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Edge on Art

May One Thousand Chinese Papercuts Bloom

November 14th 2011

China Topics - Chinese cut out

Scholarly gems are often found by sifting through dusty archives in foreign lands thousands of miles away. But sometimes they're discovered just by doing some office cleaning on campus.

That's what happened recently at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Staffers who were tidying up a storage room in Ann Arbor found a stunning collection of rare propaganda papercut images from the Cultural Revolution---a period of massive political upheaval in China that began in 1966 and lasted about a decade.

"Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!" says the slogan on the flag that features the profile of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. The image is one of 15 papercuts recently discovered in a storage area for the Center for Chinese Studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

With incredible detail, the long-forgotten papercuts portray the euphoria and zeal of the era as well as the violence and destruction that left the Chinese economy in shambles. The beautifully preserved poster-size images are painstakingly cut out of red paper in the tradition of the age-old Chinese handicraft, more commonly used to make decorations for weddings, Lunar New Year celebrations and other festivities. Read more ..

The Edge of Pollution

Plastics in Oceans are More Damaging Than Climate Change

November 14th 2011

Energy / Environment - Ocean scene

Once upon a time, the oceans of our planet were beautifully clean.  Not any more.  Captain Charles Moore calls this 'the age of plastic.'

“Between 250 and 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year," said Capt. Moore. "To get that into terms you can understand, every two years we make enough plastic to be the equivalent of the weight of the 7 billion people on earth.” In his new book, Plastic Ocean, Moore says less than five percent of all plastic is recycled and nearly three percent of world production is dumped into the ocean. That debris kills millions of sea creatures every year.

“We know over 100,000 albatross chicks are dying every year with their stomachs full of plastic; we have evidence that about 100,000 marine mammals die every year being tangled in plastic," he said. Read more ..

Book Reviews

We Meant Well: Iraq Really Ends When we Really Leave

November 13th 2011

Book Covers - We Meant Well

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Peter Van Buren. Metropolitan Books. 2011. 288 pages.

This book by a State Department insider and eyewitness turned whistle-blower is about our misadventures in Iraq. Andrew Bacevich, the prescient author of the recently published Washington Rules, shrewdly noted that years after the self-serving memoirs (mainly ghost-written) by the major actors in the invasion and occupation “are consigned to some landfill,” Peter Van Buren’s sensible, funny, and ultimately sad portrait of failed nation-building will need to be resurrected and read and re-read, especially in our schools and media offices, the latter because so many publications and TV commentators were cheerleaders for the invasion.

We Meant Well, both title and concept, is how pro-war policymakers and pundits rationalized the bloodshed and chaos by doing good things for post-Saddam Iraqis. Largely ignorant of Iraq’s history, culture, and language, Washington’s elite foreign policy circles actually believed the con men and living room warriors who conjured up visions of WMDs and of spreading America’s economic empire by war and thereby transforming the country into a fair and open society. Van Buren says he is currently being investigated by the State Department; his supervisor was asked to tell him—“just like a gangster movie”—that a “senior Department person” was angry at the publication of this book and had opened an investigation.

Van Buren had served as a Foreign Service Officer for more than twenty years and was appointed head of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for a one-year stint in 2009. These military bases, some as large as cities, were scattered throughout Iraq with “Burger Kings, samba clubs, Turkish hookah bars and swimming pools.” Read more ..

Book Reviews

The Marriage Plot is an Interesting Failure as a Novel

November 7th 2011

Book Covers - The marriage plot

The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011. 416 pages.

Is it possible to write a successful novel with unappealing characters? I don't mean a novel in which a protagonist is repellent in an avowedly provocative way, like the unnamed narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). I mean people who it appears an author really wants us to like, but who we find tiresome. This is the question I found myself asking while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's latest novel, The Marriage Plot. My answer, finally, was no: you can't really write a compelling novel this way. But as failures go, his is an interesting one.

One reason: Eugenides is a virtuoso writer with an extraordinary capacity to render an array of topics with great authority and clarity. In this regard, he's is sort of like Jonathan Franzen with a warmer heart. Eugenides showed such brio in his multi-generational saga Middlesex (2002), and he does it again here. Whether the subject at hand are are the mating habits of the intelligentsia, the pharmacology of mental illness, or the labor force of Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta, Eugenides renders the details of subcultures with a sense of verisimilitude that impresses and informs. He has a wonderful sense of history, and in some subjects, his talents are dazzling.

I can't think of another writer who can talk about religion with the unselfconscious ease he does, for instance. And his command of literary theory, in particular the 1980s mania for poststructuralism, is so sure that he can weave it in as a subtext for a novel that's also a metacommentary on bourgeois fiction of the 19th century. The ending of the novel in particular a delightfully clever. Read more ..

Significant Events

Investigative Author Edwin Black Headlined Conference, Received First 'Moral Courage' Award

October 30th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

An extraordinary conference designed to recognize and promote “moral courage” convened in San Diego late in October. The Initiative for Moral Courage held its first annual conference on the campuses of San Diego State University and California State University at San Marcos. The conference topics of the inaugural session focused on various twentieth century genocides, authors who have exposed them, and individuals who stood up to them against the odds. Hence, the salute to moral courage, and the awards given to carefully selected recipients.

To salute brave survivors and chroniclers, this year’s conference featured presentations by award-winning author and investigative journalist Edwin Black on the connection between American and Nazi eugenics and Richard G. Hovannisian on the Armenian genocide orchestrated by the Turks. It also covered a host of other mass murders, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Rwanda to Cambodia.

The first major event was on October 29 and included a graphic presentation of panels titled “The Rescuers.” This was an exhibition of photographs and extraordinary stories from the Holocaust, and the genocides that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Remarkable stories emerged of ordinary heroes who resisted overwhelming tides of prejudice and violence and risked their lives saving people from enemy groups. It helps to understand the presence of rescue behavior during genocide or mass violence. The exhibition’s rationale was to design ways to build in protective measures against this type of violence

Then, on October 30, an afternoon series explored “Genocides Past and Present.” Opening the day was award-winning investigative author Edwin Black, whose book War Against the Weak has changed the face and course of society’s understanding of the dark links between American and Nazi eugenics. Based on selective breeding of humans, eugenics began in laboratories in the U.S. but ended in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. War Against the Weak is described by the program as “the gripping chronicle documenting how American corporate philanthropies launched a national campaign of ethnic cleansing in the United States, and helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Hitler and Mengele. Winner of the Best Book of the Year, International Human Rights.” Black demonstrated moral courage in standing up to the power of the Carnegie Institution and Rockefeller Foundation, which funded, orchestrated, and inflicted both American and Nazi eugenics.

Author Black commented, “In an era of increasing focus on political expediency, the effort to revive and foster the notion of moral courage is sorely needed.” He credited the vision of organizer Jackie Gmach in bringing the effort to national attention. Read more ..

Film Review

The Way: A Film pilgrimage to the Shrine of Self-Esteem

October 27th 2011

Film - The Way

The Way. Directed by Emilio Estevez. Starring: Martin Sheen, Yorick Van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Deborah Kara Unger. Length: 121 mins.

In case you were worried, the New York Times review of Emilio Estevez’s The Way will reassure you that "This is not an ‘inspirational film’ in the usual, syrupy sense." Phew! Dodged a bullet there, didn’t we? One can well imagine that the "syrupy" sort of inspirational film would be offensive to the sensibility that these days informs the arts pages as well as the other pages of The New York Times. But, then, the quotation marks around "inspirational film" seem to be meant to imply — I can’t think what else they are doing there — that there is no such thing as an inspirational film anyway: only the kind that strives to be inspirational and fails. Inspiring The New York Times, we may as well admit, is something probably better not even attempted.

Mr. Estevez’s film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, is about a medieval pilgrimage — the one to Santiago de Compostela in Spain — which is still made by thousands of pilgrims today. Many, if not most, do so in a spirit of Catholic piety, but The Way is not interested in them. Fortunately, as the Times reviewer writes, "none of these people are [sic] overtly finding God on this trek." How about covertly finding God? He doesn’t know, but I guess that that would be OK. "The beauty of the movie, in fact, is that Mr. Estevez does not make explicit what any of them find, beyond friendship. He lets these four fine actors convey that true personal transformations are not announced with fanfare, but happen internally." So how do we know that they happen at all? Forget fanfares, where is the beauty in not knowing something? Read more ..

Book Review

The Big Scrum: Bully Bully to Teddy Roosevelt for Saving American Football

October 27th 2011

Book Covers - the big scrum

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. John J. Miller. Harper, 2011.

Long, long ago—before the Big Ten had 12 teams and the Big Twelve had 10; back when Knute Rockne was still learning to drop-kick—college football was in crisis. The crisis had many parts: already professionalism and commercialism had made inroads into the supposedly “amateur” game. Players were getting money and perks, coaches were being overpaid (in 1905 Bill Reid, Harvard’s coach, made more than any professor on campus and almost as much as President Charles William Eliot), and rules about everything from how the game could be played to player eligibility ranged from ill-defined to non-existent. Six-year varsity careers were not unheard of.

Sometimes those careers were compiled at several schools. In 1896 the great Fielding Yost, enrolled West Virginia University, transferred to Lafayette in time to help the Leopards snap the University of Pennsylvania’s 36-game winning streak, then transferred right back.

The worst aspect of the crisis—because it was the most public and most dramatic—was the game’s increasingly violent character, evidenced by the growing number of players seriously injured or even killed on the field. As football had evolved from its beginnings (the game considered to be the first intercollegiate contest, between Princeton and Rutgers, took place in 1869) as a kind of combination of soccer and rugby, it was increasingly characterized by “mass play,” most notably the infamous “flying wedge.” Even when played within the “rules” of the time, it was a bloody affair. And with players crowded together, battling back and forth on a very small part of the field, opportunities for punching, kicking, biting, and other activities outside the rules were numerous—and exploited. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Religion in America: Recounting where Church and Politics Meet

October 27th 2011

Book Covers - religion in america

Religion in America: A Political History. Denis Lacorne. Columbia, 2011. 170 pages.

This little book manages to do a lot in the space of 170 pages. First published in France in 2007, with an evocative introduction by the late Tony Judt, it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Lacorne's point of departure in conceptualizing religious history rests on the work of John Murrin, who observed that in the United States "the constitutional roof" was built before the "national walls." As Lacorne is well aware, this assertion is contestable, particularly by those -- from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington, among others -- who have argued that American religious culture, like many other kinds, was well in place by the time of the American Revolution.

But an important dimension of this even-handed study is an attempt to balance what he plausibly sees as too much emphasis on the Puritan roots and influence in American society. For Lacorne, a separate strand of U.S. evangelicalism has also been part of the picture. So has, at least as importantly, a largely secular one centered in the thought and legacy of the Founding Fathers. This latter one, whose institutional locus has been the Supreme Court, has been decisive, in his (generally approving) view.

This little book manages to do a lot in the space of 170 pages. First published in France in 2007, with an evocative introduction by the late Tony Judt, it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Lacorne's point of departure in conceptualizing religious history rests on the work of John Murrin, who observed that in the United States "the constitutional roof" was built before the "national walls." As Lacorne is well aware, this assertion is contestable, particularly by those -- from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington, among others -- who have argued that American religious culture, like many other kinds, was well in place by the time of the American Revolution. Read more ..

American Songbook

The Spirit of Orchestral Mastermind Charles Stepney Lives on in Chicago

October 24th 2011

Art Topics - charles stepney

There is still a vibrancy and creativity of American music of the 1960s and 70s that has much to offer those who remember those days, as well as those inheriting the unique American penchant for syncretism in music styles. Certainly, the merging of jazz, gospel, funk, and rock is what distinguishes the 1970s as the U.S. emerged from days of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Definitions of what qualified as ‘Black’ music and ‘White’ music appeared to become fuzzier as young people breathed easier (without the Draft dangling over their heads) and could go to the dance floor and groove to tunes by Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder (imported from Saginaw, Michigan), Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament and Funkadelic.

But who was one of the masterminds? Who was it that helped shape the behind the microphone? The tunes are there to be heard on your MP3 player, YouTube, Songza, or even on an LP as God Himself intended those tunes to be heard. His name is Charles Stepney. You won’t hear his voice on those recordings, but you can feel his spirit. It lives. Read more ..

Author Tours

Author Edwin Black Keynotes Peace Week in Tampa Bay

October 20th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Award-winning author and investigative journalist Edwin Black keynoted Peace Week, a multi-day conference organized by Pasco-Hernando Community College in association with the St. Petersburg Times. The four-campus two-county conference was free and open to the public beginning October 17. It concludes October 24. The annual event seeks to promote worldwide peace through historical exploration, artistic works, and interfaith and intercommunal outreach.

Peace Week co-founders, professors Karen Davis and Mike Sadusky, described the goals of the event in an open letter to the college community, "PHCC proudly hosts Peace Week each year to recognize that peace is not simply the absence of war, but a constantly changing and fragile ideology that can be threatened if people are not given the opportunity to express themselves and connect with one another. We must find understanding and balance in a social climate that increases in culturally diversity and technological advances alongside growing volatility, political pressures and global perspective each day." This year's theme is "Imagine the possibilities of peace."

Films, music, guest lectures, drum circles, Buddhist mandalas, art projects and yoga classes are all part of the celebration that ends on October 24. Speakers will rotate on each of the campuses while their presentations will be telecast on each of the other campuses.

Besides Black, keynote speakers at Peace Week include Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor and forgiveness advocate who brought people to tears at last year's event. Kor is a survivor of inhuman medical experiments conducted by the infamous Dr. Mengele at the Auschwitz death camp. Also speaking is Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, the conference will be hear sacred and Broadway songs by Cantor Deborah Jacobson, of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, and her daughter Maya Jacobson. Author Black, who previewed the performance, commented, "the Jacobsons' delivery is nothing short of angelic."

Black also appeared at other venues in the Tampa FL during the conference, giving lectures on the inter-relationship of petropolitics and U.S. corporate complicity with Nazism and genocide in the World War II era. Read more ..

Book Review

Color in the Classroom: How Americans learned about Race

October 20th 2011

Book Covers - Color in the classroom

Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race. Zoe Burkholder. Oxford University Press. 2011. 264 pages.

In the liberal imagination -- and in more than a little Civil Rights scholarship -- the story of race relations in the first half of the twentieth century is a long arc that bends toward justice. It is a progressive tale, one in which belief in the power of ideas to shape society gets battered, but ultimately affirmed, as evidenced by the most cherished dimensions of the welfare state, among them the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many, the keystone of this arch is the Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board (1954), upon which rested hopes for future generations.

One might think, then, that a chronicle of racial education in this half-century would be one of ascent to this plateau. But for Zoe Burkholder, professor of education at Montclair State University, Brown signifies a lost opportunity, a fork in a road that led away from meaningfully grappling with the the complicated reality of structural racism. Instead, she says, we've inherited a post-multiculturalism regime which, for all its putative embrace of nuanced diversity, is little different than the the static, simplistic "cultural gifts" curricular approaches that characterized attempts to manage demographic pluralism at the turn of the last century.

Though the subtitle of this elegantly conceptualized and executed little book suggests her narrative runs from 1900 to 1954, her analysis really gets underway in earnest with the First World War, when Progressive intellectuals sought to contain the simmering hatreds unleashed by the conflict. In the prewar years, an enlightened approach to ethnographic pluralism accepted the widespread assumption that the term "race" was virtually synonymous with that of "nation," so that it was common to speak of "the Italian race," "the Scottish race," and so on. Insofar as intercultural education progrrams were implemented, they were almost entirely a white affair. Yet this was nevertheless a vanguard of sorts, given the intensity of anti-German fervor and the long history of American nativism. Read more ..

Film Reviews

Moneyball: When Baseball is Very Very Good for Statisticians

October 10th 2011

Film - Moneyball

Moneyball. Director: Bennett Miller. Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Length: 133 minutes.

Manohla Dargis, opens her New York Times review of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball by calling it "a movie about baseball in the digital age." The word "digital" can mean pertaining to fingers, numbers or electronic devices that operate by means of computer code (that is, the numbers 0 and 1), and it is usually the last of these that is intended when the adjective is used to modify the word "age." As computers do not figure particularly prominently in the movie, however, Ms. Dargis appears to mean something a bit more vague by the term, something like "the world we now live in which is completely different from that of the pre-digital age."

If so, she shows herself to be as susceptible to utopian romance as the movie’s makers (including top scribe Aaron Sorkin) and its hero, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who at one point in the film proclaims it to be his ambition to transform the game of baseball — not, as it happens, with computers necessarily, since the calculations behind the magic of putting together a winning ball club can be done with calculator, abacus or pencil and paper, but with the analytical powers of the human mind.

You know those old-fashioned baseball movies — or almost any other old-fashioned movies — where the grizzled old-timer shows up the young hot-shot who thinks he knows everything? Well, now the young hot-shot who thinks he knows everything does know everything, and thus he obligingly shows up and humiliates the grizzled old-timer with his outmoded information systems. The superior think-power of Moneyball was supplied to Michael Lewis, the author of the book of the same title on which the film is based, by a self-taught statistician called Bill James who, at the time the book came out eight years ago, looked as if he really might be revolutionizing the game. Most people think it hasn’t quite panned out like that, but the dream dies hard. Ms. Dargis writes that "Mr. Miller holds onto the romance of baseball that Mr. James and others helped strip away," but this is a mistake. Neither Mr. Miller nor Mr. James are stripping away the romance of baseball. They are substituting for it the romance of the intellect. Read more ..

Inside China

Chinese Censors Change their Minds Again and Cancel hit 'Super-Girl' Show

October 3rd 2011

China Topics - Fans of Li Yun-chun

One of the most popular TV programs in China has been cancelled, again. The removal of Super Girl (快乐女声) from the airwaves has caused a stir on Chinese microbloging sites. The show was an American Idol type TV program started in China in 2004 by state TV in southern Hunan province.

After a three year suspension, it was re-launched in 2009 as “Happy Girl” in Chinese (even though it was still called Super Girl in English). But last month (September, 2011), the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) ordered the show to stop broadcasting.

The reasons for the cancellation are varied, depending on who you ask. The official reason is the show was too long. But many commenters are pointing to the show's use of an audience text voting system for the contestants and what some Chinese officials have called the "vulgar" use of young women singing pop songs. Read more ..

American Authors

Tennessee Williams, Remembered

September 23rd 2011

Book Topics - Thomas Lanier Tennesee Williams

Tennessee Williams is the subject of a retrospective this October at the University of Michigan. 2011 marks the centenary anniversary of the birth of Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams—one of the greatest and most influential of American playwrights and screen writers. Next month in celebration of Williams' career, the University of Michigan's Department of Theatre and Drama is sponsoring a conference about Williams from October 12 to 15, including a keynote address, panel discussions, and a production of the rarely staged "Suddenly, Last Summer." On October 15, there will be a screening of the 1959 film made from the play. Discussion of the film will follow the screening.

Tennessee Williams was born March 26, 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi, and reared in St. Louis, where his father moved to work in a shoe factory. He attended the University of Missouri before being forced by his father to withdraw and work in the shoe factory. In 1937, two of his plays were staged by a theater company in St. Louis, and the next year he graduated from the University of Iowa. In 1939 he moved to New Orleans to write for the federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA), and while in New Orleans he decided to use Tennessee Williams as his professional name—Tennessee being the state of his father's origin. He had a bitter defeat in 1940 when a Boston tryout of his play "Battle of Angels" failed. But then came success. Read more ..

Author Tours

Author Edwin Black lectures in Terre Haute on Indiana's Eugenic Connections to Nazi Germany

September 21st 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Acclaimed author and investigative journalist Edwin Black will speak on September 22 at lecture events in Terre Haute, Indiana, based on his block-buster book War Against the Weak. He will offer the results of his meticulous research on the corporate-funded pseudo-science known as eugenics that had its roots in America but saw its eventual full flowering in Nazi Germany’s inhuman medical experiments and death camps. The event is free and open to the public.

As the featured speaker at the Eugenics Exhibit Premiere at the CANDLES museum in Terre Haute, Black’s talk “Eugenics--from Indiana to Auschwitz” will be followed by a book signing. A historic question and answer session with Nazi medical experiments survivor Eva Kor will follow. Kor is a frequent speaker on inhuman Nazi medical experimentation and is herself a survivor of the infamous experiments conducted on twin children by deathcamp doctor Josef Mengele. An advocate of justice and forgiveness, Kor is the founder of the CANDLES museum. 

Black is the author of the award-winning bestseller War Against the Weak--Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, recounts corporate funded and government-sponsored sterilization of so-called inferior races and classes of people. Black has presented before North Carolina state legislators as the state's legislature deliberates over compensation for victims of state-sponsored sterilization. Black said that “Compensation to the victims of America’s eugenic madness would be just a downpayment on justice. The sterilization of American children and adults considered ‘unfit’ by pseudo-science funded by The Carnegie Institution and others found its echo in macabre Nazi clinical procedures and death camps.” In North Carolina, Black was an invited scholar-in-residence where he gave lectures and provided evidence of corporate and government complicity in extermination schemes in the U.S. Read more ..

Book Essay

The Propagation of the Myth of Easter Island's Eco-cide

September 15th 2011

Book Covers - God Species

Few historical tales of ecological collapse have achieved the cultural resonance of that of Easter Island. In the conventional account, best popularised by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book Collapse, the islanders brought doom upon themselves by over-exploiting their limited environment, thereby providing a compelling analogy for modern times. Yet recent archaeological work suggests that the eco-collapse hypothesis is almost certainly wrong – and that the truth is far more shocking.

Diamond’s thesis is that the island’s original lush tree-cover was destroyed by the Polynesian colonists, whose cult of making massive statues (for which the island is now famous) required prodigious amounts of wood to transport these huge rock idols. He suggests that as the ecological crisis brought on by deforestation worsened, the islanders tried to appease their apparently angry gods by making and transporting yet more statues, creating a vicious circle of human stupidity.

Lest we fail to spot the parallel, he writes: “I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Read more ..

American Culture

Goodbye, Borders Books, and Thanks a Million

September 14th 2011

Book Topics - Borders Books

It's tough for any free-lance writer to make a living—but it was a lot easier with a friendly bookstore on your side, helping you from start to finish.

It wasn't that long ago that if you wanted to buy a book, there was no Kindle or Nook or amazon.com—or internet, for that matter. There weren't even big book chains. You had to go to one of those narrow stores in mini-malls that sold an equally narrow selection of paperback best-sellers and thrillers and romance novels.

But then Tom and Louis Borders—U-Michigan graduate students—changed all that. (Beware the grad student who puts aside his thesis to go into business.) After a few years, they decided to go big, opening a two-story shop on State Street, where they created an inventory system that ensured the books people were actually buying would get replaced within days—or hours. Read more ..

Book Reviews

County: Life, Death and Public Hospitals done the Chicago Way

September 13th 2011

Book Covers - County

County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital. David A. Ansell, MD. Academy Chicago Publishers. 2011. 256 pages.

Not long ago I was hospitalized for ten days. Insurance paid for most of my expenses. The doctors, nurses and facilities were outstanding as was my post-hospitalization follow-ups by visiting RNs.

Now compare my experience with Dr. David Ansell’s County, about the seventeen years he worked at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, a safety net hospital dubbed “County” by the poor and largely uninsured people of color it served. It had once been praised for establishing the nation’s first blood bank and trauma unit. By 1995, however, when Ansell left, it had become a dumping ground for the poorest of the poor, as he describes it in his gripping, angry and ultimately very sad chronicle.

In 1978 Ansell and a small group of five Syracuse University medical school graduates, all deeply influenced by the activism and accomplishments of the civil rights and anti-war movements, chose to launch their internships at Cook County Hospital. “We came to County Hospital eyes wide open because of its troubles, not in spite of them,” writes Ansell. “We came to County because we believed that health care was a right, not a privilege.” But it was, the five interns quickly learned, no better than “third-world patient care.” In his introduction, the respected Dr. Quentin Young, County’s Chairman of Internal Medicine, says the hospital was “monstrous.”

Third World? Monstrous? Ansell describes what he found during his years at County: corruption, substandard management, political patronage, doctors learning on the job, rats, roaches and always, jammed waiting rooms (“The County Hospital lobby could have been mistaken for a Calcutta bus station, not a place of healing.”) He describes one night in the ER when “the knife and gunshot wounds had priority. They screamed in pain. Blood and chaos. The drunks and addicts on gurneys as well.” It was Dante’s Inferno, American style. Read more ..

Author Tours

Acclaimed Author Edwin Black to Lecture in Washington D.C. on the Petropolitics of the Mideast

September 12th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Acclaimed author and investigative journalist Edwin Black will speak at a September 15 event in Washington D.C. on the role of petroleum in U.S. foreign policy towards the Mideast and the roots of decades-long struggle over power and energy supplies. Black’s latest book is British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement--The West's Secret Pact to Get Mideast Oil, which will provide a basis for his presentation. Black is said to be the man who coined the term"petropolitics." Sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Black’s at the Carleton Ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel in Washington D.C.

British Petroleum and the Redline Agreement has brought him accolades from analysts who watch the Mideast and the current devolution of decades-old dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the possible rise of Islamist regimes.

In Redline, Black again brings to the table his considerable gifts for research and the excavation of a complex nexus of relationships that sustains America’s and the world’s petroleum addiction. British Petroleum has long been nurtured by the wars in what is now Iraq. The 2010 oil platform disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brought to light for Americans its tangled web of deceit. The book now adds the back story of shady diplomacy, petropoliticized wars, and realpolitik that made British Petroleum and created the modern Middle East.

At JINSA, Black will also draw upon his collection of books relating to petroleum. These include Internal Combustion, The Plan, and Banking on Baghdad. His work provides historical context to the troubles of the so-called Arab Spring that have led to the Fall for Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Read more ..

Film Review

Hollywood Comes to India, Bollywood Looks Abroad

September 12th 2011

Film - Frieda Pinto
Frieda Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire

After 25 years since its last visit, the James Bond movie franchise is returning to India. After authorities granted on-location shooting permits in New Delhi, Mumbai and Goa, India media reported the film may include a sequence in crowded markets and on a train. Even the star of the still-unnamed 23rd film in the series about a dapper British super spy, Daniel Craig, is expected to sign on as the official Ambassador of Indian Railways and appear in a TV commercial.

But the new Bond film isn't the only movie planning to use India as a location.

Indian authorities gave permission to more than 20 foreign filmmakers to shoot in India last year. Some of the high-profile projects include Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, an adaptation of a novel. Eat, Pray and Love, starring Julia Roberts, was also partly filmed in India. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Privilege: The Making of the Harvard Indifference

September 11th 2011

Book Topics - Privilege

Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School. Shamus Rahman Khan. Princeton University Press. 2011. 248 pages.

Nearly 30 years ago, when Sara Lawrence Lightfoot wrote The Good High School (1984), she subtitled her book “Portraits of Character and Culture.” One of the six schools she portrayed was St. Paul’s, the exclusive boarding school—one of the so-called “St. Grottlesex” group—located in Concord, New Hampshire. In a chapter called “Certainty, Privilege, and the Imprint of History,” she limned students, faculty, and administration, and concluded that the school was characterized by an “Eriksonian emphasis” on “trust, industry, and economy.”

Shamus Rahman Khan, a member of St. Paul’s Class of 1994, remembers the school of his student days, just a few years after Lightfoot’s visit, much less positively. The son of a well-to-do Pakistani father and Irish mother, he was “not particularly happy” there—primarily, he says, because of his “increasing awareness of inequality.” Now a sociologist at Columbia University, he recently returned to St. Paul’s for a year of teaching and ethnographic research, living the life of a typical boarding school “triple threat”: teaching classes, coaching (squash and tennis), and advising 24/7. He got to know students well. And he was startled to find “a very different place” from the one he had left little more than a decade before. “My ethnographic examination of St. Paul’s School surprised me,” he says. “Instead of the arrogance of entitlement, I discovered at St. Paul’s an ease of privilege.”

“Ease”—a personal style, a way of behaving, a persona that one adopts and that becomes part of oneself—allows students to be at home in the multicultural world they are inheriting (sometimes, of course, in more ways than one). Building on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, Khan shows how students at St. Paul’s learn literally to embody “ease.” Where the old elite valued exclusion, the new one judges its potential members on how comfortable they are with inclusiveness and how good they are at acting as if the hierarchy they must navigate isn’t there. Theoretically, at least, St. Paul’s is a meritocratic democracy: success comes to anyone who can be comfortable in its diverse, intense, relationship-driven world. “What St. Paul’s is teaching,” he summarizes, “is a style of learning that quickly becomes a style of living—with an emphasis on ways of relating and making connections rather than with a deep engagement with ideas and texts.” Read more ..

Nigeria on Edge

Nigeria’s Film Industry Reflects the Messy Process of Nation Building

September 9th 2011

Nigeria - Nollywood Film Crew

This is our first visit to Nigeria and we’re filming our new fall TV season. The best briefing material or conversation with individuals can in no way prepare you for the massive number of people and the incredible intellectual and human capital that exist in this land of plenty. Given that our media business syndicates programming around the globe we are most impressed with the Nigerian film and entertainment industry.

The opening scenes in the Hollywood epic “There Will Be Blood” feature a grainy video shot in soundless shadow. Without a doubt it is one of the most beautiful big screen scenes in modern memory. But in fact the scene itself, and the ultimately the movie as whole, takes the viewer back to a rougher period in early American history—before the country was connected by railroad, telegraph, and highway. Similarly, Nigeria’s nascent movies industry operates in a land without robust national infrastructure. The fact that it the industry exists at all, without cinemas, studios, cable television, or even a national electric grid speaks to its amazing resiliency. Read more ..

The Edge of Genocide

North Carolina's Reparations for Eugenic Genocide is a Mere Down Payment on Justice

September 7th 2011

Book Covers - War Against the Weak

Twenty-seven American states joined a decades-long pseudo-scientific crusade to create a white, blond, blue-eyed, biologically superior "master race". Their misguided utopian quest was called eugenics. But only one state, North Carolina, is now readying a massive plan of financial reparations to its surviving victims. Just how much North Carolina should pay is now the subject of a historically wrenching debate.

Eugenics was a fraudulent social theory that a better society could be created by eliminating "undesirable" human blood lines and promoting the desirable types. Race science sprang to life in the socioeconomically convulsive first decade of the 20th century, during which Asians, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks and other ethnic groups and racial mixtures flowed into US cities, creating overcrowding and class conflict.

The intellectual, academic, scientific and financial elite believed better men and women could be cultivated using the same techniques a farmer would employ to create a better herd of cattle or field of wheat – eliminate the bad stock and proliferate the good. They planned to eliminate all those who did not resemble themselves, 10% at a time – that is, as many as 14 million people, at a slice. Their eventual goal was to eliminate as much as 90% of the population from the reproductive future of the United States.

The preferred method was gas chambers and other forms of euthanasia. The first public euthanasia laws were introduced into the Ohio legislature in 1908. That measure was unsuccessful, as were other death panel bills. The next best thing was forced surgical sterilisation under specific state authority that was validated as the law of the land in the US supreme court by one of America's most stellar jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1927, Holmes ruled on an obviously collusive lawsuit seeking to justify the forced sterilisation of three generations of Carrie Buck's family. Holmes infamously noted:

"It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Read more ..

The Edge of Film

The Place for Super 8 Film in the History of Filmmaking

September 5th 2011

Film - Super 8 film

J.J. Abrams' science-fiction movie "Super 8" is a big, boisterous homage to the now somewhat distant technological and cultural phenomenon of 8mm film. Before there was cellphone video, there were camcorders, and before camcorders there were readily affordable 8mm cameras that exposed 8mm and Super 8 film stock.

The 8mm gauge—"regular 8"—went on the market in 1932 and was one of Eastman Kodak's most ingenious inventions. During the Depression, when the country's citizens were patronizing movie houses as never before, the inexpensive 8mm system arrived to give amateurs their own film-making tool.

The 8mm system was cheap and easy to use thanks to a clever innovation. An 8mm film spool actually held a 25-foot length of 16mm film (at first only black-and-white, but later you could obtain color film). When the spool was inserted in the camera, one half of the 16mm film was exposed during shooting, after which the spool would be flipped for exposing the other side. Developing processors would split the film down the middle, making a 50-foot, 8mm creation with a 3-minute 20-second running time. Read more ..

Film Reviews

One Day: A Movie that Shows a Director's Promise

August 28th 2011

Film - One Day

One Day. Director: Lone Scherfig; Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Sébastien Dupuis. Length: 90 mins.

How hard could it be for a former scholar of Winchester College to remember the legend associated with the patron saint of Winchester cathedral?

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair,
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

Dexter (Jim Sturgess), the scholar aforementioned, is the principal male character in One Day and he has a vague recollection that there is such a legend. Also that it is somehow associated with the weather. More than that, however, he cannot say when he meets Emma (Anne Hathaway) on St. Swithun’s day (July 15th), 1988, after a night of revelry ensuing upon their graduation from Edinburgh University.

I’m only guessing here, mind you, but I think that David Nicholls, adapting his own best-selling novel for the screen, and director Lone Scherfig (An Education, Italian for Beginners) were thinking that Dexter would be more charming for forgetting (he is also drunk) than he would be for remembering. Bad call. At any rate, I don’t find him so, nor do I find him otherwise very prepossessing. In fact, he is little better than a lout, and by the time I saw him (inevitably) educated out of his loutishness, it was too late for me, at any rate, to feel much sympathy for him. Read more ..

Film Review

Our Idiot Brother: Ambivalence about Hippy Siblings

August 27th 2011

Film - Our Idiot Brother

Our Idiot Brother: Director: Jesse Peretez. Starring: Evgenia Peretz, Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer. Length: 90 mins.

Having made his big-screen debut as a California high school version of Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley in Clueless (1995), Paul Rudd is beginning to look more and more like Hollywood’s ideal leading man of the new century. Mild-mannered, unthreatening and vaguely feminine in his sensitivity and ability to express feeling, he manages to make the post-"Seinfeld" man-boy ideal look almost plausible in movies like I Love You, Man (2009) and How Do You Know(2010).

I wonder, however, if his star turn as the aging hippie naif Ned in Our Idiot Brother isn’t rather a reductio ad absurdum of what is becoming the Paul Rudd type? The movie, directed by Jesse Peretz and co-written by his sister, Evgenia (the children of Martin Peretz of The New Republic) with her husband, David Schisgall, starts with the highish concept of Ned as such an innocent that, in the vignette we are shown above the opening credits, he sells some marijuana to a uniformed police officer (Bob Stephenson). The movie begins, then, with his release from the county lockup to find that his pre-jail girlfriend, Janet (Kathryn Hahn), has not only dumped him for Billy (T.J. Miller), who might be his twin, mentally at least, but also claimed as her own his beloved dog, Willy Nelson.

Janet, though ostensibly a hippie pacifist herself, clearly has a thing for compliant and submissive males like Ned, who has been educated to her requirements in the hard school of his own female-dominated family. Now jobless and homeless, he is forced to crash, first, with his alcoholic mother (Shirley Knight) and then with one or another of his three beautiful and accomplished sisters, Liz (Emily Mortimer), Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) and Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), all of whom regard this family black sheep as something of a project to try to set onto some path to responsible adulthood. Perhaps you will not be shocked to learn that, from the Hollywood point of view anyway, the sisters have more to learn from Ned than Ned has to learn from the sisters. Gosh! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Read more ..

War Against the Weak

Author Black Lectures at Virginia Tech on Eugenic Genocide

August 26th 2011

Book Covers - War Against the Weak

Award-winning author and investigative journalist Edwin Black will deliver a multimedia presentation entitled, "Eugenics-- From Virginia to Auschwitz" on August 28 at the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg VA. Virginians from across the state will be driving to the campus to hear Black speak. Among the groups will be groups of Native Americans victimized by state eugenics.

Black's many books have included IBM and the Holocaust, The Farhud, and War Against the Weak. The latter of these recounts the growth of the pseudo-science known as eugenics that was funded by corporate America and which sought to eliminate so-called ‘unfit’ people such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and the poor, through sterilization abetted by local and state governments. Black follows the connections between American eugenicists and their funders and supporters, such as Henry Ford and the Carnegie Institution, to Adolf Hitler and the logical terminus of their inhuman philosophy in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Author Black uses exhaustive research and dynamic literary style to bring alive the testimony of the victims of pseudo-science and intolerance in our own country and abroad. He will stop at Virginia Tech while travelling as a scholar-in-residence invited to North Carolina where, after speaking at several major universities, he will address the state legislature, which is currently considering legislation offering compensation to victims of forced sterilization. Click here to see lecture schedule.

In the early twentieth century and into the 1930s, over 60,000 people in the U.S. were forcibly sterilized in state institutions. The sterilizations were justifed because of the alleged criminality (generally poverty) of the victims, their race, intelligence, or perceived promiscuity, among other reasons. Virginia was the epicenter of the rash of sterilizations, having been the first place were eugenic genocide took place under official auspices. In next door North Carolina, over 7,600 people sterilizations took place that were assigned by a state eugenics board. Some victims were as young as 10 years old. This was done, said Black, to ostensibly improve the human race by eliminating undesirable humans. Read more ..

Film Reviews

Page One: NYT and its Self-Importance

August 25th 2011

Film - Page One movie

Page One: Inside the New York Times. Director: Andrew Rossi. Length: 88 minutes.

Watching Page One: Inside The New York Times by Andrew Rossi reminded me a bit of reading the Times itself: it's all a jumble of odd and unrelated stories held together and, indeed, utterly overshadowed by one thing and one thing only, namely, the paper's massive and unreflective self-importance. That's why when it brings before the camera one Michael Hirschorn, a man who wrote a piece for the Atlantic a couple of years ago suggesting that the Times might go out of business soon, it is only so that he and his article can be held up to ridicule from the Times-men who are treated so sympathetically by Mr. Rossi.

Can Mr. Hirschorn, they wonder, really be so preternaturally stupid as to imagine that the Times could ever go out of business? It's the Times, for God's sake!

A documentary whose main purpose is puffery is not likely to have much success with anything else it tries to do, and Mr. Rossi's veneration of his heroes at The New York Times leaves little room for anything else anyway. The heroes are, especially, Bill Keller, the paper's Executive Editor at the time the movie was made who has since stepped down in favor of Jill Abramson, Bruce Headlam, the media editor, and, above all, David Carr, media columnist. There's also a blogger named Brian Stelter whom Mr. Carr jokingly claims, is "a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy it" but who is clearly a Times-man through and through. Read more ..

The Edge of Genocide

Edwin Black in North Carolina Scholar-in-Residence lectures on Racist Eugenics and US Complicity in Nazism

August 24th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Renowned investigative journalist and author Edwin Black, as part of his intercontinental lecture tour, will update audiences in North Carolina on his latest books and research as a scholar-in-residence. As a featured speaker, Black will mainly discuss his research on eugenics, the corporate-funded pseudo-science Made in the USA that sought to identify and eliminate so-called inferior classes of people. He will also lecture on direct pivotal corporate collusion with the Nazis. Black is expected to speak specifically on the issues raised by his books War Against the Weak, Nazi Nexus, and The Farhud: The Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, and the perennial issues they raise for America today.

Edwin Black’s many books have exposed readers all over the world to his exacting research on subjects that have raised vigorous debate and controversy, including the involvement of U.S. corporations with the Nazi war machine and the Holocaust, the racist American eugenics and sterilization movement in the 20th century, and the far-reaching corruption and geopolitics that stem from America’s dependence on petroleum.

A key reason for Black's visit is to North Carolina is to address the question of state compensation for eugenic sterilization. The measure is now before the legislature. "North Carolina's war against its own citizens was nothing short of genocide," said Black. The state should compensate. But the guilt must be shared with the philanthropic organizations and academic groups that pushed the state to do the unthinkable and tried to rationalize it as sound science—when it was all a fraud."

Special sponsors and co-chair for the Edwin Black in North Carolina Scholar-in-Residence include Rep. Larry M. Womble (Winston-Salem 71st District), Rep. Earline W. Parmon (72st District), Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, Gary M. Green, and Keith Grandberry. See the tour here. Read more ..

Film Reviews

Tabloid: Sex and Celebrity All Tied-Up

August 20th 2011

Film - Tabloid

Tabloid. Director: Errol Morris. Starring: Kent Gavin, Joyce McKinney. Length: 87 minutes.

Those who are unschooled in the ways of our cultural élites may find it somewhat strange that Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, The Fog of War) has titled his new documentary, Tabloid. I hope you will not think it presumptuous of me if I undertake to explain what I take to be his thinking in doing so.

The movie tells the story of one Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen from North Carolina who was also blessed with spirit and determination but, alas, not very good judgment. She briefly became a tabloid sensation in Britain back in the 1970s - I was living there at the time and remember it well - on account of having (allegedly) kidnaped her Mormon lover, Kirk Anderson, who had left her back in the US. when he went to do his missionary service in the UK. According to the tabloids once she had abducted Kirk with the help of one or more hired goons, she whisked him off to an isolated cottage in Devon where she kept him as a "sex slave" who was "spread-eagled" and "chained" to the bed until he somehow managed to escape and alert the authorities.

It was, as one of Mr. Morris's interviewees put it, "the perfect tabloid story," and this is borne out by the probability that "sex slave" and "spread-eagled" and "chained" were all most likely journalistic inventions. Likewise the pleasingly alliterative "Manacled Mormon," as Mr. Anderson was known to the British papers during his brief period of notoriety. Miss McKinney, not surprisingly, says to Mr. Morris's camera that the whole thing was pretty much a tabloid invention and that it is not possible for a woman to rape a man. Employing a now-venerable witticism, she says that it would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter. According to Mr. Morris's lengthy interviews with her and others, there seems to be some doubt as to whether there was even any penetrative coitus between them. Read more ..

Edge on Film

Early Hitchcock Film Rediscovered in New Zealand

August 16th 2011

Film - Hitchcock White Shadow

Researchers in New Zealand made an amazing find recently when they discovered the 1924 British silent film The White Shadow.

The film is significant because it was one of the first movies made by famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who was its assistant director, writer, editor and production designer.

The White Shadow was made in Britain, where Hitchcock was born and began his career, but was distributed by an American company.

“We were sort of the end of the line, I think, from the U.S. They obviously traveled to Australia and across to New Zealand, and then when it got to the last screenings in New Zealand here, these productions were just destroyed,” said Brian Scadden, the head of the laboratory at Park Road Post Production in Wellington, where the film will be preserved. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: And an End to Roman Exceptionalism

August 16th 2011

Book Covers - Carthage must be destroyed

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. Richard Miles. Viking. 2011. 544 pages.

England and France. Greece and Persia. Hapsburgs and Ottomans. Imperial rivalry is as old as history itself, but some rivalries can truly be said to have changed the world. The great contest between the Mediterranean city-states of Rome and Carthage falls into that category. At the end of three Punic Wars stretching over a century (264-146 BC), Carthage was literally wiped off the face of the earth. But in this fascinating new history, University of Sydney historian Richard Miles reconstructs a civilization whose memory continues to stir imaginations -- particularly among those who suspect that their own is not immortal.

History, as we all know, is written by the victors (or the ancient Greeks). As Miles explains, most of what we know about Carthage is second-hand, and most of that is anti-Carthaginian. But he is deft in deconstructing such sources. As he also makes clear, he doesn't always have to: the truth is that the Romans needed the Carthaginians, at no time more than after they had been vanquished. There could be no myth of Roman power without a legendary adversary on which to justify it. If you're careful, patient, and epistemologically humble, the truth has a way of surfacing, like pottery fragments from an archeological site.

For the lay reader, one of the more surprising aspects of Carthaginian civilization is its syncretic character, deeply rooted in the Levant. The North African city was founded by Phoenician traders who had deeply imbibed Greek as well as Persian culture. A maritime people whose trade stretched from modern day Lebanon to Spain, its peninsular position right smack in the middle was just about ideal for dominating the Mediterranean oval. For centuries, the island of Sicily was a key staging base for such operations. Read more ..

Book Reviews

American Uprising: Untold Story of Slavery that Misses the Mark

August 15th 2011

Book Covers - American uprising

American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. Daniel Rasmussen. HarperCollins. 2011. 288 pages.

We are now in the middle of the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary commemoration of the American Civil War, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and the 2012 Tea Party/presidential election campaign, and everything about the American past is politicized. In an earlier article posted on the History News Network, I discussed how presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) was creating her own version of the history of the nation’s founders and of nineteenth century abolitionists to support her belief in the specialness of the United States as a place where the inherent faith of the founders in liberty allowed the nation to eliminate the stain of slavery. In the article, I pointed out that in a sense Bachmann was half right. While Washington and Jefferson supported the enslavement of Africans in the United States, many of the nation’s founders from New York State were opponents of slavery and did work to bring it to an end.

Bachmann’s views about slavery are similar top those championed by Lewis E. Lehrman, a conservative Republican, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and board member at the New York Historical Society. According to his website, Lehrman has also been a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Heritage Foundation. In a New York Times interview, Lehrman argued that the institution of slavery was “supported throughout the world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it.” Lehrman deplored the view expressed by some that “American history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of slavery.” According to Lehrman, “one of the triumphs of America was to have dealt directly with that issue in the agonies of a civil war.” Read more ..

Film Review

Captain America: The First Avenger Takes out Hollywood's Trash

August 15th 2011

Film - Captain America First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. Length: 124 minutes.

Infamous New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The ability to appreciate "great trash" is an occupational hazard for anyone interested in film these days. Captain America: The First Avenger is proof, if any were needed, that Hollywood is content to carry on taking out the trash.

Chris Evans camps it up appropriately and delightfully to play Steve Rogers, a skinny calorie dodger with ambitions above and beyond his physical stature. Evan's and his co-stars, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving aren't shy about hamming it up for a superhero movie which feels like a parody of the genre. Could director Joe Johnston finally have cracked the unsolvable conundrum of the lacklustre, underwhelming comic book adaptation with a bit of light-hearted entertainment?

A look at the top ten grossing films of the last ten years will you that what modern audiences want, for the most part, is spectacle and not art. What Captain America has going for it is that it does have pretensions beyond being just that, a spectacle. It has plenty of fun and engaging characters, colourful action sequences and some impressive if imperfect visual effects. The story will hold your attention enough so that when 1940s “Cap” awakes from a 70-year deep freeze nap in the Arctic circle and is confronted with contemporary New York City at the end of the film, you'll actually care what happens next. Read more ..

Book Review

J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami and his Misleading Book about Israel

August 11th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Isi Leibler headshot

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, has written a highly misleading book titled "A New Voice for Israel" portraying himself as a passionate supporter of Israel and a dedicated Zionist and extolling the virtues of his purportedly "pro Israel pro-peace" organization

The opening section i.s sourced from the autobiography of his father Yitzhak Ben-Ami, whose antecedents settled in Palestine.

Yitzchak became a devoted follower of Zev Jabotinsky and was sent to the United States on behalf of the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi, initially to recruit volunteers for a Jewish army and then to support the campaign by the Peter Bergson [Hillel Kook] group to alert Americans to the plight of the European Jewry.

Together with Ben Hecht, Edward G Robinson and others, he confronted Rabbi Stephen Wise and the Jewish establishment who, under the spell of President Franklin Roosevelt, remained silent in face of the Administration's unwillingness to provide haven for European Jews being murdered by the Nazis.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, has written a highly misleading book titled "A New Voice for Israel" portraying himself as a passionate supporter of Israel and a dedicated Zionist and extolling the virtues of his purportedly "pro Israel pro-peace" organization

The opening section is sourced from the autobiography of his father Yitzhak Ben-Ami, whose antecedents settled in Palestine. Read more ..

Book Reviews

Starring New York: the Glamming of Grime in the Movies of the '70s

August 4th 2011

Book Covers - Starring New York

Starring New York: Filming the Grime and Glamour of the Long 1970s. Stanley Corkin. Oxford University Press. 2011. 272 pages.

One afternoon in the late seventies I stumbled on a film crew shooting on location in Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. Extras had been set up doing the sorts of things someone imagined went on in the park on a daily basis – juggling, playing music, pushing infants in strollers. I thought nothing of it until a year later when the very same scene appeared before me on a silver screen -- a sanitized New York that offered the two main characters entertainment and diversion as they strolled about the park instead of the drug dealers and panhandlers that had been harassing me there since I was a teenager. The scenarist for that film, An Unmarried Woman (Paul Mazursky, 1978), permitted none of the hazards or traumas of urban life in the 1970s to sully the idealization of New York as a place where romance was possible.

Such sterilized scenes, according to Stanley Corkin, typified a certain genre of Hollywood film set in New York during the 1970s, films that reflected and reflected upon that city’s economic, demographic and cultural transformation from a declining industrial metropolis to what Saskia Sassen and others have called a “global city.” Corkin’s ambitious study uses the vast literature of recent urban sociology and geography (by Sassen, David Harvey, Neil Smith and others) to interpret nearly two dozen films produced between 1969 and 1981 by a new generation of Hollywood film makers, who broke free of the restrictive studio-based production system to begin a renaissance in independent American film. Read more ..

Book Event

The Launch of Reawakening by Armstrong Williams

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - reawakening virtues - williams

The evening of July 23, dozens of Washington’s journalism elites got out of the triple-digit heat for a few hours and gathered in Northwest D.C. to celebrate the release of Armstrong Williams’s newest offering, Reawakening Virtues. The gathering was hosted by the families of Morton Bender, the highly successful Washington real estate developer, and Dr. Benjamin Carson, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and legendary brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Mr. Williams, author also of Letters to a Young Victim and Beyond Blame, signed books and gave a brief lecture to those gathered (including some C-SPAN cameras) about his thesis: that the only permanent solutions to our country’s problems is a refocusing on virtue, on personal excellence; and that our collective well-being depends upon our individual well-being. He exhorted the crowd to try to be more rather than have more.

He went on to explain how the darkest moment of his career—the No Child Left Behind Scandal—had forced him to reexamine his life and ultimately made him a better man. And, he said, being a better man does not mean sacrificing success: “I have been blessed tenfold,” he said, since what he referred to as his involuntary Sabbath took him out of the spotlight. After this speech, Williams worked the crowd with the wit and charm that, for decades, have come to characterize his radio show and television appearances.

Besides Williams, there were other leaders of the media elite, including Fox News’s Juan Williams, the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page, and award-winner bestselling author Edwin Black. The turnout was a testament to the enduring literary power of Washington, as well as to the resurgence of Armstrong Williams as an author and media figure. As Williams himself put it, “there’s a lot of good people here.” Read more ..

Book Reviews

Warfare State Connects World War II and the Rise of Big Brother Government

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - Warfare

Warfare State: World War II and the Age of Big Government. James T. Sparrow. Oxford, 2011. 344 pages.

In the lifetime of most contemporary Americans -- in the lifetimes of most Americans, period -- the prevailing opinion has been that when it comes to federal government intervention in the lives of ordinary citizens, less is more. Those of us with a even a passing familiarity with U.S. history are aware that this has not always been so, and think of the middle third of the twentieth century in particular as a time when Big Government did not simply prevail, but was the prevailing common sense. And that this common sense took root during Franklin Delano's Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s.

In this important new book, however, University of Chicago professor James T. Sparrow corrects that perception in a significant way. It was not FDR's New Deal that really transformed Americans' relationship with their government, he says. It was FDR's Second World War. In the words of the title, what we think of as the welfare state was really a warfare state. Sparrow is not the first person to make such a case; scholars like Michael S. Sherry (In the Shadow of War, 1995) and Robert Westbrook, Why We Fought, 2004), have explored similar terrain. But Sparrow traverses it with a touch that is at once deft, informed, and imaginative. Rarely is so comprehensive an argument delivered in so concise a manner (about 260 pages). Read more ..

Book Reviews

Independence Chronicles The Struggle to Set America Free, But not from Slavery

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - Independence

Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free. John Ferling. Bloomsbury. 2011. 448 pages.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the Founding Fathers these days. After all, it is the Civil War’s moment. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that ghastly war, and for the next five years it will get the lion’s share of attention. The challenge facing any historian writing a popular history of the Founders today, then, is to show that what they fought for—freedom, and independence—were not simple canards; that when the Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they actually meant it.

That is the challenge facing John Ferling, a respected historian of the American Revolution, in his new book, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free. To tell his story, he seizes on an underappreciated but profoundly significant moment in the eight-year War of Independence—the decision to not merely compel the British to reverse a series of onerous acts, but to break away from the empire entirely, and declare themselves a free and independent nation.

There was no precedent in history for such a move, and the Founders knew they were taking a great risk. By highlighting many of their early objections to independence Ferling captures just how parlous it was. The colonies had no real central government, and the body that would vote for independence, the Continental Congress, was itself a hastily formed government with no formal powers. The colonies had no standing army, and in case war broke out, they would have no way to fund it. Even if they found a way—but lost a war—the British probably would have been even more ruthless in their rule. Read more ..

Book Reviews

The Cambridge Companion to America's Great Past Time

August 1st 2011

Book Covers - Cambridge Companion Baseball

The Cambridge Companion to Baseball. Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge, eds., Cambridge University Press. 2011. 280 pages.

Both the casual fan and baseball scholar should find The Cambridge Companion to Baseball a delightful read and companion for their enjoyment of a popular sport whose claim to be the national pastime is, nevertheless, somewhat dubious for this modern age. Editors Leonard Cassuto and Stephen Partridge have compiled fifteen essays, along with interchapters focusing upon important baseball personalities, prepared primarily by academics. The essays are well written and cover a wide range of issues from literature, film, and material culture to history, economics, race relations, and international development of the game which is also a business. The editors assert, “The story of baseball is, in an important way, the story of the interaction between the myth of the national pastime and the reality of the baseball business. The tension between these two is what drives this book”.

The essays need not be read in any particular order, and, indeed, part of the fun with a companion volume is selecting what catches one’s eye on a particular day or mood. This review, however, will discuss the pieces in their order of appearance within the book. The Cambridge Companion to Baseball provides readers with suggestions for further reading and a chronology of the sport’s evolution in the United States from the 1945 formation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in New York to the steroids crisis of 2009-2010. The Companion presents a view of the unique role which baseball has played in America’s past while taking some note of the challenges facing the sport in the twenty-first century. Read more ..

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