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[ 94 ] April 25, 2013 |

I have one thought about this study questioning the value of Advanced Placement testing. I graded AP U.S. History exams for 3 years. The pass rate was about 55% (assuming a 3 is a pass). I would argue the number of students who wrote a test that showed even a minimally competent knowledge of the material, one that would get, say, a B- or C+ in a college level freshman class, was about 10%. The idea that students are getting college credit for this stuff is a joke.

The Terence Malick Effect

[ 86 ] April 24, 2013 |

This is an interesting essay on the Malick Effect, which can be summed as up people copying Terence Malick by having hands run through grain for effect:

That Green was initially able to pull off this plagiaristic trick is somewhat amazing, given what a careful balance Malick strikes between poetic inquiry and narrative plotting. But as evidenced by Undertow, his third film, even Green found that mimicking Malick posed the threat of reducing the director’s work to just its rudimentary building blocks, a problem that’s also undercut many subsequent copycats. Sean Penn (who co-starred in both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life) performed a pale impersonation with his directorial job on 2007′s Into the Wild, wielding pseudo-Malick landscape cinematography and accompanying voice-over blabber in a thoroughly blunt, leaden manner. Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gussies up its Malick-isms (meditative and mournful narration over naturally lit vistas of the West and its existentially wounded characters) with smeary visual expressionism that makes the film play, in large part, like a beautiful cover song. However, at least Jesse James has a clear sense of itself; last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, on the other hand, comes off as the nature-is-ugly-yet-magical stepchild of George Washington, a third-hand piece of recycling made by someone who knows the moves but has none of the mysterious soul. By the time John Hillcoat — an accomplished director whose The Proposition also commingles natural beauty, violence, and religious turmoil — helmed this Levis ad, it was clear that, for many, Malick had become merely a collection of tricks and devices, the simple sum of various parts. Just ask Zach Snyder, whose initial Man of Steel teaser trailer, with its portentous narration, soaring music, and shots of sun-dappled butterflies and clotheslines swaying in the breeze, awkwardly evokes what a superhero blockbuster helmed by a second-rate Malick might resemble.

Unfortunately, Malick himself has moved closer to self-parody with each passing movie in his latter phase of actually finishing films. The brilliant The Thin Red Line devolved into the decent The New World which then devolved further into the largely unwatchable The Tree of Life. The reviews on To The Wonder do not sound promising, although I suppose I’ll watch it. Unfortunately, with The Tree of Life, Malick fully gave into his most self-indulgent impulses (more dinosaurs and galaxy shots in a movie ostensibly about growing up in the 1950s please!). It’s too bad because Malick is indeed so brilliant and does have so much to offer other filmmakers in terms of style, even if they misuse his methods for their own self-indulgent ends.

I Heard that Dog Whistle!

[ 41 ] April 24, 2013 |

Photoshopping really is the right-wing dog whistler’s favorite tool.

A conservative group connected to Colorado’s Secretary of State has been sending political mailers — including a picture of a darker-skinned woman whose face was digitally removed and replaced with a white woman’s face — in an attempt to oppose a landmark voting bill that may soon become law.

Colorado is currently considering a major piece of legislation to improve the state’s voting laws by implementing Election Day Registration, automatically sending mail ballots to every voter, and creating a real-time voter database to detect and prevent fraud. It passed the House last week and will now be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a frequent speaker at True The Vote events who uses his perch to warn about the supposed threat of voter fraud, is leading opposition to the bill, which is supported by a number of Republican County Clerks and the Colorado County Clerks Association.

Now, a dark money group named the “Citizens for Free and Fair Elections”, which lists its address as that of Gessler’s former firm, the Hackstaff Law Group, is sending out photoshopped mailers in an attempt to pressure the election clerks into switching their position.

You can see the photoshopping job in a series of images in the attached link. Classy stuff.


[ 32 ] April 24, 2013 |

The Rhode Island Senate has passed a marriage equality bill by a 26-12 vote. Governor Lincoln Chaffee has already come out in support of it. After a long battle played out within the bizarre entity known as the Democratic Party (all 12 no votes were from Democrats), the pressure became too much for Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva Weed to resist.

A fine day in the Ocean State!!

Holding Corporations Responsible for Workplace Deaths

[ 83 ] April 24, 2013 |

We don’t hear too many stories anymore like last week’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, where the death toll has now risen to 15. This is because we have outsourced our industrial risk to Asia and Latin America.

An 8-story building containing a clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh has collapsed, killing at least 87 people. This is on top of the 112 burned to death 5 months ago in another Bangladesh clothing factory. How many people have to die making our clothes before we pay attention?

If this all sounds like the Triangle Fire in 1911, there’s a reason for that. Clothing corporations, manufacturers, and big box stores actively want the Triangle model to exist. If you are an American or European corporation, you don’t want to employ the people who make your clothes directly. You want to order out for what you need with no responsibility. You want low prices, so you pressure contractors to keep wages and conditions as low as possible. That probably actually goes unsaid but everyone knows what “keep costs low” means. You want to split workers up into a variety of workplaces so that they can be more easily controlled and can’t unionize. Putting them on an upper floor of a building, just like at Triangle, is a perfect way to control that labor with no supervision.

The question we must ask is to what extent the corporations demanding this labor model are responsible for the unsafe working conditions of the employees? We know at least that these workers made clothes for Benetton, Dress Barn, and The Children’s Place. Should these corporations be held accountable when workers die? Wal-Mart denied having any its clothes made in the factory that caught fire, but they were proved liars on the matter. It also seems that Wal-Mart had some contracts in this factory, according to this factory profile sent out by Stephen Greenhouse of the Times on his twitter account.

I argue that we should apply U.S. labor law to all American corporations, no matter where they site their factory. If a worker dies in a factory that makes clothing for your company, the company is responsible. In my mind, this is the only way to fight the outsourcing epidemic that provides a cover for irresponsible corporate policies. The injured workers and the families of the dead deserve financial compensation. The American corporations who buy the clothes produced by this factory should be required to pay American rates of workers compensation. Ultimately, we need international standards for factory safety, guaranteed through an international agency that includes vigorous inspections and real financial punishments. Of course, we are a long ways from any of this. But we have to begin at least talking in these terms, demanding accountability for workplace deaths, whether in the United States or in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, building on yesterday’s discussion of media coverage of these events, only 2 of 63 cable news segments on the West Fertilizer explosion noted that the plant was in violation of federal standards for holding ammonium nitrate. Bad reporting on workplace conditions helps people see these events as accidents and not as the fault of specific choices corporate leaders make and for which they should be held criminally and civilly responsible.

Moreover, it’s not as if the state plays no role in allowing these violators to operate. Rather, the state actually helps them to do it. For instance, the Dallas Morning News has asked the state of Texas for a list of all factories, facilities, and dealers in the state holding ammonium nitrate (as there was also a massive fertilizer fire in Bryan in 2009 that luckily did not kill anyone because the fire fighters gave up on putting it out and instead put up a perimeter around the blaze). The state chemist’s office, which is at Texas A&M, is resisting this request and the state attorney general will decide if such information should be made public. Given that Rick Perry has said that his state’s lax regulations are fine and that further regulations would have made no difference in West, we can guess what the attorney general’s response will be.

We have a lot of work to do to make our workplaces and communities safe. Simply gathering information and publicizing what we can is the first step, one that faces significant resistance of its own.

The Barnyard Brat

[ 4 ] April 23, 2013 |

Quiet evening here, seems like a good time to embed a Dave Flesicher cartoon. From 1939, this is The Barnyard Brat. This is part of his Hunky and Spunky series, which doesn’t have the power of some of his more socially oriented work, but is by and large a pretty entertaining series about a baby donkey and his mother.

I’m totally not embedding this because it reminds me of a lot of children I have seen. Nope, not at all.

Mad Men, Season 6

[ 45 ] April 23, 2013 |

Potential spoiler alerts ahead.

Let me more or less agree with Coates’ view on season 6 of Mad Men, or at least the first few episodes, which can be summed up by the fact that Draper’s latest affair is not very interesting.

Except he’s lost something. Don is a beautiful philandering stud. That was always there but it was wrapped in so much more–his role as father to a young daughter (gone thus far), his role as a kind of father to Peggy (gone by necessity of plot), his relationship with Roger as some future image of himself (also gone), his relationship with Anna (gone to the grave), his fear of unmasking (seemingly also gone.) What’s left is a dude who makes adultery look beautiful. My impulse is to say that this Don Draper is lot less interesting. But I wonder if this Don Draper is all of what we actually came for. Did most of always think of the literature as gift-wrapping for the style?

Who knows. But I’d rather see the camera shift, and Don Draper give some scenes away to those characters who really are changing, not just relapsing. It’s true that in real life, real people relapse all the time. But stories are not real life. They have beginnings and ends chosen by their creators.

The season’s high points thus far have come when it has focused on the non-Don characters. Betty entering into hippiedom to find that runaway girl. Harry being a massive jerk in the last episode, especially toward Joan who is dealing with the fallout of her choice to prostitute herself for the company and her own personal advancement. Roger’s sessions with the psychiatrist. But Matthew Weiner continues to hold the focus of his show on Don and I don’t think it’s working very well right now. Cheating again makes perfect sense–a depressed serial cheater is very believable. But that doesn’t mean it is all that interesting season after season.

After a time, Deadwood moved away from Seth Bullock as the show’s central character. The Wire did the same with Jimmy McNaulty. Don Draper is far more compelling than either Bullock or McNaulty, but after 5+ seasons of focusing on Draper, there may not be that much else to say. Reading discussions of the great secrecy behind the premier of the show, it seems that the one secret Weiner really wanted to keep most hidden was Don’s new affair, suggesting that was Weiner’s big move for the season. But I think that was probably misguided and might be creating a trap for the show more difficult to get out of than Draper’s season-long depression in the 4th season that seemed to drag things along for awhile.

I’m still watching a well-crafted show with good writing, but so far I’m not watching a very compelling season of that show.

Of course, there’s still 9 episodes to go.

Recaps of West, Texas

[ 99 ] April 23, 2013 |

A few key pieces as the West, Texas disaster settles down.

Mike Elk has an editorial at the Post really getting after the media for its nonexistent coverage of the disaster. Asking the fundamental question of why the media focused almost exclusively on Boston and completely ignored West, despite the fact that far more people died in West, Elk writes:

So why is it that the media choose to cover around the clock a terrorist bombing that killed fewer people and is extremely rare, while all but ignoring an industrial explosion that killed more people, is far more common and is far easier to prevent? Aaron Albright, who worked on failed mine safety legislation in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine as an aide to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), joked on Twitter that the media opted to focus almost exclusively on the Boston bombings because the two stories were like “CSI/Mission Impossible vs.[a] PBS documentary.” The story of alleged terrorists with Chechen links seems far more exotic and threatening than the story of a workplace disaster that would have been preventable if the company followed the rules.

Also very much worth noting is this:

Yet, death in the workplace is a much more real possibility for almost all Americans than death at the hands of a terrorist. In 2011, 4,609 Americans were killed in workplace accidents while only 17 Americans died at the hands of terrorists — about the same number as were crushed to death by their televisions or furniture. One could argue that terrorists get more attention because they intentionally aim to kill people, but disasters like at Upper Big Branch are also the result of companies violating workplace safety laws.

Again, when workers die because of massive negligence by owners, those owners need to be charged with some form of a murder crime, perhaps equivalent to a fatal drunk-driving charge. Instead, the owners themselves are often seen as victims, including at West.

John Protevi has a piece along the same lines as Elk, thinking about the deeper cultural and economic reasons behind the disparity in coverage. A few of his points:

1. The affective charge of “random murder” trumps that of bad luck. The Boston bombings were deliberate, while the Texas explosion and the roadway deaths were accidents.

1a. It increases the horror of Boston to know that the victims weren’t chosen. They had a kind of bad luck, but the cause of the death was deliberate, not accidental. So they were victims of “random murder.” When this is called “terrorism,” it is ripe for political exploitation.

2a. The victims of Boston were of the right type — middle class spectators of an athletic event — as opposed to the multiple everyday murder victims who never make the national news. Why not? Well, for one thing, some of the victims can be dismissed as gang bangers. Secondly, there’s just nothing new any more about an everday dispute, domestic or neighborhood, that escalates to murder.
3. To return to the Texas explosion, of course there are factors that influence the probability of accidents; the explosion was an event that crystallized a network of multi-scale factors. But the complexities of multiple and dispersed decisions concerning zoning, right-to-work, and regulatory capture / weakening made over decades that increased the probability — and bad effects — of the Texas explosion doesn’t fit a simple narrative, nor does it have the affective charge of random murder. So there’s an effect of normalization here, such that shoulders are shrugged and we mutter “industrial accidents happen.”

3a. We also can’t overlook the geography of wealth factors here. Poor folks live next to fertilizer plants in West, Texas but middle-class folk go watch the finish of the Boston Marathon. So there’s class identification at work here, both in the news producers of the cable networks, and in their target viewerships.

I think this gets at some pretty important issues behind how we as a society rationalize and think about violence.


[ 49 ] April 23, 2013 |

Max Baucus, the Democratic Party’s most annoying senator, is retiring at the end of his term. While like any Democrat, I worry about holding the seat, if Brian Schweitzer runs, he will be tough to beat, even if Denny Rehberg decides to try again. More importantly, a Ron Wyden-led Senate Finance Committee is going to be about 100 times less annoying to progressives than it is under Baucus.

….Trash Ruckus does seem appropriate.

The Searchers and Race

[ 78 ] April 22, 2013 |

Last month, SEK brought up the racism of The Searchers, which I argued was as racist as Birth of a Nation. I decided to rewatch the film. It had been a couple of years after all. Both of my major contentions about the film were reconfirmed. First, it is a brilliant masterpiece. Second, it is deeply and disturbingly racist.

In many ways, The Searchers and Birth of a Nation tell the same story. Both revolve around the fundamental taboo of American history–sexual relationships between white women and men of color. The major theme of John Ford’s career is the creation of a white nation through violence, even if that violence is often jocularly portrayed, and through shared suffering in the service of creating modern America. Ford could often transcend this brilliantly when avoiding regeneration through violence. The Grapes of Wrath depicts people suffering from violence and dispossession while in Young Mr. Lincoln, Honest Abe’s manhood is proven through halting mob violence rather than participating in it.

In any case, the theme of violence for racial purity binds Ford and Griffith together. The Iron Horse witnesses the Irish and “whites” uniting on the railroad to create Americans only when attacked by Indians. Ford himself could make this clear. The casting of Henry Walthall as the ex-Confederate preacher in the awful Judge Priest is hardly a coincidence as Walthall was Colonel Ben Cameron in Birth of a Nation.

If The Searchers is more ambivalent about the racial project than Birth of a Nation, that’s the reflection of the times. The latter came out in 1915, at a height of racial fear in America (and 2 years after Traffic in Souls, which dealt with the purity of the white race in a very different way, though the fear of white slavery). The former came out in 1956, the same year that African-Americans won the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for filmmakers to tell stories of racial conquest in purely victorious terms given a changing nation.

Ethan Edwards is still the ultimate hero in creating a safe world for white women. Ford may have to show Ethan’s great personal suffering and sacrifice and provide a character (1/8 Cherokee but the rest Welsh!) as a foil to Ethan’s murderous racism. But Ethan is still a clear hero with who we sympathize, even if a touch uncomfortably.

The most obvious and famous scenes about racial purity is when Ethan goes into the building holding the women rescued from Comanche capture and when he tries to kill Debbie after seeing her defiled by Scar. But it goes much deeper than this. While Ethan’s Confederate past and unwillingness to surrender isn’t directly tied to defending slavery, that doesn’t have to be named. He is the last man willing to stop at nothing to protect pure white womanhood and the American race. Moreover, while Ethan is the enforcer of white purity, he’s hardly the only character to express these thoughts. Laurie supports Ethan over Martin in the idea of killing Debbie, telling him, “I tell you Martha would want him to”–Martha being Debbie’s mother. Before Brad rides off to his death, his primary concern is not whether the Comanches killed Lucy but that they raped her, which it is clear they did from Ethan’s response to his question. When Ethan won’t let anyone see Martha after the homestead is ravaged, the subtext is not that she is dead but that she was violated and therefore should not be seen.

We also need to examine the relationship, such as it is, between Martin Pawley and the Comanche woman who he inadvertently marries. There’s no evidence that Martin has sex with her. He seems more disgusted than interested. But the point is that he certainly could have. Interracial sex between Martin and a Comanche woman makes Ethan howl with laughter. Interracial sex between Scar and Debbie makes him murderous. This reflects the broader attitudes toward interracial sex in American culture, with its obsession to protect white women and its tolerance of sex with women of color.

A common defense of Ethan and thus the film is that he understands Comanche culture and speaks the language, thus showing a history of some understanding. I’m not convinced this means so much. Ethan is a middle-aged man in the late 1860s. That may well have put him in Texas in the 1840s or even 1830s. He may have dealt with trading for captives from the Comanches for years. The Comanches were still raiding in Mexico into the 1860s as well and who knows what kind of interactions he had there. But I can easily see a scenario where Ethan knows the Comanches well and wants to use that knowledge to destroy them.

It’s at least worth noting that Ford’s obsession with the Comanches as the great horror of racial mixing in the West had a background in specific Comanche traditions. As chronicled by Pekka Hamalainen’s Bancroft Prize winning book, The Comanche Empire, Comanche warriors engaged in widespread public rape of captive women on the Taos Plaza before exchanging them in the slave trade that dominated the border economy in the 18th and early 19th century. By the mid-19th century, I don’t know of much evidence that this was still going on. But at that point, you have a Comanche empire posing a serious threat to American expansion (Hamalainen makes a convincing argument that it was Comanche dominance of the Mexican frontier that undermined Mexico’s expansion plans and made it so easy for the U.S. to win the Mexican War) and a people for whom ethnicity was fluid. Acting like a Comanche meant more than the Anglo-Saxon obsession with blood and race. The most powerful Comanche when depleted resources (and not military conquest) led to their surrender was Quanah Parker, the half-Comanche, half-white son of a woman kidnapped from Texas and integrated into the tribe. Thus the very symbol of Comanchedom in the 1860s and 1870s was the product of the racial mixing that horrified white Texans.

This history was still popular lore in Texas a century later. Ethan’s need to kill the despoiler of white women thus serves much the same function in regional popular memory as did Ben Cameron and the KKK’s ritual murder of the black marauder in Griffith’s post-Civil War nightmare of miscegenation. Only when the landscape was ridden of uncontrolled men of color could white women be protected and American civilization advance.

Again, The Searchers is a great film. In fact, it’s a near perfect film. Ford does show the ambivalence of racism, which is much of what makes it so interesting. But at its heart, it is still a film about the heroic quest of cleansing the American landscape of those who would defile pure white womanhood. In that, and in Ford’s open love of Griffith, The Searchers is a direct descendant of Birth of a Nation, for better and for worse.


[ 60 ] April 22, 2013 |

Dylan Matthews’ list of ways to reduce violence without gun control starts with one that cannot be stated strongly enough. The decline of lead exposure over the past decades is probably the single biggest reason why violent crime has dropped so much since the 1970s:

None of the above. The real answer, it’s now becoming clear, is lead. In the 1970s, the environmental movement succeeded in getting lead out of gasoline and household paint, and the result has been smarter, less violent kids. Economist Rick Nevin has found that, if you add a 23-year lag, variations in lead exposure explain 90 percent of the variation in crime rates in the United States.

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at the Amherst College, found that declining lead exposure caused a 56 percent decline in crime from 1992 to 2002, a decline that was reversed by other factors to leave the actual decline at 34 percent over that period. Wolpe Reyes has also found significant effects on childhood delinquency and academic performance. The correlations are simply staggering.

This is one reason why I focus so much on environmental exposure and working conditions in my writing. These issues not only affect people in the short-term, but they are absolutely central to solving larger societal problems, including violence.

Earth Day

[ 79 ] April 22, 2013 |

Today is Earth Day, also known as the one day a year Americans pretend that they care about the environment.

In 1970, Earth Day seemed like the beginning of a radical change in American life.

To say the least, it didn’t turn out that way. Even though the 70s saw a number of crises that seemed as if it might create radical transformations in Americans’ relationship with the environment, particularly the two oil crises and rising gas prices that began to spur government investment in alternative fuels, the nation quickly backed away from anything more than cosmetic changes to the national lifestyle. Today, it seems that hardly anyone cares. Polls show less concern about the environment than in 1970. Climate change is a backburner issue that drives virtually no political agenda.

That’s not to say real gains weren’t made. One problem the environmental movement faces is that the visceral causes of environmentalism in the 60s were mostly solved by the early 80s. Our rivers don’t catch on fire anymore, we don’t see smoke belching out of smokestacks, and we mostly live lives relatively distanced from the downsides of industrial nature (although there are obvious exceptions to this, such as West, Texas). Of course, much of this comes from the fact that we have outsourced industrial risk to Asia and Latin America. I am just old enough to remember the anti-littering campaigns of the early 80s. Woodsy the Owl made a big impact on people of my generation. Who really litters these days? So things look clean and we don’t choke so we don’t worry about it much.

But the environmental movement also faces the fact that for a lot of Americans, accepting the idea of limits is anathema to the national psyche. Atrios asks today why Americans drove so much between the mid-80s and mid-90s, when the miles driven exploded? There are a number of answers to that question. Exurbs (people commuting 100 miles from South Carolina to Atlanta for work–1 way), SUVs, very cheap oil, enough economic activity to fund driving vacations, etc. But at the heart of it all was Americans rejecting the limits of the 1970s and embracing Reagan’s America of no limits, big rhetoric, and big manly vehicles that kept us safe from the blahs when we drove from our lily-white suburbs into those dangerous cities to work.

It’s possible that some environmental factors are improving, particularly the rapid decline in young people’s driving rates, although that’s largely for cultural than environmental reasons. If the U.S. becomes more like Europe, that’s good. It’s less good as the rest of the world becomes more like the U.S. But you take what you can get.

Nonetheless, it’d be nice if Earth Day was something more than a one-off event once a year with less meaning for the average American than Labor Day.

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