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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

Intouchables

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 ..


Book Review

Women on the Right

July 7th 2012

Mothers of Conservatism

Michelle Nickerson. Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right. Princeton, 2012. 248 pages.

Pundits may not be able to agree on whether there is a “War on Women” in Washington, but the current election cycle has made it abundantly clear that women, gender, and family remain fraught topics in national political rhetoric in this country. Women’s voices are audible in these debates among the liberal supporters of President Obama’s proposed “birth control mandate,” and within the ranks of a conservative movement that advocates premarital abstinence and a return to “traditional” gender roles.

Yet if the reactions to Michele Bachmann’s belief in wifely submission or Sarah Palin’s identification as a “conservative feminist” are any indication, conservative women are still confounding to many political observers. Michelle Nickerson’s Mothers of Conservatism offers vital historical insight into conservative women and their political significance in the twentieth-century United States.

Building on a growing body of literature that traces the origins of modern conservatism to the postwar Sunbelt, Nickerson focuses her study on Los Angeles County in the 1940s and 1950s. Conservatism did not emerge as a self-conscious movement until the 1960s, she argues, but in the preceding decades women helped lay the groundwork for, and shape the rhetoric of, what would become a significant political force. Conservative women’s activism in the first half of the twentieth century established an evolving idea that Nickerson labels “housewife populism,” which presented white, middle-class housewives as ideal conservative activists: selfless political outsiders concerned with maintaining the sanctity of family and community against an imposing federal government and the menace of communism. She traces this idea to women’s isolationist and anticommunist activism in the context of the First Red Scare, but argues that it came to fruition after the Second World War “when the American housewife became iconic” and “conservative discourse affirming simplicity, ordinariness and pious humility as patriotic values gained currency” in the broader culture (34). Read more ..


Book Essay

Evil and Id

July 5th 2012

Holocaust survivors

In Freud's Last Session, Mark St. Germain's superlative play about a hypothetical encounter between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, there is a telling moment when the founder of psychoanalysis admits that he was slow to grasp the boundless evil of Nazism: "It took near tragedy for me to see Hitler for the monster he is."

The revelation came, he explains to Lewis, when the ‘‘brownshirts’’ of the SA stormed his Vienna apartment and departed with his beloved daughter, Anna, in their custody, leaving Freud to agonize over his daughter’s fate for twelve hours. He concluded that the Nazis would mercilessly crush anyone who stood in their way.

Still, Freud was able to contribute to the anti-Nazi campaign, if only vicariously.  As Daniel Pick describes in his fascinating Pursuit of the Nazi Mind, the unexpected arrival in Britain in May 1941 of Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, provided a prodigious opportunity for Freud’s disciples, who were charged by the Allies with diagnosing the Nazi mentality.

Read more ..

Book Review

Standing up for Liberalism

July 3rd 2012

The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism

Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson. The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism, from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Viking, 2012. 576 pages.

For decades, conservatives have equated liberalism with weakness in domestic and foreign policy, big government, and heavy taxation. Eric Alterman. a frequent spokesman for American liberalism, argues that identification with it should be a source of pride rather than embarrassment. In collaboration with historian Kevin Mattson, Alterman combines the skills of a historian with those of a journalist to dispute conservative views. He demonstrates that during the past eight decades liberals have done much about which to be proud despite the incessant onslaught from the Right. Yet his book is less a history of liberal ideology than of the liberals themselves from the 1930s to the present.

Alterman begins with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose “enduring legacy was the modern American welfare state, and with it the foundation of American liberalism.” The “values and institutions” of FDR’s “New Deal order ... outlived the president and his policies,” with regard to foreign as well as domestic policy,” with liberals emerging from the Second World War “with a hope and a belief in the importance of international cooperation.” On the other hand, it was Roosevelt was who fully understood “that the United States could not police the world, and that its people had no interest in doing so.”

FDR’s successors disconcertingly demonstrated the difficulty of adhering to his legacy. Henry Wallace, the New Deal’s presumptive intellectual heir, was so temperamentally and politically estranged from Harry Truman that he challenged the latter in the 1948 presidential election, a “bizarre” affair with three Democrats, including segregationist J. Strom Thurmond, in the mix. As evidenced by Truman’s “Fair Deal,” liberals were concerned about the less fortunate, but suffered from “political paralysis” which accompanied the red-baiting of Senator Joseph McCarthy and an unwinnable war in Korea. Read more ..


Book Review

Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Catnip for Political Junkies

July 1st 2012

do not ask what good we do

Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives. Robert Draper. Free Press. 2012.

Texan Robert Draper is a journalist's journalist. A former reporter for the highly esteemed Texas Monthly, in recent years he's worked as a reporter for GQ and wrote a good history of Rolling Stone magazine that I read on a summer vacation some 20 years ago. Draper hit the bestseller list five years ago for his account of the Bush presidency, Dead Certain. In his latest book, he shifts his gaze to the legislative branch in the Age of Obama.

Though it has some important differences – among them a more systematic approach to documenting its sources – this is a book in the vein of Bob Woodward instant, insider history. Do Not Ask What Good We Do (the title comes from a plaintive remark of Founding Father Fisher Ames, lamenting an era of partisanship and obstructionism that seems mild by comparison) is an account of a year in the life of the House of Representatives.

The premise, as Draper explains in the acknowledgments, is that 2011 was not just any year – it marked the arrival of the Tea Party to the House in the aftermath of a 2010 midterm election that put the Republican Party back in the majority. “My intuition was that as the Republicans’ point of the spear against the administration of Barack Obama, the House was sure to be relevant, and at the risk of sounding crass, highly entertaining."

Draper is certainly not crass – he’s an empathic observer who tried to be fair to all sides as he conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of members of Congress to write the book – but he’s not exactly entertaining, either. To a great degree, that’s because he doesn’t have much of a narrative arc to work with. The House is a process-driven institution, and while there’s an element of novelty in the arrival of a bloc of 87 newcomers, not all that much happened in 2011. In large measure, that’s exactly Draper’s point: to depict a government institution hopelessly gridlocked by factions, even those in the same party, talking past each other. Read more ..


Film Review

Your Sister's Sister: A Tale by Moral and Intellectual Cripples

June 29th 2012

Your sisters sister

Your Sister's Sister. Director: Lynn Shelton. Starring: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass. Length: 90 mins.

The word that echoes through Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister is "weird." Here, for instance, is Sister A talking to Sister B. "I know you like him, but do you like him like him?"

Sister B replies, "Yeah, I think I'm in love with him. Do you think that's weird? Because of Tom, I think it might be weird."

What Sister B or Iris (Emily Blunt) doesn't know, however, is that Sister A, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), ostensibly a lesbian, has already slept with the gentleman in question, who's called Jack (Mark Duplass). He's the brother of Tom, Iris's ex-, now deceased, which is why Iris thinks her feelings for him "weird." Needless to say, when, Hannah's awful secret is revealed, her sleeping with Jack is also said to be weird - although, since she had just broken up with her long-term girlfriend and both she and Jack were pie-eyed drunk at the time, it might not seem all that weird to those of us looking on. We are soon to learn that Hannah has another motive which makes it even less weird.

But "weird" has a special meaning in this movie, as I suspect it does in much of the popular culture. It's not so much "strange" or "paranormal" (or even just "abnormal") but more like what a previous age might have termed "unseemly." Iris and Hannah and Jack, too, are all groping in their stumbling and inarticulate way towards the concept of decorum and, beyond it, something like decency, but the culture out of which they and so many of their generation have emerged regards such concepts as outmoded and, they suspect, vaguely indecent themselves.

Any normative principle applied to sex in particular, whether of morality or good taste, is automatically dubious, if not forbidden in the post-"liberation" era, and that leaves "weird" to do the work of a whole spectrum of terms now regarded as overly "judgmental" - terms ranging from immoral to indecent to tasteless to disgusting to, well, weird. Read more ..


Film Review

To Rome with Love: Woody Allen Continues his European Tour

June 26th 2012

To rome with love

To Rome with Love. Director: Woody Allen. Starring: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Roberto Benigni. Length: 102 mins.

Most Woody Allen films are set in New York but, in the past few years, the writer-director has branched out to London, Barcelona, Paris and now Rome. Allen's latest comedy, "To Rome With Love," is a collection of separate stories. The film begins with the camera moving past ancient ruins, classic fountains and modern skyscrapers while the 1950's hit, "Volare," plays in the background. A Roman policeman directing the notorious traffic turns to greet the audience.

Then, Allen presents tourists and locals falling in love, a business executive who becomes a celebrity, and an opera-singing undertaker, each in separate vignettes.

"A terrible title, incidentally," Allen says. "My original title was "The Bop Decameron" and nobody knew what "The Decameron" was, not even in Rome. Even the Italians didn't know."

"The Decameron" is a 14th century Italian novel which consists of 100 tales.

The script for Allen's 43rd film partly grew out of random ideas he'd squirreled away on his desk. "There will be a little note written on a matchbook or on a piece of paper that says, for example, 'A man who can only sing in the shower,'" Allen says. "It will occur to me at the time that this could make a funny story."

Another vignette features newlywed Antonio, whose honeymoon is interrupted by Anna, a voluptuous prostitute who mistakes him for a client she was paid to entertain. "She is a character that has no filter in her brain and says everything the way that she feels," says actress Penelope Cruz, who portrays the prostitute. "It is so liberating and refreshing to be able to play somebody like that." Read more ..


Book Review

Endowed by Our Creator: 275 Years of the American Controversy over Religion and Government

June 23rd 2012

Endowed

Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America. Michael I. Meyerson. Yale University Press, 2012. 384 pages.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the ongoing controversy regarding the relationship between governmental and religious institutions in the United States is the fact it is ongoing. From the age of Paine to the Age of Aquarius, rising tides of religious skepticism have been apparent to champion and critic alike. Conversely, periodic Great Awakenings in the last 275 years have made faith ascendant. Each in its moment seemed to have unstoppable momentum. Yet here we are in the 21st century with arguments as heated as they've ever been. Inevitably, partisans invoke the Founding Fathers to bolster their respective claims. As University of Baltimore School of Law professor Michael I. Meyerson shows in this impressively researched book, each side of the sacred vs. secular camp can find ammunition to support its respective point of view. But he regards such partisan exercises as misleading at best and dangerous at worst. That's not because the Founders lacked a clear vision, he says, but rather because that vision was cast in terms of a union in which church and state -- but not God and state, or religion and state -- would be separate.

One of the mistakes contemporary Americans make is their assumption that the Founders' views were static. Actually, Meyerson's narrative, which stretches from the late colonial era to the presidency of James Madison, shows they lived in a world in which the state of faith was highly fluid. It varied between colonies, across time, and among the Founders themselves, who in the face of political exigencies sometimes took positions that were philosophically inconsistent. In fact, the very term "religious freedom" was subject to multiple meanings.

For the Puritans, freedom meant liberation from having to tolerate the self-evident corruptions of the crypto-papist Church of England. For others, it could mean simply the right to worship without expulsion. Or a that mandatory taxes would be siphoned toward a church of a believer's choosing. It did not necessarily mean a right to vote or hold office. Even the word "Christian" could be ambiguous (Catholic membership in this category was widely regarded as suspect.) Some colonies, like those of New England, were marked by a high degree of (Congregationalist) homogeneity. Others, particularly the middle colonies, were highly diverse. Though many colonists were aware of the religious terrain beyond their borders, they nevertheless remained worlds of their own, even decades after the Revolution. Read more ..


Film Review

Global Warming, Family Chaos in Film 'Future Weather'

June 20th 2012

mexico drought

Family upheaval and environmental destruction mirror each other in the film Future Weather, a drama about three generations of women, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now screening at other film festivals.

Set in a rural Midwestern community, the film tells the story of 13-year-old Lauduree, a young science student played by Perla Haney-Jardine. When her negligent mother abandons her, Lauduree tries to live on her own, but is forced to move in with her grandmother, Greta, leaving behind the plant experiments she’s been nurturing.

“What is so bad about coming to live with me?” asks Greta, played by Amy Madigan.

“I can’t leave my research,” Lauduree says.

“Lauduree, you are not a scientist! You are a minor, without a mother!” Greta responds impatiently. Greta, an earthy, tough-minded woman who works as a nurse, is planning to move to Florida with a new suitor, and Lauduree doesn’t want to go. Read more ..


Film Review

Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus' does Not Reach the Standard set by 'Alien'

June 18th 2012

Prometheus

Prometheus. Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Logan Marshal-Green. Length: 124 minutes.

Thirty three years ago, the film Alien defined the science fiction horror genre. For the first time movie goers watched a horrific monster hatching from humans. Throughout the years, the Alien or Xenomorph as it is called, appeared over and over in the Alien movies that followed, on TV shows, and even in comedy. Now, Director Ridley Scott returns to the genre with the prequel Prometheus. Despite the similarities between the Alien films and Prometheus, Scott deviates from the original.

In the late 70s, Ridley Scott created two iconic characters: The Alien and Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley was the first female character to tackle a monster on the large screen. The role continued in the 80s and the 90s.

In James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, she saves a little girl from the Alien’s jaws. Ripley's maternal instincts match those of the Alien queen protecting her eggs. It’s a fight to the end. In Alien 3, Ripley dies as she is about to spawn an Alien baby through her rib cage. She kills herself, taking her monstrous offspring along.

The trilogy was groundbreaking. From then on, women in film no longer cowered before physically superior adversaries.

But although Ridley Scott’s female survivalist is no longer novel, she still holds power over audiences, says Noomi Rapace who plays Elizabeth Shaw, the main character in Prometheus. “She becomes a survivor, and she changes into a trooper and a warrior, a typical Ridley heroine,” Rapace said. Read more ..


The Edge of History

Biographer Caro Indulges in Myths of the Kennedy Cuban Missile Crisis

June 18th 2012

The Cuban missile crisis

The editor-in-chief of HNN, Rick Shenkman, asked me recently if I would write a critique of the account of the Cuban missile crisis in Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, Volume 4 of his authoritative biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Shenkman felt that Caro had utilized “myths that you debunked years ago on HNN” -- and, unfortunately, he was right. Caro, whose interpretive skill, compelling writing, and command of detail (for example, his brilliant rendering of how LBJ brought electricity to the Texas hill country) has dazzled readers for decades, somehow dropped the ball on the Cuban missile crisis.

My latest book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality, to be published in September, deals explicitly with the issue of what really happened in the White House in October 1962. Also, Fred Kaplan has written an excellent article on Slate detailing Caro’s distorted and misleading account of the missile crisis.

There are, however, several key points that deserve additional attention:

Robert Kennedy and Moral Diplomacy

Caro claims (p. 210) that early in the first week of the crisis “the tone of ExComm’s discussions changed -- and the catalyst for that change was Robert Kennedy.” He likewise declares (p. 239) that RFK revealed himself to be “a master of compromise [and] of diplomacy with a moral element, of diplomacy that was, in fact, in some ways grounded in ‘the moral question’” that a sneak attack was not in the American tradition. Caro, unfortunately, seems to have taken his cue from Thirteen Days: “We spent more time,” Bobby Kennedy claimed, “on this moral question [whether a powerful nation like the U.S. should attack a small nation like Cuba without warning] during the first five days than on any other single matter.” However, the ExComm tapes demonstrate conclusively that RFK’s claim that the moral argument dominated the first week’s discussions is absolutely false -- it was not even one of the dominant themes in the discussions. And, in any case, this moral stand was the exception, not the rule, for RFK -- indeed, it was the only significant case in which he backed away from supporting military force in Cuba and a hard line against the Soviet Union. Read more ..


North Korea and Norway

N. Korea Finds Cultural Ally in Norwegian Artist

June 16th 2012

Pyongyang

North Korea doesn’t have many friends in the international community.  But in far away Norway, artist/director Morten Traavik has become a one-man cultural diplomat bent on changing that.

While North Korea is berated for its totalitarian regime, its isolationistic policies and terrible human rights record, Traavik says he has no reservations about cooperating with the government to further his objectives.

“I see no reason not to work with those forces within the system because if you want to work with countries like North Korea, you have to work with the state, the state is everything.”

After years of cajoling, Traavik earlier this year won Pyongyang's permission to bring 11 North Korean musicians and artists to Norway for the Barents Spektakel, an arts and culture festival in Kirkenes, near the Russian border. ​​​​​​Last month, North Korea returned the favor by hosting its First Norwegian Festival. “The suggestion to organize a Norwegian cultural festival on May 17th, the Norwegian national holiday, actually came from the North Korean side… so who was I to decline?" said Traavik. Read more ..


The Edge of Art

Christie's to Sell Edvard Munch's 'Hagen i Åsgårdstrand'

June 16th 2012

Hagen i Åsgårdstrand by Edvard Munch

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted Hagen i Åsgårdstrand in 1904-1905, eleven years after his most famous painting, The Scream. It depicts the garden at Åsgårdstrand, south of Oslo, where Munch first visited in 1899. He rented a small cabin there and later bought it. The post-impressionist landscape in this painting is the subject, unlike most of his previous work at this point in time.

During 1904-05, Munch was painting vibrant landscapes with swirling lines and heavy, saturated colors. The lines give some insight into the troubled state of his mind during this period. Like many painters at the time, Munch was fascinated by Japanese prints, with their flat composition.

In the painting to be sold by Christie's auction house at the end of June, the composition is flat yet the paint is textured and contains a highly keyed palette Read more ..


The Edge of Fashion

African Fashion Finds a Home in Dakar

June 15th 2012

fashion show

Dakar Fashion Week celebrates its 10th year with the biggest lineup yet. The organizers of the international event aim to reach the heights of fashion weeks in Paris and New York, while remaining distinctly African.

High fashion is nothing new in Africa. And Senegalese designer Adama Ndiaye says it has its own special quality.

"We do one piece, one by one. We're not sending it to the factory because we don't have a big factory," Ndiaye said. "It's something we've been doing forever." But the industry, like many on the continent, is developing.

To help it along, Ndiaye started Dakar Fashion Week.  Ten years on, the event is drawing the attention of industry notables from all over Africa and the world. Originally from Cameroon, Marcial Tapolo came from Paris to participate for the second time. "It's like a high-class show that she's trying to do. Very sophisticated, which is rare in Africa, as a fashion show," he said. Despite the international presence, most of the talent is local, in a deliberate effort to showcase Senegalese designers and models. Arame Sarr has been to fashion weeks in New York and Paris, but she says Dakar is special. Read more ..


Museums

Smithsonian Exhibit to Highlight Indian-Americans

June 15th 2012

Bobby Jindal

A national project to highlight the contributions, successes and struggles of Indian-Americans is preparing to leave the virtual world and become an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. “The HomeSpun project began a few years ago [online], with the goal of showing how American life has been influenced by Indian-Americans,” said Pawan Dhingra, the curator of the project.

Indian-Americans are often recognized for their contributions in medicine, software engineering and small business, but the exhibit will also put a focus on lesser-known fields where they’re making their mark, like music, literature, film, cuisine and politics.

“Indians are making a name for themselves in realms that I didn’t appreciate,” said Dhingra, who was born in India, but lives in the United States. He pointed to Vijay Iyer, a highly regarded jazz pianist, Floyd Cardoz, a celebrity chef, and well-known politicians Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, the governors of South Carolina and Louisiana, respectively.

But the exhibit will also point out that Indian-Americans in politics is nothing new. For example, the exhibit will devote space to Dalip Singh Saund, a former congressman from California in the late 1950s and early 1960s who was the first Asian-American and first Indian-American elected to Congress. Indian-Americans weren’t always so prominent. Dhingra said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was very hard for Indian immigrants to become doctors, even though they were just as well trained and certified as their American counterparts. They reached out to other immigrant doctors to stem institutional discrimination and pave a path for future immigrant physicians.  Read more ..


Book Tours

Author Edwin Black Warns Detroit audiences of Impending Iran Nuclear Showdown

June 14th 2012

Edwin Black
Edwin Black

Award-winning investigative author Edwin Black spoke in the Detroit area on June 11-12, as he makes the rounds on an international tour. The author spoke not only presented conclusions derived from the meticulous research revealed in his several books, such as IBM and the Holocaust and The Farhud, Black spoke to the very immediate concerns Americans have about the danger posed to the world by Iran’s nuclear weaponization program.

Black addressed Iran’s nuclear dynamic in his June 12 event at the Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit where members of the Jewish and non-Jewish community assembled to hear him on the efforts made by Iran at uranium enrichment and its ties to North Korea and Russia. The author made clear that not only has the Islamic Republic and its leaders threatened Israel, profits from sales of Iran’s petroleum have funded the necessary research and technology for turning low-grade uranium into weapon-grade fissionable material needed for nuclear weapons borne aloft by missiles.

The author noted that with every gallon of gasoline purchased by Americans, Iran profits and thus funds its military programs. “Every tank of gas sold in America provides nuclear weapons on a ‘mileage plan’ for Iran,” said Black. Black reminded the audience that it was in 2004, on a previous visit to Detroit, that he coined the term ‘petro-politics’ to describe the inter-dependent political system that sustains the “oil addiction” that has reigned in the U.S. for a century.
As to the widespread fear that war involving Iran is imminent, Black said that any effort on the part of Iran’s military to block the vital Strait of Hormuz would be considered an act of war by the United States. Read more ..


The Edge of Art

Artist Carves 1,600 Eggshells a Year

June 12th 2012

Eggs carved

Few people, we're sure, have ever seen carved eggshells.  These have no relationship to eggs that are painted or decorated with gems or other jewels, like Faberge's famous eggs, which weren't even eggs. One artist in the Washington D.C. area is delicately sculpting on eggshells. Her eggshells are seen frequently in local art galleries.  Our reporter spent time with Tina Kannapel and her cats - mostly NOT walking on eggshells.

Carving and sculpting eggshells, with a dental drill and sanding disk, is not a job for the heavy handed. For Tina Kannapel, it's a passion. “Because an egg is a continuous arch, it has a lot of natural strength," she said. "You will see eggshells where I have taken out so much that it looks like lace.  And the whole trick to that is having regular connections between the different pieces of the lace, so the eggshell stays intact.” Tina Kannapel carves, sculpts and sells about 1,600 eggshells a year. She buys infertile eggs that have already been emptied - from bird breeders. “The ostrich eggshell is very hard," says Kannapel. "It's like china.” Read more ..


The Edge of Art

New Cambodia Art Planned for an Old Empire

June 11th 2012

Cambodian art

In Cambodia, the World Monuments Fund is putting the finishing touches on the first original carvings added to the famed temple ruins of Angkor Wat in some 800 years.

The four statues will soon be erected to a roof top of the east gallery of Angkor Wat. This part of the massive temple complex contains one of its most famous bas relief friezes, called the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which depicts dueling gods and demons, adorned by apsaras - or celestial nymphs - ascending to the heavens, symbolizing life and immortality. The statues will be aligned against the sun to illuminate the center and caste a great silhouette across the grounds outside the gallery, similar to the original statues lost long ago.

Lisa Ackerman is the executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund and says installing new statues in such a sacred place would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, but public attitudes have changed. “Yes I think these are the first new commissions for Angkor Wat since it was finished several centuries ago," Ackerman said. "So I think the sense of history for us is the idea that we’re helping the Apsara national authority re-evoke for modern eyes what their ancestors gave to their community, once upon a time.” Previous efforts to preserve and restore parts of the Angkor Wat ruins, which cover a thousand square kilometers, have been criticized for being shoddy or destructive and insensitive to local customs. Read more ..


Book Review

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: An Outsize Biography of a Texas-Size Ego

June 11th 2012

Passage to Power

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power. Robert A. Caro. Alfred A. Knopf. 2012. 736 pages.

In the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, the author employs over six hundred pages of text to trace Johnson’s life and career from the Presidential election of 1960 through the first seven weeks of the Johnson Presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The massive manuscript covering these five years would certainly appeal to Johnson’s Texas-size ego. Nevertheless, Caro’s meticulous research and prose entertain the reader with amusing anecdotes and insightful commentaries which shed considerable light on the enigma that was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The focal point for Caro’s study of Johnson is the pursuit of power and what obtaining that power reveals about an individual. In Johnson’s case, the Senator from Texas enjoyed considerable legislative power in his position as Senate Majority Leader; a narrative which Caro chronicles in the third volume of the biography, Master of the Senate (2002). After an unsuccessful bid for the Presidency in 1960, Johnson surprised many of his supporters by accepting the second spot on the Kennedy ticket. Johnson justified his decision by asserting that “power is where power goes.” But the influence Johnson exercised during his Senate tenure did not transfer to the Vice Presidency. Stymied by his nemesis Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who plays a pivotal role in the narrative, Johnson was miserable as Vice President until a sniper’s bullet elevated him to the Presidency.

During the next seven weeks, Caro praises Johnson for his leadership which provided continuity for the nation while also placing his own brand on the Presidency, culminating in passage of the Kennedy tax cut and civil rights legislation. Proclaiming a war on poverty in the 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson was at the pinnacle of power which would eventually be undermined by the Vietnam War—a topic which will be the center piece of Caro’s next installment in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was often merciless in his pursuit of power, but Caro perceives his compassion for the poor as a sincere desire to better the condition of all Americans and not simply a product of political expediency. Yet, the tactics of secrecy and duplicity which governed Johnson’s path to power proved disastrous in Vietnam and destroyed the Great Society he once envisioned. Read more ..


Authors on Tour

Edwin Black in Detroit Confronts Past and Present in the Mideast

June 9th 2012

Edwin Black

International investigative author and journalist Edwin Black will be making two appearances in Detroit to discuss key issues in the Mideast--both past and present. The first, drawn from his book The Farhud: Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, will be at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills on Monday, June 11. In that event, Black will recount the stunning details of the Arab-Nazi collaboration during the Holocaust, including the history of persecution suffered by Jewish and Christian communities and the refuge given to Nazi war criminals. This event is expected to widely attract members of the Jewish, Chaldean, and Lebanese Christian communities. Admission to the event is $8 per person. Black has frequently lectured at the HMC Museum in the past.

Published in 2010 to international acclaim for its exhaustive research and insight, The Farhud details the events that took place during the darkest days of the Holocaust and how what transpired at that time continues to have an impact on Arab-Islamic and Israeli-Jewish relations in the Middle East today. Mideast analyst Walid Phares called the work "monumental."
 
The second event will be held, Tuesday, June 12, at Adat Shalom, a leading Detroit-area synagogue, and focuses not on history but on the present tense, that is, the immediate threat posed by the Iranian push for a nuclear weapon. Black will discuss specific details of Iran's development of a nuclear trigger mechanism and its accelerated enrichment program. He will also outline America's lack of preparedness should Iran block the Strait of Hormuz, creating a worldwide oil interruption. Twenty percent of the world's oil passes through the narrow twin two-mile sea lane passage. Black first began speaking of the Iranian threat six years ago at a Holocaust Memorial Center dinner held at Adat Shalom. At the time, Black says,"I spoke of the potential for a Second Holocaust based on the petrodollar funding of the Iranian nuclear program. People didn't know what I was talking about. Today, the notion is commonly understood."

While in Detroit, Black will provide briefings to local leadership and lead a press conference on the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program. Read more ..


Book Review

Blood Libel and Its Derivatives: Combatting Anti-Semitism Always

June 9th 2012

Blood libel

Blood Libel and Its Derivatives: The Scourge of Anti-Semitism. Raphael Israeli. Transaction Publishers. 2012. 272 pages.

Raphael Israeli of Hebrew University has published more than a score of books on Islamism, Islamist terrorism, the modern Middle East, and Islam in China and elsewhere in Asia. This time its subject matter is the history and present currency of blood libel.

Blessedly, this is not a work of social science.  Were it so, it would not be anywhere near as useful.  Israeli recognizes that the problem of the blood libel is best addressed annecdotally (but thoroughly within the narrative of each instance). Instances of blood libel have been legion in the Christian West and the Islamic world. 

The toll of each instance is appalling, whether the numbers of those killed are small or large. This is easily overlooked when the instance, as it almost always is, is confined to a small area and population or to barbarous countries (e.g., Tsarist Russia).

As with other forms of anti-Semitism, combatting the blood libel can only be done by repeating over and over the stories of its past and its potential in the present.

The world being less than rational, appeals for decency and sanity can only be made by exposing our feelings to the impact, the horrors, wrought by this myth. Israeli does a splendid job of this.

Kenneth D.M. Jensen writes for the American Center for Democracy, from where this article is adapted.


Film Review

For Greater Glory: A Film at the Crossroads of Freedom, Faith, and History

June 5th 2012

for greater glory

For Greater Glory. Directed by Dean Wright. Starring Andy Garcia, Eva Longoria, Eduardo Verastegui, Peter O'Toole

For Greater Glory, a romanticized movie about Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s, will appeal to Catholics. And to lovers of freedom to worship. And to Americans who cherish the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, for it portrays precisely the sort of situation our Founding Fathers feared. And therefore to Tea Party folk.

For all these reasons For Greater Glory is receiving very mixed reviews. It is being panned by big newspaper critics, praised by most viewers, and vilified by a few who hate the Church and what it believes.

The narrative is necessarily multifaceted as a history lesson about the Catholic fight for freedom in Mexico during the late 1920s is needed. This is a story about which most Americans, including most American Catholics, are totally ignorant. The film quickly sketches the political and social backdrop and then proceeds to develop the plot around three central figures, all historical. Read more ..


The Edge of Dance

African Contemporary Dance Flash Mob Hits US

June 4th 2012

Afromob

The AfroMob flash mob broke into dance in a Washington, DC suburb, and for five minutes hundreds of surprised passers-by gathered to watch the performers entertain with Ndombolo, Coupe Decale, Azonto and hip-hop moves. The five-minute dance eventually turned into a four-hour long block party, said AfroMob co-founder, Andong Nkobena, as spectators started interacting with the dancers and trying to learn some of the contemporary dances.

“It was amazing," she said. "I was in shock, because I did not think it would have such an impact on people. We brought everyone together through dance.” A flash mob is a group of people who gather in a public place and suddenly break into dance or song for a brief performance. One AfroMob organizer, Lorraine Beraho, said she thinks African music is well-suited to the genre: “The beats are very engaging, very catchy, so people from all over get drawn to the music,” she said. Nkokobena added the participating dance groups were eager to put together one of the first flash mobs of African contemporary dance in the U.S. Read more ..


Book Review

Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: a New Literary Form takes on History and Mythmaking

June 3rd 2012

Bonnie Writes a poem

Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How Two Bungling Psychopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde. Steven Biel. Now and Then. 2012. 23 page ebook.

Over the course of the last two decades, Steven Biel has become the foremost scholar of what might be termed the folklore of consumer capitalism. His 1996 book Down with the Old Canoe (recently reissued in an updated edition) traced the collective memory, both in the immediate aftermath and the century following the Titanic disaster of 1912. In American Gothic (2005), he explored the meanings -- some contradictory, others downright zany -- that have been attached to the classic 1930 Grant Wood painting. Though fundamentally a different kind of enterprise, his first book, Independent Intellectuals in the United States 1920-1945 (1992) derived some of its energy from a preexisting fascination with the legendary writers whose careers he proceeded to reinterpret. Biel is unparalleled in his ability to unearth, and then link, disparate sources in American culture and establish organic links between them.

Biel's new e-book, Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How a Couple of Bungling Sociopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde, represents another satisfying chapter in his body of work. Anyone who's managed to get farther than the 1967 Arthur Penn movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty -- which, in truth, is probably not all that many people -- consider the "bungling sociopaths" part of the title common knowledge. It's the "how" here that's intriguing.

Biel's point of departure is the self-mythologizing poem the improvisational female outlaw fashioned for mass consumption at the end of her brief career as a gangster. (The poem is included as part of the e-book.) But Biel is less interested in the way Parker effectively wrote herself and companion Clyde Barrow into cultural history -- though he analyzes her work with the deftness of a literary critic -- than the way cultural history imprinted itself on her. Read more ..


The Edge of Architecture

Bauhaus Design goes Underground at Israeli Train Station

June 2nd 2012

Israeli Underground station

Galmidi Yitzhar and the industrial designer Yaksein Eliran won first place in a design competition for a new underground train station in one of Israel’s most vibrant cities – Tel Aviv. Borrowing inspiration from some of the city’s most iconic features, such as its ubiquitous collection of Bauhaus architecture and the Ficus Microcarpa trees planted throughout in order to provide shade and shelter, the pair have designed a subterranean space that swims in natural light.

Combining the color of Bauhaus homes (white!) and the ambience it creates on the street with the fluid, arboreal form of the Ficus Microcarpa, Yitzhar and Eliran’s winning train station design is far more aesthetically pleasing than any existing station. Steel trunks are rooted to the floor while branches bend up under a transparent glass shield that permits natural light. Several of these line the station, which is enclosed by Bauhaus-styled edges. Read more ..


Edge of Computing

New Mathematical Model Appears to Pick Hit Music

May 31st 2012

Online music purchasing

In 2004, a trio of researchers at Columbia University began an online experiment in social-media marketing, creating nine versions of a music-download site that presented the same group of unknown songs in different ways. The goal of the experiment was to gauge the effect of early peer recommendations on the songs’ success; the researchers found that different songs became hits on the different sites and that the variation was unpredictable.

“It’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow ‘better,’” one of the researchers wrote in The New York Times in 2007. “What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market ‘wants’ at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history.”

But for music fans who would like to think that talent is ultimately rewarded, the situation may not be as dire as the Columbia study makes it seem. In a paper published in the online journal PLoS ONE, researchers from the MIT Media Laboratory’s Human Dynamics Lab revisit data from the original experiment and suggest that it contains a clear quantitative indicator of quality that’s consistent across all the sites; moreover, they find that the unpredictability of the experimental results may have as much to do with the way the test sites were organized as with social influence. Read more ..


The Edge of Music

Chicago Gears Up for Annual Blues Festival

May 31st 2012

Koko Taylor
Koko Taylor

Chicago, Illinois is gearing up for one of its most celebrated events of the year: the Chicago Blues Festival which runs from June 8 - 10. Blues fans from around the world will descend upon Grant Park in downtown Chicago for three free days of acoustic and electric blues by mostly-hometown musicians. You can count on the city’s very own Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials to showcase their new album, Jump Start” with tunes like “World Of Love.

The weekend’s offerings will salute some of Chicago’s blues legends. On tap are tributes to vocalist Koko Taylor, singer and guitarist David “Honeyboy” Edwards and guitarist Hubert Sumlin. There will also be a celebration of Muddy Waters’ disciples Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and George “Mojo” Buford. Waters’ son Mud Morganfield will lead the all-star tribute to some of his dad's best-known band members who passed away in 2011.

Also scheduled on one of five festival stages are: a “Blues in the Schools” concert; panel discussions on legendary bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins; five bands competing in the “Chicago Blues Challenge”; esteemed guitarists Lurrie Bell and Joe Louis Walker; and blues and gospel singer Mavis Staples. Read more ..


American Music

A Legend in His Own Time: Doc Watson R.I.P.

May 30th 2012

Doc Watson

American folk and roots music performer Doc Watson died on May 29 of complications from abdominal surgery.

For more than five decades, Watson entertained audiences around the world with an eclectic repertoire that included elements of folk, blues, Country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and even jazz. A master of the contemporary flat-pick guitar style, the eight-time Grammy Award winner influenced generations of musicians in rock, country and folk.

Born Arthel Lane Watson in Deep Gap, North Carolina, his first love was the traditional music of the Blue Ridge Mountain region. In his early childhood, he contracted an illness which caused permanent blindness, a handicap that directed his interests toward music. Watson was also inspired by his father, a multi-instrumentalist, who bought his first harmonica and taught him to play the banjo. He got his first lessons on the guitar while attending the School For The Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. Watson loved to tell the story of how that experience earned him his own guitar. Read more ..



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