Monday, April 30, 2007

Once upon a time

It was incumbant upn Princes to lead their soldiers into battle. This was what William the Conquorer did, and Richard the Lionheart, and Frederick II, and Ceasare Borgia. So the fact that Prince harry, second in line for the throne, is going to war in Iraq shouldn't be causing all the fuss in the tabloids that it is, but the brittish tabloids are going nuts with the story, and expecially with rumors that he *won't* be deployed becuase he's received specific threats from insurgents--rumors which ahve been denied by the brittish army.

But what does this say about the war itself? One of the complaints about this war, as with Viet Nam, is that the children of the rich and poweful, and especially of those who run the government, are not serving--that the senate and the president are sending other people's children in harm's way while their children are safe. There are, of course, exceptions to this. John McCain's son, for instance, has a son at the Naval Accademy and another in the Marine Corps. That doesn't get as much news coverage as it should, expecially considering his expressed position on the campaign trail that we should send more troops to Iraq. But where are the Bush twins in all this? They are sitting this one out, thank you very much.

No such hypocracy in Brittain. The prince is going to fight.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Getting Medieval

Chek out this blog from my friend Steve Muhlburger and the Slate article it references. I howled when I read it. A Marcellus Walace would say "it's time to get medieval on they ass."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

More insanity

So an adjunct professor at Emanuel College in Boston has been fired for leading a discussion about the Virginia Tech massacre, during which he pointed his finger at a student and said "pow." It was something like "so he walked in and did it, pow." (the professor has posted a video on You Tube but I'm not going to watch it. It's 18 minutes long). Part of his point was that if a student in the class had been armed fewer students might have been killed. Apparently, he had a student point back at him and say "pow" too. For this he was fired. School administrators, who had asked the faculty engage their students in discussions about the shootings, declared his actions to be inappropriate.

Of course this is bullshit and of course it is to be expected in today's hyper-sensitive society. The first thing that comes to mind is that with the discussions we've been having in my classes about the shootings, *I* certainly would have been fired by these PC fascists. But my bigger question is this: was he fired because he pointed at a student, or was he fired because he suggested that maybe the students should have been armed? In Boston, which started an entire revolution over the right to keep and bear arms (don't think so? Look up Lexington and Concord) the idea that guns might be a good thing is seen as hate speech.

I hope he sues their asses off. This is why tenure is still important.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It just gets weirder

If you haven't seen it already, the VA Tech shooter mailed a video taped manifesto and several photos to NBC in the middle of his shooting spree. It was mailed from a Blacksburg post office at 9:01, after he killed two people at a dorm but before he opened fire in an engineering hall across campus. He actually left campus, mailed his package to NBC, and came back to kill thirty people. In the video he mumbles, stare blankly, and makes paranoid rants about rich kids. This guy is straight out of the movies, which leads me to wonder: is this really what he was like or was he just playing a Psycho for the camera? Because it's hard to believe all those mumbling, ranting TV psychos are realistic, but this whack job fits right in.

And so the postmodern weirdness of this massacre continues. The digital age's first true psychopath seems to have covered all the angles and made a splash in both traditional and new media. He's all over the internet and he guaranteed himself a spot on TV to get his message out. He made sure a network received his ravings before he finished the job. The most frightening thing about this to me is how well planned it was and how cool and calculated he seemed to have reacted throughout. And he seems to have accomplished his goal. No one was going to ignore him now. Like Cartman says on South Park, your nobody if you're not on television.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Postmodern Shooting Spree

Wow. All I can say is wow.

I'm not awe-struck by what happened in Blacksburg yesterday. Saddened, yes, but not awestruck. What strikes me is how this incident, more than any I have seen to date, has truly become the tabloid murder of the post-modern age. The instant access not only to information but to the ability to publish information has made this a case study in the citizen journalism culture. Yes, it's been happening for a couple years now with regards to blogs like this one and You Tube, but with the VA-Tech murders the new journalism game is officially on. Likely it's because this happened on a college campus, and college students are first-adapters. For whatever reason this is an internet murder.

Almost immediately after the shootings happened videos of the shootings started showing up on You-Tube. Some of them were clips taken from broadcast TV but others were taken by students using cell-phone video cameras. After the shooter was identified as VA-Tech senior Cho Seung Hui, a Creative Writing major at the university, interviews started appearing with teachers who said they had found his writing disturbing and referred him to the university counseling service. But it gets better. Suddenly the things this he wrote were being parsed for "red flags." This is going to turn into a great public experiment in forensic psychology, wherein everybody with a keyboard and the will is going to quote Freud and Jung and tell us how troubled this guy was. And it's already started. The university refused to release his writings but in the digital age nothing stays hidden for long. The English department uses Blackboard, the classroom software. Students get to upload their papers so that everybody in the class can read and comment on them. Sure enough, an AOL employee who was a classmate of Cho's last year in playwriting (and who claimed instantly to have suspected Cho when he heard about the shootings) posted two of the shooter's plays on his blog and wrote about what Cho had been like in class (apparently, he had acted just like a guy about to go postal). They're right here:

Naturally, they've already spawned 2,094 comments (mine was number 2,093). Most are exclamations of exasperation, things like "How could anybody not see that this guy was a psycho. Our system totally broke down here," as though we have a system to decide from a person's writings that they're going to kill someone. Maybe the FBI does, I don't know, but I'm sure VA-Tech doesn't. Others wrote inane things like "I want to kill people too." Even more pathetic were the people who wrote in "This stuff was written by a college student? It looks like it was written by a 9th grader." As though grammar were the point. By Friday there will be 10,000 comments--everyone is instantly a forensic psychologist, an English teacher and a Drama Critic all rolled into one.

Murder in the internet age. It's amazing.

It would be worthwhile pointing out that if you used these theories we would definitely have to lock up Matt Stone and Trey Parker and probably Shakespeare.

Of course I'm going to play the game too. I find the fact that we have this maniac's plays too much to resist. It's my job to criticize drama, after all. I got the letters after my name to prove it.

Me, I found the plays to be full of anger but not actually very violent. Although there is a murder at the end of the first play, they are both more scatological than violent. In the first one a teenager verbally abuses his step-father until the step father finally kills him. In the second play a group of teenagers is harassed and then cheated out of a million dollars by their hated math teacher. The language is indeed juvenile at first glance, but it is not so simple when you read it in the context of theatre history or pop culture. At second reading it sounds a lot like the dialogue from South Park. Read it again and it reads like Theatre of the Absurd. I'm serious. There are definitely echoes of Albee's American Dream in the first play, and even of Jarry's Ubu Roi, with its profanity, its imbecilic endearments, and its obsession with the word "shit." If this had been written by one of my students I would have been concerned about the student, but I also would have thought there might be some real talent underneath all that anger.

And now we get to hear everybody else's opinion. And likely a dissertation on the writings of mass murderers. The scripts will get made into videos and *they* will show up on You Tube. People will decry the crass insensitivity of the filmmakers and how we are all a society of vampires. Then well move on to the next big story. Mark my words.

One more thing: when I was in 7th Grade Robert Schrader and I produced a radio play in which *our* math teacher Mr. Butler was the villain and the personification of all evil. So far I haven't killed anybody. Of course, I could still snap. My kindergarten teachers at Waldorf told my mother that I was psychotic because I kept ringing the ships bell that was in the middle of the school yard (I mean come on! What's a five year old who wants to be a pirate when he grows up supposed to do?)


Spencer Tracy, the pillar or liberalism

Speaking of courtroom drama, last week I watched two of Spencer Tracy’s best films, two of the best films ever made (I suppose those two would be synonymous), Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg. I’d never seen the latter but the former is one of my favorites. My God! Did anybody ever play a better combination of grandfatherly curmudgeon and righteousness than Tracy? What performances! And what casts! Inherit the Wind had Frederick March, Florence Eldridge, Claude Aikins, Dick York, Harry Morgan, Noah Beery, Norman Fell and the best dramatic performance Gene Kelley ever gave. Judgment at Nuremberg had Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Maximilian Schell, Werner Klemperer, and a very very young William Shatner. They are extremely similar movies, both directed by Stanley Kramer one right after the other in 1960 and 61. They should be taken as a matched set. I’m convinced of it. And boy! Are they amazing!

It occurred to me that it would be hard to make Inherit the Wind these days, with the conservativs as vocal and organized as they are. It would have been impossible right after the 2004 elections, when they honestly believed they had a mandate to change the world. I know there was a TV version in 1999, and that it’s on Broadway right now, but a movie is something different. It’s not just the evolution angle, or that they literally do put the bible on trial in the climactic scene. It’s that the whole film is so unabashedly liberal. Remember how I said it’s not hard to make a courtroom drama that’s liberal? This is a good example (as is every episode of Boston Legal). It all depends on who the villain is and who the hero. One of the advantages of courtroom drama is that it allows for a lot of speech making, and Spencer Tracy as the hero of liberalism gets to make long, eloquent pleas for liberal education throughout the film.

Judgment at Nuremberg is just as liberal in that it attacks the types of conservative group-think that led to the rise of fascism (yes, there is liberal group-think that, in Russia, gave rise to communism, but that’s a different movie). There is a lot of talk of doing things out of fear, out of necessity, for the good of the state. Since it is judges and lawyers on trial they don’t utter the phrase “I was only following orders.” The phrase they utter is more insidious: “I was only following the law.” This is a common theme among conservatives—the idea that you follow a law because it is the law and in a democratic society it is your duty to obey the law--laws like the Patriot Act, for instance. Another theme is that it’s ok to bend justice a bit for the good of the state. It’s ok to torture, for instance, if it’s within the law and it keeps the peace, or in the case of Abu Grhaib gets us the information we want. Once again Tracy gets to make marvelous speeches about right and wrong and the dignity of man, and I doubt anybody does it better than he did.

Both of these bookend movies were made in the wake of McCarthyism, that conservative feeding frenzy in which the security of the state was stressed over the rights of its citizens, and the power of the state was used indiscriminately to destroy both the guilty and the innocent. Like a third great drama to come out of this era, The Crucible, these two films are full of outrage toward conservative political values, and they would make a powerful, frightening, and ultimately uplifting double feature.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Shock Radio

Somebody (probably my mom, since only two conservatives read this blog and the other one is busy) wrote that Media Watch is using the Imus fiasco as a platform to go after Hannity and Limbaugh. I hate to admit it, but ny first thought on that is "we can only hope." Mom says it is the thought police going after conservatives. If ever there was a thought police in this country, it's conservative Christians. Sorry mom, but that is the truth.

So: we know that people like Hanity and Limbaugh have a corosive effect on discourse in this society. We know that their speech is full of hate and bile, that they support a society of oppression and degredation, and that they contribute to the disenfranchisement of and sometimes violence agaisnt blacks, gays, and women. Not only that, but they're both idiots. America will be a helathier place without them and their ilk vomitting forth their hatred and poluting our airwaves.

And does that give us the right to shut them up?

(this is personal: I've hated and been embarrassed by Limbaugh since he was on local radio in my home town in the early 80s).

Remember, the right and especially the Bush administration has been trying to stifle and even silence Liberal speech--and even moderate dissent--for years and doing a very good job of it. Is what's good for the goose also good for the gander? Or when they go after academics like Noam Chomsky or Edward Said, when they burn Dixie Chicks albums and force them off the airwaves (prompting death threats agaisnt them from conservative terrorists along the way), when they refuse to distribute Michael Moore's movies and push a Barbara Streisand flick about Regan off of broadcast TV, when they shut down Howard Stern, when they call the editors of the New York Times traitors, when they attack our right to read what we want to read say what we want to say and think the thoughts we believe, not to mention their scurilous attacks on journalists everywhere--are we just supposed to sit back and take it because they have a right to speak their minds? Or do we say something? I'm not talking about government censorship: that's a tactic that they've abused themselves. I'm talking about boycotts, about protests, about engaging the sponsors who pay for their filth to be broadcast. Why shouldn't we do the same thing the Family Values Council does to us?

Or does that just destroy discourse even more? Hmmm?

Symbol of racist opression or just a 72 Dodge Charger?

To most people of the generation behind me the confederate battle flag is symbolic of nothing other than the General Lee (and I'm not talking the civil war general I'm talking the Dukes of Hazard car). To people of my generation and older it is symbolic of either (a) regional pride (b) the lost cause (c) racist opression (d) the General Lee or (e) Lynard Skynard.

Friday night my SigO and I were watching Rockfest (I had it taped on DVR) when a fairly recent live performance of "Sweet Home Alabama" came on. They played in front of a huge confederate battle flag. He held another one like a big scarf in his mic hand. Others wee waving about the concert hall. And no, there was not a black face in sight. Skynard has used the Stars and Bars as part of their logo for years, so it's no surprise. But what does it mean? Considering that "Sweet Home Alabama" has something to do with civil rights--it was a response to Niel Young's "Southern Man"--it is a pretty defiant gesture. (for the full cycle you have to listen to Warren Zevon's "Play it All Night Long.")

Will we ever reconcile southern pride in the Stars and Bars with northern and especially black feelings that it represents an attack upon them just to fly it? I doubt it. I don't think it's reconcilable. It has to do with identity, and that's something you just can't erase.

Talladega is coming up in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A New Look at L&O

I wrote awhile back about why Law and Order is one of the most conservative shows on television. It still is. But I would be remiss if I didn’t eat a little crow and admit that Law and Order has been critical of conservative Christians twice this season, once on regular Law and Order and once on Law and Order SVU. I doubt these were coordinated efforts since the shows have different writing teams and different story meetings. But I could be wrong. They are both produced by Dick Wolf. The episodes in question still fit my theory that if you practice any kind of alternative lifestyle on L&O you are going to be either a victim, a murderer, or both. Law and Order is a very prudish franchise. I should also mention that both episodes treated Christians, in the end, with respect. But both shows did mock fundamentalist positions toward Gays, and treated our society’s exclusion of homosexuals as misguided and Christian persecution of homosexuals as evil. Good for them!

In the first SVU episode, a gay man who had been the secret lover of a born again Christian was murdered. That was pretty much the plot of the L&O episode too. In the first the young man had been active in a Christian haunted house called “Satan’s Hotel,” which included an act where a gay man literally burns in hell for his sexuality (SVU is always a bit more ridiculous than L&O). The L&O was one of those ripped from the headlines things, this one inspired by the downfall of Ted Haggard, the Colorado Springs evangelical and Bush confidant who admitted last year to using meth and soliciting gay male prostitutes. Part of the theme of the L&O episode was to paint their fictional church as a scam, a for profit business led by a hypocritical flim-flam man. ADA McCoy, as always, led the skepticism. In the end of both episodes the faith of the Christians involved was reaffirmed and in the case of the SVU episodes the family came to accept their son’s homosexuality. McCoy got some egg on his face when the killer proved to be more interested in continuing the mission of the church than of staying out of jail. But in both episodes the killer was a Christian zealot who believed that killing homosexuals is ok by God. Leviticus was quoted heavily.

Most Christians will see this as a blatant attack on their faith. It is certainly more liberal than a lot of other positions taken on Law and Order. I don’t think it was attacking Christians as much as it was building drama around plausible situations. We know that there is gay bashing and even gay murder carried out by people who believe that they are doing God’s will. But Christians often act as if pointing that out is attacking the faith in general and cry foul. And both episodes definitely took a stand against the persecution of gays. Christians will eroneously cry that the show was mocking their faith, and that they are the ones being persecuted. They always do, as though GLAD was out their with pitch forks, herding them toward the lions.

So is Law and Order now a liberal show? Hardly. Law and order are still bedrock conservative virtues, and that is what the show is still all about. It’s hard for a cop drama to be liberal (but not for a courtroom drama to be liberal, which is why L&O sometimes can lean the other way a bit). Plus they’ve got Fred Dalton Thompson on there making conservative speeches on every episode and apparently launching his Presidential campaign from the show. Hardly liberal. But they do take a liberal (New York style) position of gays. As a liberal New Yorker I can hardly complain.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Imus in the Mourning

(ok, I stole that from one of the New York tabloids, but I like it)

The best thing written so far about the Don Imus fiasco was Harvey Firestein's op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. While I don't share all of Harvey's thoughts on language, and it would be worth while pointing out that Harvey has in his own way made a living off of perpetuating gay stereotypes, his observation about Imus is right on. The amazing thing about all this isn't that Don Imus said something outrageous and offensive, nor even that he got fired over it, it's what we choose to get outraged about. As Harvey said, the word "faggot" gets bandied about by comedians and pundits all the time without arousing the kind of outrage "nappy headed hos" did for Imus.

I guess some disenfranchised minorities are more equal than others.

But I'd offer a rejoinder to Harvey's commentary. Harvey is himself a comic actor, and a damn good one, so he should understand this: comedy is cruel. Every funny thing in the world is offensive, and if we are going to be sensitive to the harm caused by our words we will never laugh again.

I always come back to the best statement ever on comedy, Al Capp's observation that all comedy is based on man's delight in man's inhumanity toward man. Suffering, difference, abnormality, oppression, depression, pain, humility, degradation is what we laugh at. Jackass wouldn't be so damn funny if that weren't true. Nor the three stooges. Nor the Marx Brothers. Nor Mel Brooks. Nor Weekend at Bernie's (as someone once described it, two hours of a dead guy getting hit in the crotch).

Nor Havey Firestein in his normal schtick. Harvey made his career of camp--in particular, campy female impersonation. Camp, as Sontag reminds us, is the celebration of bad taste. Harvey's own act, as I said earlier perpetuated Gay stereotypes (and of course in Torch Song Trilogy deconstructed them as well).

And so we're back to Don Imus, the most tasteless man in America (and I include John Watters and Lloyd Kaufman in that statement).

My mom has been writing me lately, outraged at all the outrage. She says that bawdy humor such as Imus's (she doesn't listen to Imus by the way), is an important staple of the English language, and that if Imus is brought down they might as well go after Shakespeare too. And she's right. Shakespeare was as bawdy, as racist, as sexist, and as offensive as Imus in his day. Can you imagine the Reverend Al standing in front of the Globe Theatre (in a ruff) demanding that it be shut down?

She brings up another interesting point: can you imagine the Reverend Al apologizing to the Duke Lacrosse players? I certainly can't. Comparing the Imus debacle to the Duke tragedy is, I think, very fair. They are two sides of the same coin. The Reverend Al went to Raleigh for the same reason he went to CBS: to shed light on what he believed to be racism and to call for his brand of justice. But the feeding frenzy in both cases was frightening to watch and while in the case of Imus it was based on something he actually did say, in the case of the Duke Lacrosse players it was based on perceptions and stereotypes about privilege and race, and it put three innocent young men through a hell from which they may never recover.

I keep thinking about Janet Jackson's nipple in all of this. The people who wrote in outraged about Imus were doing the same thing as the right wing reactionaries who wrote in about Janet Jackson after her Superbowl wardrobe malfunction. I hated those people. I thought they were a bunch of loud-mouthed prudes who were trying to impress their version of morality on the rest of us, and that they should be shut up. Is it any different than the good reverends Al and Jesse? Not that I can see. I know the difference is that Janet's incident led to FCC action and Imus' didn't, because nipples are considered more dangerous than hate speech by the prudes who run the government. But the impotace behind both was the same. And that bothers me. But in the end it was the market and not the FCC that brought down Imus, and I can live with that.

Nobody is really harmed by any of this and nothing will come of it. I'd like to think it heralds the end of shock radio, but it won't. The Rutgers women will graduate and they will be heroes. Imus will land on Sirius with Howard Stern. Reverend Al will find a new cause to go after. We'll all find something else to turn our attention to, something important hopefully, like baseball.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Imus in the stew pot

Don Imus is an asshole. I've never listened to him and I don't think I ever will. But now, if the reverends Al and Jesse get their way, I'll never get the opportunity.

On Wednesday last Imus referred to the Rutgers Women’s basketball team, which had just lost the NCAA championship game to Tennessee, as “a bunch of nappy-headed hos.” Now the NAACP, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson are all calling for him to be fired. A lot of other people will yell about political correctness run amuck and Freedom of Speech and a lot of other stuff. That's how these things work.

I am pretty much an absolutist when it comes to the first amendment, but firing Imus wouldn’t be a violation of his first amendment rights, because his employers have a right to worry about how his comments will affect their business. And the good reverends certainly have a right to call for his dismissal. But I wonder: if I got up in front of my City College media studies class on Thursday, when we will most surely discuss this, and called Don Imus a racist cracker asshole, would Reverend Al call for me to be fired? Or would he just chuckle and nod?

HBO You Suck!!!

I hate HBO!

They create by far the best television on television. Even stuff I don't watch, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Enterage is better than almost anything else on TV. If, as I've argued before, we are living in the Second Golden Age of Television (TM) it is all thanks to cable and, mostly, to HBO.


It sucks because it has taken my three favorite shows of the last three years and cancelled each of them after two seasons. Deadwood was the best thing on TV once the Westwing (which couldn't have been made if HBO hadn't first pushed the envelope) was cancelled. Deadwood is apparently gone. I may be the only one, but I was totally into Carnivalle. I head they weren't renewing it. At least these are the rumors I've heard. Now a show I liked even more, ROME, is gone too. And we ae now seeing the last six episodes of what critics agree is the best TV series ever, Sopranos. It's hard to imagine TV without Tony Soprano.

But that's the economics of it. Sopranos was treated, to some extent, like a series on broadcast. It got decent ratings (for premium cable, anyway) and so it kept going. But HBO doesn't rely on ratings the way broadcast and basic cable networks do. HBO is subscriber based. They don't make money off of add sales. They have to create buzz. The more people talk about HBO shows around the watercooler the more people subscribe to HBO to see what everybody is talking about. That's how premium cable works. As such, the create shows that are shocking and challenging, they piss people off, conservatives and liberals alike, and they attract subscribers. Because they ignore the usual rules they end up making great art once in awhile. In fact, they make great art a lot. And they've realized that creating buzz works best when you create new things. So two years is about the right legth of time for an HBO series. Sopranos was an aberation (as was my former favorite HBO sow, Arliss).

So HBO You SUCK!!! You suck for sucking me into loving a great show like Rome and then cancelling it after only two seasons! At least with Rome they wrapped the series up witha logical ending. With Deadwood they didn't resolve anything but a minor matter involving George Hearst. With Carnivalle they left us with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved. And it pisses me off!

I'm going to miss Pullo a lot.

So HBO you SUCK!!!

But I'm glad Sopranos starts back up this week.