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More Haiti

[ 0 ] January 24, 2010 |

Cuba has become yoked to the Yankee imperial project is working with the United States in Haiti:

The US government’s Voice of America acknowledged Friday the efforts of more than 400 Cuban doctors and health workers in Haiti.

The move could lead to a collaboration with medicines needed at several field hospitals set up by the Cubans for treating the earthquake victims.

“The massive international relief effort in Haiti has received a boost from Cuba, which has more than 400 health workers, many of them doctors, working throughout the devastated country. The government in Havana has also aided United States relief efforts by opening restricted Cuban airspace to American planes flying medical evacuation missions,” states VOA in an article titled Cuba Aids Haiti Relief.

An unconfirmed report posted by the Miami Herald on Saturday cites a US State Department source as saying Washington “has offered medical supplies to Cuban doctors in earthquake-devastated Haiti, but that the Cubans have not yet formally agreed to accept the aid.”

Havana Times ran a post on Jan. 14th titled “US and Cuba Could Bond for Haiti”, on the earthquake relief effort.

Excellent news, especially as hopes for a US-Cuban rapproachment have waned in recent months.

In other news, I’ve added a Haiti donation widget to the left sidebar.


Of all the families in all the world, "Ellie Light" went and married into that one?

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

I don’t find the fact that some inveterate letter-writer who aches to see her name in print is doing what inveterate letter-writers who ache to see their names in print have done for the better part of a century all that interesting … or I wouldn’t, were it not for the person the only Google Book Search return for the name “Ellie Light” suggests she might have married.*

*The first person who says this is a case of me being a hammer and everything looking like a nail is probably right.

So, the Avatar Thing..

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

Saw Avatar last week, and apparently I must weigh in. Lot’s o’ spoilers ahead…

Is Avatar racist?
Sure, but that’s not a very interesting question. Back before I saw 300, I was prepared to be irritated by its racism, ethnocentrism, and violence to history, but after watching for about 20 minutes I realized that all of these complaints were simply beside the point. 300 is racist and ahistorical, but seriously, who cares? It’s not just that 300 is about abs and spears and gay giants and fat guys with knives for hands, although it is about those things. Nor is it to say that 300 should be treated as off limits for serious literary or philosophical inquiry; “you’re over-thinking it” is one of the least useful complaints that one can make about serious criticism. Rather, it’s to suggest that the racism and ethnocentrism of the story are among the least interesting, least novel, and least productive avenues of such inquiry.

Now, I will grant that Avatar is more complex than 300, and that the racism/racialism is, in some relevant sense, more deeply embedded in the story. I think that Westerners sometimes like to fancy that imperialism is something that they did to other people, but that’s not quite right; the Western experience of imperialism is so deeply embedded in our narratives of self that it’s essentially inextricable. In a hundred years, when China and India dominate the world economy, tales of Western imperialism, conquest, and exceptionalism may lose their charm for film-going audiences. For now, the background notion of dominance, modified only by Western forebearance, itself evidence of Western moral superiority, remains a foundational way of thinking about the confrontation between the West and the Other. While there are certainly examples of narratives in which humankind represents the oppressed rather than the oppressor (V, Battlestar Galactica), and narratives which essentially sidestep the question (Star Wars), stories in which human/Western/American dominance is the unproblematic assumption have their own intuitive appeal. Star Trek, in which human moral superiority prevents the full exertion of military superiority, is a science fiction example of this genre; another might be Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Ursula K. Leguin’s The Word for World is Forest takes this narrative as a starting point and further problematizes it, but then Leguin is considerably more thoughtful than we have any right to expect James Cameron to be. In any case, Avatar takes this assumption about the relationship between the West/humankind and its subjects as a starting point, and as such is fundamentally about colonialism. Moreover, while Avatar is anti-colonialist it doesn’t particularly challenge the basic colonial/imperial structure of the narrative. More on this in a bit.

At the same time, I think it’s worth noting that the idea of an alien Messiah was present in Western civilization prior to the colonial period. The story of Miriam, Moses, the reeds, and the daughter of Pharoah can be read as an extended effort to “naturalize” the leader of the Hebrews. Even Jesus Christ is, in some important sense, alien to the population of his ministry. The alien messiah is also present in explicitly anti-colonial ideologies that nevertheless accept the basic narrative structure of Western imperialism; I have no doubt that Che Guevara understood his work in a messianic sense when he tried to draw the Indians of Bolivia into a revolution that they didn’t particularly care about. I suspect that there are a few idealistic converts to anti-colonial Marxism that understood themselves as playing the Jake Sully role. Nevertheless, there’s considerable synergy between the “alien as messiah” narrative and the colonial/anti-colonial narrative; Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, for example, are based around combinations of these narratives.

So what can we say about Avatar’s politics?

And so if the racial question is only mildly interesting, what else can we say about Avatar’s politics? From a foreign policy point of view, it’s clearly a very left wing film. Much has been made of the difference between the mercenaries employed by the Corporation and actual marines, but to my mind the distinction didn’t mean very much. It’s clear that the (genocidal) mercenaries were veterans of the (presumably American) military, and the film gives us very little reason to think that the interventions they carried out while serving under the flag (a couple are alluded to, including a war in Venezuela) are any more just than that depicted in the film. Colonel Quaritch and Parker Selfridge are about as complicated as Billy Zane’s Cal Hockley, and the film falls very comfortably into a neo-Marxist explanation of the sources of American foreign policy. Unfortunately, Cameron feels the need to laden the already obvious analogy with relatively direct allusions to the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Cameron doesn’t trust his audience enough to make the blindingly clear connection between resource based imperialism and… resource based imperialism. I think that in our rush to interpret Avatar as racist/racialist, we run the risk of forgetting that a fundamentally imperialist/colonial story can also be very left wing in the contemporary political context. This is not to say that the politics of Avatar are particularly liberal; the closest theoretical fit would probably be a kind of left-wing Burkeanism.

I’m surprised that I haven’t read more about Cameron’s troubling vision of gender relations(and probably has been; forgive me for not fully exploring the literature produced on Avatar thus far); it’s true enough that the Na’Vi women hunted, but the gender division of labor nevertheless seemed very traditional, with women maintaining the spiritual health of the community while men manage its temporal affairs. Also, on passing their coming of age ceremony, Na’Vi men get their choice of (lifetime) mate, even though Na’Vi women apparently have to undertake exactly the same coming of age test. I also think that the question of disability could be profitably investigated. There’s a potentially productive parallel between Sully’s effort to escape disability in Avatar and Lieutenant Dunbar’s utter terror of amputation in Dances with Wolves.

Is it Dances with Wolves in Space?

Sort of. It reminded me more of The Mission than of Dances with Wolves, primarily because the tension between the scientists and the Corporation was reminiscent of the tension between the Jesuits and the colonists. The narrative of personal redemption (apparently necessary to any big budget American film) is more reminiscent of Dances with Wolves, although some parallels could be made between Sully and Robert De Niro’s character in The Mission. The montage of death near the end of Avatar was also echoes the final scenes of The Mission. On the other hand, The Mission rarely involved serious conversation between Indians and Jesuits, while Avatar and Dances with Wolves both include extended conversation in native language. To explore the comparison more deeply I’d need to watch Dances with Wolves again, which will never, ever happen. I suppose that the extensive use of the oboe in the scores of both Avatar and The Mission may have brought the parallel further to mind.

In any case, though, the three movies clearly sit within the same imperial family. In every case, Western/human/American domination is assumed. In every case, the only thing capable of preventing domination of the worst sort is Western et al moral superiority; the natives are assumed to be morally pure, but their morals and their military capabilities aren’t very important to the story. In all three cases, morality essentially fails to limit or modify temporal power. In Avatar and Dances with Wolves, a small group or single individual prevents or mitigates the domination (at least for a while), while in The Mission the Catholic Church is supposed to provide Spanish imperialism with a conscience. I further think that there’s some interesting ground to be covered in the comparison of the role of the Church in The Mission and the role of “science” in Avatar. At her other place, Charli wrote:

Other “good” characters too seem all too easily to manage the cognitive dissonance of knowing what is in store for the Na’Vi they consciously respect and love. Grace the xeno-biologist makes a few half-hearted attempts to dissuade when the tanks are already rolling. But surely she understood what was coming sooner? Soon enough to avoid feeding all the relevant facts to “the company,” or to warn the Na’Vi, or to engage Jack Sully about the ethics of his duplicitous posturing. If anything this is not a story about assuaging historical guilt but about forgetting the lessons of history. It is as if these characters are blissfully unaware of every mind-numbingly obvious political metaphor in the story.

This is interesting because the conflict between the spiritual authority of the Jesuits and the temporal power of the colonial state in The Mission is historically genuine; Jesuits and Franciscans often resisted state power, sometimes bitterly, in an effort to protect Indian populations in the New World. At the same time, the clerics themselves served as the vanguard of domination, giving the Spanish state a taste of Indian revenue, mapping out the physical and human terrain of native peoples, and in general providing the structure through which the colonial state was able to exert control. Indeed, the clerics themselves regularly engaged in the physical domination of the populations to which they ministered. The Jesuits and Franciscan weren’t stupid people, but there was the same kind of tension between their project and that of the Spanish colonial state as there was between the scientists and the corporation in Avatar. To bring this back to the point about Western colonialism made above, it bears mention that the scientific project is both the enabler of imperialism and its handmaiden; science helped make Western armies and navies invincible, while Western armies and navies opened broad vistas of study for anthropologists, biologists, zoologists, and so forth and what not. We shouldn’t forget, either, that the work of the scientists in Avatar is underwritten by the Corporation, just as the endowments of many major universities (not to mention the resources that went into the construction of more than a few Catholic cathedrals) were made possible by the wealth appropriated through imperialism.

Is it extraordinary?

Sure. Even more the Spielberg, Cameron is the master of the action-spectacle motion picture. While watching Avatar, it is impossible not to fantasize about the horrible set of punishments that ought to be inflicted upon Michael Bay (hopefully in 3D). I value the kind of spectacle that Cameron creates (I’m more than happy to apologize for Titanic), and believe that it requires an exceptional degree of talent. Avatar is visually remarkable, and its narrative (though deeply cliched) holds together enough for the spectacle to proceed. All of the Ford Pintos that appear in Act One explode by Act Four. The film’s biggest deficiency is its extended conclusion, which has several different emotional high points and is poorly paced. The dialogue is also terrible in spots.

Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable 2.5 hours.

Hugo Chavez: Stupider than Pat Robertson?

[ 1 ] January 23, 2010 |

Apparently, if Hugo Chavez says something stupid, Evo Morales has to follow suit:

President Evo Morales said Wednesday that Bolivia would seek U.N. condemnation of what he called the U.S. military occupation of earthquake-stricken Haiti. “The United States cannot use a natural disaster to militarily occupy Haiti,” he told reporters at the presidential palace.

“Haiti doesn’t need more blood,” Morales added, implying that the militarized U.S. humanitarian mission could lead to bloodshed. His criticism echoed that of fellow leftist, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said Sunday that “it appears the gringos are militarily occupying Haiti.”

When asked Wednesday about the possibility of the U.N. General Assembly condemning the U.S., assembly spokesman Jean Viktor Nkolo pointed to previous U.N. statements expressing gratitude for U.S. help in Haiti.

The United Nations will soon sign an agreement with the U.S. stipulating the U.N. as the lead organization for security in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, acting U.N. special envoy to Haiti, said Tuesday.

In fairness to Morales, however, he hasn’t gone so far as to accuse the United States of actually causing the earthquake:

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez Wednesday accused the United States of causing the destruction in Haiti by testing a ‘tectonic weapon’ to induce the catastrophic earthquake that hit the country last week.

President Chavez said the US was “playing God” by testing devices capable of creating eco-type catastrophes, the Spanish newspaper ABC quoted him as saying.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that Chavez’ comment is substantially stupider than Pat Robertson’s, if only because I suspect that God actually could cause an earthquake in Haiti if He so desired. I suppose we could debate the point, but I also find God’s motivation (get back at the Haitians for their Satanic proclivities) considerably more plausible than that which Chavez and Morales attribute to the United States; the single last thing that anyone in the Pentagon wants to do right now is devote more troops and treasure to Haiti…

Pat Robertson Says…

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

The demon karate bit is my favorite.

A first stab at the visual rhetoric of Mad Men…

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

…can be read in its entirety at my place because Blogger is being a child and refusing to upload my screen shots. Here’s everything up to the first image:

Does it strike you as odd that someone writing a book on visual rhetoric has produced two long posts about a television show noted for the sophistication of its formal and compositional elements without addressing them?

Me too. Time to rectify that.

No contemporary television show employs a quieter camera than Mad Men. Its disdain for the Law & Order version of cinematic realism that reached its apogee (or nadir) in Cloverfield is palpable: the camera frames scenes from multiple fixed positions and the shots are spliced together at a pace designed to have a soporific effect on anyone born after 1980. The framing and the pacing are a deliberate homage to the films of the period represented on the show. Though it may seem natural to direct a series set in the early 1960s in the same mode Douglas Sirk shot films in the 1960s, it is anything but.

Most films that aim to be realist depict the past in the dominant contemporary realist mode: Saving Private Ryan looks realistic to us because it panders to what we think looks realistic. Had Spielberg directed it in accordance with the realism regnant in 1942 the film would have looked dated. I point out the obvious here only to highlight the deliberateness of the decision to shoot Mad Men like a Sirk film (from the staid framing to the odd lighting and colors so saturated that even the most mundane act acquires the air of a particularly vivid dream). Mad Men is a show that depicts the seedy underbelly of the early 1960s in the style used in the early 1960s to hide its seedy underbelly. (It’s not for nothing that it took two decades for critics to get that Sirk was being ironic.) The effect is unsettling: the visuals create the expectation that none of the unseemly stuff will appear on screen and then it does.


Peggy hits on men in bars. Peter forces himself on his neighbor’s au pair. Sal accepts the advances of a randy bellboy. Joan is raped by her husband. The consequences of these events are seemingly contained by their framing: as if nothing truly terrible can come of something truly terrible because the shot is so tidily composed. One quick example from the last episode I watched (in which Peter and Trudy sit on the couch trying to decide whether to attend the wedding of his boss’s daughter the day after President Kennedy has been shot and Peter learned of his humiliating demotion):

Continue reading…

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

Friday Daddy Blogging… Miriam and Elisha.

"I’m Sorry. I Forgot to Compare KO to O’Reilly."

[ 0 ] January 23, 2010 |

Just logged on and checked out the comments thread on this post. Good gods, people. Most of you seem to think I equated Olbermann’s substantive views with those of Beck or Limbaugh, missing my point entirely. The others want to argue that there is a significant difference rhetorically between a right wing racist / homophobe using slurs to make his political point and a leftwing anti-racist anti-homophobe using slurs to make his point. Newsflash: the slurs are the point.

It’s a lot like just war theory. You can be perfectly justified in going to war, but that still doesn’t excuse murdering prisoners or slaughtering civilians. The ends do not always justify the means. And there is nothing traitorous to “the cause” in pointing that out.

Like most of you, I like Olbermann’s message plenty. Unlike most of you, I don’t like his polemics. He makes reasonable arguments often through unreasonable means, using many of the same rhetorical devices – repetition, name-calling, shmarm, vitriol – that we associate with the narrow-minded propagandists on the right. [Demagogue, definition: “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular passions and prejudices.”]

As an exemplar of democratic dissent (reputed according to Stewart for arguments ‘based in fact and saturated with reason’), KO IMHO has in fact long set a bad example to my children. He lowers the discourse with petty ad hominems and encourages all of us who agree with him to do the same because face it, we love what comes out of his mouth and he’s a celebrity. The time we spend listening to him because it feels good should not be (but often is) confused with time spent thinking seriously about political issues. This is especially dangerous because we agree with him. In short he lowers our expectations of what might be considered functional political discourse.

Does he lower those expectations to precisely the same degree as Rush or Glenn or O’Reilly or any other name I might pull out of the hat in expressing an opinion? Who bloody well knows? To answer that question empirically you would need a random sample of clips from an equivalent range of show-dates, and a team of objective coders trained to independently annotate the clips for some measure of “uncivil political rhetoric” according to a codebook defined in such a way as to be intelligible to anyone replicating the analysis, with an inter-rater reliability score of at least .80 or better.

Oh, make no mistake. I’m perfectly capable of doing precisely this when challenged to empirically support an opinion expressed in a blog post. But I simply don’t have the time this weekend, as my son has back to back soccer games and we may be getting a puppy.

Of course, I’m confident that if I wanted to I could. I’m confident because (in case it’s not glaringly obvious) Jon Stewart has already lined up the supporting evidence for me. (Actually, based on these comments I’m wondering if any of you has actually watched the clip. How can you be reminded of the kinds of sexist names KO has called women commentators and still argue he behaves with more high-minded pro-feminist rhetorical restraint than his enemies? On this point, I say he is no different than any other commentator who wields a haughty pro-woman stance as a weapon against other men when it’s profitable while behaving as a sexist when, er, it’s profitable. “But KO is pro-choice!” you would say. “He supports hospital care for rape victims!” Sure. I never said his politics are as bad for women as those of the right. My whole point is you can agree with the positions he takes and still be critical of the way in which he takes them.)

But the other reason I don’t need to provide generalizable supporting evidence is because I’m not actually making a statement of fact. I’m not offering an empirical analysis of the relationship between his rhetoric and Limbaugh’s. This wasn’t a scholarly treatise or a discourse analysis – for pity’s sake, this was a throwaway post where I’m offering my opinion. And that opinion isn’t based on coding or kappa scores. It’s based on a) growing up in a house where Rush Limbaugh was listened to religiously, and learning to despise how he talked, regardless of what he was saying and b) living in a house where KO is watched religiously and being just as irritated just as regularly for just the same reason, regardless of the fact that I agree with most of what he’s saying.

And here’s why, folks. I believe in deliberative democracy. I believe in expressing political conviction on the basis of reason and in forging common ground with those you disagree with. I reject the “cross-fire-esque” black and whiteness of today’s political discourse. I reject name-calling, character assassination and invective. And unlike many of those on the left today, with whom I fervently agree on many political issues, I hold “my” commentators to the same standard as those on the other side. Not to a higher standard. To the same standard.

Not because it feels good (it doesn’t).

Not even on principle (though there is an important one here).

No, out of sheer, Machiavellian self-interest. Olbermann is speaking for you and for me, and he shoots us in the feet when he puts his feet in his mouth. I like my feet, dammit. Need those feet.

Do liberals need Keith? Probably. Do we also need people like Jon reminding us of liberal ideals? Most definitely.

I stand firm in my admiration of Jon Stewart for standing up to Olbermann just as he does to those with whom he disagrees politically. Like Jon, I won’t shy away from challenging the conventional wisdom in my own political community as easily as I launch barbs at those on the other side of the fence. That’s my egg-headed opinion, and I’m sticking to it.

Frakkin’ deal with it.

Yet More Citizens United

[ 0 ] January 22, 2010 |

I have an article up at The American Prospect putting Citizens United in context as the latest manifestation of the Court’s increasing sympathy to the interests of big business.

Some other links of interest:

What Are They, For Lack Of A Better Word, Thinking?

[ 0 ] January 22, 2010 |

I’ve been puzzling over the same questions Rob has — that why both the White House and the Raul Grijalva set among House progressives seem publicly committed to positions that are utterly irrational. And…I’m still not sure, but here are my guesses.

The House liberals suddenly against voting for the only viable health care reform option are the tough case, not least because there are probably a few groups. As Krugman says, there does seem to be a group of House Democrats who are just genuinely acting irrationally, convincing themselves that there’s some kind of underpants gnome theory that will translate the right kind of posturing into a better Senate bill even though the post-special election edition of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body couldn’t even pass something as good as the current bill. There’s not much to say about this except that it’s crazy. In addition to this, there are probably heighten-the-contradictions types: some who just don’t think the bill improves the status quo (pretty clearly erroneously, I think, and the argument is particularly indefensible if you voted for the House bill, which is hardly radically different than the Senate version), along with some who don’t actually think the status quo if preferable to the bill but are deluding themselves about how soon the next opportunity to reform health care will come along. Since the latter group are acting almost as irrationally as the underpants gnomes faction, this isn’t a very satisfying explanation, but I don’t see any others.

As for the White House, I see an intelligible but profoundly misguided logic to their actions. Unless the administration has hired Mark Penn while I wasn’t looking, I don’t think for a minute that Obama or his senior advisers really believe they can get Republican votes in the Senate for a health care reform measure. Rather, I think they consider the reform bill doomed, and are invoking bipartisanship as a way to try to transfer some blame for the likely failure to Republicans. The problem with this, of course, it’s that it can’t work. The White House needs to face up to a simple reality: they own health care. If nothing gets done, it will be blamed on them, not the GOP. The public doesn’t care about the labor pains; it wants to see the baby. It’s not entirely fair — yes, it’s awful that the Republican minority in the Senate has substantial power without responsibility, and yes if the United States had political institutions appropriate for a modern democracy a better bill would have passed months ago. But, you know, ugatz fair. You govern with the institutions you have, and Obama needs to be doing everything he can to get the Senate bill through the House and a reconciliation bill through the Senate, will making it clear that there’s no viable Plan B. It may not work, but if it doesn’t he’s in serious political trouble either way.

In short, there’s no way to assess the situation, I don’t think, without seeing horrible failures of leadership: Obama, Frank, Weiner, any number of others — even if they come around in the end, they’ve acted very irresponsibly at a crucial time, and it may be too late. It’s very hard to have any optimism left.

Jon Nails Keith

[ 0 ] January 22, 2010 |
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Special Comment – Keith Olbermann’s Name-Calling
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Hear, hear. About time the fake news outlets took on left-wing as well as right-wing demagogues in the name of logical consistency and basic standards of civility. Only Stewart acts as if “name-calling” on the Olbermann show is something new, or that he ever had the “moral high ground.” Maybe he did politically, but rhetorically he’s been no better than Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh for a very long time.

More thoughts on Citizens United

[ 0 ] January 22, 2010 |


I was reading a review yesterday of a collection of Henry Farlie’s essays, and discovered that The Daily Beast and The Daily Brute were lightly fictionalized versions of The Daily Mail and The Daily Express in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, which sounds like fun.