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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 ..


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


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 ..

South Africa on Edge

Outcry Forces Removal of Provocative Zuma Painting

May 30th 2012

Jacob Zuma ANC

A painting that depicts South African President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals has been removed from a Johannesburg gallery and two local websites, following an outcry led by the ruling African National Congress party that ended in a protest at the gallery Tuesday. The controversy has sharply illustrated the deep divisions that remain in South African society. ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe made it clear to protesters outside the Goodman Gallery, and to the country, that what his party wants, they can often get.

“Your power has removed that painting from the website of City Press and from the gallery," said Mantashe. "It has forced an apology from both the Goodman Gallery and Brett Murray, it has forced an apology from the City Press. That is your power.” The painting of Zuma was one of an exhibition at the gallery that depicted the South African leader and his party as greedy, self-obsessed, and deaf to the needs of the people who voted them into power. It went largely unnoticed until a reporter asked for ANC comment on an article about the exhibition in the City Press newspaper, which also displayed a photograph of the painting on its website.

The ANC unsuccessfully sought a court order to have the painting removed from the gallery. Now Mantashe says it is the power of the people and not the courts that are the final arbiter. “Basically we went to court, to say to the court, interdict City Press, interdict Goodman Gallery, they have not been interdicted by the court, they have been interdicted by you," said Mantache. "So it is your power that has interdicted these two institutions, therefore it is the power of the people that will shape and direct this country into the future.” The controversy has once again highlighted the deep divisions that remain within South African society. Many black South Africans saw the painting as racist and an assault on unhealed wounds of apartheid. Read more ..

The Edge of Photography

Combat Photographer Recalls Bloodiest Battle

May 29th 2012

Norman Hatch

The horrific battle for the small Pacific island of Tarawa in 1943 was one of the bloodiest of World War II. U.S. Marine Sergeant Norman Hatch was there. But instead of a rifle, Hatch carried a camera and the film he shot helped to change Americans’ view of the war. The combat photographer reminisced about the fierce struggle for the island. "That is the picture of the photographers of the 2nd Marine division that landed on Tarawa. I am right here, at the top. They are all gone, all gone. I have never forgotten the battle at Tarawa. The Japanese lost about 4,000 people in that particular battle. We were about a little over 1,000 killed and about 2,200 somewhat wounded in 76 hours," he recalled.

​​Nearly 70 years later, those memories remain fresh for 91-year-old Norman Hatch. “When you get into the battle, the blood begins to race and you do your job. My job was to take pictures," said Hatch. "I had to shoot the pictures the best way I could possibly shoot them." Hatch carried a hand-cranked 35-millimeter movie camera. He waded in right beside machine gunners going ashore. “Looking through the viewfinder and trying to frame the story that I was shooting, it was like what you were looking at a movie. And in a sense, I felt detached in a degree from what was happening around me,” he said.

The Edge of Music

A Lifetime of Jewish Music on Display at Lincoln Center

May 26th 2012

Lincolin Center

Matthew “Mati” Lazar has been dedicated to the creation of Jewish music for most of his life.  On Sunday, May 20th, the Maestro and his Chorale celebrated their reunification of at a grand “Celebrate Jerusalem” concert in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at JAZZ at Lincoln Center.  The songs of the Zamir Chorale  - and some of its extraordinary friends, Yehoram Gaon and Alberto Mizrach – resonated in the mid-Manhattan auditorium, telling the history of Israel and its capital city in music.

Lazar carries his singers, young and “older,” to unique  musical heights.  As Director of the Zamir Choral Foundation, a position he has held for forty years, he gives teenagers and adults opportunities to sing Jewish music across America, in Israel and in international venues. The Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – concert celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War was no exception.  A robust chorale, directed by an enthusiastic Lazar, entertained a packed house with two hours of extraordinary musical presentations, evoking a range of emotional responses. Read more ..

Book Review

Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster and Firebrand

May 26th 2012

benjamin elijah mays

Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography. Randall Maurice Jelks. University of North Carolina Press. 2012.

In the portrait on his biography’s cover, seated at his desk, elegantly attired in brown suit and bowtie, Benjamin Mays gazes steadily at the reader: his eyes are ever-so-slightly narrowed; his eyebrows, raised a bit; there is, perhaps, the trace of a smile on his lips. His expression is difficult to read. But he comes across instantly as smart, tough, solid—in a word, formidable.

As Randal Maurice Jelks, a historian at the University of Kansas, shows, Mays was every bit of that. He had to be, to get as far and do as much as he did. Born in 1894 in tiny Upton, South Carolina, the youngest of eight children born to a tenant farmer and his wife, he seized upon education at a very tender age as the way to bring meaning to his life. Half a century later, he was president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. Alumnus Russell Adams recalled the impact he made: students “saw what a black man could be when they saw Mays, whose high fluting style contrasted with his forthrightness about his family background: he could talk about picking cotton…. he could talk about painting houses…; he would say things such as ‘neither my mother nor my father could read; but I am here.’…One time, he introduced one of his semi-literate brothers to us in Sale Hall Auditorium, saying, ‘My brother gave everything he could spare to help me stay in school.’ I remember going back to my room…and crying without restraint at the sheer nobility of the gesture.”

Mays’s brother may have helped him, and his mother’s prayers may have inspired him, but Mays’s father, his own life circumscribed by the violence and poverty of the segregated, turn-of-the-century South, and even his church’s minister tried to discourage his ambitions. Nevertheless, he moved indefatigably upward (and northward) from school to school, graduating in 1920 from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and moving on to the University of Chicago’s divinity school. For a time, to support himself and his wife, he worked as a Pullman porter, but he was on his way to becoming a scholar, a pastor, and an activist. He served as pastor for the Shiloh Baptist Church in Atlanta. He worked for the Urban League and the YMCA. He co-authored a study of “The Negro’s Church” and wrote his dissertation, later published, on “The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature.” Read more ..

The Edge of Film

“Chernobyl Diaries” Horror Film Angers Victim Support Group

May 26th 2012

Ferris Wheel in Chernobyl
credit: Andry Bashtovy/RFE

Horror fans are in for a treat with the release this week of “Chernobyl Diaries.”

Faithful to the genre, six young American tourists go on an extreme tour to the Chornobyl fallout zone and the emptied-out city of Pripyat, with its sprawling concrete housing projects and abandoned schools and hospitals. The perky adventure-seekers get stranded and trouble ensues at the hands of radiation-mutated predators. Fans of exploitation cinema might be happy, but support groups for victims of the world’s worst civilian nuclear disaster are not.

Robert Schuettpelz, the director of Friends of Chernobyl Centers, U.S., a nonprofit that provides financial support to five community centers in Ukraine situated within or near contaminated areas, says the film is upsetting. “I’ve been working with Chornobyl survivors for the past eight years and after what I’ve seen and after I’ve got to know them, seeing this movie and the trailers, and the information about it, it’s kind of upsetting to see that they decided to make this movie and make light of the real situation in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia,” Schuettpelz says. “People are still living with the after-effects of this every day—even 26 years after.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Passion of Bradley Manning

May 25th 2012

passion of bradley manning

The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History. Chase Madar. New York: OR Books. 2012.

Bradley Manning enlisted in the army in 2007. In the army he began exhibiting a good many personal problems. Jihrleah Showman, one of Manning’s team leaders, cautioned his commanders that his mental state was too fragile to handle classified materials -- he once even hit her. At his pre-trial hearing, there was much testimony about his alleged “psychotic issues” and ignored warnings that he should not permitted access to secret data.

Even so, on the verge of being discharged because of his erratic behavior in the army, he was trained as an intelligence analyst and assigned to Iraq’s Forward Operating Base Hammer. Soon after he was promoted to the rank of specialist and received a top secret security clearance and given access to classified Defense and State Department data. He is now being court-martialed for allegedly having transmitted some of that data to an “enemy,” and accused of giving hundreds of thousands of confidential military and government documents to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.

Chase Madar, a lawyer whose writings have been published in the London Review of Books, the American Conservative, TomDispatch, and LeMonde Diplomatique, is out with the first book about Manning’s case. It's a blistering and confrontational work replete with charges that officials who approved of torture and lied about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have never been held responsible. Madar is certainly not neutral. His book begins with “Bradley Manning deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” If he gave WikiLeaks “the Iraq war logs, the Afghan war logs, and the State Department cables -- then he surely deserves some important national honor instead of the military prison cell where he presently awaits court-martial.” The question is whether Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old Catholic son of a broken marriage between an Oklahoma father and Welsh mother, is an intentional traitor or an unintentional hero with many emotional problems. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

King: Collaboration of Obama Officials, Filmmakers Potentially Dangerous

May 25th 2012

Obama Pentagon

On Wednesday, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent out two biting letters in response to the internal CIA and Department of Defense email messages obtained by a leading public-interest group regarding the planned Sony Pictures movie on the mission in which a U.S. Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden.

Once the documents were released by Judicial Watch officials, who obtained them via a court order following the group's Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the more questions about national security taking a backseat to political ambition arose, according to a report by the Law Enforcement Examiner. Advertisement “Filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal may have set out to tell a blockbuster, election-year story about one of the most highly classified operations in American history, but through these emails they’ve ended up telling a damning story of extremely close, unprecedented, and potentially dangerous collaboration with top officials at the CIA, DoD, and the White House and a top Democratic lobbying firm,” Congressman King stated. “After reviewing these emails, I am even more concerned about the possible exposure of classified information to these filmmakers, who as far as I know, do not possess security clearances. Read more ..

Afghanistan on Edge

Music School Looks To 'Heal' War-Weary Afghans

May 25th 2012

Afghan institute of music

Music in Afghanistan is perhaps best known, particularly in the West, for falling silent. The Taliban infamously beat musicians, destroyed instruments, and publicly burned recordings in the name of that regime's extreme version of Islam. Nearly as soon as the Taliban fell, in late 2001, disquieted musicians within and outside the country took steps to revive Afghanistan's unique musical tradition. One was Ahmad Sarmast, a musicologist who returned to his native Afghanistan to open an academy at the very site where his own musical education began as a boy.

"Establishing and promoting music education is part of returning the musical right of Afghans back to them," Sarmast says. "Every Afghan should have the ability to listen to music, practice and learn music, and to express themselves through music." Two years after opening its doors, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul instructs some 150 students from their first note through their graduation as seasoned musicians. Students get a well-rounded education: Half the day is spent on math, science, literature, and other subjects, while the other half is dedicated to music. Read more ..

Book Review

Drift: The Unmooring of U.S. Military Might and the Rise of the National Security State

May 24th 2012


Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Rachel Maddow. Random House. 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 (Random House), 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, who appeared April 14 at Town Hall in Seattle, 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 their responsibility to Congress or public objections. Richard Nixon famously claimed that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. But it is the Reagan administration that Maddow singles out for its hypermilitarism, fear mongering, and radical expansion of executive authority. Reagan, Maddow writes, “claimed the private right to go to war, in secret, against the express will of the Congress.” Read more ..

Authors and Books

Homer's 'Iliad' Provides Enduring Lessons for Special Operations Combatants

May 24th 2012

Odyessus scene on Attic vessel
Odysseus (r) and Diomedes (l), stealing King Rhesus' horses.

Any reference to Homer’s works brings to mind the heroic ideal. Yet Homer is not squeamish in describing his heroes’ feats of stealth and cunning. The tenth rhapsody of the Iliad is almost a blueprint of how special operations were conducted at the time of the Trojan War. Its principles hold true even our high tech era.

Rhapsody nine tells us that the Greeks, hard pressed by the Trojans, retreated to their fortified camp. But they appointed two heroes, Antilochos and Mereones, to be in command of detachments posted outside the camp's perimeter. In other words, an active security and early warning system. The Trojans, elated by their victory, camp in the field among the dead of the battle and post sentries but make no attempt to create a defensive perimeter.

In rhapsody 10, Agamemnon - the Greek commander in chief - decides to obtain intelligence about the enemy’s activity and intentions. He asks for volunteers. His vassal Diomedes, king of Argos, accepts the mission but says it is better if he does not go alone. (Note: even today scouts and snipers are better operating in pairs). Diomedes, who is recognized by his peers an active a fighter tails Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, as his second. He says that a man with active intellect is always a good companion. The two heroes who undertake the mission of an active night patrol are the ideal combination of aggressiveness and ingenuity, which is even today is sought in special operations.

In the Trojan camp, Prince Hector who commands the Trojans and their allies, learns that king Rhesus of Thrace has come as an ally. Euripides, not Homer, gives the details here. Hector is angry that the Thracians did not come earlier but just in time to finish off the Achaeans and demand a portion of the spoils. Rhesus says that he had to secure his borders from the Scythians first. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Lebanese Fable Follows Female Fight For Peace

May 24th 2012

Where do we go from here

In her first movie, "Caramel," Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki took viewers to a Beirut beauty parlor where women tried to deal with unending war. Her new film takes the theme to a dusty village, where Christian and Muslim women try to stop their men from killing each other. "Where Do We Go From Here?" opens with a group of black-clad women moving slowly from the village toward the cemetery. But, instead of walking, they sway and slide in a mystical dance, establishing the film as a fable which is not specifically set in the writer-director's native Lebanon.

"The film is intended to be a sort of a fairy tale," Labaki says. "It starts with this voice saying, 'I'm going to tell you a story,' as if somebody was telling you 'Once upon a time, there was this village where women were going to bring peace.' But I didn't want to relate it to any specific place or time. I wanted it to be more universal, because this conflict I am talking about could have happened between two families, two brothers, two friends, even two football teams." To distract their men, the women will try anything from cooking special treats laced with hashish to importing a busload of European exotic dancers.

While Labaki tells her story with humor, at its core is a serious issue she knows all too well. "In Lebanon, unfortunately, I don't know one person that hasn't lived a tragedy related to war," she says. "I am also fascinated and inspired by all the women in my family that have lost children during the war and that are still wearing black until now. I look at these women and I wonder, 'How do they do it?'" While the situations in the film are exaggerated, the filmmaker believes the women's hopes are real. "Even if some people say it is too simplistic to say women are wiser than men, it is not the intention," she says. "I am just trying to [show]the scream of a woman and of a mother that says, 'We have had enough. Stop making wars for stupid reasons.'" Labaki also co-stars in the film, and at one point, her character says, "Do you think we are here just to mourn you? To wear black forever?Is that what being a man means?" Read more ..

Film News

Exorcist screenwriter Sues Georgetown University over its Catholic Identity

May 23rd 2012

William Blatty

Academy Award winning author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, whose best-selling book and blockbuster film The Exorcist were situated at his alma mater, Georgetown University, announced on May 18 that he will lead a petition to the Catholic Church for "remedies up to and including the possible removal or suspension of top-ranked Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit in its fundraising and representations to applicants." This would mean submitting the petition to the Vatican's apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States and later to Vatican authorities for review for possible violations of canon law. Canon law refers to the internal system of regulations and tribunals within the Catholic Church.

The move comes on the heels of a rebuke of Georgetown and its first lay president, John J. DeGioia, by Cardinal Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington, over Georgetown’s invitation to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to be a diploma ceremony speaker. Sebelius is a Catholic.

The editors of the newspaper published by the Washington archdiocese wrote in a May 13 editorial regarding Georgetown, “When the vision guiding university choices does not clearly reflect the light of the Gospel and authentic Catholic teaching, there are, of course, disappointing results.” Linking GU’s non-compliance with Church law to GU’s regular scandals, the website tracks the editorial the newspaper of the Washington diocese. “Twenty two years of GU scandals, since Ex corde Ecclesiae (ECE) was promulgated, are not just proof of a failed Catholic identity, they are evidence and a direct result of Georgetown’s failure to comply with ECE.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae refers to a document promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 that sought to define Catholic institutions of higher learning. In order to refer to themselves as 'Catholic,' such institutions must seek affirmation from the Vatican or local bishops. It has been viewed as a rejection of a position paper affirmed in 1967 by Catholic universites (including Notre Dame and Georgetown, among others), called the 'Land O'Lakes' Statement, which sought to establish a certain level of independence for these institutions. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

FOIA Request Reveals Disturbing White House Collaboration in Upcoming Bin Laden Film

May 23rd 2012

Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow

A Washington, DC-based group that investigates, exposes, and combats government corruption at the highest levels, surprised members of the news industry by obtaining documents that one source said "were almost as hard to get from the Obama administration as buying a winning lottery ticket at the local grocery store." What is revealed in these records is disturbing, even shocking, say a number of counterterrorism and political experts.

The noted -- and feared by a number of politicos -- public-interest organization, Judicial Watch, reported on May 21 that its officials obtained records from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency regarding meetings and communications between Obama-run federal agencies and veteran filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow. Bigelow, the ex-wife of director James Cameron (Titanic), garnered an Oscar for her direction of The Hurt Locker, an acclaimed motion picture about a U.S. Army bomb disposal unit in Iraq at the height of the insurgency.

According to the newly obtained records, the Obama Defense Department granted Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal access to a “planner, Operator and Commander of SEAL Team Six,” the special forces unit that killed the world's most famous and most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, in a daring covert operation inside Pakistan on May 1, 2011. Read more ..

Film Review

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Geriatrics Getting Away from it all in India

May 23rd 2012

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Director: John Madden. Starring: Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Dev Patel. Length: 124 minutes.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a Richard Curtis movie without Richard Curtis. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and screenwriter Ol Parker have produced something a little more down-to-earth than the truly awful Love Actually (2003) by Mr. Curtis, but not by much. Both films treat the initiation of extramarital sexual congress in the same way Victorian novelists treated marriage, that is as a synecdoche for happiness and the reward of virtue.

Both, too, appear to regard this image of human felicity, treated as an unquestioned end in itself, the way Keats regarded his identification of truth and beauty: that is, as "all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." In practice, of course, everyone knows that this is absurd, just as the Victorians were not such fools as to suppose that marriages are always happy. But in neither case does that affect the literary usefulness of the symbolism, or what it tells us about our respective cultures.

What is mildly more interesting about Mr. Madden's movie as compared to Mr. Curtis's is the extent to which its theme of culture clash between contemporary Britain and India is at odds with and renders even more incoherent than it would otherwise be the theme of self-realization and self-fulfilment through sex. Both men would presumably call this self-fulfilment "love," but it signally lacks love's unselfishness and desire for permanence, its resolution and its well-known downside, which is what makes resolution necessary to the hope of permanence.

Mr. Madden's tale of seven elderly English folk seeking a cheap retirement community and, as some of them are more aware than others, sexual hook-ups in Jaipur, India, thus reduces love among these old people to what it mostly is for young ones: namely, sexual attraction and response. The only married couple in the bunch can find their fulfilment only by splitting up. Read more ..

Book Review

The Weight of Vengeance: The 1812 War over National Self-Image

May 21st 2012

weight of vengeance

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire and the War of 1812. Troy Bickham. Oxford. 2012. 344 pages.

The War of 1812, now in its bicentennial year, is widely regarded as an asterisk in American history. Sparked by a series of British decrees limiting U.S. trading rights during the Napoleonic era that were suspended even as the U.S. declared war, the conflict was a military draw that ended with the status quo ante. Andrew Jackson's celebrated victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 took place after peace terms had already been negotiated (though not yet ratified). As such, the War of 1812 seems not only unnecessary, but just plain stupid.

In The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham, who teaches at Texas A&M, does not assert that the war was fought over high-minded principle. But he does think it had a logic that transcended its stated grievances over trade, the legal status of sailors who may or may not have been British deserters, or the fate of Canadians and Indians in North America. These issues were real enough. But Bickham sees the war as effectively about the two nations' respective self-image. An insecure United States felt a need to assert itself as part of the family of civilized nations.

And Britain felt a need to put its former colony in its (subordinate) place. But neither belligerent was in a particularly good position to realize its objectives, and both were subject to considerable internal opposition to their official government positions. Bickham's parallel arguments seem mirrored by its structure. The book deftly alternates chapters that trace the pro-war and anti-war constituencies in both. For a while, it seems this approach to the subject, however admirably balanced, will only underline the way the various players effectively neutralized each other. But as his analysis proceeds, a decisive view of the war becomes increasingly clear -- and increasingly persuasive. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

UN Bans Sasha Cohen of 'The Dictator' to Protect Real Dictators

May 20th 2012

Sasha Cohen The Dictator

"Borat" and "The Dictator" star Sacha Baron Cohen has told BBC that the United Nations refused to let him film scenes from his most recent movie on its premises for fear the move could upset dictators. He told BBC Radio 4's "Today" program, "The interesting thing is, when we asked to shoot inside the United Nations, they actually refused. "We said, 'This is a pro-democracy movie.' They said, 'That's the problem -- we represent a lot of dictators, and they are going to be very angry by this portrayal of them, so you can't shoot in there."

In "The Dictator," Baron Cohen plays Admiral General Aladeen, which he says is a parody of tyrants such as former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, was questioned by a reporter on the matter on May 18. He responded simply, "Sacha Baron Cohen has a wonderful sense of humor". Read more ..

The Edge of Film

The Meeting That Led Harvey Weinstein to Purchase “The Oath of Tobruk”

May 19th 2012

Harvey Weinstein, Ron Agam, Bernard Henri Levy
Harvey Weinstein, Ron Agam, Bernard Henri Levy
(credit: Nicolas Rachline)

French artist Ron Agam’s friendships with Bernard-Henri Levy and Harvey Weinstein led to one of the most high profile film deals heading into this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Weinstein, who has just purchased the rights to “The Oath of Tobruk”—Bernard-Henri Levy’s documentary that tells the tale of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall from power and eventual death—was told about the project when Agam set up a meeting between the two titans of their respective fields.

“Harvey Weinstein is the most serious movie distributor in the world and I felt that Levy, being one of the world’s most important philosophers and political activists, to bring the two of them together would be an incredible moment,” Agam recounted. Levy traveled to Libya after the civil unrest began there in early 2011 and met with Libyan rebels, before returning to meet with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy to brief him on what was happening on the ground. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Burmese Film Focuses on Plight of Migrant Workers

May 19th 2012

Film Set Thailand

 A new film, Father's House, sponsored by the Burmese comedian and political activist, Zarganar, hopes to raise the plight of Burmese migrant workers to a wider audience - especially to people back in Burma. The film’s location highlights the often harsh realities many workers face employed in the fishing, construction and rubber plantation industries.

Deep in a rubber plantation in southern Thailand’s Phangnga province a Burmese migrant community gathers, drawn to the making of a film that depicts the story of the lives and hardships faced by the migrant workers. An organization assisting migrants in southern Thailand, the Foundation for Education and Development, says there are up to 100,000 migrant workers in the region of Phuket and Phangnga, many of whom are undocumented.

The migrant workers are often perceived as almost invisible; but play a key role in the regional economy on rubber plantation, in construction and fishing industries, in areas of work that Thais often shun. But the stories of migrant workers are little known inside Burma says foundation secretary Mallika Ketthaisong. Read more ..

Film Review

Margaret: A Coming of Age, Long in the Making

May 18th 2012


Margaret. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan and Martin Scorcese. Starring Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo. Length: 150 minutes.

"Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins — which begins (accent marks signifying Hopkins’s artificial or "sprung" rhythm)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?

is probably his most famous poem and the one that, if you know anything about Hopkins, you must have heard and admired. But for all its admirable qualities, it sounds rather cynical and solipsistic. Musically it definitely has something to be said for it, but the conclusion in particular seems a bit too neat.

Death, change, transition, the passage of time, all these are the "It" which, the poem tells us, are "the blight man was born for," but if Margaret is cast into melancholy reflection or even grief by these things, then to go on to say as the poem’s last line does that "It is Margaret you mourn for" suggests the girl is, as we all are, trapped in the prison of self. Surely, it’s not just Margaret she mourns for? For most people, in fact, it is not even primarily themselves they mourn for. When we lose something or someone we love and mourn the loss, it is the thing or person lost which is the object of our mourning, if you want to call it that. We mourn for ourselves only in the banal sense that we are the ones who have suffered the loss. That’s not at all the same thing as saying we’re mourning for ourselves. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

The Essence of Israel on the Silver Screen

May 17th 2012

Yoni and Tuti Netanyahu
Yoni and Tutti Netanyahu

Now that Israel’s early elections have been called off, there may be a sigh of relief among supporters of the Jewish state who feel that a new order will form in the country.  The fact that a new so called unity government has now been formed, with the needs of the religious and the secular communities allegedly being addressed equally, could offer the stability the country needs to handle its external enemies without having to worry as much about the internal strife tearing it apart.  That remains to be seen, but the hope is being restored. 

When events such as the reformation of the government occur, it behooves the country to do as good a job as it can to spread the word far and wide proclaiming the positive.  Too often some media and forces opposed to Israel harnesses morsels of negativity and portray those as the driving forces of the people and government of Israel.  Israel is often its own worst enemy when it comes to public relations; its Hasbara, as it is referred to, is often too defensive and focused in shades of black and white, and therefore can seem harsh and selfish. Read more ..

Book Review

Castro's Secrets: More Obfuscation of the Kennedy Assassination Story

May 17th 2012

Castros Secrets

Castro's Secrets: The CIA and Cuba's Intelligence Machine. Brian Latell. Palgrave Macmillan. 2012. 288 pages.

History is quite frequently distorted by ideological bias, and nothing shows this better than the corpus of JFK assassination books. Written by people on the political left, they almost uniformly want to blame some group on the right for John Kennedy’s death. Of course, it’s far from the case that all voices to the left of center have claimed a right-wing conspiracy. The liberal mainstream media have had little truck with conspiracy theories, and hard left voices like Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn and The Nation have often insisted that Lee Harvey Oswald did it all by himself.

But pick up your average conspiracy book and most likely the culprits will be some of those bêtes noires of the left: the CIA, the FBI, anti-Castro Cubans, rich Texas oil millionaires, and so on. The conspiracists’ fruitless half-century fixation with these groups makes Captain Ahab’s obsession with the Great White Whale look like a passing summer afternoon fancy.

In this context, this volume from longtime CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell has some value as a corrective. Conspiracy theorists, typically in thrall of Camelot and, if not outright fans of Castro, then at least rather mellow toward the Caribbean dictator, have downplayed the enmity between Castro and Kennedy.

But Latell gives a full account of the incendiary mutual denunciations that the American president and the Cuban leader directed at each other. Likewise, he makes it clear (in the tradition of writers like Gus Russo and Max Holland) that the impetus behind assassination attempts on Castro came from the highest levels of the Kennedy administration, with Bobby being John’s chief honcho in dealing with the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans.

Where assassination writers have wanted to believe that Kennedy, at the time he was killed, was preparing to make nice-nice with Castro, Latell makes it clear that Kennedy would only accept a “Tito solution.” Castro would have to end his alliance with the Soviet Union and quit trying to export revolution. But of course, Castro was never going to do that. Read more ..

The Edge of Film

Tim Burton Revives the 1960s Vampire Soap Opera ”Dark Shadows”

May 14th 2012

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows
Johnny Depp plays Barnabas Collins in ”Dark Shadows”
(photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

Dark Shadows. Director: Tim Burton. Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter. Length: 133 min.

A soap opera from the 1960s gets a makeover in director Tim Burton’s new horror-comedy: ”Dark Shadows,” which features his favorite lead actor, Johnny Depp.

In the 1770s, a curse turned Barnabas into a vampire. In 1972, a construction crew digs up his coffin and the denizen of the dark finds his way back to what remains of the Collins estate. His cousin Elizabeth, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, thinks he can restore the Collins line to its former greatness. But Barnabas soon discovers that Angelique, the witch who cursed him, is still around.

Johnny Depp plays Barnabas, angst-ridden by his fate and confused by the world in which he awakes. “The idea of this very elegant gentleman who is brought back to probably the most surreal era of our times, the 1970s. How he would react to things like ‘pet rocks’ and troll dolls and lava lamps,” explains Depp. “What was most interesting in terms of Barnabas was to make that guy, clearly a vampire, fit into this odd society and this dysfunctional family,” the star adds. Read more ..

Book Review

The Changing Face of the Israel-Islam Conflict

May 14th 2012

The Transforming Fire - Jonathan Spyer

The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel–Islamist Conflict. Jonathan Spyer. Continuum, 2010. 227 pages.

“People walked from tank to tank, shaking hands with friends, wishing each other luck. I remember standing with my friend Ariel Ronen and exchanging a few brief words before we boarded. Blond Ariel, in civilian life the owner of a marketing business in Petah Tikva, was a tank driver from platoon 2. Unlike me, he had a practical, military bent to him, and was standing, watching affairs with a worried furrow to his brow. ‘We aren’t ready for this,’ he said, as we shook hands. I looked at him quizzically, but he declined to elaborate, adding simply, ‘Not all of us will be coming back.’ ‘We will,’ I reassured him, assuming the fatherconfessor role that I had awarded myself in the previous days. He didn’t reply.” (p. 13).

With this passage, and others like it, Jonathan Spyer recounts his experiences serving in the Lebanon War of 2006. A soldier in an Israeli armored reserve unit, a columnist with The Jerusalem Post, and a research fellow in civilian life, Spyer deftly interweaves his battlefield recollections with a sustained assessment of the strategic challenges facing Israel. The result is an insightful, important, and at times pensive volume, one that is part memoir and part sophisticated political analysis. The main threats facing Israel today, Spyer asserts, are Islamist states and organizations—enemies that not only loom on the horizon, such as Iran, but ones such as Hamas and Hizbullah that lurk closer to home, raining down rockets into the nation’s heartland.

The Jewish State operates within a daunting strategic environment. In confronting those challenges, Spyer rightly draws strength from his comrades-in-arms in the Israeli Defense Forces, whose powerful and poignant stories he sympathetically retells. Israel, too, can draw strength from their stoic determination as it formulates and executes a national strategy for defeating the Islamist threats arrayed against it. Read more ..

Book Review

Who's Publishing What These Days—and How?

May 13th 2012

Merchants of Culure - John B. Thompson

John B. Thompson. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (2nd ed.). Polity Press, 2012. 440 pages.

John B. Thompson begins this book with a publishing anecdote that will be familiar even to those on the margins of the business: the story of how Randy Pausch, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, gave a talk in 2007 as part of a series at the university with the title “The Last Lecture.” As it turned out, Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer, giving his well-received presentation an element of poignance that generated a wave of national publicity. What proved truly stunning, however, was how eager New York publishers were to acquire the book that became The Last Lecture: Pausch, a first-time big-time author was paid a $6.75 million advance by Hyperion, a Disney company. How could that possibly make sense?

In 400 chiseled pages, Thompson explains why such an offer came about, and why it made sense—indeed, The Last Lecture proved to be a lucrative acquisition for Hyperion. He does so with the methodological acumen of the sociologist he is (at the University of Cambridge). Thompson conducted hundreds of interviews for Merchants of Culture, supplemented by new interviews with many of his sources for this newly released second edition of the book (the first was published in 2010). Much of Thompson's analysis builds on that of his 2005 book Books in the Digital Age, which focused on scholarly publishing. Here he focuses on trade publishing, the hyper-commercial industry focused in New York and London.

It's in the nature of any project of this sort that it stands to date quickly. But Thompson has done a notably good job of keeping his findings timely—the figures here run into mid-2011, capturing the arrival of the e-book transformation of the industry at that moment it shifted from an abstract possibility to an increasingly evident reality. In some sense, however, the book feels fresh and up-to-date because of an intuitive grasp of temporal proportion; his perspective dates back to the corporate consolidation of the publishing industry in the 1970s, and he traces trends that in many cases have been decades in the making. Read more ..

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