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The 2012 Vote

Political Movies Aim to Influence Voters

October 11th 2012

Romney Obama debate

In the lead up to the U.S. elections, two documentaries, one conservative the other liberal, are trying to discredit the presidential candidate of the opposite camp. Dinesh D'Souza's Obama's America 2016 criticizes President Obama, a Democrat, as un-American, while the liberal mockumentary Janeane From Des Moines pokes fun at the Republicans on issues such as health care, gay marriage and the economy. These films attempt to sway voters. But can they?

Dinesh D'Souza's film Obama's America 2016 contends that the U.S. president has a hidden agenda on religion, war and the economy. Since its premiere, the documentary has raked in over $30 million, making it among the top grossing political documentaries of all time.

Nina Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, says films like that aim to galvanize voters of the same persuasion. "You have to find a way to their heart so that they don't maybe give you $25, but they go and raise more money," she said. "They go out and they knock on doors and they go out and do voter registration and they go out and they get their passion on for whatever sort of political purpose, in this case to defeat Barack Obama." Read more ..


Book Review

College: What it Was and What it Should Be

October 10th 2012

College what it was is and should be

College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Andrew Delbanco. Princeton. 2012. 240 pp.

Toward the end of this succinctly-titled book, American studies scholar Andrew Delbanco explains that he tried to avoid traditional typologies in rendering his story: it is neither a jeremiad, an elegy, or a call to arms. Nor, he says, does it conform to the most common type of writings about the state of liberal arts colleges today: the funeral dirge. Actually, the rhetorical form that most closely matches what he's doing here is History. The book is a meditation on the past, its relationship with the present, and how both may inform what may, for better and worse, yet be.

A truly interesting history of just about anything is going to affirm continuity and change. One of the more striking aspects of this book is the way that many of the things we think of as innovations, even improvements, in the traditional college experience are really quite old. Financial aid, efforts to diversify demographically, growth in the size and range of the curriculum: these trends are at least one hundred fifty years old, and recent developments are really more quantitative than qualitative.

Conversely, many of the less attractive aspects of college life have not disappeared, and have even intensified: economic inequality, discrimination (Asians have replaced Jews as the new "problem") and vague standards of admissions "quality" that accrue largely to the benefit those who are already privileged.

According to Delbanco, the main difference between what liberal arts colleges used to be and what they now are is a religious one -- or, more accurately, the disappearance of religion, and the attendant moral vision, that once went along with it. As he notes, this is not an altogether bad thing: all kinds of bigotry and exclusion attached to it. But if there was a saving grace in the origins of most elite colleges, it was in their Calvinist-tinged assumption that one's status was a God-given gift, the rendering of which neither fully understandable nor earned by human beings. Read more ..


Film Review

End of Watch: Cops and Bromance, Again

October 10th 2012

End of Watch

End of Watch. Director: David Ayers. Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña. Length: 90 mins.

Just as the trend in Hollywood, after decades of anti-Americanism and anti-military prejudice, may now be moving in the opposite direction in movies like The Hurt Locker, Act of Valor and the forthcoming Zero Dark Thirty, about the killing of Osama bin Laden, so we may hope that an even longer-lived if less-pronounced vogue for movies about corrupt cops may be giving way to movies like David Ayer's End of Watch, which is such a throwback to old-time movies about hero-cops that it will look positively corny to some.

Behind my badge is a heart like yours. I bleed, I think, I love, and yes, I can be killed. And although I am but one man, I have thousands of brothers and sisters who would die for me and I for them. We stand watch together. I am fate with a badge and a gun. The thin-blue-line, protecting the prey from the predators, the good from the bad. We are the police.

These are the voiceover words of one of the film's two heroes - in both senses of the term - Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal). As his old-fashioned movieish spiel suggests, he would presumably be impossibly straight-arrowish and therefore phony by today's standards, but for the fact that he is supposed to be making the movie himself. Or at least a movie which is not entirely separate and distinct from this movie. As a part-time law student, he is said to be taking an elective in film-making and so is recording his working life as a cop on film - or, rather, in digital form - as a student project which, we are to suppose, has been spliced together with the film we are watching.

It is, perhaps, a better idea in conception than it is in execution, but it allows Mr Ayer, who wrote the screenplay for the corrupt-cop movies Training Day (2001) and Harsh Times (2005) and who directed the latter, to put a certain ironic distance between himself and the remarkably uncorrupt, indeed heroic, cops we see in this latest movie. Brian Taylor is also an ex-marine, which produces a bit of pro-military messaging as well. Read more ..


Book Review

Subversives: The FBI and the Gift that Keeps on Giving

October 9th 2012

Subversives

Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power. Seth Rosenfeld. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2012. 752 pages.

For aficionados of the abuse of power, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is a gift that keeps on giving. Every time it seems that there can’t be anything left to reveal, somebody turns over a rock and out crawls another law-breaking, ethics-ignoring, ignominious episode. Seth Rosenfeld, a prize-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, has turned over a quarry-full of rocks and uncovered an appalling amount of sleazy behavior in post-war California, particularly in the turbulent 1960s.

Perhaps the best place to start reading this lengthy but compelling volume is on page 505. That’s where Rosenfeld begins his brief background essay on “My Fight for the FBI Files,” which recounts his 30 years of filings under the Freedom of Information Act as he worked to bring to light the FBI’s intimate, decades-long involvement with California politics and higher education. The documents he obtained, he says, “show that during the Cold War, FBI officials sought to change the course of history by secretly interceding in events, manipulating public opinion, and taking sides in partisan politics. The bureau’s efforts, decades later, to improperly withhold information about those activities under the FOIA are, in effect, another attempt to shape history, this time by obscuring the past.”

Rosenfeld takes the story from shortly after World War II, when the Cold War clamped its icy grip on the American psyche, into the 1970s, when California governor Ronald Reagan was well on his way to becoming a national figure, and the two other primary figures in his narrative—Mario Savio and Clark Kerr—had been pretty much marginalized on the California scene. Read more ..


Book Review

Yamashita's Ghost: Japanese War Crimes and American Justice

October 7th 2012

Yamashitas ghost

Yamashita's Ghost: War Crimes, MacArthur's Justice, and Command Accountability. Allan A. Ryan. Kansas. 2012. 416 pp.

In October 1944, General Tomoyuki Yamashita was assigned to lead the Japanese forces in the Philippines. Ten days later U.S. army units began landing in Luzon and Leyte to open the campaign to liberate the Philippines. Before and after Yamashita’s arrival the Japanese had carried out the identical brutality they had too often meted out to civilians and POWs throughout Asia and elsewhere. Filipinos and foreigners living in the islands were singled out, especially in Manila, where a bloodbath was carried out.

It was called the Manila massacre, which Yamashita insisted he never ordered. He was arrested soon after the Japanese surrendered. In the first war crimes trial of the Pacific War, he was tried by five generals, found guilty, and executed. His chief counsel, Colonel Harry Clarke objected, saying he was not found guilty for having done something specific but rather “solely with having been something,” in this instance commander of troops who had committed war crimes. When the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and judgment denied, two justices, Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge, described the verdict as unjust.

What is most significant is that the Supreme Court has never rejected this principle, which holds that a military commander can be blamed for murder, rape, and other crimes carried out by troops under his command even if he had not ordered them to do so. Since then the “Yamashita standard” as it is known, has been upheld as the law of the land.

Allan A. Ryan, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, was a U.S. Marine Corps judge advocate, as well as chief prosecutor of Nazis who fled to the U.S. and lied about their criminal past, has written an impressive and important book about the case in which he is unashamedly sympathetic to Yamashita and critical of the military judges and their superior, the imperious Douglas MacArthur. Read more ..


Film Review

The Master: A Picaresque American Tale

October 4th 2012

The Master 1

The Master. Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams. Length: 137 mins.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an easy movie to like, or so I found it anyway. It stands in the great tradition of the American picaresque, going back at least to Huckleberry Finn, but with an Elmer Gantry cast. And, like Elmer Gantry, its larger-than-life hero is presented as a self-aware con-man. This is one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), said to be loosely based on the real-life L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. The movie is also set in what were Scientology’s early years, the 1950s, and the period — as the original season of Mad Men showed — could have made a statement all its own. Mr Anderson chooses not to use it in this way, to create a pointed historical contrast with the present, although he might have done so. In fact, he has surprisingly little to say about the America either of the 1950s or of today. Dodd is presented as sui generis and not obviously a creature of the land where religious entrepreneurs and patent psychotherapies have so often come to thrive.

Moreover, although his portrait of Dodd is a brilliant one, Mr Anderson is really more interested in one of his dupes. This is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a no-longer able seaman mustered out of the U.S. Navy at the end of the Second World War with some kind of unspecified post-traumatic stress. More likely, Freddie’s only real affliction is being Freddie — which involves an overly powerful appetite for sex and strong liquor.

Mr Phoenix plays Freddie with a Popeye-the-sailor grimace and snarl that must be a deliberate allusion to that pop-cultural hero of yesteryear. But this is a Popeye stripped of his sometime uxoriousness and with a taste for home-made hooch instead of spinach. His skill, learned in the navy, at mixing up heavy-duty spirits out of paint thinner and developing fluid is what brings him to the attention of Mr Hoffman’s "Master," though it is not necessarily what sustains him there. Read more ..


Theatre Review

Chaplin: What the Little Tramp can Tell Us

September 28th 2012

Scene from Chaplin

Chaplin. Director: Warren Carlyle. Starring: Rob McClure. Writer: Thomas Meehan. Lyrics and Music: Christopher Curtis. Barrymore Theater, New York, N.Y.

Actor Charlie Chaplin, "the Little Tramp," was one of the most famous entertainers in history. With his round black hat, cane, tiny moustache, oversized shoes, sad eyes and odd walk, he shuffled his way through dozens of hit silent movies, earned close to a million dollars a year in the 1920s, helped found the hugely successful United Artists film company and thrilled audiences all over the world.

The Little Tramp is back again in the musical Chaplin, which opened last week in New York. The play is not only a good show but a searing look into American history during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen used congressional committees to hunt down entertainers and others with any ties to the Communist Party and tried to ruin them. Read more ..


Film Review

Arbitrage: A Fraudulent and Saving Grace

September 27th 2012

Arbitrage

Arbitrage. Director: Nicholas Jarecki Starring: Richard Gere, Graydon Carter, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta. Length: 90 mins.

The word "arbitrage," as I understand it, means taking advantage of the time lag with which information is transmitted between markets in order to buy in one market and sell at a favorable price in another to those who don’t yet know what you know. It has nothing to do with the new movie of that name by Nicholas Jarecki. His hero Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is not engaged in arbitrage but in out-and-out fraud, falsely representing by means of accounting chicanery the company he is trying to sell as solvent when it is not. The fact that — spoiler alert! — he gets away with this and that the person he sells the company to, James Mayfield (Graydon Carter), chooses to do nothing to bring him to justice suggests that Mr. Jarecki, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing, (a) has some very peculiar ideas about the way business works and (b) himself can see no important difference between legal and illegal transactions.

To him, it appears, they’re equally unpalatable. That rich people routinely swindle each other as well as the general public is simply a given, which I suppose makes it easy for him to believe that everything they do is more or less crooked. Yet he also rather admires Mr. Gere’s character for the success with which he pulls off a bigger swindle than his competitors are able to do. And this isn’t even the main plot of the movie! It is, rather, the framework within which a technical sub-plot is able to dominate our attention. For Robert Miller is not only a crook and a fraudster, he is also a love-rat and a hypocrite. In time-honored fashion, he is presented to us as an ideal family man, surrounded by wife (Susan Sarandon) and adoring child (Brit Marling) for about five minutes before we see him driving off with his French mistress (Laetitia Casta) in a Mercedes which he promptly crashes, killing her. Read more ..


Book Review

Lincoln's Hundred Days: A Book at the Intersection of Civil War Historiography

September 23rd 2012

Lincolns Hundred Days

Lincoln's Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War of the Union. Louis P. Masur. Oxford. 2012. 384 pages.

Louis P. Masur's latest book stands at the intersection of two important long term trends in Civil War historiography (and, by extension, U.S. historiography generally). The first a post-1960s emphasis on foregrounding the racial dimension of the conflict, asserting slavery was the precipitating cause and abolition as the primary significance of its outcome.

This would almost be so obvious among scholars to not bear mentioning if such emphasis was not primary before the late twentieth century, and if there didn't remain vocal segments in the culture at large that explicitly reject it. The other, more recent trend is a new emphasis on political history, in effect closing a circle that began with a move toward social history in the 1970s and '80s and cultural history in the 1990s and 2000s. In recent decades historians have tried to affirm their commitment to a democratic discourse by affirming the agency of individual actors at the ground level rather than the Words and Deeds of Great Men.

Like all well-intentioned (or perhaps just intellectual marketplace-driven) trends, however, such tendencies have perhaps reached the point where they conceal more than they reveal. Who's running the government at any given time really may matter after all.

Given this context, there may well have been a spate of Emancipation Proclamation books even if its 150th anniversary was not at hand (President Lincoln issued the preliminary Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and the final one putting it into effect on January 1, 1863). In recent years, a string of heavyweight scholars -- among them Allen Guelzo, Harold Holzer, and, going back a bit further, John Hope Franklin -- have made it the subject of volume-length studies. This is interesting when one considers the traditional perception of the E.P., captured most vividly by Edmund Wilson, who in Patriotic Gore famously described it as having "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." But just as the center of gravity in the military history of the war has shifted from Gettysburg to Antietam, so too is the E.P. getting a second look as a document as carefully crafted, and eloquent in its own way, as the Gettysburg Address. Read more ..


Book Review

Sex and God at Yale: Eroticism and Nihilism in the Poisoned Ivy League

September 22nd 2012

Sex and God at Yale, author Nathan Harden

Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad. Nathan Harden. Thomas Dunn Books. 2012. 320 pp.

They say everyone is entitled to his fifteen minutes of fame. My mom had her brief moment in the spotlight a couple years back, when the New York Post called her for a comment about a new dorm policy at Columbia, where I was a sophomore at the time. As the article put it, “Columbia University students will soon be able to live in sin—on their parents’ dime. A new ‘gender-neutral’ housing policy . . . will allow boys and girls to shack up together in campus housing.”

My mom’s reaction was, I hope, the reaction most parents would have to such news. “I was shocked enough last year when we moved our son in and we saw that guys and girls shared a bathroom on the hall,” she told the Post. “If it had been our daughter, we would have turned around and walked straight out. As far as coed roommates go, that would be insane. If our child chose to do that, we would opt out.” Thankfully for my mom’s sanity, sharing a dorm room with a girl was never high on my college to-do list. But had she known what else Columbia had in store for us, I can guarantee she would have opted out anyway. Read more ..


Islam on Edge

Actress Shattered by Appearance in 'The Innocence of Muslims'

September 22nd 2012

Anna Gurji
Georgian actress Anna Gurji

Aspiring actress Anna Giorgobiani finally made the giant leap to Hollywood from her native Tbilisi. Now, with her excitement over landing a role in an "indie feature film" turned to disgust, the 21-year-old Georgian finds herself at the center of fundamentalist Muslim outrage that has sparked protests around the world and left more than a dozen people dead.

Cast members say the amateurish "Innocence of Muslims" was heavily dubbed and edited without their knowledge to mock Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

It also appears to feature Anna Gurji (as Anna Giorgobiani is known in the business) chasing a man -- who is either "George" or "Muhammad," depending on your perspective -- around a tent with a shoe (at the 13-minute mark in the film's trailer on YouTube).

On September 17, English writer and comic-book artist Neil Gaiman published "A Letter from a Scared Actress," which Gurji is said to have sent him a few days ago. Read more ..


Film History

Treasure Trove of Tsarist Movies Soon to be Available

September 22nd 2012

Movie still 1908 Stenka Razin

Cineastes from Russia and elsewhere are licking their lips at the thought of a potential treasure trove of Tsarist-era movies finally being made accessible to the public after many decades. Russian news agencies have reported that an American businessman has donated more than 350 old Russian movies to a St. Petersburg film studio.

The films were shot before the 1917 October Revolution that brought Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Party to power. They were later taken out of Russia during the country's civil war. The movies eventually ended up in the collection of Steven Krams, the president of the American cinema technology firm Magna-Tech Electronic Co. Inc.

On September 21, he signed an agreement with Lenfilm that will see him unconditionally hand over these "movie relics" free of charge so that they can be transported to St. Petersburg for proper restoration. Read more ..


Arts in America

Long-Overdue Revision of New Grove Dictionary of American Music accomplished

September 19th 2012

Salvation Army girl

In the field of American music research, there is no more respected publication than The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. A team of University of Michigan music scholars contributed significantly to the first updated and revised edition to be published early next year.

Known as AmeriGrove, the dictionary was originally published by Macmillan in 1986 as the first comprehensive reference work dedicated to the music of the United States that was academically rigorous and written by a team of specialists. It quickly became the definitive scholarly resource on the subject.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the first revised edition of AmeriGrove is nearing completion, led by faculty members in the Department of Musicology and with strong support from the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Scheduled for print and online publication by Oxford University Press (OUP) early next year, The Grove Dictionary of American Music, second edition (AmeriGrove II) dramatically increases the breadth of coverage, growing from four to eight volumes, and affirms U-M’s role as one of the top research institutes in the world for American music.

Under the leadership of editor-in-chief Charles Hiroshi Garrett (associate professor of musicology) and project editor for design and development Mark Clague (associate professor of musicology and SMTD director of research), AmeriGrove II has been in development for more than six years. Utilizing the talents of U-M faculty, alumni and students, along with scholars of American music from around the world, the work now features close to 9,000 entries on the people, places, objects, practices, genres, concepts, themes and traditions that have forged America’s music.
Read more ..


Broken Justice

Scalia 'Furious' at Roberts for Healthcare Vote on law, says Toobin Book

September 18th 2012

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia

Jeffrey Toobin's latest book portrays Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as increasingly cranky and partisan — and infuriated with Chief Justice John Roberts over the court's recent decisions on healthcare and immigration. Toobin, who writes for The New Yorker and also covers the court for CNN, credits Scalia for a sea change in how both sides of the political spectrum think about the law.

But he says the justice's bombast has become off-putting to more even-tempered colleagues. Toobin's latest book, "The Oath," chronicling the Roberts court and the Obama presidency, is being released today.

Here are 5 key takeaways:

Scalia 'furious' over healthcare and immigration

The book confirms previous reports that Roberts changed his vote in the landmark case over President Obama's healthcare law after initially siding with the conservative justices. But Toobin reports — as others have implied — that what pushed Roberts away was the conservative justices' insistence on striking down the entire health law. Read more ..


Film Review

The Imposter: Weirdly Inspiring and Worth Seeing

September 15th 2012

The Imposter

The Imposter. Director: Bart Layton. Starring: Frédéric Bourdin, Adam O'Brian, Carey Gibson. Length: 99 mins.

The eponymous center of director Bart Layton’s attention in The Imposter is Frédéric Bourdin, the product of a fleeting liaison between a teenage French girl and an Algerian, who ran away from his not-much-of-a-home at an early age and made a youthful career out of inventing for himself new identities that he thought would enable him to fit in with those whom he appears, for some reason, to have thought of as more normal people than those he was used to — people, at least, who found it normal to believe his habitually monstrous lies. "For as long as I can remember," he tells Mr. Layton’s camera in this true-crime documentary with some re-enacted bits, "I wanted to be someone else, someone more acceptable." By the age of 23 in 1997, he had perfected his act as a shy and withdrawn teenager whose alleged history of horrible abuse made people want to help him.

In that year, finding himself in a home for wayward youth in Linares, Spain, and in desperate need of a stratagem to prevent himself from being fingerprinted and, as he thought, sent to prison, he telephoned the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, and, pretending to be a Spanish policeman, asked if they had anyone on their books vaguely answering his own description, or the description he was now used to giving of himself. They came up with the name of Nicholas Barclay, who had gone missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas, three and a half years before at age 13. Frédéric thought, on the basis of a grainy, black-and-white fax of Nicholas’s photo, that he could impersonate the boy, though he was more than six years older than the latter would have been and spoke English with an undisguisable French accent. Read more ..


Africa on Edge

Uganda Jails Brit for Play About Homosexuality

September 14th 2012

David Cecil British Producer

Police on Thursday arrested the producer of a play about homosexuality in Uganda that was staged last month in Kampala. David Cecil, a British national, has been charged with disobeying lawful orders for failing to get official authorization to show “The River and the Mountain,” the story of a Ugandan businessman who comes out as gay and is later killed by his employees.

In Uganda, where homosexual activities are illegal, the staging of the play immediately sparked controversy. Government officials forced the cancellation of scheduled performances at the National Theater last month, but it was instead shown at two Kampala locations, including a cultural center that Cecil manages. After requiring Cecil to file a statement last week, police then released the producer. Reporting for a court arraignment Thursday, however, Cecil was denied bail for failure to produce his passport, which police had confiscated. Read more ..


India on Edge

Indian Cartoonist’s Arrest Sparks Protests

September 13th 2012

Cartoonist Arrest

Outrage has been sparked in India by the arrest of a cartoonist who produced satirical drawings protesting political corruption.  Aseem Trivedi's arrest on charges of sedition is being seen as an attack on freedom of expression. Anti-corruption activists, opposition politicians and citizens held protests in Mumbai demanding the release of 25-year-old Trivedi.

Trivedi was arrested Saturday on the complaint of a lawyer for a series of cartoons that satirized political corruption and allegedly mocked the Indian constitution. In one of his cartoons, he depicts parliament as a toilet bowl.  In another he replaces lions in India’s national emblem with wolves, and the words “truth shall prevail” with “corruption shall prevail.”  Read more ..


Film Review

Compliance: A Disgusting and Perverse Film

September 13th 2012

Compliance

Compliance. Director: Craig Zobel. Starring: Dreama Walker, Pat Healy. Length: 90 mins.

I don’t believe it. Blind Gloucester in King Lear, describing the naked man he does not know is his own son, says, "I’ the last night's storm I such a fellow saw/Which made me think a man a worm." Craig Zobel’s Compliance also has a naked person in it who made me think a man — and a woman too — a worm, which I’ve no doubt was the author’s intention.

But a man is not a worm. That is the truth which the careful label fastened on this disgusting movie, "inspired by true events," obscures with its qualified and, therefore, untrue truth — which, as I say, I don’t believe. For even if something like the events of the movie, or some significant portion of them, happened in real life, there is nothing true about them apart from their bare occurrence. Not if I know anything about the human animal.

Yet, at least among movie people, there are plenty of who want to believe the worst of our vermiform nature. Let’s put together a newspaper advertisement for movie featuring all genuine quotations from critics across the land. ". . .This psychological horror movie slithers rapidly from uncomfortable to unspeakable. . ." (New York Times). ". . . This stealth psychological horror film is at once tough to turn away from and, by design, extremely difficult to watch. . ." (Variety). ". . . Without a doubt, the most uncomfortable film experience of my life. . ." (Huffington Post). And these are the positive reviews! Feel like you want to see it yet? On the whole, the critics seem to think you should. As Peter Travers of Rolling Stone put it, "Craig Zobel's potent and provocative Compliance is torture to sit through. It’s also indispensable filmmaking." Read more ..


The Edge of Music

Fungus Treatment Makes New Violins Sound Like a Stradivarius

September 9th 2012

stradivarius

A good violin depends not only on the expertise of the violin maker, but also on the quality of the wood that is used. The Swiss wood researcher Professor Francis W. M. R. Schwarze (Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, St. Gallen, Switzerland) has succeeded in modifying the wood for a violin through treatment with special fungi. This treatment alters the acoustic properties of the instrument, making it sound indistinguishably similar to a Stradivarius.

In his dinner talk at the 1st ECRC "Franz-Volhard" Symposium of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) and Charité - Universitätsmedizin in Berlin-Buch, Schwarze reported on his research and gave a preview of what his wood treatment method could mean, particularly for young violinists. Read more ..


Book Review

Taking a Look at Jewish Concerns

September 8th 2012

The State of the Jews

Edward Alexander. The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal. Transaction Publishers, 2012. 264 pages.

As anti-Zionism/anti-Semitism have become more acceptable as “genuine” criticism within academic circles Edward Alexander’s latest book The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal could not be more relevant and timely. It was Hitler’s professors who were the first to make anti-Semitism both academically respectable and complicit in murder. In his previous book The Jewish Divide over Israel Accusers and Defenders Alexander’s describes this problem acutely saying,

“Jews who assign responsibility for anti-Jewish aggression to Jewish misbehavior not only save themselves from the unpleasant and often dangerous task of coming to the defense of Jews under attack but also retain the charms of good conscience.…”

Now in the in the State of the Jews, the author has put forth a collection of forceful essays and reviews spanning over a decade centered on the Jewish role in the war of ideas against the Jews.

Alexander’s most scornful analysis focuses on academic anti-Semitism and the collaboration of Jewish liberals in the demonization of Israel which has been strictly reserved for Nazi Germany. This phenomenon in practical terms is what has become known as the Auschwitz syndrome that is the belief that Zionism is in-fact the New Nazism.

By evoking Auschwitz, one can see how the inherent double standard is used as the ammunition against Israel and its supporters on a growing basis. Thus, detracting from the territorial dispute and marking the actions of the Israeli government as the heirs of Nazism.

The collective memory of the Holocaust has been used and abused by anti-Israel circles which include Jewish individuals and pro-Palestinian sympathizers. All breaking Cynthia Ozick’s cardinal rule that, “Jews are not metaphors—not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for anti-Semites…” Read more ..


Book Reviews

Herman B Wells and the American Promise

September 6th 2012

Herman b wells

Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University. James H. Capshew. Indiana. 2012. 488 pp.

The stereotypical Midwesterner: unpretentious, practical, hard-working, reliable, tough-minded, respectable, egalitarian, discreet. Positive adjectives, all of them -- at least at first glance. As we will see, however, discretion, at least, can be a mixed blessing, when practiced by both a subject and his biographer.

James Capshew, a historian at Indiana University, portrays the long-lived Herman B Wells, president of Indiana University from 1937 to 1962 (and interim president in the late '60s) and chancellor until his death in 2000, as embodying all of these Midwestern characteristics. These personal qualities, Capshew argues, made Wells a truly great university leader. He quotes higher education historian John Thelin, who described Wells as an exemplar of "an innovative style of presidential leadership ... central to the surge of the new American state university."

Capshew’s is an ambitious undertaking, highly successful in some ways, less so in others. At his best, he shows how Wells -- himself an Indiana native -- helped to transform a small provincial institution, drifting along in the backwaters of the Big Ten, into a highly visible research university with national and international reach. Drawing upon extensive primary research, secondary sources such as Thomas Clark’s four-volume history of the University and Mary Ann Wynkoop’s study of IU in the '60s, and his own memories of Wells (he first encountered Wells's "personal beneficence and institutional charisma" as an undergraduate in the late '70s, when he served as a "houseboy" in Wells's home), he paints a portrait of a man constantly in motion, who built, promoted, and protected the institution he loved as if it were a living thing.

Throughout the book, Capshew's admiration for this "extraordinary human being" never wavers. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Wells is that he introduced so much dramatic change to IU while becoming ever more beloved not just for his professional acumen, but also for his decency and thoughtfulness. Another transformative leader, whose presidency almost exactly coincides with Wells's, was Brown University's Henry Wriston, of whom it was said that he "took Brown by the scruff of the neck and shook it into greatness." Wriston was able and charismatic in his way, but didn’t generate the broad and deep personal affection that Wells did. Nobody seems to have imagined Wells taking anybody or anything by the scruff of the neck. Read more ..


Book Reviews

Back to School: A Second Chace for Everybody

September 6th 2012

back to school

Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Change at Education. Mike Rose. New Press. 2012. 224 pp.

The 2011 Tom Hanks film Larry Crowne isn't a very good movie -- it isn't even really a very good Tom Hanks movie -- but it is salutary in one very important respect. In telling the story of a laid-off retail worker who goes back to community college, the film focuses attention on the reality of higher education in contemporary life: that the typical undergraduate is not the 18-to-22 year old attending a four-year liberal arts institution who tends to get most of the attention in contemporary educational discourse. Instead, the middle-aged title character finds himself immersed in a polyglot community of adults (some young, some less so) striving to pick up lost threads or missed opportunities.

This is a story that Mike Rose knows well. Rose has spent a long and illustrious career chronicling the lives of working-class people striving for dignity in work, in school and in the connection between them. In Back to School, he focuses specifically on returning students, and passionate hopes as well as serious obstacles apparent in settings where the American Dream is won and lost most vividly.

Rose, who teaches at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, is a policy wonk -- he navigates debates between those who advocate college for all versus those who emphasize vocational training, among others -- but a strong empirical empathy animates his work. You'll find data-driven metrics here, but the heart of the book rests on close observation of the realities and aspirations of individual lives, which are limned with economy and insight. (In this regard, his work is strongly reminiscent of the work of my late father-in-law, education reformer Ted Sizer.) Read more ..


Film Reviews

Obama's America 2016: Do you Love Him or Hate Him?

September 3rd 2012

2016 the Movie

2016: Obama's America. Directors: Dinesh D'Souza and .John Sullivan Producer: Gerald R. Molen. Length: 1 hr 29 mins.
Near the end of 2016: Obama’s America, Dinesh D’Souza — who is the principal on-screen presence and co-director (with John Sullivan) of the movie based on his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage — interviews the former Comptroller General David Walker as part of an effort to sound the alarm about our country’s ballooning debt. There is, as you would expect, an on-screen graphic, in fact a graph, stacking up President Obama’s massive $5 trillion in new debt in only three and a half years against the more modest contributions of his predecessors — though his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, is lumped together with him for the convenience of making the point that these two presidents between them have piled up more debt than all their 42 predecessors combined. In any reasonably well-ordered democratic political culture this, you might think, would be scandal enough and to spare, but in our hyper-charged media environment today we have been mainlining scandal for so long that it apparently takes something a good deal more potent than looming bankruptcy to give us that longed-for high.

At any rate, Mr. D’Souza’s movie certainly gives us the hard stuff, as it imputes to President Obama an agenda culminating in nothing less than the prospective destruction of the United States. The bit about the debt comes across almost as an afterthought. Too obvious, I guess. Instead, with the promise of mystery and intrigue, the hidden truth that only they can get at which is always so congenial to the movies, 2016 concentrates on finding the clues in Mr. Obama’s not-quite-secret radicalism as to his secret agenda for his second term. Read more ..


Destination London

Europe's 'Biggest Street Festival' Rocks London

August 30th 2012

London Carnival

During a summer dominated by the Olympics, Europe's largest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival, gave London revelers another thing to smile about Sunday and Monday. The carnival is an important cultural event led by the West Indian community in London.

About 1 million people poured onto the streets of west London during the two days of the Notting Hill Carnival. Swamped on all sides by massive crowds, hundreds of groups took part in the parade, dancing to the beat of pounding music that pumped through loudspeakers. Their costumes ranged from the colorful and extravagant to the surprising and surreal.  The members of a group called "Chocolate Nation" arrived splattered head to foot in melted chocolate. I accompanied one band, called Jamboulay Carnival Arts, along the route. It is run by Francesca Bailey, who said getting ready for Carnival takes her the whole year.

She has to raise the money, around $10,000, to run workshops, build a float, and get the costumes ready.  But she says she does it to keep her culture alive. "We do it every year because for us it is a very cultural thing, and it is important that we continue with our culture. Carnival is something that began many years ago in Trinidad and Tobago, and it was based on the emancipation of slavery and it has over the years, it has progressed and evolved.  So, it is nice to see that it has come to Britain and really evolved over the years," Bailey said. Read more ..


Book Review

Marilyn: Monroe's Passion, Paradox and Pain

August 28th 2012

Marilyn

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox. Lois Banner. Bloomsbury. 2012. 528 pp.

On the fiftieth anniversary of her death, Marilyn Monroe remains a woman of mystery and paradox as is evident in this long-awaited biography of the actress and sexual icon by feminist scholar and University of Southern California historian Lois Banner. In her more than ten years of research into the life of Monroe, Banner has obviously grown attached to her subject, but as a biographer she is not uncritical.

On the other hand, Banner refuses to perceive Marilyn as simply the victim of powerful men and the difficult circumstances in which she grew up. While following some paths trodden by previous Monroe biographers, Banner has also expanded her research into previously neglected interview, archival, and newly discovered letter collections to reveal a "woman who made herself into a star, conquering numerous disabilities in the process, creating a life more dramatic than any role she played in film" .

The first part of the biography focuses upon the difficult early Norma Jeane years. Marilyn Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson on June 1, 1926. Her father was likely Charles Stanley Gifford, who refused to acknowledge his parenthood, contributing to Marilyn's sense of abandonment and search for a father figure. Her emotionally unstable mother Gladys Monroe Baker was a film cutter in a Hollywood editing studio and later was admitted to state mental hospital. She entrusted her daughter in the guardianship of her friend Grace Atchison McKee, who, in turn, placed Norma Jeane in eleven foster homes and an orphanage until her marriage at age sixteen.

Although Grace could not provide Norma Jeane with a permanent home, Marilyn refused to criticize her, insisting that Grace did the best she could and was as close to a mother as she really ever had. Banner also asserts that young Norma Jeane developed a strong sense of fear, guilt, and fascination with her genitals through exposure to evangelical Christianity under the foster care of the Bolender family. Under the influence of another foster mother, Grace McKees aunt Ana Atchinson Lower, Norma Jeane became a Christian Scientist which provided the young woman with a sense that her spirit could exercise control over her body; also helping her to cope with severe menstrual cramps and painful endometriosis. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

2016 Obama Movie Ranks Number 4, Stunning Observers

August 26th 2012

2016 the Movie

The conservative documentary 2016 based on author and commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s New York Times bestselling book -- The Roots Of Obama’s Rage -- and co-directed by D’Souza and John Sullivan and produced by Oscar-winner Gerald R. Molen (co-producer of Schindler’s List) surprised Hollywood and the Democratic Party on Friday by making the Top 5 motion pictures list. The 4th place film examines the question, “If Obama wins a second term, where will we be in 2016?” In addition to moving up the list of hit movies, the film is already recognized as second highest grossing documentary of 2012, according to the Huffington Post.

What's truly surprising is the fact that it's appearing in two-thirds fewer theaters yet it beat The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Hit and Run, and horror flick The Apparition and came in at 4th place, according to Deadline Hollywood. Creating hit motion pictures is nothing new for Gerald Molen, who has produced many of the most memorable films in the last three decades including blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Twister, Days of Thunder, Hook and Minority Report. He was a producer for the Academy Award winning film Schindler’s List and co-producer for Rain Man which also won the Oscar for Best Picture. Read more ..


The Obama Edge

Ron Suskind's Confidence Men

August 26th 2012

Tim Geitner

When Ron Suskind published his book The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill in January 2004, he received rave reviews from many on the left. In researching that book, Suskind found the perfect source, Paul O’Neill, who had been fired from his post as Treasury Secretary. Suskind milked that source for an astonishing amount of inside dirt. The book was manna from heaven for those inclined to dislike President Bush.

Suskind’s latest effort, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President uses a similar algorithm to generate a glimpse of the current administration, this time relying on disgruntled insiders and former senior Obama administration officials. While the reception of Suskind has been quite different at The Washington Post, the New York Review of Books and The New York Times, Suskind is, after two such books, at least vying to become that most valuable of journalists, the fellow that everyone in any administration feels they must confide in, else their history will be written by rivals. Read more ..


The Edge of Music

John Williams 'America's Soundtrack' Composer Feted on 80th Birthday

August 25th 2012

John Williams

For over 50 years, John Williams' music has taken us to galaxies far, far away with the "Star Wars" theme, or on rollicking adventures around the world with the Indiana Jones movies. His scores make us feel giddy with joy and occasionally scare us to death as with the music from "Jaws," which foreshadowed the impending appearance of the giant man-eating shark.

Williams might be the most recognized contemporary composer in the world but writing music wasn’t his focus when he was young. "My primary focus was always on piano performance," he says. "I had no idea that I’d ever compose music."

Williams grew up in a musical household with a father who was a professional jazz percussionist. Williams himself was such a serious pianist that he studied with a famed teacher at the Juilliard School after a stint in the Air Force Band. Read more ..


Book Review

The People's Pension: Whither Social Security?

August 24th 2012

peoples pension 2

The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan. Eric Laursen. AK Press. 2012. 802 pp.

In 1964 Barry Goldwater discovered that suggestions to reduce or replace Social Security can be politically hazardous. Twelve years later Ronald Reagan lost the Republican presidential primary election in Florida in part because he attacked Social Security. Nevertheless, the assaults persisted, and since Reagan’s election in 1980 have become increasingly sophisticated and intense. In more than seven hundred pages of text, Eric Laursen describes these efforts in great detail, presenting the provisions of proposed legislation, the campaigns to substitute alternate retirement schemes, and the coalitions of politicians, businessmen, and financiers who to the present day have sought to subvert the landmark social legislation of the New Deal. With Social Security and Medicare major issues in this presidential year, this book provides the background for anyone who wishes to be well-informed.

Laursen is a journalist and activist who spent fifteen years researching Social Security and writing about it for various publications. He is not neutral, noting that it “has been by far the largest income support program in the U.S. and a necessity for the 95 percent of American workers who participate in the above-ground economy” and “For seventy years, it has been a fundamental element of American workers’ lives,” one of the programs to which middle-class Americans “owed their prosperity.”

Their welfare is his primary concern. Invariably, when discussing criticism of Social Security as a deficit buster or “entitlement,” or a program that would be improved by privatization, Laursen points out the vulnerability of those whom it serves. For example, such is the case with African Americans, whom critics of Social Security claim do not receive proportionate retirement benefits because of poor longevity. They do, however, receive significant disability benefits. Read more ..


Theatre Review

Measure for Measure: Corruption in the Judiciary since 1604 A.D.

August 24th 2012

measure for measure
Scene from Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare. Director: Bonnie Monte. Produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Running Aug. 8 - 26.

The Duke of Vienna has told his constituents that he is leaving town for a few weeks to travel but actually disguises himself as a friar in order to observe what is going on in his absence. He appoints a tough judge, Angelo, to run things while he is gone. As soon as Angelo takes over, he gets the case of Claudio, who had sex with his wife without the marriage having been officially recognized, technically a crime under a bizarre Viennese law that carries the death penalty. He sentences him to death. Claudio’s girlfriend nearly collapses, but his good-looking sister, Isabella, about to enter a nunnery, goes to see Angelo to free Claudio.

Judge Angelo lusts after the shapely Isabella as soon as she walks into the room. The angrier she gets, the bawdier he becomes. He tries to strike a deal. He will free Claudio if she goes to bed with him. She refuses. Claudio is doomed. Read more ..


Book Review

The Nazi Seance: Strange Bedfellows in Hitler's Inner Circle

August 21st 2012

nazi seance

The Nazi Seance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle. Arthur J. Magida. Palgrave-MacMillan. 288 pp.
A new biography by Arthur Magida explores an oft-overlooked side of the life of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs – their fascination with the occult.

Magida’s new book, “The Nazi Séance: The Strange Story of the Jewish Psychic in Hitler's Circle,” delves into the strange life of one of Hitler’s chief confidants and advisors, a Jewish clairvoyant named Erik Jan Hanussen, whose magical and mystical talents made him a superstar in the 1920s and 1930s.

Known as “Europe’s greatest oracle since Nostradamus” and believed to, “be in league with the Devil,” Hanussen’s bizarre talents elevated him to the pinnacle of success in the inter-war years, becoming one of the most important people in Hitler’s inner circle.

Although the author dismisses claims that Hanussen truly possessed magical skills, Magida marvels at Hanussen’s ability to stay above the fray, overcoming charges of deception in court while attracting a legion of followers from across the world – including celebrities and the super rich. His popular newspaper – having eerily predicted the events leading to Hitler’s subsequent rise and consolidation of power – eventually made him a crucial part of the Fuehrer’s immensely important propaganda machine.

Why did Hanussen not use his special talents or his unique position to forewarn Europe’s Jews of the coming Holocaust? The author attributes this to apathy, and a deep desire for fame, pointing to the magician’s non-triumphant return to Berlin after a successful escape to Switzerland because he was so desperate to be in the spotlight.

Hanussen was killed by the Nazis in 1933. We can only wonder if he knew what was coming, and if he did, why he returned to Germany at all. Perhaps the man who was so adept at fooling others was too foolish to see what lay in store for him, and the rest of Europe’s Jews. Read more ..


The Edge of Film

Great American Director Tony Scott Ends His Life

August 20th 2012

Man on Fire

Authorities in Los Angeles say movie director Tony Scott, director of such Hollywood blockbusters as Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Beverly Hills Cop II, has died after jumping from a Los Angeles County Bridge. An officer with the Los Angeles County Coroner's office said the 68-year-old Scott's death Sunday is being investigated as a suicide. Police say several people called emergency services shortly after midday Sunday to report that someone had jumped from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles. A dive team with Los Angeles Port Police pulled the body from the murky water several hours later, Nordquist said. Scott's body was taken to a dock in Wilmington and turned over to the county coroner's office.

The British-born Scott was producer and director Ridley Scott's brother. Ridley Scott's Prometheus was a summer blockbuster. Scott frequently worked with Denzel Washington, most recently on the runaway train drama Unstoppable.  
Scott and Washington collaborated on four other films: Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and the visually stunning and evocative Man on Fire. Other Scott films include True Romance and Crimson Tide. Scott was married to actress Donna Scott. They have twin sons.

Motion picture aficionado Edwin Black commented: "Cult-like followings have surrounded some of Scott's films. Among them, Man on Fire has sparked recent fascination. The enduring soundtrack music ends with a haunting collage of ethnic and visceral themes." You can hear the penetrating track here.


Film Review

The Dark Knight Rises: But Does Batman Really Rise to the Occasion?

August 19th 2012

dark knight

The Dark Knight Rises. Director: Christopher Nolan. Starring: Christopher Bale, Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman. Length: 165 mins.

When I last reviewed one, I wrote that a film critic reviewing a James Bond movie inevitably feels like a food critic reviewing a McDonald’s Restaurant. In both cases there is really nothing to review, as the effort expended by the authors has not been to produce something new that, in their judgment, will please us but merely something that is as close as possible to what we already know pleases us. Thank you for not surprising!

Even if it doesn’t please, the point is the same: to follow a formula in order to reproduce an experience that the same formula has produced in the past, whether we like the result or not, since the audience that likes it is a large and loyal one that keeps coming back for more of the same whatever those who don’t like it may do. And from the point of view of the franchisees, one of the advantages of ownership is that it short-circuits the critical process by reducing it to irrelevance. Every review will amount to this: for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like. Everybody already knows that anyway.

I think much the same is true of superhero movies. As someone who has been criticizing them for years after a long period of regarding them as a harmless indulgence and irony practice for the largely irony-free American film industry, I have now arrived at the point where the criticism seems as automatic as the movie formulae themselves. For one thing: no more irony. Criticism, I find, is dumbfounded by those who take such stuff seriously — as, hitherto, only children have been able to do. You have only my word to go on that each time I force myself to go to another one of these dire productions — and I don’t go to many anymore — I really do try to find something to like about it, something that can be taken seriously.

But each time I find that the fantastical element, which is of the very essence of the superhero genre, so overwhelms anything that might in its absence have been a good idea that my optimistic impulses are crushed. The need to stick to the formula makes anything new or interesting extremely difficult, if not impossible. This loss — and I do feel it as a loss — is the more to be regretted because it puts me at odds with the legion of younger critics who have grown up with these movies and seem to like them all the better for not treating their camp heroes as jokes anymore. What more natural than that they should think my not liking them merely a result of being old and out of touch, stuck in an era when, admittedly, almost nothing was taken seriously? Perhaps they are right. Read more ..


Book Review

A Call to Conscience: Comrades Challenging the Contra War

August 18th 2012

a call to conscience

A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign. Roger Peace. University of Massachusetts Press. 2012. 207pp.

What Roger Peace, adjunct professor of history at Tallahassee Community College, does very well in A Call to Conscience is remind Americans about a largely forgotten past when antiwar religious and secular groups, despite their many differences, dared challenge the Reagan administration’s proxy war in Nicaragua aimed at defeating a left-wing government.

The disparate American anti-Contra groups were fortunate to have many sympathetic Democrats and moderate Republicans eager to see an end to the constant flow of money and weapons to the Contras. They lobbied, wrote, spoke, and demonstrated, even raising the unwarranted fear the U.S. was planning to send in ground troops. “No single group or organization directed this decentralized campaign,” writes a clearly sympathetic Peace, whose detailed account, while hardly nuanced, carefully examines how domestic opponents tried to stop the war. Not all the antiwar groups agreed with one another about every aspect of Nicaraguan Sandinista policies, but all were united by the memory of America’s historic economic and military domination south of the border and its habitual support of repressive and brutal, regimes.

The U.S. occupied Nicaragua from 1912-1933 (save for one year) to prop up the rule of wealthy Nicaraguans and American bankers. From 1927-33, U.S. marines fought forces led by Augusto Sandino before quitting the country. Three years later the Somoza clan emerged and for the next forty-three years they, together with Dominican, El Salvadoran , Guatemalan, and Cuban dictators, formed a U.S. sphere of influence where Dollar Diplomacy ruled. But once Fidel Castro threw out Fulgencio Batista in 1959 the situation became quite troublesome to American presidents from Dwight Eisenhower on. Read more ..


Film Review

The Campaign: Politics as Hollywood Understands It

August 18th 2012

Campaign

The Campaign. Director: Jay Roach. Starring: Will Ferrell, Dan Akroyd, John Lithgow, Zach Galfianakis. Length: 90 mins.

Hollywood doesn’t do politics — at least not politics as it is practised in the real world. That muddled and muddy system of alternating compromise and confrontation, posturing and horse-trading, simply wouldn’t show up on the silver screen — and, even if it did, presumably nobody would care to watch it. So instead the movies invent their own political reality: an imaginary world in which larger-than-life figures engage in vast conspiracies, monumental betrayals, outrageous scandals and unbelievable conversions.

These last are often based on the even more unbelievable dream of a world without politics, in which our public men — I suspect the thing wouldn’t work even as well as it does, which is not well at all, if you substituted women — act only from principle and with regard to nothing but the common weal. Such impossible goodness thus becomes the excuse for the impossible badness that precedes it in the well-worn character arc of the movie politician, which is repeated yet again in Jay Roach’s supposed satire, The Campaign.

Mr Roach’s Game Change, the TV movie about John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, showed the extent to which his imagination is limited to media commonplaces about the political world that is otherwise beyond his ken. In Game Change it was the already well-established media trope of Mrs Palin’s supposed stupidity, which Game Change helped to establish even more firmly. In The Campaign it is the supposed wickedness of the Koch brothers, as well as the iniquity, devoutly affirmed by every lefty, of the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court which has supposedly conferred on billionaires in general and the Kochs in particular enormous and illegitimate powers to influence elections.

The name of the brothers here, as played by John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd, is transformed from Koch (pronounced Coke) to Motch, and their evil plan is to "insource" Chinese workers — or at least Chinese working conditions and wages — to the bucolic North Carolina congressional district represented by their creature, Cam Brady (Will Ferrell).  Read more ..


Film Review

Queen of Versailles: Obscene Wealth before the Crash of 2008

August 16th 2012

queen of versailes

Queen of Versailles. Director: Lauren Greenfield. Length: 90 mins.

"That’s it baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it! Flaunt it!" So says Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s The Producers (1968). The sentiment, though not unprecedented, was not characteristic of the rich in America theretofore. Old money here was nowhere near so old as old money in Europe, but it had something of the same disdain for vulgar ostentation. Like so many other traditional beliefs and attitudes, that one was on its way out by the end of the go-go Sixties when The Producers was made, but this has never prevented artists, writers and film-makers from affecting a similar attitude of cultural superiority to those they characterize as the latter-day nouveau riche, often for political reasons.

I take it that some such impulse lay behind Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles, a documentary about a Florida billionaire named David Siegel and his trophy wife, Jackie, who were building what was to be, at 90,000 square feet, the largest private home in America before the crash of 2008 more or less wiped out Mr Siegel’s time-share empire.

But in the course of patronizing and making fun of this couple and their brood of spoiled children, Ms Greenfield must have been surprised to discover that the precipitous decline in their fortunes had made her subjects almost sympathetic — and her movie is all the better for it. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, they say, and Mr Siegel’s misfortune at least had the benefit of making Queen of Versailles into something more interesting than it would have been as the mere act of humorous condescension that the footage shot before the good times ended suggests it was intended to be. Read more ..


The Edge of Art

Exhibit Gives Rare Glimpse of Mughal Art

August 13th 2012

Portrait of Abul Hasan from Gulshan Album

The Mughal Emperor Akbar—who is recorded as saying, “There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike,” would probably be pleased with the curators at Washington’s Sackler Gallery. The exhibit “Worlds Within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” shows the gallery’s love of painting, particularly the finely-detailed works commissioned by Akbar, his son Jahangir, and his grandson Shah Jahan—the builder of the Taj Mahal.

The Mughals—who reigned from 1526 to 1857—were direct descendants from Genghis Khan through Chagatai Khan and Timur (also known as Tamarlane). Eventually they controlled most of modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. As the Empire expanded, the Mughals imported the finest artists and crafstmen into their court - including from neighboring Persia.

The Mughals were avid readers and collectors—with Emperor Akbar reported to have 24,000 volumes in his library. Akbar’s son Jahangir is thought of as the greatest of the Mughal patrons—with the best books, the best artists, and the best craftsmen available in his court. The Mughal’s artistic tastes embraced many styles, from Persian and Indian painting to European Renaissance styles. Read more ..


America on Edge

Vidal the Conservative?

August 13th 2012

Gore Vidal
Credit: David Shankbone

What do you call a person who loathed -- and was loathed by -- William F. Buckley Jr.; who despised the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as monotheism; who believed 9/11 was a setup; who wrote regularly for -- and was warmly received by -- the New York Review of Books, The Nation, and other left-wing flagship publications; who endorsed Dennis Kucinich for president; who ran for Congress from New York as a Democrat with the endorsement of Paul Newman and Eleanor Roosevelt and, later, ran for the Senate, also as a Democrat, from California; who criticized the Democratic party from the left throughout the Vietnam War and beyond; who described himself as an "anti-anti-Communist" at the height of the Cold War; and who, upon his death, was eulogized warmly by nearly the entire liberal and leftist establishments, here and abroad, as a national treasure? Why, a conservative, of course. So argues David Greenberg, the in-house historian at Slate magazine. Read more ..


Book Review

The Betrayal of the American Dream, and The Party is Over: Two Books on How We Got into this Mess

August 12th 2012

betrayal

The Betrayal of the American Dream, by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, 2012, PublicAffairs, 320 pp. The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, by Mike Lofgren, 2012, Viking, 240 pp.

Donald L. Bartlett, James B. Steele, and Mike Lofgren, in their two respective new books, look at the current condition of our country and find it wanting, and deeply so. If they are to be believed, we may be on the road to becoming a plutocracy governed by an oligarchy, administered largely by too many amoral politicians and selfish interests whose ambitions and avarice are fueled by an endless stream of corporate billions which end up abandoning the middle class (and the poor, too); a conclusion, of course, disparaged by those championing a strikingly different set of ideas and conclusions.

Are things so grim and beyond repair? Arthur Schlesinger once wrote of the cyclical nature of American political life. Every thirty years, he prophesied, the pendulum would swing between liberals and conservatives. It once sounded like an optimistic and smart possibility, but now it seems Pollyannaish.

As we know, large American businesses have outsourced a massive number of jobs, our manufacturing sector has been disappearing for years, millions have lost their homes and private and public pensions are on the brink of extinction, and already feeble unions are under assault. Meanwhile, the persistent challenge of fevered global competition has led corporations to search for ever more armies of cheap labor abroad.

This isn’t especially original, but what Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele's The Betrayal of the American Dream (PublicAffairs) accomplishes is to allow them to express their rage as “in the forty years that we have been researching and writing about issues that affect all of us, we have never been so concerned for the future of our country. The forces that are dismantling the American middle class are relentless.” Read more ..


After the Holocaust

“Jews Screamed Like Geese” While Being Shot

August 12th 2012

Holocaust

Jonas Pukas, a suspected Nazi war criminal, was interrogated by New Zealand officials in 1992 at age 78. He was a member of the 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion, and was accused of participating in the squad’s mobile killings of European Jews during World War II. The chilling interview will be aired tomorrow on New Zealand’s TV3 in the world premier of the television documentary “Nazi Hunter.”

Before the Holocaust, approximately 220,000 Jews lived in Lithuania. Only months after the Germans invaded in 1941, only 8,000 survived.

Pukas, who immigrated to Auckland, New Zealand after the war and died in 1994 two years after the interview was conducted, laughed as he described the murders of Lithuanian Jews that the battalion rounded them up to be executed by so-called “pit killing,” shooting the victims at the edge of mass graves in the forest.

“The Jews of Minsk screamed like geese,” Pukas is recorded saying about the killings in the documentary’s transcript provided by TV3. “‘Some of the Jews used to scream like that, like the geese.”

Pukas can also be heard laughing when he mimicked the sounds of the birds, adding that the Jews would “fly in air” as they were shot. Despite his cruel apathy, Pukas denies involvement in the massacres. “I only heard the people dying. I did not see it” Pukas said, denying responsibility for the killings. etective Wayne Stringer, now 56, is the subject of the film directed by Alexander Behse and produced by John Keir. He interrogated Pukas as well as other suspects on a list of 47 suspected Nazi war criminals provided by the Simon Weisenthal Center. The 12th Lithuanian Police Battalion, one of history’s most infamous units in war crimes investigation, had  numerous members who fled to New Zealand, including Pukas. Read more ..



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