Archive for October, 2012

Two Early Films by Werner Herzog: Heart of Glass and The Engima of Kaspar Hauser

October 28, 2012

Werner Herzog’s 1976 film, Heart of Glass, can charitably be described as a failed experiment. This film is most notorious for the fact that Herzog had the actors hypnotized before each scene. He claimed this enabled them to express themselves more freely, although you would never guess that from watching this film. The actors seem stiff and wooden. They look past each other, and at times they seem to be about to fall asleep.

Another problem is that this film doesn’t have much of a story. It is set in a Bavarian village during the 18th century. The town has gotten wealthy by manufacturing ruby-colored glass. The factory foreman, Muehlbeck, is the only person who knows how to make the special glass. He dies without revealing the secret to anyone. (This is far-fetched, to say the least. The story is reportedly based on a German legend.) Realizing that their livelihood is now threatened, the townspeople become increasingly prone to violent or extreme behavior. The factory owner, Huttenbesitzer (Stefan Güttler) goes mad. He convinces himself that the secret ingredient in the ruby-colored glass is human blood, so he kills his servant, Ludmilla (Sonja Skiba). Immediately after that, he sets fire to his factory. Oh, and there is a seer named Hias (Josef Bierbichler, who was fortunate enough to be the only actor who wasn’t hypnotized), who makes apocalyptic prophecies. That’s pretty much all that happens. Herzog fills out the film to feature length by including long, brooding shots of the Bavarian countryside. There is also an interesting scene of glassblowers working in the factory that will teach you some things about making glass objects.

Strong performances might have compensated for the weakness of the story, but Herzog made sure that wouldn’t happen with his hypnotism. One can only conclude that the hypnosis was a gimmick. Herzog has always been a bit of a huckster (which is actually part of his aesthetic), but in Heart of Glass his carny impulses went a bit too far.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, made two years earlier, is a superior film in many ways, not least because there was no hypnosis. The German title for this is Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Every Man for Himself and God against Everyone). Herzog has said that he “loved” this title, but nobody else seemed to like it. (I side with the nobody else.) As the American title indicates, this film is based on the life of Kaspar Hauser, the foundling who was reportedly raised without any human contact. This film presents Hauser’s account of his life as true, although many historians have come to believe that he was a clever impostor. The abrupt and mysterious nature of Hauser’s death does not lend itself to tragedy, so Herzog tries to play it for irony. At the end, we see doctors performing an autopsy on Hauser’s body. They find that his cerebellum and part of his liver are enlarged, and that the left side of his cerebrum is smaller than the right side. (Strangely, the doctors don’t seem to notice that his brain looks as though it is made out of moldy cheese.) A government official writes all this down and then gleefully scurries off, satisfied that the mystery of Kaspar Hauser has finally been “solved”. As a satire of bureaucracy, this seems merely contrived and tacked on.

Herzog cast Bruno Schleinstein (also known as Bruno S.) as Kaspar Hauser. (Even though Scheinstein was 41, and Hauser was only 17 when he was “found”.) Schleinstein was a Berlin street performer who was said to suffer from severe psychological problems. Herzog once claimed that he found Schleinstein when the latter broke into his car and fell asleep in it. Later, it turned out that Herzog had actually learned about Schleinstein from a documentary about Berlin artists. This just goes to show that Herzog has a bit of Kaspar Hauser in him. Anyway, Schleinstein, who allegedly had no previous acting experience, gives a very strong performance in this film; he is the main reason to watch it. He had what Hollywood types call “presence”. Perhaps this is something he acquired from his experience as a street performer. It’s hard to take your eyes off him. He makes his character’s odd behavior completely convincing. Unfortunately, Schleinstein only appeared in a few films (one was Herzog’s Stroszeck), reportedly because he was difficult to work with. A shame.

Barack Obama and the Persistence of the Old Regime

October 26, 2012

The Atlantic Monthly has dared to suggest what none have so far dared to say: that President Barack Obama should be impeached for the murder of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. There is, of course, zero possibility of this actually happening, but the idea is worth raising if only to show what a sham our democracy is. The Republicans are not going to make an issue out of this, no doubt because they don’t see anything wrong with what the President did. For all their huffing and puffing, the Republicans are not really an opposition party. (It would be more accurate to call them an obstruction party.) Certainly Romney would have done the same thing Obama did.

The historical trend has always been to give more and more power to the executive branch. There was a brief push back against this during the Watergate scandal, but that is ancient history now. The idea that the president is not above the law is now regarded as one of those quaint fads of the 1970’s, along with leisure suits and bell-bottom pants.

Consider, for example, how often the president is referred to as the “commander-in-chief”. This is misleading. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He is not the commander-in-chief of anything else. Reporters and pundits must surely be aware of this, but they use the term anyway, even though they must know that many people are not kwowledgeable about the Constitution. (And why aren’t they? That’s a question that will have to be addressed at another time.) One must seriously question their motives for doing this.

For the Left, there is nothing to recommend Obama. He has better positions on women’s reproductive rights than Romney does, but that is about it. Yet it can be argued that a defeat for Obama would be a triumph for the forces of reaction in this country. Every president gets criticized, but both the quality and the quantity of the criticism aimed at Obama are different from that aimed at previous presidents. Bill Clinton was the subject of paroxysms of paranoia on the right, but the attacks on him mostly had to do with real matters: Clinton’s marital infidelities, the accusations of sexual harassment (which were plausible), his involvement with the Whitewater scandal, and the slightly suspicious death of Vince Foster. Yet the accusations against Obama have nothing to do with reality. We’re told that Obama ia a Muslim, that he associates with terrorists, that he wants to create death panels and put people in re-education camps. There are accusations of a “missing” birth certificate that isn’t missing. This summer a movie was shown in theaters all across the country that argues that Obama is a “Kenyan nationalist” who wants to undermine the U.S. power in the world. (In fact, Obama has gone out of his way to try to shore up the U.S.’s empire.) It’s not hard to see that this is all tied to Obama’s race. Some people are incensed that a black man – the Other – now occupies the White House. Donald Trump, for angrily demands that Obama release his college transcripts. It is inconceivable to Trump that a black man could be more successful and better educated than he is. (I think it fair to say that most black people are better educated than Donald Trump.)

It has often been noted that the so-called blue state/red state divide bears a striking resemblance to the North/South divide of the Civil War. Race is at the center of both these divides, although people were more honest about this in 1861. The Republican Party has absorbed, and in turn been taken over by, the Old Democratic Party of Jim Crow. It is perhaps significant that in recent years, the idea of secession, once confined to a handful of crackpots, has crept its way into mainstream discourse. (The nitwits at CounterPunch bear some responsibility for this.) Romney is too smart to believe the Tea Party’s nonsense, but he pandered to them during the primaries, and a Romney victory will be seen as a win for them.

This raises a critical issue for the Left. Should the racism of Obama’s opponents be considered the most critical issue in this election? I haven’t made up my own mind about this, but I think it is a question that the Left should consider.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

October 24, 2012

These can perhaps be regarded as typical of German movie poster art of the 1950’s.

It was left to the Italians to show them how to do it right.

By the late 1950’s, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood movie career had come to end. There were no more studio executives left for him to piss off. It was at this time that the German film producer, Artur Brauner, approached Lang and suggested he do a remake of his silent film The Indian Tomb, (which had been completed without Lang’s supervision). Lang agreed, and the resulting work was released as two films: The Tiger of Eschnapu and The Indian Tomb. They were two of the last three films that Lang made before he retired due to failing eyesight.

Lang regarded film as a visual art form rather than as a form of literature, so he had no reservations about using “genre” subject matter: science fiction, detective stories or, in the case of these two films, Orientalist fantasy. In this respect, he is similar to such contemporary directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Unlike them, however, Lang’s films are never coy or campy. He always treats his subject matter seriously and with respect. For that reason, I consider Lang’s work to be artistically superior to that of these other directors.

From the moment one begins watching The Tiger of Eschnapur, one can see right away that this is an example of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”. More than once some character mentions that Europeans can never really understand India. (It doesn’t help that most of the Indian roles are played by Europeans in brown face.) This “Mysterious Orient” nonsense was, of course, used to justify Western imperialism. (The “clash of civilizations” is a more sophisticated, contemporary version of this argument.) This film is based on a 1918 novel written by Lang’s former wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the silly story for Metropolis and who later joined the Nazi party (although, interestingly, she secretly married an Indian man). One can, however, enjoy these films on their own terms without worrying about the politics of it. It is simply a remnant from a defunct way of looking at the world.

Harold Barger (Paul Hubschmid) is a German architect who has been hired by Chandra (Walter Reyer), the maharajah of Eschnapur, to design public buildings for his kingdom. On his way to Chandra’s palace, Harold meets Seetha (Debra Paget), a temple dancer with whom the maharajah has fallen in love. The carry out a secret affair, which Chandra eventually discovers. Chandra throws Harold into a pit with a man-eating tiger, but Harold manages to kill it. (The tiger is obviously fake. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.) Chandra then tells Harold that he has until sunrise to leave Eschnapur. Harold, however, has an assignation with Seetha in a temple, and the two of them flee into the desert. There, they are overcome by the heat and dust. Harold deliriously shoots at the sun just before he collapses. A message then flashes across the screen promising that we can see the miraculous rescue of the lovers in the sequel, which will be “more grandiose” than the first film.

The Indian Tomb is, indeed, more grandiose. Seetha and Harold are rescued by a caravan. Shortly afterwards, however, they are captured by Chandra’s soldiers. True love eventually wins out, though not without a lot of people getting killed in the process.

These are not among Lang’s best films, but they are nonetheless entertaining movies to watch. Lang directed them in a beautiful manner, although he clearly had to deal with a limited budget. Some of the sets and costumes are not quite convincing. And some of the special effects are embarrassing, such as the fakest looking cobra you will ever see. On the other hand, Debra Paget gives not one, but two, erotic dances. Paget, an American, was, like Lang, a refugee from Hollywood. She had refused to abide by the rules of the studio system, so she was blacklisted. She had to go to Europe to find work. I’m told that in her later years Paget became a born-again Christian, and she had her own religiously themed TV show. I wonder if she ever discussed temple dancing on her show.

Welcome to L.A.

October 22, 2012

Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!
― John Fante

I have returned from the Land of White People to the Real World. It was not without some trepidation that I made the decision to return here. Los Angeles is an ugly city in some ways, and it is laid out in a way that is not environmentally sustainable. Yet I must admit to having fond memories of this place. Since I have arrived here, I have come to the realization that I am a big city person. I like being around people, and I like having many choices as to things to do. In Eugene, I was going to the same hippy hang-out every week, which got old pretty quickly. (I must say, though, that Eugene has a nice art house movie theatre called the Bijou.)

I have noticed that there seems to be more theatres and live music venues than when I left. And Hollywood looks more prosperous than I’ve ever seen it look before. And there are new buildings here and there. It seems that L.A. has weathered the recession fairly well. The only sour note is that the L.A. Weekly, which I used to enjoy reading, is now a shrunken homunculus of its former self. This once eminent newsweekly is now edited by the right-wing crank, Jill Stewart. She used to write for the now defunct New Times L.A., and the Weekly seems to have adopted that paper’s strategy of emphasizing scandals, both real and imaginary. The cover story of the latest issue is a long article about sex scandals in the city of San Fernando (pop. 23,645). We all want to read about that, don’t we? I must admit that I miss the old Weekly. Harold Meyerson may have been a brown-noser to the Democrats, but he hired good reporters and interesting writers. What has happened to the Weekly may be symptomatic of what has been happening to alternative newspapers across the country, but one would have wished that the Weekly would have gone down fighting, instead of becoming an embarrassment.

It’s always nice to be in a city where people speak languages besides English. Spanish is, of course, ubiquitous, but what is not so well known is that L.A. has a large Russian-speaking community. Years ago, I used to take the Hollywood subway early in the morning to a job I had at the time. I swear, it was almost as though I were riding on the Moscow subway. L.A. also has substantial Chinese, Korean, Thai, Iranian, and Armenian communities.

Fuck you, Mayberry!

Rampo (The Mystery of Rampo)

October 20, 2012

The Japanese novelist, Edogawa Rampo, is one of my favorite writers, so I was naturally curious when I heard about a 1994 Japanese film that features him as the hero of a fictional story.

The film is set in Japan in the 1920’s. When the film begins, Rampo (Naoto Takenaka) has had one of his novels banned by the government as being too disturbing for the public. In this work, a woman kills her husband by locking him in a trunk and suffocating him. Shortly afterwards, Rampo learns of a recent murder case that resembles the one in his novel. A shop owner has been found dead in a trunk. The police suspect that his wife, Shizuka (Michiko Hada), was the one who locked him in, but they are forced to release her due to lack of evidence. Out of curiosity, Rampo goes to visit her shop. She seems to take an immediate liking to him. She gives Rampo a music box, while refusing to take any payment for it. Rampo becomes obsessed with her, tentatively beginning a romantic relationship with her. When Rampo becomes convinced that Shizuka really did murder her husband, this only deepens his attraction to her.

Inspired by this, Rampo begins writing a new novel. Kogoro Akechi (Masahiro Motoki), Rampo’s detective hero and alter ego, is told to investigate Shizuko (Michiko Hada again), a wealthy widow who is rumored to have murdered her husband. She is now the mistress of the fabulously rich Duke Okawara (Mikijiro Hira), a sometime transvestite who likes to watch bondage films. (Yes, Rampo’s novels are like that.) Akechi manages to insinuate himself into Okagawa’s household, where he becomes romantically involved with Shizuko. At this point, as often happens in a Rampo story, the border between fantasy and reality starts to get blurred.

Rampo (also known as The Mystery of Rampo) is an erotic and strangely moving film. It does a very good job of capturing the dark, brooding flavor of Rampo’s writings. More than a little of the film’s power comes from Michiko Hada’s brilliant performance as Shizuko. She manages to convey an icy strength underneath her character’s seeming vulnerability.

Cottage Grove, Oregon

October 18, 2012

During the six and a half years that I lived in Oregon, I always saw this sign along the I-5 whenever I was driving from Eugene to Cottage Grove. I’ve wondered if anyone ever satisfied this man’s tremendous need for fill dirt.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I had to delay my move to Los Angeles for a few days, so I decided to drive to Umpqua National Forest, which I had never been to before. It is a gorgeous wilderness that extends from the Willamette Valley up into the Cascade Mountains. I walked along a hiking trail that went alongside a creek. The forest was extremely dense. There were thick clumps of moss growing all over the tree branches. It was all a bit gloomy, albeit in a beautiful way. I kept thinking this place would make a good setting for an H.P. Lovecraft story.

On my way back home, I decided to swing by the funky little town of Cottage Grove. This place is most famous for the fact that Buster Keaton’s The General was filmed here. (Animal House was also filmed here, although, not surprisingly, nobody feels proud about that.) The town has an annual Buster Keaton Day. It also has a mural of Keaton located on its Main Street.

Keaton is not the only person honored by a mural in Cottage Grove. Another is Opal Whiteley, who is the most famous person to ever come from this town. In the early twentieth century, Whiteley published what she claimed was a diary that she kept as a child growing up in a lumber camp near Cottage Grove. In it, she claims, among other things, that animals could talk to her, and that she sometimes met “little people” in the woods. She also wrote a nature book titled The Fairyland Around Us. The title of this work is meant to be taken literally. It is a curious mixture of scientific facts, poetry, and just plain fruitiness. I’m told that only five copies of the first edition still exist. One of them is at the University of Oregon (which Opal attended for a couple of years, though she didn’t graduate). It is kept in a locked vacuum chamber that is surrounded by armed guards. Although I would like to think that this indicates a firm commitment to preserving Oregon’s literary history, I have, however, a dreadful foreboding that the university will one day sell it in order to pay for more uniforms for the football team. (Okay, I’m kidding about the armed guards. However, I’m not kidding about the uniforms.)

Opal Whiteley prominently featured in a mural honoring Cottage Grove.

I find it a bit ironic that Cottage Grove has chosen to honor Whiteley in this way, considering that Whiteley disdained her Oregon background and upbringing. She devoted a large amount of time and energy to claiming that she was the daughter of a French aristocrat, Henri, Prince of Orléans, and that she had been sent away to be raised in a lumber camp in Oregon. (I guess that this sort of thing happens all the time to the daughters of the French aristocracy.) She spent the last fifty years of her life in a nursing home in London, where the staff referred to her as “the Princess”. She was buried under the name, Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans. One of the reasons for the ongoing fascination with Opal’s life is that it is not clear whether or not she was a fraud. My guess is that she was probably suffering from a mild form of schizophrenia.

Mount David

Located near Main Street is a long narrow hill that Cottage Groveans (I don’t know what else to call them) call Mount David. This is the most striking physical feature of the area, and I assumed they would have made it into a public park. However, I was surprised to learn several years ago that there were plans to build houses on the hill. This struck me as a bad idea, because, among other things, the sides of Mount David are extremely steep and are almost like cliffs in some places. I once climbed this hill, and even though it’s not that tall, it was only with a great deal of effort that I managed to make it to the top. I was sweating profusely when I got there, even though the hill is not especially high. These plans have apparently been abandoned, which may have something to do with the fact that local residents formed a “Friends of Mt. David” society to preserve the hill. (I suspect that the recession may have been another factor.)

Mt.David is interesting in a number of ways. There is a pioneer cemetery at the foot of the hill. There were cougar sightings on the hill last year. And, according to this reputable website, the hill is haunted:

    Said to be a some kind [sic] of spirit that will chase you off of the hill at night time. Around the graveyards there are said to be many apperinces [sic] of the ghostly kind. Beware of the thing that will chase you off the mountain at night time.

When I climbed the hill, I did go back down at sunset, although I am not aware that I was being chased by anyone or anything. Besides, I think I would be more frightened to run into a mountain lion than into a ghost. One thing I did notice as I was walking along the ridge was an almost perfectly circular impression in the ground, about twenty feet across. I have since learned that there used to be an oil well on top of the hill, which perhaps explains that odd formation.

Another fine mural.

Another mural on a similar theme.

There used to be a gun store at this location. This is progress.

If I lived in Cottage Grove, I would definitely go to this place for all my automotive needs.

Public art, or a bench? You decide.

The Bohemia Mining Museum may be closed, but this would-be capitalist is determined to follow that fine old American tradition of trying to get rich quick and failing at it.

This sign is on a building which used to be Cottage Grove’s City Hall, but which now houses a ballet school and some small businesses. I used to see signs like this all over the place when I was growing up. Yes, this actually gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Cold War. Does that make me a bad person?

Barack Obama Wants to Compromise with You Whether You Like It or Not

October 14, 2012

Obama thinks to himself, “Why doesn’t he like me? I try so hard to be nice to him. Doesn’t he like my bipartisanship?”

Many liberals expressed disappointment – and in some cases even shock – at Obama’s weak performance in the first debate. Over at Gawker, Mobutu Sese Seko (not his real name, in case you’re wondering) has pointed out that Obama’s performance was precisely what we should have expected:

    After spending five years watching a diffident political compromiser campaign for and occupy the White House, Democrats were still shocked that Wednesday’s debate didn’t reveal Barack Obama: Political Nut-Cutter.

Liberals still haven’t realized that the secret behind Obama’s extraordinarily rapid political rise is that he is a non-threatening black man. (True, Tea Partiers find him threatening, but these same people would be terrified at the sight of Trayvon Martin coming towards them with a bag of Skittles.) Remember Jesse Jackson? He wasn’t’ really all that radical. (He liked capitalism.) Yet white Americans reacted towards him almost as if he were a Mau Mau threatening to send them to the gas chambers. For all his reasonableness and articulateness, Jackson was too much of a rough diamond for whites to feel comfortable with him. They applauded when Bill Clinton criticized Jackson for merely being on a panel with Sister Souljah (whose views weren’t any more radical than Jeremiah Wright’s.)

Obama, on the other hand, was polished to an unblemished smoothness by the time he spent at places such as Harvard Law School. He is bland, but without being boring (no easy feat, you must admit). The worst thing I can recall him saying about anyone is his “she’s likable enough” comment about Hillary Clinton. (An extremely mild comment, especially considering that he was talking about Hillary Clinton.)

A corollary of Obama’s smoothness is his eagerness to please people who will do absolutely nothing for him. When Obama was at Harvard Law School, a group of liberal and left-wing students, some of them black, expended considerable effort to get him appointed as the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Obama then returned the favor by appointing right-wingers to the editorial board, to the bafflement and even anger of his supporters.

This is the man that liberals expect to be the scourge of the Right.

Art Robinson

October 10, 2012

Art Robinson contemplating what kind of bullshit people will believe next.

When I was driving through rural Oregon the other day, I was dismayed to see signs promoting the congressional candidacy of the bizarre cult leader respected scientist and politician, Art Robinson. Robinson’s website is worth checking out. It is a compendium of many of the pea-brained sophistries that pass for informed opinion in this country nowadays. For example, here is Robinson’s discussion of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution:

    Nevertheless, our congressional representatives – all of whom swear an oath to uphold the Constitution – flagrantly disregard the 10th Amendment. They do this largely by using public funds to pay for government agencies that constantly violate this Amendment and by the issuance of “mandates” that dictate “required” state and local actions.

    Robinson lost the 2010 election to Pete DeFazio. Several months later, Robinson began telling people that Oregon State University was planning on expelling his three children, who were graduate students there, as retaliation for his running against DeFazio.

    What excuse do congressmen give for violating the 10th Amendment? Mostly, they just ignore it, without giving any excuse at all. If pressed, some point to the Constitution.

    “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
    ~ Preamble

    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States . . .
    ~Article 1, Section 8

    Citing the phrase “promote (or provide for) the general Welfare,” they claim that this permits Congress to do anything it decides will be good for general welfare – anything at all! This is bogus.

This is what the 10th Amendment says:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

So, if the Constitution says that Congress has the power to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States” that means that power has been delegated to it by the Constitution.

Robinsosn has a PhD in chemistry. One can only wonder how a man with such apparently poor reading comprehension skills was able to earn an advanced degree (or even a high school diploma, for that matter). One can only assume that he did it through sheer force of will.

On the issue of energy, Robinson writes:

    Nuclear and hydroelectric electricity are inexpensive, clean, and safe. Spent nuclear fuel – so-called “nuclear waste” – is easily disposed of by nuclear fuel re-cycling, a method used in other countries but prohibited by misguided government policies in the U.S. Coal, oil, and natural gas are indispensable for many purposes. Solar and wind are expensive and resource-intensive, but useful in remote locations.

Wow, that PhD didn’t do Art much good, did it? Other countries have the same problems disposing of spent nuclear fuels that we do. Art writes:

    Energy development need not cost the American taxpayer a single cent.

Especially since nuclear energy is not economically viable without government subsidies. I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that PhD’s are over-rated.

Robinson is opposed to women’s reproductive rights. He calls for the immediate deportation of all “illegal” immigrants. And he blames government regulations for the poor state of the economy, although it was actually under-regulation of the banking industry that led to the financial meltdown of 2008.

Robinson lost to Pete DeFazio in the 2010 election. Several months later, Robinson began telling people that Oregon State University was planning to expel his three children, who were graduate students there. He initially claimed that this was being done as retaliation for his opposing DeFazio. However, when a reporter asked Robinson for more details, he became mysteriously vague:

    I don’t have definitive proof,” Robinson said. “That is what I believe. Basically, I know what happened. I cannot tell you the motives of the people doing it.

Nevertheless, this shocking news compelled a group of gullible idiots
red-blooded Americans to take action. They held a demonstration at the OSU campus demanding justice for the Robinson children. This was met by a counter-demonstration of students, who did not care to have their school’s reputation impugned by a group of illiterate yahoos
concerned citizens.

This is the type of man who wants to represent us in Congress. Art Robinson: a choice, not an echo.

Leaving Oregon

October 9, 2012

Puck, a kestrel at the Cascades Raptor Center.

If everything goes right in the next few days, I will be in California. There are various reasons why I am moving. One of them is that there are a lot more opportunities there for the type of work I do. I have lived in Oregon for six and a half years. One of my deepest regrets in life is that I didn’t have more opportunities to explore this beautiful state. Lately, I’ve been exploring the hills south of Eugene.

My first stop was the Cascades Raptor Center. This place has an amazing collection of predatory birds. It is not a zoo, however. The actual purpose of this organization is to rehabilitate birds that have been injured (often as a result of human activities), and to return them to the wild. This is a worthy cause, because raptors play an important role in nature. They mostly prey upon small mammals that would otherwise rapidly overpopulate. (Foxes play a similar role, yet they are inexplicably hunted in an aggressive manner in some parts of the U.S.)
However, some of the birds that the center acquires can never be returned to the wild, because they would have zero chance of survival, either because their injuries are too severe, or because people have kept them as pets. These birds make up their permanent collection. They have bald eagles, golden eagles, a kestrel, kites, merlins, ospreys, a gyrfalcon, a red-tailed hawk, a Swainson’s hawk (who was Swainson, and how did he get his own species of hawk?), a peregrine falcon, and harriers. They also have owls: great horned owls, barn owls, spotted owls, barred owls, screech owls, burrow owls, a snowy owl, a long-eared owl, a short-eared owl, a Eurasian eagle owl, and a saw whet owl.

In one enclosure, there were two turkey vultures. These are extremely common in Oregon. During the summertime, it seems as though hardly a day goes by without seeing at least one of these funereal creatures gliding overhead. There were signs plastered all over the cage at knee level warning people to not stick their fingers through the bars because these birds BITE HARD. I had felt a twinge of sadness as I thought that they must have put these signs up because at least one child must have learned this the hard way.

At one point I saw one of the magnificent great horned owls, one who had been raised as a pet, pushing his face against the wire of his enclosure. This, too, made me feel a bit sad.

They had a few birds that are not raptors. There was a magpie, a type of bird I have never seen before. It had striking black, white, and blue plumage. These are said to be among the most intelligent birds. They are among the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror. As I walked around his enclosure, which he shared with an enormous raven, he followed me around. I like to think that he took a liking to me, although he was probably just hoping I would give him food.

After leaving the CRC, I drove through an area known as Fox Hollow. It is a pretty place, surrounded by hills and dotted with farms. (One of these is called the Knee Deep Cattle Company. Who says Oregonians don’t have a sense of humor?) From there I drove into the farming community of Lorane. The countryside here was a little flatter, but still pretty. I noticed a couple of bed & breakfast places here. This seemed to me to be a nice place to spend a few days.

I then drove over densely wooded hills, on the other side of which I came across the 38 highway which took me into the charming little town of Drain. That’s not a joke, that’s actually the town’s name. It was founded by a man named Charles Drain. (Some things can’t be helped, I guess.) At the edge of town was an enormous sign proclaiming: DRAIN, OREGON: GATEWAY TO THE PACIFIC. You see, to get to the Pacific, you must pass through Drain. (There’s a joke in there somewhere. I just have to figure out what is.) The town’s chief landmark is a Queen Anne style house known as the Hansard House.

The Hansard House.

Downtown Drain.

I tried to take a picture of the building from a different angle, but the people inside started making faces at me. I guess I must have had “tourist” written all over me.

Functional architecture at its finest.

As I drove through the side streets of Drain, I saw a cat sitting in the middle of the road ahead of me. I pulled up and stopped in from of him, expecting him to run away. He just looked at me. Finally, I had to drive around him. As I drove away, I looked at him in the rear view mirror. He had turned his head and was still looking at me.

A few miles from Drain is the even smaller town of Yoncalla. It is known for its annual rodeo. The streets were almost completely empty, except for some rowdy kids. A town like Yoncalla may seem charming to an outsider like me, but I can see how growing up here could be a bit dull.

Welcome to Yoncalla. (Since when is “chiropract” a verb?)

Downtown Yoncalla early on a Sunday evening.The What Now Bar & Grille sometimes has live music. They were advertising an upcoming appearance by the Bad Boys of Seduction.

Jean Bricmont and Gilad Atzmon

October 3, 2012

Gilad Atzmon

Jean Bricmont has written an article defending Gilad Atzmon from his numerous critics on the Left, who accuse him of, among other things, being an anti-Semite. (Personal disclosure: I am one of them.) You can read the complete article here. (This links to Atzmon’s website. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you will be amazed at some of the things you will find there.) The first thing one notices about this piece is that it is extremely long-winded. You could cut out at least half the verbiage in it, and it would say the same exact thing. I consider that to be bad writing (although I realize some may not agree with me about this). I find this disheartening. I have always liked to think that theoretical physicists must also be good writers. Einstein wrote well. Carl Sagan could express himself clearly and succinctly. Yet another one of my illusions in life has been shattered.

After nine mostly long paragraphs, Bricmont finally gets to his main argument:

    This movement often gives the impression that its “solidarity” with Palestine takes place above all over there and requires more and more missions, trips, dialogues, reports, and even sometimes “peace processes.” But the plain facts of the matter are that the Israelis do not want to make the concessions that would be needed to live in peace and that a main reason for that attitude is that they think they can enjoy Western support ad vitam aeternam. Therefore, it is precisely this support that the solidarity movement should attack as its priority. Another frequent error is to think that this support is due to economic or strategic considerations. But, at least today, Israel is of no use to Western interests. [This is plainly false.] It turns the Muslim world against us [this is only partly true], doesn’t bring in a single drop of oil [man does not live by oil alone, Prof. Bricmont], and pushes the United States into a war with Iran that the Americans clearly don’t want [some, such as Norman Finkelstein, have argued that Israel is bluffing about this]. The reasons for this support are obvious enough: constant pressure from Zionist organizations on intellectuals, journalists and politicians by endlessly manipulating the accusation of anti-Semitism and the climate of guilt and repentance (for the Holocaust) kept on artificial life support, in large part by those same organizations. As a result, the main task of the Palestine solidarity movement should be to allow free speech about Palestine, but also to denounce the pressure and intimidation by various lobbies. Which is what Atzmon does. Far from rejecting him, the solidarity movement should make it a priority to defend the possibility of reading and listening to him, even if one is not in total agreement with what he says.

Look, so far as I and other leftists are concerned, Atzmon can write whatever bullshit that happens to float his boat. All we’re asking is that we at least acknowledge that what Atzmon writes is bullshit. Bricmont’s unwillingness to admit this raises serious questions about his intellectual honesty. Moreover, Bricmont makes so many dubious assertions here, that one must wonder whether he actually has any idea what he’s talking about. I think I should also point out that the “Israel is useless to the West” argument is often made by right-wing critics of Israel, at least some of whom are almost certainly anti-Semites. That fact should give Bricmont pause.

    By his all-out attack on Jewish “tribalism,” Atzmon’s essential contribution to solidarity with Palestine is to help non-Jews realize that they are not always in the wrong when conflicts with Jewish organizations arise. The day when non-Jews free themselves from the mixture of fear and internalization of guilt that currently paralyses them, unconditional support for Israel will collapse.

If I may speak for my fellow non-Jews, I don’t feel one shred of guilt about what happened during the years 1933-45. Again, one has to wonder whether Bricmont has any idea what he is talking about. What’s more, the second sentence is obviously nonsense. Bricmont apparently considers it a matter of principle to ignore the political and economic forces that drive the West’s support for Israel.

In all fairness to Bricmont, I should point out that he seems to be partly motivated by concerns about laws recently passed in France that prohibit certain types of speech. Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on French politics, it seems to me that the problem there is that France has no equivalent of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech. (This is a problem in many other countries as well.) I realize that this argument may be too idealist, but I think there is at least some truth to it.

With all due respect, perhaps Bricmont should stick to particle physics. There is no shame in that.