Archive for November, 2012


November 30, 2012

Last night I went to Spielberg’s and Kushner’s Lincoln, after having been apprised of the historical and political limitations of the film. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing, acting, and direction were all splendidly done. Some moments were a bit schmaltzy, but not too much so. It was very restrained for a Steven Spielberg film. This film instilled in me a greater respect for Lincoln and for Thaddeus Stevens.

There has bee a lot of sniping at the film from some left-wing websites. It seems to me that what has provoked them is not so much the film itself, but the liberal politics of Kushner and Spielberg. In interviews, Kushner has compared Obama to Lincoln. Eve worse, he has taken a reactionary view of Reconstruction, claiming that

    The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

What’s interesting to me is that Kushner’s own screenplay contradicts his arguments. In it, Lincoln is not a cautious compromiser like Obama. In fact, he never really compromises at all. Instead, he uses various methods, some of them quite ruthless, to pass the 13th Amendment, which abolishes slavery. The closest he ever comes to compromise is when he agrees to meet with a Confederate “peace” delegation, in order to get conservative Republicans to back the Amendment. Yet he delays meeting with the delegates, fearing that if the war ends, Congress won’t pass the Amendment. When he finally does meet with them, after the Amendment has been ratified, he finds that they are unrepentant slave-owners who want to preserve slavery. “Slavery is done,” he tells them, ending the negotiations.

I don’t know how Kushner came to his views on Reconstruction, but his idea that Obama is somehow like Lincoln is common among liberals. Obama has done nothing to earn this comparison, just as he did nothing to earn the Nobel Peace Prize. The only thing he has in common with Lincoln is that both men are hated by Southern racists. When I lived in Eugene, Oregon; there was a restaurant there that had on one of its wall a drawing of Obama with a stovepipe hat and a Lincolnesque beard. The image was so large that it was almost impossible to ignore it. There is something about this sort of thing that is almost akin to the worship of the Kim family in North Korea. All right, that may be going a little far, but you have to admit that there is the same desire for a hero in each.

One of the things I liked about this film is its sympathetic portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens (brilliantly played by Tommy Lee Jones). Perhaps this film will reawaken an interest in Stevens. In addition to his opposition to slavery, this was a man who championed the rights of women, of Native Americans, of Chinese immigrants, and of Jews. He was a seminal figure in the forgotten history of American radicalism.

More Thoughts on Black Friday

November 25, 2012

Black Friday has come and gone, and what everyone expected to happen happened. There were near riots at Wal-Marts across the country, as people scrambled for limited amounts of discounted items. However, nobody was killed this year (although two people were shot), so perhaps that’s progress of sorts. No doubt the executives at Wal-Mart and other department store chains were happy with this. They got to watch poor people scramble for a few crumbs. I’m sure they found this highly entertaining. These are the sort of people rail against government programs and “entitlements”, while relying on food stamps to keep their workers from starving.

Black Friday videos have been posted all over the Internet. One can only wonder what impression this gives people in foreign countries about Americans. Republicans claim to be concerned about the U.S.’s image around the world, yet they are silent about Black Friday. Nor has the Obama Administration complained about it. As I’ve said before, the only people who have tried to do anything about this

According to PRWEB, Black Friday doesn’t even offer the best deals. According to them:

    Data from over the last two years reveals that Black Friday is not the best time to purchase most items. Nine of the 11 major consumer product categories averaged a lower price leading up to Black Friday, the week after Black Friday or the week before the Christmas holiday. Overall, shoppers save a substantial amount of money on popular products by skipping Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

So the whole thing is just a scam. Welcome to capitalism in the twenty-first century.

Black Friday

November 21, 2012

It’s perhaps an indication of how corrupt our society has become that giant retail store chains are being allowed to effectively destroy a national holiday. Black Friday used to start at 9 AM on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Then they moved it up to 6 AM and then 5 AM. Last year it started at 10 PM on Thanksgiving evening. This year it’s going to start at 8PM on Thanksgiving. Black Friday is like the giant chicken heart in that famous radio play by Arch Oboler: it just keeps growing and growing until it starts crushing everything around it.

The only resistance that’s being offered to this hypertrophying monstrosity comes from the workers at Wal-Mart. They are rightly angry that their holiday has been taken away from them. Retail workers get paid low wages, and they usually get little or no benefits. Now they don’t even get Thanksgiving.

I suspect that one reason that this has been allowed to happen is that Thanksgiving isn’t as important to people as it once was. The purpose of Thanksgiving, we are told, is so we can give thanks for what we have. Since wages have been declining for decades, and millions of Americans are currently without jobs, it has become increasingly unclear to people what it is that they are supposed to be grateful for.

Nevertheless, we should support the Wal-Mart workers. And we should support all retail workers by sitting out this Black Friday madness.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

November 19, 2012

    I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder.
    – Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 1970 film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen). This film was shot with a cast consisting entirely of dwarfs. According to Herzog, he did this to show that “the world is created in a way that is not theirs”. The objects around them are designed for full-sized people. In one scene, for example, Hombre (Helmut Döring) tries unsuccessfully to climb onto a bed. “The dwarves in the film are not freaks,” Herzog says; rather, “[they are] well proportioned, charming, and beautiful people.” It is the world around them that is freakish. The film is a critique of our consumer culture. The characters are surrounded by over-sized chairs, motorcycles, cars, and other objects that they can’t really use. When this film was released, it was banned in Germany for being “anarchistic and blasphemous”. Some claimed the film was meant to ridicule the student movement of that time. Herzog certainly was not sympathetic to the movement. He once said:

    Contrary to most of my peers, I had already been much further out into the world. I had traveled, I had made films, I had already taken on responsibilities that very few people my age had. For me, this very rudimentary analysis that Germany was a fascist and repressive prison state, which had to be overpowered by a socialist utopian revolution, seemed quite wrong. I knew the revolution would not succeed because it was rooted in such an inadequate analysis of what was really going on, so I did not participate.

The characters in this film certainly don’t have any analysis of their situation. They seem to act purely on impulse, which eventually becomes a form of nihilism.

The film is set in an institution whose purpose is never made clear. One day the inmates rise up and take over the place. The director (Paul Glauer) is holed up in his office. He has taken one of the inmates, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), hostage. The inmates amuse themselves by playing games, which are fairly innocent at first, but which gradually become destructive. They kill a pig, pull down a palm tree and set fire to flowers. They torment two blind inmates. In a scene that is clearly meant to be sacrilegious, they “crucify” a monkey by tying him to a cross, which they then parade around the yard. (No doubt it was this scene that got the film banned in Germany.) The director eventually goes mad and runs away. In the last scene, we see Hombre laughing stupidly while a camel kneels in front of him and defecates.

This film is disturbing to watch, yet there are moments that are actually funny in a dark sort of way. Herzog has alternately called this film “darkest of comedies you can imagine” and “a very profound…collective nightmare”. In Herzog’s comedy and horror are never far apart. There are even funny moments in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Violence and megalomania are appalling and yet grotesquely humorous.

During the filming of Even Dwarfs Started Small, one of the actors suffered a mild injury. Herzog promised the cast that if they made it through the rest of the filming without any more injuries, he would jump into a large cactus plant. He later kept his promise. Incidents such as this have made Herzog an almost mythical figure in contemporary cinema. The 2004 mockumentary, Incident at Loch Ness seeks to exploit this. It is purportedly a documentary about Herzog making a documentary about the Loch Ness monster. Although it has amusing moments, it feels a bit familiar. It’s only been twenty-eight years since the making of This is Spinal Tap, yet already the mockumentary is becoming cliché. How about a mockumentary about the making of a mockumentary?

The War in Gaza

November 17, 2012
      I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let’s talk about 80 percent. It went this way: We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance farther, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was.
      – Moshe Dayan

Those who support Barack Obama should ask themselves what he has done about the current war in Gaza that Romney would not have done. The Obama Administration has endorsed this act of sheer insanity by the Israeli government. According to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, the Hamas Leader, Jabari, had been working on a ceasefire with Israel when he was asassinated. Clearly, the Israeli government does not want peace. And since Obama has endorsed this, he clearly does not want peace either. We are in the age of endless war. We have drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The Obama Administration is angling to find some way to keep at least some troops in Afghanistan after 2014. It gives the government officials an excuse to give money to their friends in the defense industry while cutting social spending. It gives them an excuse to spy on their own citizens and to meddle in other country’s affairs.

Randolph Bourne once said, “War is the health of the state.” For Israel, and increasingly for the U.S., it is becoming the state’s whole raison d’etre.

The Fall of General Petraeus

November 13, 2012

Gen. David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really good sex scandal in Washington, so the one involving Gen. Petraeus comes as a welcome relief after a truly dreary presidential election. Petraeus is accused of having had an affair with his “biographer”, Paula Broadwell. She is the reputed author of an admiring book about Petraeus with the perhaps unfortunate title of All In. (It has also come out that this book was at least partly ghost-written.)

There is more than a little moral hypocrisy in all this. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is chair of the Democratic National Committee, has said: “Disturbing is the word that has come to my mind since all of this has come to light. Really, I think it goes without saying if you’re the director of the CIA, if you are a four-star general in the United States army, that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. And you can’t put yourself in a compromising position.” Yes, a man who authorizes torture and drone strikes can’t sully himself with extra-marital sex. Schultz, by the way, helped organize last summer’s Democratic convention, at which one of the featured speakers was former president Bill Clinton, who coaxed a White House intern into giving him blow jobs.

It all started when Jill Kelley, a friend of Petraeus’s family, told an FBI agent, with whom she was apparently involved in some way, that she had been receiving harassing e-mails from Broadwell. Even though the FBI normally doesn’t investigate this sort of thing, those intrepid G-Men went to work, eventually examining 20,000 pages of e-mails. (I’m not making this up.) Not only did they discover Broadwell’s affair with Petraeus, but they also discovered that Kelly was having an affair with Gen. David Allen, Petraeus’s successor in the Afghanistan command.

Kelley is an interesting person in her own right. According to the Los Angles Times: “…she has angered some senior officers for what were described as persistent efforts by her to forge close personal ties to successive Central Command four-star officers by deluging them with emails, a former Central Command aide said.” Could there be such a thing as a military groupie? There must be something about a man who bombs villages in Afghanistan.

Some will cite this affair as evidence that the American empire is in decline. This is nonsense. There is, for example, good reason to believe that Eisenhower had an affair with his female chauffeur during World War II. And at one point in his career, MacArthur was demoted when it was discovered that he had a mistress.

The FBI agent who started the investigation – who has so far only been identified as Agent Shirtless – is said to have a “worldview” that is “hostile” to Obama. I think we can guess what that probably means.

Those who live by the media, die by it. When the Iraq war wasn’t going well, the government and the media decided that they needed a hero to distract people. Petraeus, who wears more medals than a Soviet-era bureaucrat, seemed a logical choice. He was given credit for a non-existent victory in Iraq, to hide the fact that Bush had actually cut a deal with Sunni militia groups. Now Petraeus has been undone by one of those who worked hardest create his myth. Shakespeare would have relished this.

Dr. Mabuse

November 11, 2012

Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.

The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.

The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)

It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.

Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?

In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.

In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

Prep School Bully Gets a Wedgie

November 7, 2012

I’m glad that Mitt Romney lost, partly for reasons I discussed in a previous post, and partly because I won’t have to spend the next four years looking at his smug, arrogant face. I also like the fact that this is a thumb in the eye to Rupert Murdoch, whose propaganda machine did everything in its power to prevent Obama’s re-election. Since Obama has been good to Murdoch’s Wall Street friends, one can only suppose that race is the reason for Murdoch’s antipathy. The same goes for the Koch brothers and their Tea Party zombies.

Romney was arguably the most feckless presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater. Try as he might, he could hide that fact that his worldview is essentially that of a prep school bully. One striking giveaway was his comments about the London Olympics. The man just brims over with sneering condescension towards other people, particularly foreigners. Mind you, the reason Romney was nominated was because the other candidates were considered to be even more inept. At this point, one must whether the Republican Party has any future. It seems to be kept on life support by Fox News.

This election indicates that the U.S. is becoming more socially liberal. Marijuana was legalized in Washington and Colorado. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Washington, Maine, and Maryland. Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t seem to be becoming more progressive on economic and foreign policy issues. We still a lot of work to do.

Gilad Atzmon, Peter Jenkins, and the “Just War”

November 3, 2012

Gilad Atzmon

Dissident Voice, which posts articles by Israel Shamir and Andre Fomine, continues to lower its bar by posting an article by Gilad Atzmon. Entitled Ex-British Envoy Told the Truth (for a change), the article begins:

    Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former representative on the International Atomic Energy Agency, has told the debating union at Warwick University that a “just war” is not a Jewish notion. Jenkins was obviously telling the truth but the Zionist Jewish Chronicle is not happy.

    The retired Foreign Office diplomat, speaking in a debate on nuclear proliferation in Iran, said: “Israelis don’t practise an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, they practise ten eyes for an eye and ten teeth for a tooth.” He also added that “the idea that a just war requires the use of force to be proportionate seems to be a Christian notion and not a Jewish notion.”

So, does Jenkins believe that the Crusades, in which many Jews and Muslims were killed, were a “proportionate use of force” in response to the peaceful Muslim occupation of the Holy Land? Or how about the invasion and conquest of Mexico, done in the name of spreading Christianity? Was it a “proportionate use of force” in response to the mere existence of the Mexican people?

Jenkins’s argument is obviously nonsense – so, of course, Atzmon fully approves of it. Responding to criticism of Jenkins, he writes:

    Yet, I am slightly perplexed, why is telling the truth about Jewish culture anti-Semitic? Is not the Old Testament far more violent than any Quentin Tarantino film?

I can think of many things that are far more violent than a Quentin Tarantino film. Here are just a few: the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mabinogion, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. (I’m not kidding about the last. You should read them in the original German, or in a faithful translation.) The authors of the Old Testament certainly weren’t the only people who like to write about violence.

A little later, Atzmon comments:

    I would obviously argue that it is our intellectual duty to call a spade a spade and to criticise Jewish politics and Jewish culture for what they are.

What exactly does Atzmon mean by “Jewish politics”? Noam Chomsky? Norman Finkelstein? Alan Dershowitz? Joseph Lieberman? Binyamin Netanyahu? Amy Goodman? Your guess is as good as mine. Atzmon doesn’t seem aware that the term “Jewish politics” embraces quite a large spectrum of personalities, ranging from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand.

In response to one critic of Jenkins, Atzmon writes:

    Mr Sacerdoti is obviously a Hasbara spin master. He mentions that “this particular view, that Jews do not adhere to the concept of ‘just war’ implies that Jews are by nature bloodthirsty and unjust. I believe any such generalisation about the nature of Jews is racist.” But here is a slight problem, Mr Jenkins didn’t speak about Jews, the people, the ethnicity or the race, he was clearly referring to “Israel”, i.e., The Jewish State and to Jewish culture.

You see, Jenkins wasn’t referring to the Jews; he was actually referring to Jews. (“The Jewish State and Jewish culture” pretty much includes all Jews, does it not?)

Atzmon ends:

    The truth better be said. Mr Jenkins told the truth and actually used a moderate and careful language. I wish the BBC and The Guardian were as courageous as Mr Jenkins. I also do not think Zionist organisations should be the ones who moderate the critical discourse of the Jewish State and Jewish culture.

And, clearly, Atzmon shouldn’t be moderating that discourse either.