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The Edge of Music

Fungus Treatment Makes New Violins Sound Like a Stradivarius

September 9th 2012


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: 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


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


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


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 ..

Movie Review

Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Rousseau-esque Faith in Man's Natural Goodness

August 8th 2012

beasts of the southern wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild. Director: Benh Zeitlin. Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry. Length: 90 mins.

If you liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — or, for that matter, any of his films since Badlands (1973) — you will probably also like Beasts of the Southern Wild by Benh Zeitlin. I didn’t and don’t, but that doesn’t mean I think Beasts is as bad as Mr. Malick’s absurdly pretentious productions — which I have written about here, here and, most recently, here. In fact, I liked some of the more spirited parts of Mr. Zeitlin’s movie, or at least more parts of it than I can find to like in Mr Malick’s. What it has in common with them, however, is pretentiousness — though it is not so much of the absurd kind. M.r Zeitlin’s pretentiousness rather takes the form of intermittent bolts of politically correct propaganda about global warming (and other things) together with a Rousseau-esque faith in the natural goodness of man — or, in this case, of little girl — in the state of Nature.

The little girl in question is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her daddy, named Wink (Dwight Henry), on a low-lying island called the Bathtub off the Louisiana coast near New Orleans. As the Bathtub sits outside the levees to which the city owes most of the dry ground on which it is built, we know it will not take a Katrina-style breaching of these defenses to swamp Hushpuppy and Wink and their joyously uncivilized community, but almost any sort of storm — which no doubt accounts for the strictly improvisatory sort of housing and economic life they and the other residents of the Bathtub are used to.

Sure enough, a storm comes along and swamps them, though their spirits remain undampened. What’s worse from their point of view is that they are forced to go, though briefly, "up in the dry world" where they regard the people as being of effete stock. "Daddy says that on the other side of the levee they’s scared of the water like a bunch of babies," as Hushpuppy tells us in one of her endearing voiceovers. Read more ..

The Edge of TV

The Auto Channel Speeds from Web Phenom to Television Competitor

August 7th 2012

Television Array

The Auto Channel LLC, in conjunction with WHDT World Television Service, has just launched The Auto Channel  broadcast television network (TACH-TV) . TACH-TV features television and video programming produced over the years by The Auto Channel, along with select video content produced by independent producers and studios. The television programming is presented in a traditional linear format but utilizes The Auto Channel’s enormous automotive website, TheAutoChannel.com, to provide on-demand, random access to supportive content.

The national broadcast network rollout begins today in Florida and can be seen on WHDT's family of television station outlets that cover most of Southern Florida, including Miami, Naples, Ft. Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Palm Beach, Jupiter, Stuart, Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce and Vero Beach. Viewers should check local television listings for channel assignments and detailed program information. Read more ..

Book Review

Empires and Barbarians: A Gateway to Understanding the Birth of Europe

August 6th 2012

empires and barbarians

Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford University Press. 2012.

This book was supposed to be summertime leisure reading. I make no pretense toward familiarity with the historiography Roman Empire, whether early or late (I know more a little more about the republic than either). Actually, the subtitle of the book -- "the Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe" -- is misleading; as the author says explicitly, the former is only peripherally in his purview. What we really get here is a survey of what used to be called "the Dark Ages." It's a deeply suggestive one, not only an explanation of 500 years of history, but a model for thinking about the demographic dynamics of peoples much closer to home.

Seven hundred pages and two decades in the making, Empires and Barbarians has the heft of a generational statement. (First published by Macmillan in Britain in 2009, it has just been issued in paperback in the U.S. by Oxford.) As such, it can be considered a piece of counter-revisionism. Once upon a time, the story goes, the Roman Empire was destroyed when its ability to repel wave upon wave of barbarian hordes was finally worn down. After hundreds of years of trying, the marauders finally broke through in the fifth century CE, and, like drunken party guests, wrecked a civilization. In recent decades, however, this invasion hypothesis has been deconstructed.

"Barbarians," after all, is a loaded term that reflected the ethnocentrism of Mediterraneans; what we were really seeing was an encounter between peoples. And they weren't hordes, either -- they were small groups of people, and very often what happened was not so much a violent overthrow of "civilization" (another loaded term) as a transfer of power from one elite to another. The old story said more about the nationalist preoccupations of the twentieth century (and the curious nationalism of Soviet bloc Marxists, who poured impressive resources into archeology) than the realities of the ancient world. Read more ..

Film Review

Take this Waltz: A Parable of Unspeakable Passions

August 3rd 2012

Take this waltz

Take this Waltz. Director: Sarah Polley. Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen. Length: 90 mins.

As an actress, the young Canadian Sarah Polley is always interesting, always watchable — for example, in The Sweet Hereafter or Go (1999) — and the same was true of her as the director of her first feature, Away From Her (2006), in which she got a magnificent performance out of Julie Christie as an Alzheimer’s patient who forgets she’s married.

In her new film, Take This Waltz, another fine actress, Michelle Williams, proves worthy of Miss Christie’s example as Margot, a much younger wife who also forgets she’s married, but without the excuse of clinically certifiable dementia. Her amour fou for Daniel (Luke Kirby), the rickshaw-pulling hippie artist across the Toronto street from her comes across, nevertheless, as a not dissimilar form of mental disturbance — though perhaps it is only a temporary one. At least the movie allows us to think of it in that way without quite medicalizing her passion as a form of the currently-fashionable malady of "sex-addiction."

As a result, Miss Polley, who also wrote the screenplay, at least keeps the moral mess in which adultery involves people at the center of attention. She even pulls back from the clinical realm, to some extent, other, more firmly established sorts of addiction. Margot’s sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), in particular, is a recovering alcoholic who delivers the film’s key line: "Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t try to fill it like a lunatic." You know at once that this is hard-won wisdom from someone who has experienced and profited by the therapeutic approach to moral problems from the inside. In the words of the late Mitch Hedberg, who expired from his own addiction to heroin at age 37, alcoholism is a disease, but it’s a disease people can get mad at you for having. Read more ..

Book Review

Go-Go Live: Music that Accompanied the Death of a Chocolate City

August 3rd 2012

go-go live

Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Natalie Hopkinson. Duke University Press. 2012.

When I felt a deep rumbling and heard muffled shouts from a microphone, I guessed it was a political rally. Recently arrived in Washington D.C., I was wandering the U Street neighborhood, taking in the city’s distinct rowhouses and sweating in the intense mid-Atlantic heat. But as I approached the intersection of 7th and T Streets, the crowd came into focus: it was hundreds of people, almost all black men and women, dancing in the street.

When I arrived in Washington for an internship this summer, I knew very little about the city. Like a lot of folks, I had seen the Washington Monument and the Capitol on an eighth grade school trip. And of course, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House stand tall and gleaming white in our collective national conscious. The city of Washington D.C., though, is very different than what most outsiders imagine, a distinction Natalie Hopkinson draws in Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, a chronicle of black Washington’s dynamic indigenous music, go-go:

“Beyond the federal capital, Washington, lies a very black city, D.C.: Black families milling around on the streets, waiting at bus stops, driving cars. Black schools taught by black teachers and run by black principals reporting to black superintendants. Black restaurants, black recreation centers. Black universities. Black hospitals run by black doctors and staff. Black suburbs. Black judges ordering black police officers to deliver black suspects to black jail wardens. For much of the past half century, it was entirely possible to live and work in the District of Columbia and not interact with a white person for months.” (ix-x) Read more ..

Book Review

Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, and the Left

August 1st 2012

From ambivalence

Robert S. Wistrich. From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel. University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 648 pages.

One of the most remarkable reversals in American culture in my lifetime has been the transformation of anti-Semitism into a predominantly left-wing phenomenon. Historian Robert S. Wistrich has just published From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, a very substantial work that puts this development in the context of global leftism and the history of its leading thinkers and politicians, and makes it clear that Left anti-Semitism in itself is hardly new. The later chapters cast interesting light on how the Left, in its current self-described stance of “anti-Zionism,” is actually abandoning some of its older, and better, principles. Writes Wistrich:

The Zionist movement, far from being oriented to the ideology of “race,” arose as a direct response to the racist anti-Semitism created by reactionary forces in European, and later in Middle Eastern societies. It was external anti-Semitic pressure, analogous to foreign domination over other oppressed peoples, which became a major factor in obliging Jews to seek their own path towards auto-emancipation. . . . Moreover, [Zionism became] the first successful anti-colonial liberation struggle in the Middle East. . . .

The Zionist movement between 1945 and 1948 had to fight against the full might of the British Empire. . . . Contrary to the prevailing left-wing mythology about Israel’s creation being a Western Zionist-imperialist conspiracy, official American support for Israel was comparatively lukewarm. . . . For the crucial first 20 years of its existence, the United States scarcely considered Israel as an important ally and its material interests in the Arab world were infinitely greater. Read more ..

The Historical Edge

Remote Fort Helped Elevate National Anthem

August 1st 2012

Ft Meade, SD, ca 1888
Fort Meade, SD ca 1888 (LoC)

“The Star Spangled Banner” plays when an American wins at the Olympics, is a favorite at Gospel concerts, and is routinely played at the start of every American baseball game. Historically, “The Star Spangled Banner” is associated with Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, where the 1814 British bombardment of the fort prompted Francis Scott Key to write the song's lyrics.

What many don't know is that a remote outpost in the American West played a key role in elevating the patriotic song into the country's national anthem. It was at another fort, in the Great Plains state of South Dakota, where the song was first played at official occasions.

Fort Meade was built in 1878 to protect settlements in the northern Black Hills, especially the gold-mining town of Deadwood. During its early years, the fort was garrisoned by various U.S. Army units, including the 8th Cavalry. In 1892, a new commander was assigned to the post and, according to Fort Meade Museum director Randy Bender, Col. Caleb Carlton arrived with a personal mission. Read more ..

The Edge of Theater

Theater Provides ”Touching” Show for the Visually-impaired

July 24th 2012

Blind theater-goers
Blind theater-goers get a “look” at props at Everyman Theater
(credit: VOA)

The men and women who settle into their seats for a performance at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore aren’t here for a traditional performance. “We are here to take you on an experience through ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’” says Marcus Kidd, the company’s education director.

Today’s visitors are all visually impaired. These days, many theater companies reach out to the blind with special performances that provide description of the action with a radio earpiece only they can hear. Everyman Theatre goes one step further, allowing its guests to experience theater in a different way.

“We don’t believe that just because they can’t see a play they can’t enjoy a play,” Kidd says. Those who can’t see go on the stage and become familiar with the set and props. Not every play gets a touch tour, but “You Can’t Take It With You,” a 1930s comedy with a cast of eccentric characters, was a natural. “The great thing about the play is almost everything in the play that has to be on stage ends up affecting the story,” says Kidd. “From the minute you open the script you get the description of the typewriter, the skull that is holding jellybeans.” Read more ..

Book Essay

The Iraqi Pogrom of 1941: New Results

July 23rd 2012

Farhud book

Following the Farhud—the pogrom of 1941 in Baghdad—and following the sack of Basra on 7–8 May 1941, many formerly Iraqi Jewish scholars tried in vain to keep the event alive in Jewish collective memory. The Jewish Holocaust is generally believed to have been confined to European Jewry, and has overshadowed all the other WWII calamities.

I was shocked to discover during a 1986 visit that the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles made no mention of the Farhud, in which 137 Iraqi Jews were murdered. I wrote a letter to the Director of the Museum, but to this day, I have received no answer. The Arab world and the media, even in Israel, have maintained a conspiracy of silence. But with the recent publication of two important books on the Farhud, perceptions are changing.

In the Arab world, mainly in Iraq, a conspiracy of silence has been carefully maintained against concerning the successive massacres committed against Jews since the Farhud of 1941 and the Arab defeat in 1948 war. In Iraq, the cover-up started even before the blood of the innocent victims dried. Army and police officers still roved the streets of Baghdad, warning the Jews not to testify against the murderers and looters. Even the official report on the massacre was not published until 1958 by the Iraqi historian ’Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani in Saida in Lebanon.

Later on, a few articles were published in Hebrew and English by well known historians such as Dr. Haim Cohen of the Hebrew University, in 1966, and Prof. Elie Kedourie of LSE, London University, in 1970. These researches drew the attention of few scholars and Orientalists, especially British and German. The situation did not change appreciably even when a collection of articles and documents was published in book form: Hatred of Jews and the Farhud in Iraq, edited by Zvi Yehuda and me.

This strange indifference towards the Farhud continued even in Israel, where it is rare that an official or MK attends the annual memorial ceremony of the Farhud held every year at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. Read more ..

The Festival Edge

Boston Symphony Makes Music in Mountains

July 18th 2012

Tanglewood concert hall
Wikipedia Commons: created by Matt Wade

Open-air classical music concerts are now a summer tradition in the United States. However, that wasn't the case 75 years ago, when the Boston Symphony first performed on a former estate called Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Since then, Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony.

When Serge Koussevitzy, the Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, opened Tanglewood in 1937, he chose an all-Beethoven program, including the Pastorale Symphony. When conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi opened the 75th anniversary season in early July 2012, he recreated it. Beethoven’s musical tribute to nature, complete with bird calls, seems a perfect companion to the charms of Tanglewood. Read more ..

Book Review

The Thirty Years' War

July 17th 2012

The Twilight War

David Crist. The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran. Penguin, 2012. 656 pages.

As American diplomats and their international partners prepared to sit down with their Iranian counterparts in Baghdad last May to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, the State Department was aflutter. In conference calls and background briefs, senior diplomats and Obama administration officials suggested Tehran was on the verge of grasping Obama’s outstretched hand and might agree to deal seriously to end years of crisis.

That the talks would go nowhere was predictable. When Iranian negotiators proposed to hold discussions on May 23, Obama’s team agreed immediately; the White House cared little why the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, had picked that date or venue. Iranian history informs, however: May 23 marked the 30th anniversary of Iran’s liberation of Khorramshahr, its key victory during the Iran–Iraq War. “The pioneering Iranian nation will continue its movement towards greater progress and justice,” Khamenei promised at a victory speech, adding, “The front of tyranny, arrogance, and bullying is moving towards weakness and destruction.”

The nuclear talks were the Islamic Republic’s latest but not its last parry in its battle with the United States. While almost every U.S. administration has sought reconciliation with Tehran, first revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and then Khamenei have conceived of themselves as at war with “the Great Satan.”

Against this backdrop, David Crist’s The Twilight War is valuable. Crist, a historian at the Pentagon and a Marine reserve officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, pens the history of the more-than-three-decade “secret war” between the United States and Iran. Read more ..

Book Review

College: Yesterday and Today

July 15th 2012

College What it Was

Andrew Delbanco. College What it Was, is, and Should Be. Princeton University Press, 2012. 240 pages.

Andrew Delbanco, an award-winning humanities scholar at Columbia University, is the latest in a long, distinguished, and, alas, largely unsuccessful line of writers who for over a century have opposed the relentless march toward utility at the expense of liberal education on American campuses.  His book is intended for “anyone concerned with what it means, and what it takes, to educate citizens in our republic.”

Delbanco knows how hard it is to communicate liberal education’s “value to anyone…who has not personally experienced it.”  And while he says he doesn’t want to write a jeremiad, an elegy, or a call to arms, he admits that he’s probably produced “a messy mixture of them all.”  But it’s no polemic -- more a reasoned cri de coeur.

Readers seeking an overview of the history and current status of American higher education will find a clear, concise one here. But whether they will be persuaded that liberal education is vital to both personal development and American democracy depends on how willing they are to be counter-cultural.

Delbanco is pushing against the zeitgeist. Even at elite colleges that still claim to emphasize the liberal arts, the students, painfully aware of the price tag on their educations, almost inevitably think of “college” in instrumental terms, as primarily a customs house for stamping passports to an economically viable future. How, in an age that commodifies everything, could they think otherwise? Meanwhile, faculty and administrators alike pursue lucrative grants from government, foundations, and private donors like hounds obsessively sniffing after truffles. Teaching, to put it gently, is secondary. Read more ..

Book Review

The FBI, Hollywood, and the Red Scare

July 14th 2012

Hoover Goes to the Movies

John Sbardellati. J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood’s Cold War. Cornell University Press, 2012. 264 pages.

One of the big questions in the history of Hollywood is: what difference did the blacklist make? Did the purging by the studios of hundreds of suspected Communists in the 1950s change the character of American film? Or was Tinsel Town’s drift toward vacuous entertainment the inevitable product of America’s post-war prosperity, of consumerism, suburban tract housing, automobile culture, drive-ins, and teenage demographics?

Historian John Sbardellati approaches this question through the movie theater’s back door, opened, so to speak, by an unwelcome member of the audience, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who obsessed about the political messages he believed were creeping across the silver screen. Hoover became preoccupied with the “injection” of left-wing propaganda into film first in the early 1920s and then again at the beginning of WWII, as the federal Office of War Information (OWI) encouraged Hollywood to present a favorable image of the Soviet Union, our ally as of December 1941. Once the United States entered the war in full force in 1942, Hoover ordered the Bureau to conduct surveillance of films and filmmakers deemed overly enthusiastic about the Soviet experiment.

Thus began a troubled relationship with the movies that lasted until the end of the 1950s. As we know from other histories of FBI surveillance, from several recent Hoover biographies, and from the ongoing release of previously classified documents (many available on-line), the FBI director’s paranoia about Communist and other left-wing “infiltration” into American politics and culture knew no bounds. Such was the case with his interest in Hollywood.

At first, the Bureau focused on films that indeed emerged out of the Popular Front, the coalition of left-wing, Communist, and liberal activism that led American reform movements during the Great Depression. Few American films promoted a substantially socialist perspective, even in the depths of the Depression in the mid-1930s when the American left enjoyed great popularity. Instead, the broadly left-liberal “cultural front” of that period shifted American cinema toward a “democratic modernism” that built screen stories and characters around realistic portrayals of ordinary Americans. Read more ..

Film Review

The Intouchables: Illustrating the Gulf between Critical Opinion and Popular Taste

July 13th 2012


The Intouchables. Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano. Starring François Cluzet andOmar Sy. Length: 90 mins.

The Intouchables — a French film with a not-quite-English title — by the team of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (Those Happy Days) turns out to be a rather good illustration of the gulf between critical opinion and popular taste. Both A.O. Scott of The New York Times and David Denby of The New Yorker call the movie "an embarrassment," while Jay Weissberg of Variety goes even further and calls it "offensive." Et pourquoi? Because of the dreaded "stereotype" of a happy, vital, life-loving but criminal black servant and the impotent, stiff and hidebound white master who must learn from his supposed inferior how to live. This amounts, in the words of Mr. Weissberg to "the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens."

Gosh! I guess there’s at least one way in which we can consider ourselves as being more enlightened than the French. But the idea seems to me an entirely silly one. Call the movie’s set-up a cliché if you like, but Uncle Tom racism? What does that even mean? Is any black man who takes a job working for a rich white guy automatically an Uncle Tom and therefore complicit in an oppressive system analogous to slavery?

Or is anyone who creates a character in any way similar to a racial stereotype himself a racist, ipso facto? Clearly, most people don’t think so, unless you suppose (as some people like to do) that most people are racist. The Intouchables was enormously popular in France, and, for a foreign-language film only showing on a few screens, it is also very popular in here in the US. It’s almost as if ordinary people don’t care if the characters are stereotypes. Read more ..

Book Review

The Presidency and the Process of War

July 12th 2012

Drift Unmooring Military

Rachel Maddow. Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Crown, 2012. 288 pages.

Though we are at war, most of us do not see its reality. As a nation, we are more and more distant from the suffering of the men and women who do our fighting and less and less able to influence our leaders, who squander billions of dollars on national security to the detriment of the domestic economy and our democratic institutions—without making us safer.

These are the tenets of Rachel Maddow's new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, which introduces the modern national security state and explains how it imperils America's democratic values, sacrificing real humans, often for unclear or questionable aims.

Maddow is best known as the host of her witty MSNBC political talk program, The Rachel Maddow Show, but her accolades go far beyond her broadcasting accomplishments. She is a Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in political science from Oxford, which no doubt contributes to her ability to deftly explain the intricacies of foreign policy and constitutional law for a broad audience—with acerbic wit. As the daughter of an Air Force captain, she also grew up with a concern for military matters.

Drift explains, in compelling and clear prose, how the military's role changed as presidential power in foreign policy expanded and Congress ceded its constitutional authority to declare war. It is a change Maddow traces back to Lyndon B. Johnson, who ignored Congress as he expanded the U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam.

Since Johnson, each successive administration has expanded the president's power on national security and eliminated its responsibility to Congress or public objections. Richard Nixon famously claimed that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Read more ..

Theatre Review

South Africans Remake 'Porgy And Bess' Musical

July 11th 2012

Porgy and Bess South Africa

South Africa’s Cape Town Opera Company is showing that the story of oppression translates across borders and time. The 1930s American musical Porgy and Bess tells the story of oppressed black Americans struggling with the pains of poverty in the 1930s. George Gerswhin wrote the work as an American Folk Opera. But producers at the Cape Town Opera company couldn’t help but hear familiar themes in the piece.

“I think Porgy and Bess has unique characteristics in its musical score which really speak to our singers lives,” explained Michael Williams, the director of the Cape Town Opera company. “And so the singers on the stage can identify with a) the community that Porgy and Bess is about b) the issues between Sportin Life [a dope-peddling character in the musical] and his community with regards to the drugs that are put in the community - that is a major problem in South African townships," he added. "And also I think the violence that Crown [a tough stevedore character] personifies in terms of the way he treats women. Is something that perhaps we are bit ashamed of that statistic in South Africa, the male/female violence in S.A. So the cast members really grasp those issues. In the same breadth Piece is also filled with great joy.” Read more ..

Books on Edge

E-books Catch on at Public Library

July 10th 2012

Complete the following sentence:

“You go to the library to check out . . . . .?"

The obvious answer is “books.” But a harder question might be, “What do we mean by ‘book’?” Electronic books or “e-books,” have established a firm foothold in American society. The big online bookseller Amazon, for instance, recently announced that less than four years after introducing them to its catalog, it's now selling more electronic versions of its book titles than printed ones. And this past April, Encyclopedia Britannica, the world’s oldest and largest maker of encyclopedias - a staple at any library - announced it would no longer publish a print edition. Last week, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a survey about the use of e-books by library patrons. It found that 12 percent of Americans age 16 and older who read e-books say they had borrowed at least one from a library within the past year. Read more ..

Book Review

Perspectives on the Presidents and the Presidency

July 9th 2012

Where They Stand

Robert W. Merry. Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians. Simon & Schuster, 2012. 320 pages.

It seems that every few years there’s a high-profile survey among experts that ranks the presidents, which usually provides cheap content for newspaper stories and radio broadcasts, as well as a source of cocktail party fodder. In this shrewdly conceived and elegantly written short book, Robert W. Merry surveys the surveys and assesses expert as well as voter sagacity in the presidential sweepstakes.

Merry is a quintessential Washington insider, evident in the white collar and cufflinks in his jacket photo. In addition to White House stints at the Wall Street Journal, he has also logged time at Congressional Quarterly and in the right-leaning foreign policy journal The National Interest, where he is now editor. But if Merry wears his political convictions on his sleeve (you won’t be surprised to hear he likes Ronald Reagan more than Bill Clinton), he wears them lightly with the mild skepticism that’s the hallmark of the classical conservative (he emphasizes that it’s too soon to come to any firm conclusions on such a comparison). As such, he’s good company.

Merry’s lodestar is the electorate, which, if not infallible, seem to provide a long-term mean upon which historical/political science/journalistic opinion eventually comes to rest. His gold standard is a president who wins two terms and then hands off power to a successor in the same party. By that standard George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt rank as great. Yet this litmus test isn’t absolute; William McKinley meets it, but has never really made it to the pantheon. Bill Clinton met it (if you count the popular vote, anyway), but is unlikely to get there. And Jackson, even two centuries later, remains a remarkably polarizing figure whose edges do not seem to have been sanded by time. Read more ..

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