Archive for October, 2010

Endless War

October 6, 2010

Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, quotes Gen. Petraeus as saying of the Afghan war:

“You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting…. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”

So, here we have the U.S. commander in Afghanistan practically admitting that the war is unwinnable. Yet there are no howls of outrage from Congress, no demands that he be fired, no calls for him to resign. I think we can assume that what he said is perfectly fine with the Democrats and Republicans.

Endless war seems to be the U.S.’s destiny in the twenty-first century. And the generals are the ones who are pushing for it. It wasn’t always like this. During the Second World War, the U.S. generals worried that the war was going on too long. They were worried that the war would become unpopular. There seems to be no such concern today. Polls show that the majority of Americans want out of Afghanistan. Yet this doesn’t mean diddley-squat to either the politicians or the generals. I think this indicates two things: first, that neoconservative ideology has permeated our government, and second, that the anti-war movement is too weak.


October 5, 2010

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is famous for its depiction of a futuristic city, but what is not so well appreciated is its depiction of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. It is one of the few cinematic works I know of that have tried to represent this.

I’ve seen several versions of this film over the years. Each successive version contained additional footage that had previously been lost, with the result that each time the details of the story became clearer. This year a new version has been released, containing thirty minutes of newly restored footage. It also has the original film score that was composed by Gottfried Huppertz. I must admit that I found the score disappointing. The nineteenth century romanticism of Huppert’s music seems at odds with the film’s modernism. Also, it was recorded in front of an audience, with the result that there are sounds of people coughing on the soundtrack.

Despite its criticism of captitalism, Metropolis is politically problematic. Among other things, it takes a deeply pessimistic view of workers’ struggle. When the workers in the film finally rise up against their exploiters, they destroy vital machinery, which results in water flooding into the underground tenements where their children are. The idea seems to be that in the frenzy of revolt, the workers are incapable of thinking rationally. (The problem of mob violence was a recurring theme in Lang’s work. He would return to it later in M and, most notably, in the anti-lynching film, Fury.)

Also problematic is the film’s ending, in which the worker, Grot (“the hand”), is united with the capitalist, Frederson (“the brain”), by Frederson’s son (“the heart”). The meaning here is explicitly spelled out in the film: “The mediator between the hand and the brain must be the heart”. This really doesn’t mean anything; it’s not even a platitude. The political problems with this film perhaps were foreshadowing of things to come. Lang wrote the film with his wife, Thea von Harbou. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Lang fled to the United States, but Harbou remained and became a supporter of the Nazis. In later years, Lang expressed distaste for Metropolis, calling it “silly and stupid”.

There are also problems with the film’s narrative. Towards the end, for example, there’s a sequence in which the deranged inventor, Rotwang, abducts the heroine, and, Quasimodo-like, carries her onto the roof of a cathedral, where he does battle with the film’s hero. I found this just silly, and it merely detracts from the film’s main story.

Although Metropolis is Lang’s most famous film, it is not one of his best. I would argue that M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Fury are all better films. Still, Metropolis was a visually innovative film for its time, and it remains important for that reason.

Snake Oil

October 4, 2010

I can’t go to the movies nowadays without having to sit through the trailer for Waiting for Superman. This is a film that promotes the neoliberal quackery on education (privatization, charter schools, standardized tests). It doesn’t seem to bother the people advocating this stuff that there is no evidence that students do any better in charter schools than in public schools. Charter schools are being offered up as the all-purpose remedy for our nation’s education woes, and people are being urged to line up to get their share.

What really bugs me, though, is this emphasis on standardized testing. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that an education consists of something more than just an ability to answer multiple-choice questions. (Having taken quite a few standardized tests in the course of my life, I know that there are ways to sometimes guess the correct answers on these things.) Standardized testing is a poor way of preparing students for college. Engineering students, for example, are expected to answer problem-solving questions. Standardized tests will not prepare them for this. College students are expected to be able to write clearly and to organize their thoughts. Standardized tests will not prepare them for this.

I suspect that this push for standardized testing has to do with the needs of U.S. capitalism right now. In the years following the Second World War, there was a big emphasis on getting students to learn science and engineering. This reflected the needs of many corporations at that time. Today, with much of manufacturing shipped overseas, corporations don’t have as much need for people with that kind of training. Standardized testing will create a generation of people who are good at clerical work, which seems to be what the capitalists need right now. The aim is to create a generation of bean counters.

The current push for education “reform” has, however, two main goals: to smash the teacher’s unions and, more importantly, to turn our schools into cash cows for private companies.