Archive for November, 2009


November 25, 2009

Once again Thanksgiving is upon us. Although I no longer pay much attention to it, Thanksgiving was a big part of my childhood. Every year my teachers would tell me about how the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving dinner, to which they invited their Indian friends, who had helped them survive their first year in North America. Somehow my teachers always neglected to mention that 64 years later the Pilgrims fought a genocidal war against their Indian friends. I suppose they were afraid that might take some of the fun out of the holiday. My teachers struggled mightily to make the Pilgrims seem interesting, but somehow the impression they gave was that the Pilgrims were just a bunch of people who wore dorky clothes and carried funny-looking firearms. Oh, and they liked to eat turkey! My teachers were hamstrung by the fact that they didn’t want to talk about 1) the Pilgrims’ ingratitude toward their Indian friends, and 2) the Pilgrims espoused a virulent form of Calvinism that most modern Americans would find repugnant. For example, it would be awkward for a teacher to have to explain to Catholic children that their Pilgrim forefathers believed that the Pope is the “Anti-Christ”.

My teachers only had one story to tell about the Pilgrims, which they told over and over again. It went like this: John Alden has a crush on Priscilla Mullins, but he can’t bring himself to approach her. One day, John’s commanding officer, Miles Standish, tells him to go to Priscilla and convey his own request for her hand in marriage. Being a spineless chump, John does this. Priscilla responds by saying, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” That’s it. That’s the story. Pretty exciting, eh? I’m told that Longfellow made an epic poem out of this. It must have been a slow week for him.

My family celebrated Thanksgiving every year, despite it being politically problematic. Since my parents were atheists, it wasn’t clear to me whom we were thanking, or even what we should be thankful for. It eventually became apparent to me that the holiday was just an excuse to eat turkey and stuffing – and watch football in the middle of the week. In a funny way, though, Thanksgiving did teach me something about life. When I was a child, nothing appeared to me to be more mouth-watering than a big, fat turkey hot out of the oven. I would have a feeling of eager anticipation as my father would carve it. My heart would beat faster as he put big slices of white breast meat on plate. I would eagerly thrust a large piece in my mouth. I would then be perplexed to find myself chewing on something dry and tasteless. What I learned here is that appearances can be deceiving, and don’t believe the hype.

I found that by covering the white meat with gravy or stuffing or mashed potatoes – or a combination of the three – I could make it edible. (Another lesson: be resourceful.) I eventually figured out that the good meat is the dark meat (legs, thighs, wings). As Louis Prima once put it, “The closer to the bone, the sweeter is the meat.” Although I don’t think he was talking about turkeys.

So Long, Oprah

November 23, 2009

Oprah Winfrey has announced that she is bringing her long-running TV show to an end. One of the factors that apparently led to this decision was her discovery that her own father is writing a tell-all book about her. (Ah, the life of a celebrity!)

If you ask me, Winfrey’s decision doesn’t come a moment too soon. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that Winfrey is an evil influence on our society. Among other things, she started the media hysteria over the absurd New Age book, The Secret. This learned tome claims, among other things, that thinking positive thoughts will cause good things to happen to you. Conversely, bad things will happen to you if you have negative thoughts. I suppose Winfrey believes that all the people in Hiroshima were having negative thoughts just before the atom bomb was dropped on them.

Newsweek has documented Winfrey’s practice of featuring dubious “alternative” medical ideas on her show – including the unproven claim that vaccines can cause autism. I know, people will argue that she isn’t as bad as Montel Williams or Maury Povich, who have had all sorts of quacks and frauds on their shows. I would argue that Winfrey is worse than these two precisely because she has a patina of respectability. People are more likely to believe nonsense when it’s on her show.

Late night talk shows don’t pretend to be anything more than entertainment. (Dick Cavett was accused of taking himself too seriously when he began having writers and intellectuals on his show.) Yet there is a widespread assumption that daytime talk shows can’t be just about celebrity chitchat, they have to be in some way educational. (I have no idea why people think this.) The problem is that, for the producers of these shows, “educational” usually means self-help books, fad diets, “alternative” medicine, New Age sophistry, and, of course, “psychics”. Sylvia Browne is a popular guest on these shows. In earlier days, it was Jeanne Dixon. The claims of these people are always treated uncritically.

Mike Douglas, who was sort of the Oprah Winfrey of his time, would bring Criswell on his show. (Yes, that’s the same Criswell who will be forever remembered for his deliriously bombastic speech at the beginning of Plan 9 from Outer Space. “Some day we will all live in the future!”) Douglas enthusiastically promoted the book, Criswell Predicts, which, among other things, prophecied that the world would come to an end in 1999. I seem to recall that Criswell also predicted that World War Three would be fought using insects that drill through people’s skulls, and that the first human on the moon would be a pregnant woman. Truly, this man was uncanny.

One thing I will say for Douglas is that he didn’t take himself too seriously, at least not nearly as seriously as Winfrey takes herself. One thing that really always annoys me about Winfrey is the attitude of moral seriousness that she exudes. One of the silliest things I have ever seen was the contrived outrage that she showed when it was revealed that James Frey had embellished some incidents of his life in A Million Little Pieces. Of course, people often change details of their lives in their autobiographies. Yet Winfrey reacted almost as if Frey had committed rape. Interestingly, after Winfrey excoriated Frey on her show, sales of his book skyrocketed. Perhaps this shows that some people can recognize grandstanding when they see it.

To be fair, Winfrey did express reservations about the impending invasion of Iraq, which is more than can be said for the execrable Jay Leno. (I’m pleased to note that Leno’s new show is bombing. Heh-heh.) It’s unfortunate that Winfrey can’t show a similar skepticism towards pernicious trash like The Secret.

Update: on Counterpunch, Ishmael Reed has a revealing article about Winfrey’s association with the film, Precious. Worth reading.

High and Low

November 21, 2009

Japanese cinema has always been an interest of mine, going back to when, as a child, I watched Japanese monster movies on Saturday afternoon TV. My tastes have evolved over the years. I recently saw a film by Akira Kurosawa, High and Low (1963). It tells the story of a wealthy businessman, Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune), who is looking to seize control of a shoe company from the other stockholders. Suddenly he receives a phone call from someone who says he has kidnapped Gondo’s son. Gondo tells him he will pay the ransom, even though it means giving up the money he needs to buy out his enemies in the company, and he will be forced out of the company and into poverty. He subsequently learns that the kidnapper took the son of his chauffeur by mistake. Gondo then begins to waffle about paying the money. Only after pleadings from his wife, Reiko (Kyōko Kagawa) and from his chauffeur does he relent and pay the money. The rest of the film is mostly taken up with the police search for the kidnapper.

What makes High and Low interesting is its portrayal of class dynamics in Japanese society. Gondo has worked his way up from the factory floor in his company, and he takes pride in its product. He finds himself at odds with the other shareholders in the company, who don’t have his background working in production. Their desire to increase profits by making shoddily-constructed shoes offends Gondo’s sense of craftsmanship and pride in his work. Later, when these shareholders learn of Gondo’s predicament, they show no sympathy for him whatsoever. Instead, they openly relish the fact that they will now be able to push him out of the company, much to the disgust of the police detective who interviews them. When Gondo’s wife, Reiko, urges him to pay the ransom money, he contemptuously tells her that, being from a rich family, she has no idea what it’s like to be poor. Gondo’s chauffeur behaves in a craven manner towards him, even though Gondo lets his son play with his own.

The kidnapper is motivated by jealousy. He lives in poverty while he can see Gondo’s sumptuous house on a hill. (In one scene, a policeman comments on how the house seems to look down on the poorer city below.) It is this which motivates his crime, but ironically he kidnaps the chauffeur’s son instead. The kidnapper is portrayed as cruel and pitiless, nevertheless his anger is real. In the film’s final scene, he tells Gondo how much the sight of his house tormented him, a rebuke to Gondo’s vanity in buying the place. He then impotently claws at the glass dividing him from Gondo. He might as well be clawing at the economic system that separates them.

I’ve always known that Kurosawa was a pacifist. However, watching this film makes me think that perhaps his politics were more left-wing than I previously realized. I feel motivated to re-watch the other Kurosawa films that I’ve seen.

Chris Harman (1942-2009)

November 10, 2009

Chris Harman

I was at an ISO meeting in Seattle on Saturday, when Lee Sustar got up and announced that Chris Harman had died the day before. Harman was a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party of Britain and an influential figure on the British Left. He wrote a number of important books on Marxist economics and on history. I highly recommend his A People’s History of the World. Alas, I lent my copy to someone and never saw it again. (I also lent my copy of Harman’s How Marxism Works to someone and never saw it again. I guess it’s just as well. His writings deserve to be widely circulated.)

I never met Harman, but I did hear him speak once. It was in Chicago in 1996. I’m afraid I don’t remember much about it except that Harman had the most intense gaze I have ever seen in my life. There were several hundred people in the auditorium, and I was sitting all the way in the back. Yet, throughout his entire talk I had the distinct impression that he was looking directly at me. My sense of this was so vivid that it actually made me feel uncomfortable. I can’t recall ever having a similar experience. Looking at some pictures of him on the Internet lately, I could see how I was able to get that impression.

Harman’s death is a great loss for the international Left. My sincere condolences to his family and to his friends.