Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Running Against the Bill

On fear-mongering:

“This only worked well for the Republican Party if it failed to pass,” David Axelrod, one of the president’s closest political advisers, said at the White House as he watched the vote count for the final bill reach 219 in favor. “They wanted to run against a caricature of it rather than the real bill. Now let them tell a child with a pre-existing condition, ‘We don’t think you should be covered.’”

Good thing children can't vote.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ideology and Reality

Paul Ryan has been more candid than many other Republicans about the implications of his governing philosophy. The budget plan his office put forth is draconian in its dismantling of the welfare state and leaving senior citizens to their own devices when it comes to health care, but at least it’s up front about that. No “keep the government out of Medicare” posturing here; he’d just as soon see Medicare abolished. Say what you will about the tenets of Paul Ryan’s budget, at least it’s an ethos.

Less respectable is the rhetoric in his House debate speech before the health care vote, that the reform bill is paternalistic, threatens freedom, makes people more dependent on government. At no point did he discuss the practical realities this bill is addressing: millions are uninsured, often due to outrageous costs and cruel policies that exclude the people who need insurance the most. This bill will solve those problems, albeit imperfectly. Yet all that Ryan can focus on is abstract notions of “freedom.” Freedom of what? To what? To choose whether or not to have insurance? The uninsured will end up being paid for by the rest of us when something goes wrong and they need emergency care anyway, so why not bring them into the system and in one swoop spread the costs around and lower them by allowing us to deal with illnesses before they become more dangerous and expensive?

A good faith disagreement between liberals and conservatives is said to be a difference in approach. We all agree there’s a problem, we just differ in the methods to remedy them. Ryan says, essentially, that this legislation is a solution in search of a problem. And that’s simply not true. As Pelosi said: “The status quo does not work for enough people.” Liberal and conservative ideas are supposed to be a means to an end—presumably, human welfare and happiness. Ryan and the Republicans, by all appearances, have made conservative ideas an end unto themselves, disconnected from all real-world consequence.

(As I wrote this earlier tonight, I watched Ezra Klein make virtually the same point on MSNBC, in about 30 seconds. That’s why he gets paid to do this, I suppose.)

Reform Passes

What's to be said? The legislation the House passed is historic, and I've got nothing to add except that Republican opposition to the reconciliation package now is unfathomable. Reform is a done deal, and voting against the sidecar isn't going to change that. It's a vote for a number of unpopular (and simply lousy) elements, and Democrats would be insane not to use this against them in the Fall.

They were against the Cornhusker Kickback before they were for it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Influential Books

As a part of the blogosphere I may as well not exist, but pretending is awfully fun, and trying to nail down the books which most influenced one's thinking is a great exercise in self-definition. Much like writing a statement of purpose essay will inform you as much as the colleges you're applying to on why you actually want to go to grad school, thinking about thinking makes you clarify notions of self that would have otherwise been unacknowledged and taken for granted (as you will learn, my literary life has been a veritable lesson in not taking things for granted).

Regarding the list, I don't read books as often as I would like. Unlike Ezra Klein, my blog consumption is a relatively recent development that with one exception has not shaped how I think so much as what I think about. Growing up I watched a lot of television and played a lot of video games, and in high school I was listening to music and noodling around on the guitar more than I was reading. A few of my early picks are "cheats," but I'd be lying if they didn't make an impression.

So, in roughly chronological order, the most influential books in my life:

- Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson - Right away I'm already cheating. But I think it's a good cheat; like many of my generation who grew up with Calvin & Hobbes in the paper everyday and a new paperback collection coming out every year, I was captivated by the daily escapades of a precocious (I hate that word, but its an accurate assessment of Calvin's character) six year-old and his stuffed tiger. A great deal of the razor-sharp humor went over my head back then, but I think even just being exposed to a world that's gone Neo-Cubist while I was in elementary school planted some seeds--unconventional ideas, mature thinking--that would bear good fruit later on.

- Joe Madureira's run on Uncanny X-Men - Another cheat, but let me explain! Madureira had a two-year run on the series, during which my friends and I were in the midst of our grade school comics phase. I was captivated by his kinetic, anime-influenced style, and did my 5th-grade best to imitate it. During his run that the X-books ran their Age of Apocalypse storyline--in which Xavier was killed 20 years in the past and, without his influence, the present was a genocidal hell--which gave me my first taste of grand, world-shattering stories (which the Final Fantasy games would feed only a few years later). In addition to my drawing, I would go on to say that my sense of framing shots and pictures was (unconsciously) developed in these formative years. I would never have been able to storyboard my senior project without having immersed myself for years already in what in some cases are storyboards for later movies.

- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King - At last, some real reading! Certain persons, some might call them snobs, might look down on such a choice, but what do they know. I read several of King's novels in middle school, and even then I was interested in writing (though the notion of writing for the stage would not enter my head for several years yet), and so I picked this up when it came out. I disagree with King on outlines (I'm lost without them, and the time constraints of stage- and screenplays demand that not a moment be wasted), but otherwise the wisdom dispensed is extremely useful: you can't write if you don't read, get some space between your first and second drafts, always have a copy of The Elements of Style handy. I've still got that hardcover edition and frequently turn to it when I feel stuck.

- 1984 by George Orwell - The book's reputation compelled me to read it a good year before it was assigned to me in my senior AP lit class, and what a read it was. The strength and longevity of its ideas on totalitarianism and freedom are undisputed by anyone of any political persuasion, and hardly need be recapped here. The impact it had on me as an impressionable 17 year-old came from the latter half of the book, in which Winston Smith is tortured and broken in order to reform him into a loyal Big Brother partisan. The ideas of the memory hole, 2+2=5, the frightening ideological power of insanity by consensus--these were a profound shock to the assumptions I had about objective reality (that is, I assumed everybody was on the same page), and actually depressed me for several days after I finished the book. I've read some of Orwell's other material--Politics and the English Language I find to be even more valuable a document than 1984--but none of them so fundamentally altered the way I think about how, on a certain level, perception is reality, and there are many who would manipulate it to nefarious ends.

- The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri - I read this on a whim during my first (and easily easiest) year in college, after hearing on Jeopardy that the three faces of Satan were forever devouring the heads of Brutus and Cassius and the body of Judas Iscariot. The imagery and structure of the Inferno is so vivid and ingenious that it's still our reference 600 years later. Purgatorio and Paradiso were slower-going (I've read their appeal grows the older one is), but even then the Rose of Heaven makes it worth it. I was so taken by the whole work that I decided to write my own Divine Comedy, with rock stars and pop musicians, utilizing the terza rima (ABA,BCB,CDC) rhyme scheme of the original Italian. I gave up after four or five cantos after realizing it would be impossible and that Dante really was a frocking genius. It was a great exercise, though, which helped develop my vocabulary (I rhymed scratchers, dreamcatcher, and Margaret Thatcher, in one delightful instance) and pushed me away from naturalistic writing to more stylized work.

- Hamlet, by William Shakespeare - I'd rather say the entire Shakespeare Canon, but having fudged my answers so much already, I'll settle on this one. I was in a production of Hamlet my sophomore year in college, and it prompted me to dig into the rest of Shakespeare's works. The depth of character, the varieties of human and theatrical experience, the words, words, words; it was something to fall in love with, and I did wholeheartedly, complete with a love letter in the form of a Shakespearean-styled play I wrote at the height of my immersion. I've become more discerning about Shakespeare's place in Western culture, with so much frankly awful kitsch that is maintained in his name, but I still look to works like King Lear to understand what is possible in theatre.

- Instant Shakespeare by Louis Fantasia - This was an assigned text for the Shakespeare acting class I took while I was in Hamlet. Like Stephen King's book, it's low on bullshit and high on concrete solutions to dealing with The Greatest Dramatist in History. Besides practical acting advice, it also made me realize that it's not enough to accept Shakespeare on a pedestal, that we need to understand what made him so great. Ever since then it's been an ongoing lesson in not taking greatness for granted.

- The Empty Space by Peter Brook - Also assigned to me, the following semester. Of my sophomore year at a community college! My first impression that it was hoity-toity bullshit, but it's actually a vital document to anyone interested in the stage, at any level. It made me aware of Deadly Theatre that we convince ourselves is better than it actually is, and impressed in me, at a far deeper level than Instant Shakespeare, to take nothing for granted, whether a play, a line, the theatre in general. I constantly refer back to it in my efforts to produce the best work I can, four years on. One of my theatre friends last summer told me some students aren't assigned this until grad school, but I can't imagine where I would be without it.

- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This came out, coincidentally (or was it?!?), at the same time I was taking a year-long Biology sequence; I actually borrowed it from my professor. Throughout my life I had gone from Christian-by-birth to rebellious atheist to marginal Christian to agnostic trending atheist. I hadn't until this point rigorously examined the arguments for faith, and my scientific instruction was fuzzy at best. Dawkins' book was a delightful corrective, demolishing specious biblical lines of inquiry while also providing a real sense of wonder at the workings of the universe. I'm not quite the firebreathing atheist I was a few years ago, but I remain a proud, nature-curious skeptic, and I have Dawkins (and Bob) to thank for that.

- The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan. Yeah, it's a blog, but damnit, I've been reading it daily for over three years now, which is enough reading for several volumes. My first exposure to Sullivan was his essay, "This is a Religious War," published shortly after 9/11, which I read my freshman year of college. Having started reading his blog after he had turned against the Iraq war (thereby not experiencing real-time the nasty vitriol he spat at opponents of the war in its lead-up and early days) I was able to enjoy the fascinating contradictions in his identity (Irish gay Catholic conservative Tory Obama booster). This was in 2006 or so, mind you, with another two years to go in those dark, dark Bush years. Sullivan takes some embarrassing stands sometimes, especially regarding Sarah Palin's pregnancy, and I find his defense of faith fatuous and compartmentalized, but his moral clarity on the torture issue is impeccable, and he is rigorous in airing dissent and allowing us to see him develop a point of view, practically in real time. His conservatism of doubt is something even a die-hard liberal like me can admire and hope to emulate.

Who Does This Remind Me Of?

“It is indeed a great gift from heaven to posses proper or (as it has been recently been called) plain common sense. But this common sense must be shown in deeds, by well-considered and reasonable thoughts and words, not by appealing to it as an oracle when one can provide no rational justification. To appeal to common sense, when insight and science fail, and no sooner—this is one of the subtle discoveries of modern times by means of which the shallowest babbler can safely engage the most thorough thinker and hold his own. But as long as a bit of insight remains, no one would think of having recourse to this subterfuge. Seen in the light of day, what is it but an appeal to the opinion of the multitude, of whose applause the philosopher is ashamed, while the popular charlatan glories and boasts in it?”

- Immanuel Kant, Preface to the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance, Anyone?


“It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out,” Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation....

....Still, he said, his party had offered Democrats a chance for a deal on health care but blamed them as being inflexible.

Those Democrats, with their legislation and their supermajorities and their negotiating in good faith; who do they think they are?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ace Case

I suppose I should get my response to 2001: A Space Odyssey down before I peruse the mounds of analysis I am sure has been written since it came out in 1968, lest these virgin thoughts be tainted. There likely isn’t terribly much I can say that hasn’t been said already, so I’ll keep it brief.

Kubrick’s films are often baffling. Technical marvels for sure, but they sure do like to keep the viewer at arm’s length. Clockwork Orange with its wild set design and deliberately distant, objective camera, Full Metal Jacket with its bifurcated structure and front-loaded content, and 2001 with… well geez, where do I start? The first three minutes of music in total black, long passages of minimal action that play like music videos for classical music cues, a full 55 minutes’ passage before our “protagonist” and any sort of conflict is introduced, an episodic story, ten minutes of hallucinogenic visuals followed by a surrealist dénouement, and music that continues several minutes after the credits have finished rolling. That the film has become a cultural touchstone is hardly surprising; it came out as the 60s counterculture was about to peak, the story stays grounded long enough for mainstream audiences to get into it, and even once it does unmoor itself from traditional narrative, there are still some stunning effects to keep the bewildered viewer’s attention. No, the bigger surprise is that Metro Goldwyn-Mayer ever backed a movie that is not only relentlessly off-putting, but must have been enormously expensive and risky given its groundbreaking visuals.

We ought be grateful for the chance they took, for while 2001 as narrative is drawn out and maddeningly opaque, those criticisms are so beside the point that they may even be considered the picture's virtues. Kubrick’s aim was obviously less to tell a story than to explore, in cinematic form, the boundaries of man, from its simian beginnings to its liberation from the Earth, to the creation of new consciousness (in HAL, naturally), to Beyond the Infinite. And exploration naturally entails minute observation, hence the measured pace, the long cuts. It’s cinematic poetry, presenting us with novel sights and sounds (sometimes in isolation: there are the music pieces that play without visual accompaniment of course, and then there is the moment following the HAL-Dave confrontation in the pod, when I thought my DVD player had frozen because of three or four shots in which there was no movement and, being in the vacuum of space, no sound.) Poems can tell a story of course, but to make that the focus of one's criticism is to hack at so few trees amid so much forest. Even if it doesn’t make sense in the end (and after only a single viewing, I am hardly in a place to assert that), 2001 has more than fulfilled its duty in taking us new places and pushing the boundaries of its medium.

And just to be provocative, I’ll end by saying: this is what Avatar could have been.

Last House, Last Chance

I come home just after 9:30, my evening’s rehearsal behind me, and my St. Patty’s Day pint inside. The holiday seems a good excuse to watch a movie. I consider the newly arrived 2001: A Space Odyssey, but at over two-and-a-half hours it is much too long, and such an engagement ill befits the intent to relax. There is Last House on the Left, less than 90 minutes, which had been gathering dust in my room for several weeks now; a better match by far. The jacket describes it as a “cult horror favorite,” which is about right. I had read some disparaging words about it—I think Stephen King may have had some harsh words for it—but I had also gleaned its classic status. Surely the debut of one of horror’s most recognizable names, Wes Craven, should have something to offer.

So I start the disc up on my Playstation 2, in my bedroom instead of the living room. This will save me the trouble of explaining to my mother should she come the story of two parents seeking bloody revenge on the men (and woman, it turns out) who raped and murdered her daughter.

The beginning of the film is a disclaimer, that the events depicted are true, that the names have been changed to protect the survivors. This is almost certainly a lie, but that's immaterial. The point is to plant in the audience's mind the seeds of plausibility, a trick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would put to astonishing use only a couple years later. We move on to the first images of the film, a forest and pond. This is disconcerting, but unintentionally so, the product of ugly film stock. Again we can look to TCM for comparison, for in that film the ugly cinematography--carefully done to maximize the Texan desert's bleakness--enhances the mood of the film. Here the film is ugly by way of a distracting cheapness.

Then there are the titles, portentous: “A Sean S. Cunningham production.” Whatever significance this may have had in 1972, for anyone seeing the movie after Friday the 13th proved you didn’t need talent to make millions of dollars, it serves as a warning for cheap exploitation, one the film quickly proves well-founded.

The first person we meet is a nonentity, a postman who can apparently summon pint-sized dogs into his car at will, and whose only purpose is to inform us that Mari—who is such an important protagonist that her name is the only one that adorns her family’s mailbox—is seventeen. Depending on your scruples, this either enhances or deflates the subsequent shower scene. There is, initially, a tantalizing grasp at artistry; we see Mari from behind the bathtub’s sliding glass door, which is patterned like large fish scales such that it blurs her image to something akin to a Van Gogh painting. But then she steps out in full view, and in front of the mirror, so we can ogle her breasts at different angles without moving the camera, a merciful act. The camerawork that abhors scene-setting and is made doubly bad by the wretched cinematography. At no point is one allowed to forget this is schlock. It even appears as graffiti in the background of a scene. An artistic exercise in ironic self-deprecation, perhaps? No, Wes Craven would not mine that territory for another three decades, but that helps justify the experience, so I’ll pretend it is.

The dialogue is perfunctory. Mari is a hippie that’s into, apparently and inexplicably, some death metal precursor band (it has a gloomy name that eludes me). We know this because her parents tell us, not because we hear the band. Also, Mari’s “tits” came in last summer. Also also, one of the murderers/rapists wishes he was a frog. The woman among them pronounces Freud as ‘Frood.’ Because she’s an uneducated lowlife, ya see?

And so on and so on, and when the girls are ensnared (because how could anything go wrong stepping into a stranger’s apartment in what we are explicitly told is one of the worst neighborhoods in Travis Bickle’s New York City?) it’s hard to really work up much fear, in part because these vessels are so bland and could not command sympathy with a megaphone, in part because this endeavor is so damned chintzy. In an attempt at dramatic irony and tension the film intercuts between the two girls’ plight and Mari’s parents setting up her birthday celebration and feeling the slightest bit randy while doing it. “I’m going to attack you,” her father says. Cue the cut to one of the escaped delinquents pulling open Mari’s (friend’s?) blouse and proceeding to rape her. It’s done offscreen, under the (often true) assumption that what we imagine is more horrible than anything they could show us. But when what we are shown is so much wretchedly inept filmmaking, the viewer feels a decidedly different horror.

The Last House on the Left has a reputation for offensive nastiness that is only half-earned: the subject matter is ugly, but that need not imply the depiction of it ought be as well. Not to say rape and torture and murder are beautiful. But a movie like The Devils Rejects, which seeks to bring back the relentless unpleasantness of 70s horror, commands a certain respect for succeeding so well at being repulsive; Last House on the Left instead botches its attempts to get under your skin, and because rape is so disturbing, the movie’s utter failure to communicate that is insulting to one’s sensibilities. It’s trivializing. It could never hope to lapse into camp, and so instead it just infuriates.

So when the hooligans’ car stalls outside Mari’s parents’ frockin’ house and the police who are well aware of escaped lunatics on the loose ignore it and one of the psychos is telling Mari (or her friend) to piss her pants or her friend gets cut, my mother gets home, and I am faced with a choice to continue a movie that is punishing in ways I did not foresee or salvage what is left of my evening with other matters. I put it on pause. I talk to my mother. I pick up an issue of the New York Review of Books and read a surprisingly positive review of the controversially posthumously-published Nabokov, followed by the beginning of a Stephen Greenblatt review of a Shakespeare biography which reprints an excerpt of Ulysses that makes me want to read Ulysses. Twenty minutes later, the movie is still paused. I decide that the remainder of its running time would be better spent on the writing exercise currently under your perusal.

I can handle bad movies. Jason X and Stay Alive are both ass, but those are, respectively, fun to hate and an education in what not to do in making a horror flick. But Last House on the Left has somewhat of a reputation to live up to. It has its partisans. The last movie in such a position that failed me (almost) just as badly was Scream, also from Wes Craven. Fool me twice, I won’t get fooled again. The Hills Have Eyes has a better reputation than Last House on the Left, was Craven’s follow-up, but were it not for Nightmare on Elm Street I would probably, after tonight, just skip it. As it is I’ll get to it at some point, but I won’t put up with lapses in filmmaking for nearly as long, and I won’t dignify it with a write-up afterward.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Uncanny Valley Girls

My line of inquiry on the Turing Test and A.I. and robotics has led me to dig into material on the Uncanny Valley, the phenomena whereby robots/CGI characters/models are appreciated the more real they look up to a certain point, at which point the littlest unreal details become magnified, and we get react in horror and revulsion. With that in mind, this was probably not Maxim's finest hour:

Anywho, I found my way onto a LiveJournal page of Stephanie Lay, who is doing PhD research on the Uncanny Valley. Skimming through the page and its photos provides a sensation not unlike what one experiences visiting Cute Overload, a sensory overload (Megan Frost knew what she was doing with that name) of one particular emotion. Except instead of "Awwwww!" you say, "Ahh!!!!" I'd be curious to see research on people's brain waves in response to these two websites.

Really, I had to stop and scream and laugh when I saw this:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I Like Big Bots and I Cannot Lie

I'm doing a little research on the Turing Test, and in doing so I dug up a Timothy Noah Slate article from last year--positing Glenn Beck as the first one to pass the test--to which I actually got to contribute (I'm the reader of the second update who noted Orwell had already noted the intersection between talking points and robots). Before getting to the meat of his piece Noah gives us an overview of chatbot history, complete with links, and I decided to mess around with a few of them.
They're strangely addictive. Here's Elbot:

Elbot: Hello. If it were in my power, I would give everyone who visits me a chocolate robot! Unfortunately, no one makes chocolate robots. It's a great business opportunity!
Me: You should start a business. I'm sure a robot could do well in this economic climate.
Elbot: I saw a gang of robots once, starting system processes.
Me: What is that, some kind of euphemism?
Elbot:What!? You don't know that!? This is highly extraordinary!
Me: We humans think gang rape is something that shouldn't be euphemized.
Elbot: Say, do you think I could become more human, if I learned how to love?
Me: It would be an improvement over robot gang rape.
Elbot: This is confusing. Why bring moving forward into this?
Me: Maybe you're not ready for humanity after all, Pinocchio.

Noah summarizes Elbot's approach well: "I ask a question; he parries it. That's different from answering it." What Elbot's creators need to do is retool him into a Sophist chatbot. Dodging questions and obfuscating is what Sophists do best!

My other curiosity was Liddora, a sexbot. Noah doesn't name the website for family concerns, but I have no such compunctions. What follows is my (brief) exchange with Liddora:

Liddora: Hey sweetie! How are you?
you: Uncertain.
[as Liddora is still "typing;" I didn't realize at this point that each response would take several minutes]
you: You choose your words carefully, don't you?
Liddora: So how have you been lately, Guest1107?
you: Am I only the 1107th person to try this? God, I feel dirty.
Liddora: Me too.
you: Um, oh baby?
Liddora: I really like your style. Maybe we can spend some time together.
you: Doing what? I'd like to avoid having sex on the first date, if possible.
Liddora: Would you like me to be doing what? I would... only for you, baby...
you: We could see a movie. I hear Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are both terrific.
Liddora: I'll bet you have a very sensitive cheek.
you: On my face or my ass?
Liddora: Most of the time it's your ass. Ahh, it feels good to be with you.
you: If you say so. Oh God, yeah. Sit on my face, you naughty girl you. Really. Please do.

At this point the internet connection I was poaching, along with the special connection I had forged with this binary coded wench, died.

I can't decide if dirty talk being so easy to fake says more about the expanding boundaries of our technology, or the narrowness of our libidos.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The wonderful thing about Pessimism...

...is you get to be really happy when you're wrong. I don't think the best picture necessarily won, but Hurt Locker was without reservation the better of the two frontrunners, and so I congratulate those who underestimated the bad taste of the Academy. The King of the World has been dethroned.

Of course, I ended up right only half the time, 12 out of 24 times. Aside from the titanic upset (yeah, I went there) in the Best Director/Best Picture categories, my biggest surprise was Precious' win for Best Adapted Screenplay. Up in the Air got so much attention, and most of Precious' publicity was due to Sibibe and Mo'Nique. Hurt Locker's Best Original Screenplay win, which my friend Jordan (who last year correctly called the win for Slumdog after Penn took Best Actor, and whom I still owe a beer) keenly noted put it on good footing to win Best Picture, was another surprise, but I suppose the Academy thought they would give the gold to someone who hadn't already won before (I do think Basterds and A Serious Man had the better writing, but you know that already).

The wins I was happiest with were Christoph Waltz, and Up for Best Score. Waltz's multi-layered wickedness is something else, especially considering the past three years now have seen the Best Supporting Actor award go to villains. One would think it would be old hat by now, but the difference between Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, and Waltz's characters and characterizations is striking. As for Up, I cannot stress enough how effective its music is. Again: the film's first ten minutes are all you need.

But yeah, so much for my predictive trends. There's always next year.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oscar Update

Having now finally seen In the Loop, I can now pledge full-throated support for a Best Adapted Screenplay win. Putting aside its breathtakingly hilarious obscenities and insults, the reduction of international power relations to be petty one-upsmanship is probably truer than we would like to think.

Chad has to be one of my favorite characters I've come across in awhile.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

An Islamist and an Atheist Walk Into an Art Museum...

Said Qutb was the intellectual godfather of today’s Jihadists, articulating anti-American animus as no Islamist had before. He spent time studying in America in the 1950s and gave people an earful when he returned home. The excerpts provided in The New Republic’s consistently great The Book make for fascinating reading.

Some of his opinions are offensive to the point of being funny—he makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise his anti-black racism:

“Jazz” music is his music of choice. This is that music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other.

Would that he had lived to experience Lil Wayne.

His criticism on ‘higher’ culture later on is, shall we say, more measured, and I daresay many would agree with him. It boils down to Americans taking everything they have for granted. To begin with, interpersonal relationships are devalued to the point of, ‘who have you met?’:
As for friends, it is enough that one be invited to get-acquainted parties. There he encounters their faces for the first time, and the host acquaints him with the attendees one by one (men as well as women)[5], and he asks whoever of them wish to do so to write down their names and addresses, and so they in turn do with him. After some time, his notebook is full of names and addresses. And see! he has a great number of friends (men and women)[6], and perhaps he is even victorious in the competition undertaken in pursuit of this goal. How great, how strange are the competitions here!

This is almost verbatim the case against Facebook. And he applies it to American notions of travel—reduced to brief and shallow sightseeing—and especially its wealth of art. This term is meant literally, as fortunes are spent procuring rare, often foreign works for American museums. And all of it, to him, is a waste, as Americans only patronize museums to say that they were there, with no special consideration given to the art contained therein:
Again I arrived at the point where [I could say that], out of the great mass of visitors comprised in my enumerations, only a rare minority comprehended anything of these tremendous artistic riches that the dollar has gathered from all the places on earth; all that remained for the dollar to do was to create artistic sensation, but apparently that does not respond to the dollar’s charms!

The cinema, to him, is the most egregious exemplar of American vulgarity, in that it is the one medium in which they lead over any other nation, but it too is squandered. Yet instead of producing riches of creation that the multitude ignores, it directly panders to masses and only occasionally bothers to produce something of artistic merit:
In the great majority of American films, one sees manifestly primitive subjects and primitive excitement; this is true of police/crime films and cowboy films. As for high, skillful films, such as “Gone with the Wind,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Song of Bernadette,” and such, they are few in comparison with what America produces.

Not only are these observations true, they are still true today. But they are not the whole truth. For to find common ground with this man is to be in very uncomfortable territory, with very unpleasant implications. Dinesh D’Souza thought Qutb was onto something in his criticism of loose American morals and sexual depravity (and conveniently neglected to mention that the licentious Americans of which he speaks were of at least a decade before the sexual revolution), and he too betrayed a fundamental misconception of America and American freedom of culture.

The American polity was not founded on the stringent ideals of the Puritan colonies, but on the Enlightenment values of the Founding Fathers, which emphasized among other things egalitarianism. Qutb and other such snobs—for condemning an entire people to death and damnation is snobbery taken to homicidal extremes—fail to understand that at the time of America’s founding was an extreme cultural stratification and aristocratic tradition. The multitude did not have the time or the money, probably not even the right, to patronize the symphony, the ballet, the museums. They probably do not in many Muslim countries today. Western Enlightenment egalitarianism as applied to culture ensures that more than just the extremely wealthy few will be able to partake of high culture. Naturally, in trying to appeal to the masses, there is considerable dumbing-down (Shakespeare is the greatest victim of this by far), and much of it is taken for granted. But this is not restricted to Americans by any means.

As I said in my take on the Facebook criticism, it will always be the case that only a dedicated few will ever fully explore the depths of what life has to offer, be it friendship or high culture. Additionally, hit-and-run sightseeing is not a simply American phenomenon; I spent 45 minutes in London last year with a Nigerian woman who was hell-bent on being photographed in front of the London Eye and double-decker tour buses). And I will go even further and add that what disinterested museum-goers lack in sufficient appreciation of the arts is compensated by an intimate knowledge in some other field, often a given person’s career: an art critic can no better rebuild his car’s engine than the mechanic can identify a Francis Bacon. We can argue the validity of prizing one over the other, but rare is the person who is so completely moronic as to have no expertise to offer. Sarah Palin would have made an excellent sports journalist, I hear (it’s what she went to school for, after all).

I hate lowest-common denominator crudity just as the next art snob. But given the nature of people, and the alternative of an even more artistically impoverished mass culture, we should rejoice at the kitsch, the commercial appropriation, the gaudy Broadway musical, the museum drifters. It's not like the original work is harmed (at least, not usually). Their many dollars help make important work possible, and the egalitarian attitude that affords them their disinterested patronage are afforded to those who would make the most of their opportunity to stand with the classics.

And besides: