Duch confirm Dunlop's point. One survivor claims that perhaps twenty percent of confessions like his were accurate. Many polemicists and scholars have argued that the confessions obtained from supposed "counterrevolutionaries" during the Stalinist "show trial" of 1938, confessions that seemed to substantiate the Soviet leaderships contention that "counterrevolutionaries", some of them with ties to Leon Trotsky who had been exiled by Stalin, were attempting to overthrow the leadership of the Soviet Union, were false.

Americans since 9/11, when as CIA agent Cofer Black said the "gloves have come off", have been debating this issue of whether torture, some Americans refuse to even call it torture preferring to describe what American military and intelligence agencies are doing by the more innocuous and ambiguous phrase "enhanced interrogation", works. Some, most of them on the right, most prominently former Vice-President Dick Cheney, claim it does. Others, most of them on the left, claim that it doesn't. Many have claimed that the torture and the aiding and abetting of torture (renditions of "terrorists" to nations that do torture, for instance) Americans are doing is a violation of the very civil rights and human rights that are at the foundation of the United States given its Enlightenment background. What really interests me here, however, is whether those same people who claim that the torture of "terrorists" has helped the US government stop further terror attacks on American soil would make claims that torture produced accurate information and confessions during the Soviet show trial and the Khmer Rouge rule of Kampuchea. And if they don't I want to know why the inconsistency? Do they assume that there is a distinction between the torture of the good guys, torture that produces accurate information, and the torture of the bad guys, like that of Stalin and Pol Pot, torture that that doesn't work? And if they are making this distinction can they "prove" this very clearly moral statement by pointing to any empirical evidence that shows that the torture by good guys is good because it produces good information while the torture by bad guys is bad and it produces mostly false information?

Another point that Dunlop makes which I found interesting and absolutely correct in the documentary is the notion that evil, contrary to popular belief, is not extraordinary but is instead rather ordinary and all to human. Duch, Dunlop contends, was an ordinary human being capable of being both an "angel" and a "demon". Duch, like Adolf Hitler, was also a product of his times. While Hitler was influenced by the anti-Semitism rampant in the Europe and Vienna of the early twentieth century and before, and the alliance of this anti-Semitism with the new science of racial variation that was sweeping across the "civlised" West, Duch was influenced by a left wing teacher and by what he saw when he like many other leftists in Cambodia were arrested and tortured simply for being leftists.

In closing let me make one final general point. Torture is neither non-Western or Western. It has been used and continues to be used by Western nations like the US and non-Western nations like China. It is neither traditional or modern. It has been used and continues to be used by traditional societies like that in Saudi Arabia and modern societies like that in Great Britain. It is neither democratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian. It has and continues to be used by democratic regimes like that in the US, authoritarian regimes like that in Egypt, and totalitarian regimes like that in Uzbekistan. So much for the Western commitment to civil and human rights. So much for Western exceptionalism. So much for English, British, or American exceptionalism.



Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dixiefornication Now, Dixiefornication Tomorrow, Dixiefornication Forever?

So, according to recent news reports, the Arizona Secretary of State wants to see Obama's birth certificate (http://news.yahoo.com/arizona-secretary-state-wants-see-obamas-birth-certificate-195231726--abc-news-politics.html). The stupidity that this statement represents and symbolises, a stupidity that is running rampant through parts of the US these days, is neither the product of stupid genes or stupid causing ingredients in the waters of Arizona or other parts of the US. It is really not even a product of American politics. It is certainly not the product of a belief in empirical facts since Obama's birth certificate has been released. Rather it is the outcome of the increasing dixiefornication of parts of the US outside the South and the dixiefornication of the Republican Party, a party that used to stand for federalism (Lincoln) and progressivism (TR, LaFollette).

So this idiotic statement by the Arizona Secretary of State makes him a latter day version of that "good old boy" Dixiecrat George Wallace, that idiot Southern states rightser, law and order man, and anti-judicial activism activist Democrat who once proclaimed that segregation, the segregation that existed in the South in his day and existed in the South in his past, would last forever. Nothing, in my opinion, has been worse for America than the takeover of the Republican Party by these Dixiecrat RINOs (faux Republicans) and the increasing popularity of its idiocy thanks to demagoguery, elite monies, and human gullibility.

Beam me up.

Monday, May 7, 2012

That Good Old Time Whedon Religion: Criticism as Faith

Call me Diogenes. Call me Sherlock. Call me Anya. Call me Sarah Lund. Just don't call me Miss Bourgeois Congeniality...

As you, dear unreaders, probably know by know I am fascinated by the ideologies underlying and under girding film and television criticism and intellectual and academic culture in general. As you may also know I have long been a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other things Whedon particularly Firefly. What you may not not know is that while I consider myself an auteurist, though with a materialist bent, I also agree with Andre Bazin's famous critique of his auteurist colleagues at Cahiers du Cinéma, namely that not every film by an "auteur" is of equal "value". Nor do I mistake my aesthetic passions, and I do have them, for empirical facts.

What you may also not know dear unreaders is that the work of Joss Whedon, work sometimes caricatured and stereotyped as the opium of nerd or geek tween crowd, has had an significant impact on those who normally reside within the ivy towers of the academy. Today there is an academic Whedon Studies Association that is, as the Association says, "devoted to the study and works of Joss Whedon and his colleagues". The WSA, which compares itself to scholarly gatherings devoted to the study of Dickens and Flannery O'Connor, fine company indeed, was founded in 2009 by those associated with the online journal Slayage, the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association.

As someone with an academic and aesthetic interest in the work of Joss Whedon I have read a few of the articles in what used to be called the international online journal of Buffy Studies, Slayage, and I attended the third international Slayage conference in Henderson, Arkansas in 2008. Slayage first appeared in 2001 as a result of work on what would become one of the first academic books in Buffy and Whedon Studies, Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Rowman and Littlefield). Fighting the Forces was edited by David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox, the so-called father and mother of Buffy Studies, Whedon Studies, and Slayage and contains essays on music in Buffy, gender in Buffy, and Buffy and postmodern politics among other topics.

Another book on Buffy and its spinoff Angel edited by prominent science fiction and fantasy critic Roz Kaveney appeared the same year Fighting the Forces did, Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Companion to Buffy and Angel (Tauris). Reading the Vampire Slayer consists of essays that were originally submitted to Lavery and Wilcox for Fighting the Forces but were among those not accepted because of the too large number of submissions Lavery and Wilcox received for that book, 140 in total. Reading contains essays on Buffy and politics and acting in the Buffyverse among other topics.

Other academic books on Buffy and Joss Whedon soon followed including tomes on morality in the Buffyverse (Gregory Stevenson's Televised Morality), the culture of aesthetics in Buffy (Matthew Pateman's The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), faith and choice in the Whedonverse (Dale Koontz's Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon), and most recently the almost 500 page Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion from PopMatters, an online journal of cultural criticism. Today there are some twenty academic books on all things Whedon available in the publishing marketplace.

Buffy, of course, wasn't only of interest to academics. The show also generated what the press loves to call a devoted cult fan base among non-academics out there in TV viewing land. This means, of course, that though Buffy wasn't watched by a lot of viewers particularly in comparison with television shows on the major American television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) it did garner a very devoted fan base, a devoted fan base that hit some of the demographics the networks Buffy was broadcast on,the WB and later UPN, were after. As a cult hit Buffy generated a number of books, not to mention websites, Buffy came on the air in 1997 just as the World Wide Web was hitting its early stride, aimed at Buffy's cult viewer demographic. These more popular analytical tomes included the "official" Watcher's Guide by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder published in 1998, the first of three volumes. Other fan guides followed including Kathleen Tracy's The Girl's Got Bite (Renaissance Books), Nikki Stafford's Bite Me: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (ECW), Lawrence Miles, Lars Pearson's, and Christa Dickson's Dusted: The Unauthorized Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Mad Norwegian Press), and Keith Topping's The Complete Slayer: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Every Episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Virgin), a compilation of three previous fan guides Topping had written on the show. There's even an online shrine of sorts to Whedon and all things Whedon called Whedonesque

I mention both the academic fans and non-academic fans of Buffy because Buffy and Whedon Studies has always been a hybrid of what some scholars call scholar fans and fan scholars, academics who are fans of most things Whedon and fans who engage in "scholarly" analysis, most of it online, of most things Whedon. This hybrid nature of contemporary Whedon Studies can very clearly be seen in the Facebook page of the Whedon Studies Association.

Recently there has been a flurry of activity on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page thanks to the delayed release of the Whedon and Drew Goddard--Goddard was one of the writers on Buffy--penned Cabin in the Woods and the release of the latest in a long line of big budget superhero films Marvel's and Disney's Avengers/Avengers Assemble directed by none other than the totem of Whedon fan clan Joss Whedon.

As a member of the Association and a one time "liker" of the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page I recently posted several journalistic reviews, most of them positive, of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page. The reaction, a reaction which interests me the observer, while not unexpected, has been fascinating to watch.

The review that I put up that has garnered by far most of the attention from the admittedly few in number of posters on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook site has been the negative review of the film by A.O. Scott, one of the leading if not the leading critic for the newspaper with probably the largest cultural capital clout in the United States, the New York Times. Before I get to the reaction of the Facebook Whedon Studies Association page to Scott's review it is worth noting that while most of the reviews of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble in the US and British press have been positive--35 of the 42 reviews at Metacritic, the online web review site that brings together reviews of films from US, Canadian, and British newspapers, are positive or moderately positive--that Scott's negative review of the film has not been the only negative one out there in criticland. Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail, Karina Longworth of the Village Voice, Rene Rodriquez of the Miami Herald, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, Andrew O'Hehir of Salon, and Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader have also been critical of the film. Even longtime defender of the Whedon faith, Stephanie Zacharek, is lukewarm about the film in Movieline.

When I posted Scott's review I put up a quote from Scott's review in the make a comment Facebook box which I thought nicely and elegantly summarised Scott's take on the film: "Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe. Some of the rebel spirit of Mr. Whedon’s early projects Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Serenity creeps in around the edges but as detail and decoration rather than as the animating ethos". Reactions to Scott's review on the Whedon Studies Facebook page were varied. Most posters condemned Scott for not understanding the Avengers Marvelverse on which the film was based (scholar fan Ensley Guffey, fan scholar Troy Mills, who claims to have written his Ph.D. on Marvel, scholar fan Dale Guffey) and for not getting that Avengers/Avengers Assemble was a critique of the American military-industrial-political-capitalist-complex not a celebration of it (Guffey, Guffey, scholar fan Kristen Romanelli). Criticism as apologetics and polemics? Others posted that they largely agreed with Scott's review only to change her mind after reading other reviews (Laurel Bowman). Still others tried to tease out and explore Scott's more general argument about the social and cultural contexts of the film, Avengers/Avengers Assemble in the service of political and capitalist power (David Kociemba, Ronald Helfrich).

There is one thing, I think, that undergirds and overdetermines the posts of those critical of Scott's review, a mashup of the aesthetics of value and some empirical referents. Those who raised their voices loudest against Scott seem to be among the staunchest defenders of the Marvel and Whedon faiths. This is not unexpected since ideologies of faith, as a general rule, determine scholar fan and fan scholars reactions to a film by one of their favourite auteurs.

One of the more interesting arguments against, or so I presume, Scott on the Facebook Whedon Studies page is that of fan scholar David Koceiemba. Kociemba, in a series of posts, explores the culture of New York Times criticism. What he claims to find there is a culture of Whedon criticism in which New York Times critics initially dislike a Whedon television programme or film only to to praise it once the next Whedon television programme or film comes along. According to Kociemba this pattern of Whedon criticism endlessly repeats itself at the Times. The problems with Kociemba's analysis are multiple. First, Kociemba's analysis is based on a reading of reviews of Buffy, Firefly, and Serenity by different critics at the New York Times, different Times critics who, as he admits, are not A.O. Scott. If one is going to generalise about the culture of Whedon criticism at the New York Times one needs to find this pattern in the criticism of most Whedon critics at the New York Times (a conspiracy theory). Second, the fact that Kociemba doesn't find this pattern in Scott raises questions about the relevance of his observations to a discussion of A.O. Scott's critique of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble. Third, assuming that this culture of dismissal and then praise of Whedon's works exits at the New York Times, and that is a big assumption since not every New York Times critic has written about Whedon's work as far as I can tell, the question has to be posed as to whether this culture or pattern of criticism exists only for Whedon at the Times, only at the Times, or in human culture beyond the Times. Do humans, in other words, tend to judge a film or television programme they have just watched by reference to something else by the same person they saw earlier (auteurism), something similar in structure they saw earlier (genre), or something similar in theme they saw earlier? There is some support for such an argument. Many Buffy fans, for instance, who weren't and aren't paid film critics did the same thing when, as one can see in the comments on Dollhouse at Whedon devotee Nikki Stafford's Nik at Nite online web site, compared the new Dollhouse to the old Buffy and found the former wanting. Most humans it seems tend to revel in the mnemonic joys of repetition, of the already familiar. So if the way criticism is done at the Times is how humans in general do criticism it has to be admitted that the criticism that Koceiemba sees as characterising the Times is simply an aspect of general human behaviour and is not part of a conspiracy against Joss Whedon or part of a conspiratorial critical practise at the Times.

In a later post Kociemba makes the argument that the point of his analysis of Whedon criticism at the Times is that the New York Times, as an "establishment" newspaper is, as he puts it, "behind the times" (pun presumably intended) when it comes to popular culture criticism. Whether Kociemba's argument has some merit, and I think that is arguable whether it does or not and that historical context must be taken into account when debating it, it has to be noted that Kociemba's argument hinges on ideological notions of value not on empirical analysis. It assumes that one, presumably himself and other Whedon fans, can determine what is ahead of the times and what is "behind the times". But since not everyone in the known universe would conclude that Whedon's work is prophetic or even that it is "good" it is not clear how such a critical position could be valid unless one resorts to and relies on an elitist conception of criticism in which only the critical priesthood (the priesthood that has a monopoly on the Du Luc cross of critical analysis?) has the ability to determine what is progressive and what is not.

Speaking of notions of progressivism another fan scholar poster at the Whedon Studies Facebook page, Alyson Buckman, uses Kociemba's analysis to make the argument that the New York Times criticism Kociemba references, criticism that is initially negative but becomes positive once a new Whedon product appears in the marketplace and so on and so forth in a critical time loop, shows that Whedon, as she puts it, "is ahead of the curve AND likes his audiences intelligent enough to get what he's doing." I am not sure how Buckman gets, empirically, from the supposed culture of New York Times Whedon criticism to Whedon the progressive nerd who makes nerd product for his "intelligent" nerd audience and I certainly don't agree with her none too subtle jibe at the limited intelligence of New York Times critics or, presumably, anyone else who might disagree with her positive assessment of The Avengers/Avengers Assemble but what is clear here is how aesthetic notions of what is beautiful and what is of value link up in her discourse with ideologies of progressivism and intelligence to produce an ideology of Whedon the ahead of his time nerd and of Whedon's devotees as intelligent strivers trying to keep up with their auteur yoda. Needless to say Buckman's argument shows once again how ideology creates reality even among academics.

This circling of doctrinal wagons by some to protect the Whedon faith and this notion of Whedon as nerd messiah to the nerds is why some Whedon criticism seems akin to the faith that is at the heart of most if not all human meaning systems. Meaning systems, after all, with their constructions of truth, beauty, good, evil, sacred, and profane are at the heart of human identity construction, human identity formations, human community construction, and human community forms. And that is what is really going on on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page. Whedon fans are looking for other Whedon fans so they can revel together in the joys of how wonderful it is to be an intelligent and progressive lover of all things Whedon. Criticism as hero worship, criticism as constructor of identity, criticism as constructor of community, criticism as maintainer of identity, criticism as maintainer of community. No outsiders, no dissidents, no heretics, wanted. Only conformists to the cult of Joss and those who don't raise questions about the ideological underpinnings of Whedon Studies discourse apparently need apply for as Durkheim famously noted those who create communities sacralise or make holy the communities they create and are not particularly fond of those who profane sacred taboos.

Postscript:
One poster whose discourse I commented on and critiqued in this blog post has accused me of "attacking" posters on the selectively public Whedon Studies Association Facebook site. I beg to differ. An attack goes something like this: Metcalfe is a butthead. This attack, by the way, is an actual ad hominem attack aimed at Brent Metcalfe editor of a book collecting a number of critical essays on the Book of Mormon by polemicists and apologists at FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, one of the main contemporary defenders of the Mormon faith. I made no such ad hominem attack on any poster on the Whedon Studies Association Facebook page in this blog. I simply analysed, empirically I might add, the discourse of Whedon Studies Association Facebook page posters in the time tested manner of practitioners of Cultural Studies, Semiology, Structuralism, Textual Analysis, and Deconstructionism. What I am doing here, in other words, is discourse analysis, a discourse analysis that is not that different from what others have done when, for example, they have explored the discourse of television and film criticism at, say, the New York Times.