Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Depths

This is what the opposition to repealing DADT is thinking (emphasis mine):

The Democrats are trying to use the lame duck session of Congress to push through a repeal of the law signed by President Bill Clinton that prohibits homosexuals from serving in the U.S. military.

There is no question that repeal will have a harmful effect on recruitment, retention, and readiness, and will mean the end of military careers for officers and chaplains who have moral and religious objections to homosexuality.

Gay people are already allowed to serve in the military, they can't disclose their sexual orientation. One can argue the rightness or wrongness of this policy, but facts are facts.

Yet according to the American Family Association, there are no gays or lesbians in the military because they are legally prohibited. That's simply not true on either count. But so it goes when ideology trumps reason.

More Equal Than Others

This is hardly surprising:

Some of the most intense and sharpest divergence of views about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell exists among the chaplain corps. A large number of military chaplains (and their followers) believe that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination, and that they are required by God to condemn it as such.

Which of course leads to ideas like this (emphasis mine):

We do not recommend that sexual orientation be placed alongside race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, as a class eligible for various diversity programs, tracking initiatives, and complaint resolution processes under the Military Equal Opportunity Program. We believe that doing so could produce a sense, rightly or wrongly, that gay men and lesbians are being elevated to a special status as a “protected class” and will receive special treatment.

Giving sexual orientation the same consideration as "race, color, religion, sex, and national origin" is special treatment. Got it. The capacity of the religion-fevered brain to square circles never ceases to amaze.

DADT Review "Comes Out"

And here it is. I'm looking through it amid other tasks. Here's a bit from the introduction that symbolizes the lunacy of this policy (emphasis mine):

Finally, we heard the views and experiences of current and former Service members who are gay or lesbian. We knew that their viewpoints would be important, and we made affirmative efforts to reach them, though our ability to do so under the current Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law was limited.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Security Theatre

When it comes to movies about Islamic terrorism, there is a certain amount of timeliness expected. It's a zeitgeist thing. But Four Lions' timing was especially fortuitous: an English satire of jihadists, it arrived on U.S. shores November 5th, just a week after the TSA patdowns and body scanners began meeting some resistance, and just another week before John Tyner’s “don’t touch my junk” objection became a cause célèbre for ACLU lawyers and right wing authoritarians alike. Though Four Lions doesn’t particularly concern itself with these issues or the post-9/11 security apparatus, it is useful in defusing the mentality that allows them to thrive.

The four lions in question are actually five English Muslims living in the suburb of Sheffield, of varying levels of unintelligence: there is Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), stupid but mostly harmless; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a recent and very possibly gay convert, bloodthirsty to the point of spiting his own face; Hassan (Arsher Ali), who thinks his Islamist bona fides make him much cooler than he actually is—and who has one of the funniest introductory scenes I can remember—Waj (Kayvan Novak), generally confused and clueless; and Omar (Riz Ahmed), the protagonist, generally klutzy but on some level cognizant of his cohorts’ ineptness and with a growing ambivalence on what the group is trying to do. (I am dealing with generalities here, as the film’s comic surprises are best kept concealed. The film’s trailer spoils far too much.)

Making characters stupid but not hatefully obnoxious is a tough balancing act--see Idiocracy for an example of when it doesn’t work, and Burn After Reading for when it does--but the movie pulls it off pretty well, making them interesting enough that we want to see how gloriously they screw up next. It's smart stupid comedy, like seeing different permutations of Ali G bounce off one another.

Yet Omar and his friend are far from the only fools on parade. Omar’s conservative brother, his co-worker at a security firm, Barry’s ditzy neighbor, are all head-bashingly oblivious to what he’s up to. Indeed, even as the group’s big operation gets underway, the police are grossly ineffective at stopping them.

A little frustratingly, the only characters not to come in for audience scorn are the ancillary jihadists: Omar’s smart wife is the sharpest character in the movie, and fully aware of her husband’s plans. And a group of Pakistani terrorists, who end up kicking Omar and Waj out of their training camp for being so useless, are the straight men in their section of the film. Ordinarily this would not be worth mention, since the Taliban are generally understood to be the bad guys. But Bagram and Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, whom director Chris Morris consulted so as not to offend Muslims (what kind of satire sets out not to offend?), doesn’t share that understanding.

But I digress. What does all this have to do with the TSA’s groping and lurid photography?

More than any particular goal or character motivation, the driving force of the movie’s episodic story is the complete ineptness of its characters, who lurch from scheme to scheme as their plans sometimes literally go up in smoke. Though work on Four Lions began several years ago, its subject matter has a useful analogue in Umar Farouk Abulmutallab, who last Christmas failed to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner when he attempted to light on a fire a bomb in his underwear. (He also invited Moazzam Begg to speak at University College London’s 2007 Islamic Awareness conference…) Abdulmutallab’s terror fail invites mockery, but it also prompted the new TSA procedures, which would detect any crotch fire potential and prevent such an attack from occurring.

The scanners and pat-downs are a convenient dodge for the fact that Abdulmutallab would never have boarded his flight had intelligence agencies acted on his dubious profile and the tip-off given by his father. Other recent terror plots and incidents either stemmed from similar failure to act on reasonable suspicion, such as Nidal Malik Hasan’s massacre of troops at Ft. Hood, or had nothing to do with airport security, such as Faisal Shazhad’s Times Square bombing attempt this past spring.

Abdulmutallab and Shazhad are most pertinent to discussing anti-terror measures because they were successes in spite of the utter failure of their plots. Even though they were caught and no one was injured, influential swaths of the country still lost their collective minds anyway. The TSA, of course, implemented its new invasive measures. Meanwhile the conservative intelligentsia demanded Abdulmutallab be tortured in spite of his cooperation with authorities, and wanted to revoke Shazhad’s Miranda rights. Only on Wall Street can failure reap such benefits.

All of this is done in the name of fighting a shadowy terrorist threat that, with a little light shone on it, loses a lot of its capacity to inspire, well, terror. Four Lions’ depiction of domestic terrorists as bumbling fools then, while imperfect, provides a necessary corrective to the constant scare-mongering that often seems to do the terrorists' work for them. Sometimes the best response to the lions’ roar, is to roar back, in laughter.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


So yeah, all those things I said about the United States having no excuse to complain about Wikileaks due to its excessive executive secrecy?

Never mind.

There is a public interest being served in providing information on illegal activities that should be brought to light, but for the most part this doesn't pass the sniff test. Yemen's government covering up our drone attacks? Arguable. That the U.S. government thinks German President Angela Merkel is "rarely creative?" Hardly.

This will only make statesmanship much more difficult, dependent as it is on candidness without fear of it being broadcast to the world. In this respect Julian Assange is no better than James O'Keefe. Yes, there's irony in turning the tables on a government that denies its citizens privacy, but a laugh is about the only thing it's good for if it doesn't accomplish anything useful.

John McCain Agitates for 'Regime Change' in North Korea...

..but not military action:

McCain, one of the Senate’s leading hawks, did not specify how the communist regime in Pyongyang should be replaced, but he added: “I’m not talking about military action.” McCain said the “key” to resolving the crisis... was cooperation from China, the North’s closest ally. China "could bring the North Korean economy to its knees if they wanted to," McCain said in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union. “Unfortunately, China is not behaving as a responsible world power."

McCain isn't dim enough to think starting a third war would be popular or even feasible (though we should probably set our clocks for a Sarah Palin war drum-beating). Even Christopher Hitchens, who still defends the Iraq fiasco and wants to open a front in Iran, when surveying the horrific hermit kingdom, could only suggest the creation of an underground railroad for North Korean expatriates.

This faux-belligerence on McCain's part is little else than a war hawk's "We've Got to Do Something."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Someone Left the (Yellow) Cake Out in the Rain

The one-month American-Libyan nuclear standoff you never heard of:

The plan was to load the uranium onto a massive Russian cargo plane, one of the few in the world specially equipped to fly nuclear materials. On November 20, the day before the plane was to leave for a nuclear facility in Russia, Libyan officials unexpectedly halted the shipment. Without explanation, they declared that the uranium would not be permitted to leave Libya. They left the seven five-ton casks out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.

The reason we're hearing about this now?

A person with access to the cables provided them to The Atlantic in order to publicize the dangers of loose nuclear materials under the control of unpredictable regimes in unstable countries.

The GOP has lately been threatening to sink the ratification of the new START treaty, which among other things would help us keep Russia's nuclear materials from falling in the hands of such regimes, or worse. Contra Charles Krauthammer, unless one doesn't think twice on squandering goodwill we've built up with the Russians, disrupting the diplomatic efforts of Eastern European nations, and preventing us from keeping an eye on an enormous and aging nuclear bonanza that terrorists would surely also like to keep an eye on--this is in fact a very large issue.

Pragmatism, Then and Now

Another find in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. This is from an article by William Greider:

In the "old politics," this sort of maneuvering was an accepted technique for approaching tough decisions, euphemistically known as "keeping your options open." The "new politics" of the McGovern campaign, which likes to frown on the old ways, will have to think of something different to call it.

The South Dakota senator has always insisted that he is, above all, a pragmatic politician and his handling of the Eagleton crisis confirms his description. Beneath the exterior of the earnest and open man, there is a cautious tactician, more calculating than either his hard-boiled critics or his starry-eyed admirers have admitted.

Barack Obama's had his share of hard-boiled critics and starry-eyed admirers, though as of late the latter haven't been so visible, mostly because anyone who thought that the man could just work magic on national and world affairs probably wasn't paying much attention to begin with.

Yet even for those of us who have tried to keep things in perspective, Obama's calculating strategy has been painfully frustrating, on gay rights and torture, particularly. But let it not be said that he doesn't know how to get what he wants. A stimulus package, health care reform, financial regulation, student loan reform (tucked into health care, no less!), diplomatic isolation of Iran. Obama has never gone as far as his supporters would like, but one must wonder at how effective this would have ultimately been. As Nancy Pelosi was rounding up votes for the final health care reform vote, it was pointed out that Dennis Kucinich, for all his passion and standard-bearing, had really accomplished very little in his 13 years of legislating.

But Kucinich is a Congressman. When talking of Obama's pragmatism in the Executive Branch, and its unreliability for liberal causes, Christopher Hayes rightly pointed out that Abraham Lincoln was not a fiery abolitionist, and instead would have done whatever it took to preserve the Union, whether it freed all, some, or none of the slaves. This is an odious view, but to focus on it is to obscure the larger, more significant fact, that these half-measures did eventually lead to the end of the slave system in America.

If talking about, say, health care reform, one can point out the many things still wrong with the new law, but only with the knowledge that voting against a such a bill for not going far enough is what prevented us from getting a nationalized health care system from Richard Nixon. As Ezra Klein noted:

You could imagine a lot of presidents more dogmatically liberal than Obama, but I wonder whether there are a lot of plausible hypotheticals in which they amass more liberal achievements than Obama. At the executive level, it might be the case that being too liberal is a liability to, well, liberalism.

Which is not to say there aren't fights worth having. In the coming weeks pragmatism will be put to the test once more, when maneuvers are made to bring a Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal to a vote. Joe Lieberman says the votes are there, and repeal is widely supported by the population at large. If Barack Obama really wants the matter to be taken up by Congress as he says, then he's going to have to do the arm-twisting he knows it takes to get things done. "Old politics" need not needlessly perpetuate old policies.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Mendacity of GOP, Ctd.

I forgot a few items in the previous post, but they dovetail nicely.

Rush Limbaugh, January 16, 2009:

I do not want the government in charge of all of these things. I don't want this to work. So I'm thinking of replying to the guy, "Okay, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails."

Mitch McConnell, October 23, 2010:

The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.

McConnell, again, November 3, 2010:

Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office.... But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.... We can hope the president will start listening to the electorate after Tuesday’s election. But we can’t plan on it.

Thinking the other party's policies are bad for the nation is nothing new. It's the basis of the party system. But baldly declaring that unseating the President is more important than fixing a weak economy, especially considering election results are tied to economic conditions, is certainly cause for suspicion of intent.

The Mendacity of GOP

Republicans are shocked--SHOCKED!-- that they are being accused of trying to take down Obama at the expense of the country:

It is difficult to overstate how offensive elected Republicans find the sabotage accusation, which Obama himself has come very close to making. During the run-up to the midterm election, the president said at a town hall meeting in Racine, Wis.: "Before I was even inaugurated, there were leaders on the other side of the aisle who got together and they made the calculation that if Obama fails, then we win." Some Republican leaders naturally took this as an attack on their motives. Was the president really contending that Republican representatives want their constituents to be unemployed in order to gain a political benefit for themselves?

Why, yes.


"If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."


“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 in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. “It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t.”

Mr. McConnell said the unity was essential in dealing with Democrats on “things like the budget, national security and then ultimately, obviously, health care.”


In an interview today on MSNBC's "Morning Meeting with Dylan Ratigan," Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R) said he'd vote against any health-care reform bill coming out of the committee unless it has wide support from Republicans -- even if the legislation contains EVERYTHING Grassley wants.
"I am negotiating for Republicans," he said. "If I can't negotiate something that gets more than four Republicans, I'm not a good negotiator."

One can make the argument that bipartisanship does not produce desirable outcomes. No Child Left Behind and the Iraq War certainly give credence to that idea. But that's not the argument being made.

To say the Republicans aren't doing everything they can to be uncooperative obstructionists, with the nation's wellbeing as collateral damage--from withholding approval of numerous and important cabinet appointees to delaying renewal unemployment benefits three times to ransoming middle-class tax cuts to withdrawing support for the vital START treaty--is disingenuous in the extreme.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Day, in Pictures

The day began with the sighting of a squirrel carrying a complete slice of pizza, an omen of some sort for sure.

Downtown DC wasn't completely depopulated, not by a long shot, but it was mercifully free of traffic congestion. Here's Constitution Avenue:

I went into the National Gallery to get a sketchbook and ended up spending a couple hours looking at and sketching (and not photographing) artwork. It was close to 4 by the time I got to the Lincoln Memorial, where there were plenty of people.

To kill time I got a snack and went to the exhibit down below the memorial, part of which was this photograph, which I post without comment:

It was dark when I came back outside.

Still quite a few people at the memorial too.

I went down to the Korean War Memorial, of which my grandfather wanted me to get some night photos. This was somewhat tricky as it isn't lit nearly as magnificently as the Lincoln and Washington monuments, but I did manage.

Next was a peak...

...at the World War II Memorial.

Then it was off to find a bite to eat. On my way I swung by the White House, which you've all seen before. I was crossing Pennsylvania Ave. and was delighted to find I could actually stop and stand in the middle of the road. I took a commemorative photo.

Ultimately I ended up having Thanksgiving dinner at Madjet, an Ethiopian restaurant on U Street, and a pretty good one too. A fine way to cap one of the better and more memorable Thanksgiving holidays I've had.

Happy Thanksgiving

I saw Four Lions last night and plan on doing a write-up, but later. For now I'm going to take advantage of the holiday to spend some time down on the National Mall, which I expect to be devoid of sentient life.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, even Tom Delay, whose mug shot is more apropos to the holiday season than the expression he is probably wearing after being convicted of money laundering yesterday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wikileaks, Round 3

They just keep coming, and the American government is not happy:

A [State Department] spokesman said: "These revelations are harmful to the United States and our interests."

He added: "They are going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world."

How whiny.

The government destroys evidence of prisoner abuse with impunity, refuse trial for people illegally abducted and tortured, assert your right to target and kill an American citizen, all without judicial oversight and what amounts to a "Just trust us," rationale. In the name of state secrets information and evidence of these crimes is being withheld. By its absolute non-cooperation, seemingly exercising absolute power, the government has in fact entirely ceded its power.

For criminalizing important information, like criminalizing anything else in tremendous demand (alcohol, marijuana, pornography), puts it in the hands of forces beyond their control, with their own interests. Wikileaks exists to fulfill that demand, and while it is odious in its exposure of individuals who could be killed for collaborating with the U.S., the government bears ultimate responsibility for creating these conditions in the first place (and subsequently dismissing Wikileaks' overtures to redact the names of those threatened).

It should also go without saying that exposing atrocities would not upset so many allies if there were not atrocities to expose.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slapping the Invisible Hand

The Tea Partiers, beneficiaries of mega-rich industry giants, are now turning their ire on... mega-rich industry giants:

On the short list are General Electric and Johnson & Johnson. Their crimes: "Their initial focus" of FreedomWorks' anti-corporate war "will be on consumer firms that lobbied for passage of Obama's agenda items that helped their firms." Those items include: "healthcare reform, bailouts, cap-and-trade energy policies or other issues pushed by the administration."

Given how much liberal acrimony there was over the health care bill's deference to insurance companies, it's amusing to see the Tea Party turn on Big Business for its support of such policies. It's like a child being mad at his father for kissing his mother, because girls are gross.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Brief Thoughts on Man on Wire

Yes, I only just watched it. There's not too much I can say about one of the best-reviewed movies in Rotten Tomatoes' history that hasn't been said already, so I shan't dwell on it too long.

Early in the film there is footage of the World Trade Center's construction. I shuddered at first to see again the huge steel framing that so littered Ground Zero, but the feeling soon subsided. For what's being done, like in any well-told story, is a conjuring act. The twin towers are reconstructed before our eyes as the setting for Philippe Petit's great wire-walking scheme.

Petit is a lively fellow, both a natural storyteller--he gleefully pantomimes the more exciting and tense moments of his tale--and kind of a mad genius. His former lover, Annie Allix, and his cohorts are all in transports of astonishment when they think back on having actually helped him string a wire across the twin towers for him to cross. And why not? The details into how they did it, including posing as French journalists in order to photograph the rooftops, are so elaborate as to invite comparisons to Ocean's 11 (not that this stops them from making it; Allix explicitly invokes "a bank robbery" to describe the bad-boy appeal the job held for Petit).

It took me a few minutes after I had finished watching to realize director James Marsh's very conscious decision to not once include the words '9/11,' 'terrorist,' or 'Osama bin Laden.' Good on him for that. That day was an obscenity, and its inclusion would have stained the story's freewheeling cheer. That the suicide bombers should be made irrelevant is in itself a minor victory.

It Gets Better?

Gay teachers in the U.K. are being harassed by students:

Rhys added: "There were high levels of homophobia in my school. Students would ask, 'Do you like men or do you like women sir?'

"There was one boy who used to run past my classroom, kick open the door, shout abuse daily.

"Eventually it was dealt with and I got an apology but I was lucky."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

In-YOU-end.... Oh.

Jeff Goldberg's got a lot of good things to say about the increasingly sick arms race going on between the TSA and potential terrorists. A few of the quotes he uses, however, scream of entendre:

Here is what President Obama, speaking in Lisbon, had to say about the furor over intrusive and humiliating airport security procedures: "...(I)n the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing, our TSA personnel are, properly, under enormous pressure to make sure that you don't have somebody slipping on a plane with some sort of explosive device on their persons."

But, unfortunately, the threat comes not only from explosive devices on people, but in people. Our country has not yet experienced the terror of a cavity bomb -- a bomb inserted into the rectum or vagina of a suicide terrorist -- but this is what experts, in and out of government, fear is coming....

Three experts I spoke to this weekend -- two of whom are currently serving in government in counter-terrorism capacities -- believe it is only a matter of time before the technique is tried here. "We have nothing in our arsenal that would detect these bombs," one told me. "There is no taboo that we can see against this technique. Suicide is suicide, it doesn't matter how gross it is."

I know I risk forfeiting intellectual credibility I probably don't have--credibility credit, shall we say--but as an unreformed schoolboy who never saw a bad pun he couldn't appreciate, I felt I had to say something.

James Frey is the Kindest, Bravest, Warmest, Most Wonderful Human Being I've Ever Known in My Life

The infamous A Million Little Pieces author has started a publishing venture to crank out young-adult novels with the rigidly contracted help of aspiring writers. He sounds like he'd be a wonderful person to work for:

“I have very few friends who are writers … I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places. Contemporary artists like [Richard] Prince, Hirst, and Koons do that, but there are no literary equivalents. In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions. I’ve already been cast out of ‘proper’ American literary circles. I don’t have to be a good boy anymore. I find that the older I get, the more radical my work becomes.”

Setting aside whether finding a desperate MFA student to ghost-write the next Twilight is going to make literary history, let us consider hype. Frey uses the word 'radical' three times in this one quote, insisting that he is (a) radical. That's some high self-appraisal, but it really doesn't mean anything unless others will concur. The top results for a Googling of 'James Frey radical' brings up only responses to this New York Magazine piece. One should always approach media hype with a skeptical eye, even more so when it's the subject doing the hyping, and especially he is alone in doing so. If you have to talk about how radical you are, there's a good chance you're not really all that radical. Marketing is not radical.

For balance, let us also consider Edward Albee. Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is also stubborn and driven (he insists on only allowing what is to my mind an inferior version of The Zoo Story to be professionally produced), but his body of work speaks for itself. Ask any theatre critic about important American playwrights of the last half-century, and Albee's name will quickly fall from his lips.

Frey could learn from Albee's approach to fame:

GREEN -- Is that, in part, a way of looking out for posterity?

ALBEE -- Who is this posterity, and what does he want?

GREEN -- You tell me.

ALBEE -- I don't know.

GREEN -- Do you concern yourself with that?

ALBEE -- No. You can't think about yourself in the third person. That's madness.

GREEN -- But you have an impulse to protect what you've done.

ALBEE -- I am the guardian of the plays that are sitting in my head that want to come out.

GREEN -- And yet you're also the guardian of the plays that have already come out. At least the temporary guardian.

ALBEE -- I don't think we should think about legacies ourselves.

For what it's worth, Albee also runs a retreat for writers and other creative types. Frey offers young would-be authors stifling contracts to hitch their wagons to his star.

Me to Play

I was hoping to have something to say about a production of Beckett's Endgame I saw last night, but since I didn't get much out of it, I don't want to spend much time on it.

The great challenge of Beckett is trying to make sense of dialogue and situations that are often written to not make sense. That's just as a reader. When staging one must of course, by definition, keep the audience in mind. Carter Jahncke was successful in this, perhaps because Beckett's narrative is easier to wrap one's mouth around than his dialogue. But to my mind the Endgame I saw included much 'psychology' that only threw matters into further confusion.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Grand Old Posers

Dave Weigel thinks the backlash against the TSA's body scanner/patdown invasiveness is due to the fact that Republicans fear government power and no longer need to hew to the official line on these matters. Andrew Sullivan agrees, and points to Charles Krauthammer's "Don't touch my junk!" cri de coeur as evidence.

I think Adam Serwer's on the firmer ground, pointing out that far worse has been done in the name of national security, but exclusively to Muslims:

The last president of the United States brags openly about ordering people to be tortured, and the current one asserts the authority to kill American citizens he believes to be terrorists overseas.

But most of these measures are either invisible enough to put out of mind or occur outside of what most Americans can imagine happening to them. As long as it's just Muslims being tortured and foreigners being detained indefinitely, the price we pay to feel secure seems all too abstract. The TSA's new passenger-screening measures just happen to fall on the political and economic elites who can make their complaints heard. It's not happening to those scary Arabs anymore. It's happening to "us."

One cannot take seriously screechings about counterproductive and invasive security procedures from the people who brought us this:

Don't touch my junk, indeed.

That Other Bipartisan Commission

It's interesting to note Alan Simpson was a member of the Iraq Study Group, whose report on how to go forward in Iraq after the 2006 midterms, was essentially ignored by President Bush, particularly regarding troop levels:

Sustained increases in U.S. troop levels would not solve the fundamental cause of violence in Iraq, which is the absence of national reconciliation. A senior American general told us that adding U.S. troops might temporarily help limit violence in a highly localized area. However, past experience indicates that the violence would simply rekindle as soon as U.S. forces are moved to another area. As another American general told us, if the Iraqi government does not make political progress, “all the troops in the world will not provide security.”

Similarly, the harsh response to the test balloon floated by the Simpson-Bowles commission--even from its own members--seems to ensure a similar stillbirth.

Yet just because the Baker report was right that violence would return once troop levels were decreased, post-surge, doesn't mean the Simpson-Bowles commission's plan is the correct one. Everyone talks a good game about bipartisanship, but on major issues like the Iraq War and the fiscal policy, the two sides are coming with with completely different premises (Our presence in Iraq is bad/good; the end goal of legislation should be helping people/shrink government) and thus spend most of the time talking past one another.

The takeaway is these bipartisan commissions only seem useful in giving ideas exposure, rather than proposing specific courses of action that will actually be realized. But we'll soon see, won't we?

Gulf in Mexico

Andrew Sullivan flags a story on Mexican journalists, and how they have essentially stopped reporting on drug cartel violence, rightly fearing for their safety.

So where does one go to find out about the cartels? Not speaking Spanish myself I can only get so far, but I did manage to find a few sites that offer unvarnished coverage.

Politics in the Zeros has a list of four blogs devoted to finding news reports on cartel violence and analyzing them.

The Guardian mentions a Twitter feed, #Reynosafollow, that talks about shootouts and other incidents that go otherwise unreported by Mexican media.

The Daily Beast earlier this year wrote about Alarma! (not having seen the site myself, I'll repeat the Beast's warning of the graphic violence contained therein), which functions basically as a death tabloid.

The most famous coverage of the drug war comes from el Blog del Narco, maintained anonymously, a must-read for all sides of the conflict, one that the cartels contact directly, posting gruesome torture and execution videos.

Eat Spinach and Die

Rick Santorum has been coy about running for President. He's starting to show a little leg:

There are lessons to be learned from President Barack Obama’s historic run in 2008, Santorum told the audience. Obama’s vision of a united America inspired voters.

“But he failed to deliver and that is disappointing,” he said. “I think Republicans whoever the Republican nominee is needs to be as compelling.”

Voters are looking for authenticity, he said.

“I’m the Popeye candidate – I am what I am,” he said. “And I think in 2006 they didn’t like what I am. And that’s fine.”

This is so obviously wrong. Popeye liked to eat spinach, but in 2006 Santorum just ate shi--uh, santorum.

In any case, it might be fun to watch him and Sarah Palin fight to prove who has the biggest purity bracelet.

Military Omissions

Morris Davis makes the case for the verdict on terror suspect Ahmed Ghailani, acquitted of 284 charges and convicted on one (for which he will serve at least twenty years in prison).

I was curious about Davis' background after reading that he was once a Guantanamo prosecutor. This Washington Post piece from two years ago, after he soured on military commissions, is a useful introduction and also underscores how important the Ghailani verdict is:

Davis said he wants to wait until the cases -- and the military commissions system -- have a more solid legal footing. He also said that Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II, who announced his retirement in February, once bristled at the suggestion that some defendants could be acquitted, an outcome that Davis said would give the process added legitimacy.

"He said, 'We can't have acquittals,' " Davis said under questioning from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, the military counsel who represents Hamdan. " 'We've been holding these guys for years. How can we explain acquittals? We have to have convictions.' "

These commissions had less to do with justice than saving face and looking 'tough on terror.'

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Plagiarization is the Highest Form of Frattery

How did I miss this? George W. Bush, who began his presidency by stealing an election, recaps it by stealing other authors' words:

His absence [from Hamid Karzai's election day] doesn't stop Bush from relating this anecdote: "When Karzai arrived in Kabul for his inauguration on December 22 - 102 days after 9/11 - several Northern Alliance leaders and their bodyguards greeted him at an airport. As Karzai walked across the tarmac alone, a stunned Tajik warlord asked where all his men were. Karzai, responded, 'Why, General, you are my men. All of you who are Afghans are my men.'"

That meeting would sound familiar to Ahmed Rashid, author of "The Mess in Afghanistan", who wrote in the New York Review of Books: "At the airport to receive [Karzai] was the warlord General Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley .... As the two men shook hands on the tarmac, Fahim looked confused. 'Where are your men?' he asked. Karzai turned to him in his disarmingly gentle manner of speaking. 'Why General," he replied, "you are my men--all of you are Afghans and are my men.'"

h/t Salim

Demagoguery, Then and Now

Comparisons of Sarah Palin and George Wallace are not new. The similarities exist, and so it's natural for journalists to look backward. But reading Hunter S. Thompson's description of Wallace, at the height of his powers, makes the similarity even more apparent and frightening:

[T]he typical Wallace voter, especially in the North and Midwest, was far less committed to Wallace himself than to his thundering, gut-level appeal to rise up and smash all the "pointy-headed" bureaucrats in Washington" who'd been fucking them over for so long.

The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy--and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions: Taxes? Nigras? Army worms killing the turnip crop? Whatever it was, Wallace assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple, and that the only reason they had any hassle with the government at all was because those greedy bloodsuckers in Washington didn't want the problems solved, so they wouldn't be put out of work.

The ugly truth is that Wallace had never even bothered to understand the problems--much less come up with any honest solutions--but "the Fighting Little Judge" has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap.

Socialized Medicine, For Real

Vermont, the state that brought us civil unions, may eventually blaze another trail, according to real live socialist Bernie Sanders:

So what happens if Scott Brown and Ron Wyden get their way and the waiver moves up to 2014? Will Vermont use it?

We believe Vermont stands a chance to be the first state in the nation to pass single-payer. The governor-elect campaigned on it, and we have support in the House and Senate. We’re not asking for one nickel more than we’d otherwise get. The other thing we think we have an opportunity to do is reach out to our conservative friends and say, hey, Vermont wants to go forward with a single-payer system, and Mississippi and Alabama don’t, but maybe they have other ideas. Now, we’re conscious of the need to make sure that the health-care reform bill’s standards aren’t diminished. So everyone needs to provide the same quality of health care as the bill provides and at the same, or lower, price. But if they can do that, then they should be able to go for it.


Yesterday Fox News president Roger Ailes referred to NPR as "Nazis," and today apologized for it. Also:

Ailes and Foxman seem to have established an open line of communication of late. After the ADL criticized Glenn Beck for his statements about George Soros’ actions during the Holocaust, Ailes reached out to Foxman, Kurtz reported.

Think of it as a swear jar for Nazi Tourette's.

Most Excellent Fancy

The Salman Rushdie reading at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue was not until seven PM, but the doors opened at six. Getting there at 6:54, a friend and I had to sit up on the second floor, the first already at capacity for a sold out crowd. It was a mixed group, old and young, but hardly surprisingly so; Rushdie is one of the most well-known and well-regarded English authors today, after all. Rushdie's a man of ideas, with something to say, and he did it as well in person as on the page.

His just-published Luka and the Fire of Life is a sequel of sorts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which, he explained in his opening remarks, had been written at the encouragement of a German publisher friend--- "You must a children's book write!" the man said-- as well as his son Zafar, whose middle name provided the name of the title character. Rushdie had enjoyed writing it, especially the letters he received. His favorite, from a girl then 12 or 13 years old:

"Kindly reply to this letter at once, because when I grow up I am going to be a world leader."

Luka was prompted by Rushdie's second son, Milan, who also wanted a story, and whose middle name is also protagonist's. The theme of Haroun had been storytelling, which continues in the follow-up with the idea of the magic world and the real world, and the permeability between the two.

There is no real world without imagination, Rushdie argued. "You have to imagine a microphone before you make one, you have to imagine a chair before you can build one," he said. "Without the imaginary world, the real world could not exist."

After reading an excerpt from the beginning of the book, Rushdie talked about some of the characters, drawn from a wide span of influences. There's Nobodaddy, a translucent Angel of Death figure that look's like Luka's father, named after a devil referenced by Blake and Joyce. There's a queen of the magic world, a Sultana, referred to as the Insultana for her acid tongue; there's also a dog named Bear and a bear named Dog. Solomon's magic carpet comes into play as well.

"I've always wanted a flying carpet in a book, now I've finally got one in," Rushdie beamed.

His humanist curiosity was evident in his introduction of another excerpt, on the Land of Badly Behaved Gods.

"I've always enjoyed the old polytheisms more than the new monotheisms because the gods are so badly behaved." There was marvelous energy to his reading a passage about how Aztec gods have it worst, that they were used to receiving blood sacrifices and now receive nothing. "You've heard of vampires? Most of them are bloodthirsty, long-in-the-tooth, undead Aztec gods. Huitzilopochtli!" Rushdie declaimed.

"Tezcatlipoca! Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli! Macuilcozcacuauhtli! Itztlacoliuhqui-Ixquimilli-"

"Stop, stop," Luka begged. "No wonder people stopped worshiping them. Nobody could pronounce their names."

Rushdie describes the book as his own way of retelling Quest for Fire, an archetypal story that appears in every culture. Across the world, acquiring fire is the defining story of what makes us human.

But for Rushdie, storytelling itself is what makes us human. "Do porpoises have narrative purposes? Do elephants ele-fantasize?" he asked, only half-jokingly. He mentioned Steven Pinker's idea of a language instinct, and proposed we have a storytelling instinct. "The first thing we ask for, after food, is, 'Tell me a story.'"

Some of the best moments of the night came from the Q&A session afterward. One man asked about his writing process.

"Left to right, all the way down the page, and I fill up several pages. Poets don't have to do any of that, they have it easier. Novelists work harder." It was actually his deadline-based job in advertising when he was starting out that made him treat writing like any other job. He quoted, extempore, Hemingway's dictum to "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."

A woman, after offering her daughter--her name, rather--for the basis of Rushdie's next kids book, asked about the impact of the fatwa on his writing, which actually was salient to Haroun and Luka.

"Haroun was the first book I wrote after the Fatwa, and it's my most joyous, funniest book. It also has the first happy ending I ever wrote. I was very interested in happy endings then!"

These are stock queries, though. Rushdie's best moment was his answer to a unique and ungainly run-on sentence phrased in the form of a question, of which my mock-quote here is barely an exaggeration:

You talk about poetry, but you are a poet, you tell the truth but--you have a slant, and you are, the anti-religion, and I was wondering if you could here compose, improvise, a couplet, in which you propose your own religion, your own slant, just a couple lines in which you can give us your....

"That's a wonderful question." Rushdie deadpanned.

"The problem is that I have no religion. But that's not the problem, that's the solution, is to have no religion. So my religious couplet would be two lines, without any words." A fine performance from the man who told Christopher Hitchens that the title of God is Not Great was exactly one word too long.

Lest one think this makes Salman Rushdie just a grumpy atheist, one ought consider his answer to the final question asked. A Kashmiri woman asked how, when writing Shalimar the Clown, he could include so many accurate nuances to life in Kashmir without living there. His response was a perfect mixture of wisdom, wit, and warmth.

Rushdie cheekily mentioned "this thing called research," and then spoke of his friend Nuruddin Farah, who has lived in exiled from his native Somalia, but has set his every novel there. When asked this same question Farah answered, "I carry it here," Rushdie explained, thumping his breast.

He went on, "Hemingway was able to write about America in France, in Paris, and Joyce wrote the best book ever written on Dublin from Trieste. Although some would disagree." Rushdie then adopted the gruff Irish accent of a Ulysses-hater:

"Thot's not Dublin.... Thot man, thot... pore-NAW-gruffer. BLAS-feemur...."

When the audience's laughter subsided, Rushdie said simply, "I'm proud that my books feel true to people that read them. How I do it, is a secret."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Slammin' Salman

Tonight I went to Salman Rushdie's reading of his just-published Luka and the Fire of Life. I'll have a full report up tomorrow, but I thought I'd share a little anecdote.

After his speech and Q&A session, Rushdie did a signing. Along with three books, I also had my sketchbook in hand, that he could sign the drawing I had done during his speech.

Slightly egotistical, perhaps. The handler certainly thought so. "This guy wants you to admire his sketch and maybe sign it," he said, sliding it over.

Rushdie's response: "It looks like Lenin!"

The Genealogy of Emails

Funny, but very true:

There are some warning signs that you might have a bad e-mail address. First, is it oddly specific, but does it end in a number? You probably need to rethink your life. Anything along the lines of NobodyLovesTheCircusMore5 or ClevelandMortThePirateHunter7 is just a cry for help. The people who own these e-mail addresses clearly felt that they had their lives well in order until they noticed that NobodyLovesTheCircusMore was taken -- four times. At Hotmail.

My old email address falls roughly within these parameters, being based of all things off the 90s puzzle game Myst. Mostly I picked it because it sounded neat, and an unrelated number was en vogue at the time.

I hold onto it now for a few reasons: many of my friends and family already have that as my contact and switching is just mildly inconvenient. It's also a good way to separate personal and business mail. Finally, I have a peculiar loyalty for it--fifteen years of providing email under the same goofy name is not casually tossed aside.

h/t Ezra Klein

Slow News Day...

...for Thomas Friedman, who uses the entirety of his column today to re-cap an Anderson Cooper investigation with little more input than nods of approval:

On Nov. 4, Anderson Cooper did the country a favor. He expertly deconstructed on his CNN show the bogus rumor that President Obama’s trip to Asia would cost $200 million a day. This was an important “story.” It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism.

The piece is but ten paragraphs long, seven of which contain Cooper's name in the first or second sentence.

I mean, really, a link to the story or an embedded video is all that's necessary.

Telling the story of telling the story is so meta and dull. Get a blog, dude.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Snake Devours its Tail

I'm not going to take a side on whether Andrew Holmes is innocent or guilty of murdering an Afghan civilian, but the complaint from his defenders of insufficient evidence has a fascinating wrinkle:

Conway again pressed the Army to release photos of the man Holmes allegedly killed. Conway wants to show them in open court to demonstrate that he was not killed by the squad automatic weapon that Holmes carried that day.

Those photos have been ordered to remain concealed because they could endanger American soldiers serving overseas.

Without them, Conway says he can't show that Holmes wasn't responsible for the death.

Here's Obama last year, on not releasing incriminating photos (emphasis mine):

"The most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger," the president said before departing on his trip to Arizona. "Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse."

Now granted, Obama was talking about prison torture photos as opposed to cold-blooded killing out in the open, but the principle of not wanting to endanger troops remains the same. And now flies an accusation of obstructing an investigation, which supposedly this (deeply wrong and cowardly) policy was supposed to prevent.

A Bedtime Lullaby

The Tempest post from earlier prompted me to go to YouTube to track down some of Goldenthal's other stuff. His score from The Butcher Boy, one of his best for its dementedness and how it complement the movie, is strangely absent. There is, however, the lovely Sinead O' Connor version of the song, "The Butcher Boy":

It's been stuck in my head all day.

Heard in DC

(Columbia Heights. A woman walks up to a few of us waiting for the bus. She speaks to a gal with a laundry basket to her left.)

WOMAN: Excuse me, you gotta lighter?

(She doesn't have a lighter. She turns to a guy on her right.

WOMAN: You got a light?

(He doesn't have a light. She looks to a couple Hispanic guys in front of her, sitting next to me.)

WOMAN: Fuego? Fire?

HISPANIC: We don't have a light.

(She leaves, and laughter ensues.)

Old Flame

As I wrote yesterday, a most unhappy summer left a bad taste in my mouth as far as theatre is concerned. I passed on a friend's play reading, didn't bother seeing anything here or in Philadelphia, and generally gave drama a wide berth. This is was somewhat of a big deal, since most of my free time for the past six years has been devoted to attending or writing or directing or performing in some show or another, whether a reading, a full production, or an improv gig. Losing the theatre love was like attending a seminary only to wake up one morning not believing in God. It was profoundly de-centering.

And thankfully, relatively, short-lived.

My distaste began to recede shortly after I arrived in DC. One of the newspapers had an ad, and a review, for Constellation Theatre's production of the Thomas Middleton's Jacobean revenge piece Women Beware Women. Among the events advertised at Busboys and Poets was Spooky Action Theater's adaptation of Samuel Beckett's The Lost Ones. Some internet research on Women Beware Women led me to discover a nearby Endgame show. I was... excited.

You have to understand: English revenge plays are my favorite genre of drama. They can be contrived as hell, but even then one must appreciate how well they operate with an almost clock-like narrative precision, in which a group of terrible people commit terrible deeds and are killed in terrible ways. I love these works so much I devoted my Honors History thesis to taking this operating moral logic and applying it to Queen Elizabeth's gruesome treatment of traitors to the Crown. Incest, intrigue, and improbable death scenes. I can't imagine a better night's entertainment.

And Beckett! Never had pessimism a better, more articulate standard-bearer. I played Lucky in a community college production of Waiting for Godot that is still one of my favorite shows that I've done. Endgame fascinates me endlessly, and the notoriously uptight Beckett estate allowing an adaptation of one of the man's obscure prose works (The Lost Ones) is a secular miracle. There really wasn't much question in whether I would go.

That's important, as I know people who have gotten burned by something they enjoy (including some theatre folk), who then stay away for a long time. It's very easy for a bit of unpleasantness to poison the well, but it doesn't do any good to let that happen. This was bleeding obvious to everyone except myself, but I suppose everyone has to learn at their own pace.

And I'm very glad I went. The Lost Ones was stunning in its simplicity: a single cloth circle on which stood one man speaking Beckett's words, describing a strange subterranean cylinder populated by 200 beings, played by 60 or so little handcrafted, Giacometti-styled figurines. It wasn't clear if this narrator, played by Carter Jahncke, was one of them or some omniscient presence, but it almost doesn't matter. Beckett is best enjoyed for the language, and Jahncke's intensely delicate diction did the parable well.

I had a harder time with Women Beware Women, at first. It suffered from some of the same problems I find in many Shakespeare stagings: interpolations--basically, goofy sound effects and gestures--to hit the audience over the head with a joke, and an overbearing visual interpretation. In this case, a Tim Burton influence made for some gaudy Hot Topic-like costumes, Isabella's and Livia's in particular. The use of a therimin in the original music made for an obvious "spookiness" I found similarly off-putting.

The actors, particularly Thomas Keegan and Caley Milliken as the leads Leantio and Bianca, were all strong, though, if occasionally misdirected (Felipe Cabezas and David Zimmerman as Ward and Sordido had most of the loud and grating interpolations I mentioned). And the ending! The play's bloody masque banquet has been called a "ridiculous holocaust," to which one can only reply: so? It is ridiculous, it is a holocaust, and gloriously so. The very ending, in which "Cupid" surveyed the dead cast onstage and sang his final lines, drawing his bow and taking aim at the audience, sent me out of the theater with smile biggest smile I've had after such an event in quite some time. It capped what was probably the most redemptive second act I've ever seen.

Which is all to say, I'm in comfortable territory. I still don't know how large a role theatre will play in my life, but I'm glad to have moved beyond petulance and can enjoy myself again. I'm sure I'll do so when I check out Endgame, before it closes this weekend.

The Tempest Score Preview

Elliot Goldenthal's Facebook page is streaming samples from his Tempest score. The "indie rock" influence makes for an interesting listen, for sure. Goldenthal's oddball orchestration mixed with some loopy electric guitar, with some occasional straight-up chugga-chugga boom-boom riffing.

I think "Hell is Empty" is my favorite right now, in the way it takes some of Goldenthal's familiar arpeggio stylings--start listening around 3:30 here to get a sense of what I'm talking about--and taps them on a guitar and.... Ah, just go and listen.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The spontaneous outbreak of good taste by the American public regarding Garfield provides an ample opportunity to bring renewed attention to internet anti-Garfield humor. These are all fairly well-known, but I believe it would be a public service to bring them all together.

First there is the Garfield Random Panel Generator, which operates on both the Kuleshov Theory and the Garfield is Funnier Out of Sequence Theory, both of which are true and well-documented.

Next is the Garfield silencing. It's pretty self-explanatory; by removing Garfield's thought bubbles the strip becomes "an oddly surrealist comic."

Along these same lines is Realfield, which turns Garfield into a realistic looking pussy cat, and Garfield Minus Garfield, in which he is removed entirely. This latter approach warps the increased focus on Jon, taking him from just a lonely guy that talks to his cat to a desperate sack that holds disjuointed discourse with himself.

Interestingly, Garfield creator Jim Davis approves of the treatment, going so far as to allow G-G's "creator" to publish a book collection of his alterations. More money in the bank, I'm sure.

Finally there is Lasagna Cat, which must have required an absurd level of time and resources to realize. The concept is brilliant in its simplicity: re-enact Garfield strips with live-action performers and a laugh track and rimshot for the "funny" parts, followed by a surreal music video remix and a potshot at Jim Davis. One of my favorites:

The effect is really quite astounding. As one of the silenced Garfield commenters notes, "Garfield, traditionally one of the worst comics ever, has become the greatest comic ever." The only other comic strip perversion I can think of that achieves a similar level of realized-humor-by-degradation is the Nietzsche Family Circus.

Cat-astrophic Timing

People were not laughing at this Veterans Day Garfield comic strip:

Jim Davis has apologized, blaming the vagaries of the comic strip world and his own lack of a calendar featuring marked holidays. He puts the offensive comic strip down to “the worst timing ever.” It’s Jon-level bad timing!

Is it really news that Garfield isn't funny?

NOH8.... NO,W8.

Cindy McCain appears twice in this NOH8 spot, during which she says,

Our political and religious leaders tell LGBT youth that they have no future.... They can't serve our country openly.


Our government treats the LGBT community like second class citizens. Why shouldn't they [our kids]?

The next day:

But what exactly does NOH8 stand for?

The NOH8 Campaign is a photographic silent protest created by celebrity photographer Adam Bouska (http://www.bouska.net) and partner Jeff Parshley in direct response to the passage of Proposition 8. Photos feature subjects with duct tape over their mouths, symbolizing their voices being silenced by Prop 8 and similar legislation around the world, with "NOH8" painted on one cheek in protest.

So okay, it's against "Prop 8 and similar legislation." Hmmmm.... What about John McCain's vaunted stance, then? What does he stand for? That depends on when you ask him. Last May (emphasis mine):

With the November elections looming, they don’t want to wait for the Defense Department’s study about how the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ would affect the military’s battle effectiveness and morale in a time of war. Wait a year for the study to be complete? They don’t want to hear that. They want to repeal the law, and then look at the study. It’s just crazy.

Last weekend:

I will listen to our military leaders, and not a study that is leaked....All four service chiefs are saying we need a thorough and complete study of the effects, not how to implement the repeal, but the effects on morale and battle effectiveness. That's what I want, and once we get this study, we need to have hearings and we need to examine it and look at whether it's the kind of study that we wanted. It isn't in my view.

So The Senator's take is pretty shifty too.

But wait: ambiguity? Double-meanings? I think I know what's going on here:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fire to Ash

The wordsmithing is failing me on this particular topic, so in lieu of any organized thoughts I'm going to just ramble and see what happens to fall out of my brain through my keyboard.

One of the reasons I started hitting this blog with (relative) heaviness back in August was, essentially, burnout from Theatre. Though it wasn't quite so much burning myself out--that would imply things were getting done--as much as seeing everything else go up in smoke. Basically, three incidents and factors, independent of one another, converged to strike in rapid succession this summer and left me wearied and bitter.

The first was a protracted Playwriting MFA application process: seven of the eight schools turned me down outright (which is not unheard of), while the last one invited me for an interview in May and then took two months instead of two weeks to tell me they they weren't interested.

The final word on that came in early July. I was directing David Mamet's Oleanna at the Alpine Playhouse summer show by then. It was only a week later, two-and-a-half weeks before we were to open, that one of my actors fell extremely ill, so much so that, with her moving a week after we would have closed, we had no room to reschedule and had to cancel the show.

Shortly thereafter I finally got around to reading the much talked-about study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, which quantifies the generally awful economics of new play production in the U.S. Suffice it to say that I wanted to throw the book against the wall while I was reading it and spent a lot of time brooding--on theatre, cultural (ir)relevance, the future--afterward.

The effect of this, following as it did on the heels of the exhausting MFA process and the Oleanna cancellation (sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel...), was traumatic. Never mind a perfect storm, this was starvation in a monsoon on top of an earthquake.

It killed any enthusiasm I had for the theater, which is why I didn't bother to see any shows on my September trip. It's also, as I said, why I've been spending so much more time on this blog than I was before (there were also some major writer's block issues at work, but that's another story).

I didn't write about any of this as it was going on--not here, anyway--because it was a lot of ugly anger and self-pity that I would have regretted publishing, and I had better things to blog about anyway. And I probably wouldn't be writing about it now, except that it provides some useful context for the past couple weekends, in which, to mix my metaphors, my burnout began to thaw.

But that's for another post; this one's long and unfocused enough as it is.

You're Dutiful

James Blunt explains how he prevented World War III:

Blunt was ordered to seize an airfield - but the Russians had got there first.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5Live, to be broadcast later on Sunday, he said: "I was given the direct command to overpower the 200 or so Russians who were there...."

....Asked if following the order would have risked starting World War 3, Blunt, who was a 25-year-old cavalry officer at the time, replied: "Absolutely. And that's why we were querying our instruction from an American general".

"Fortunately, up on the radio came General Mike Jackson, whose exact words at the time were, 'I'm not going to have my soldiers be responsible for starting World War 3', and told us why don't we sugar off down the road, you know, encircle the airfield instead.

One suspects Blunt saved the world so his bland soft rock could conquer it instead.

h/t Jesse

God Smack

Gene Weingarten snark attacks the findings on the relatively ignorant religious, as well as the notion of atheist smugness:

Q: Why are you so down on creationism?

A: Because it is an anagram for "I note racism."

Q: Do you think evolution is inconsistent with the possible existence of God?

A: Theoretically, no. An all-powerful God could, of course, set evolution in motion. But it would mean a God who then completely washed his hands of us.

Q: Do you deduce that because of all the suffering in the world?

A: No. I deduce that because "evolution" is an anagram for "I love u not."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Notes From Onstage

Earlier this year I conceived of and aborted the idea of a contemporary, theatrical update of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. What ultimately doomed the concept--along with fatigue and disgust--was the problem of the "Notes" themselves. How does one translate and recontextualize the Underground Man's first-person narrative to an audience-oriented medium like the stage?

Like this.

The Yale Repertory Theater’s production of “Notes From Underground,” adapted by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff, is true to the outline, and often to the letter, of the bombshell of a book that inspired it: Dostoyevsky’s short, relentless novel of self-laceration from 1864. But this production, directed by Mr. Woodruff and starring Mr. Camp, never seems closer to its source’s spirit than in its use of an anachronism: the little camera with which the Underground Man records his sorry confessions.

Consider the show’s very first scene, in which Mr. Camp recites the litany of degradation that begins Dostoyevsky’s novel: “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man.” As Mr. Camp says these words, the projected image of his smiling, snarling face looms large and scary on the back of the stage of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where “Notes,” presented here by Theater for a New Audience, runs through Nov. 28.

You look at that outsize, contemptuous, phantasmal face, and you see a charismatic specter in control, speaking words that unsettle you. But shift your gaze to stage left, to Mr. Camp in the flesh, hunched over his trinket-sized camera, which sits on a decrepit desk in a derelict room. In three dimensions, in a broader context, Mr. Camp seems small and pathetic. It’s like seeing both faces of the Wizard of Oz at the same time: a gigantic, bodiless head and that insignificant little man behind the curtain.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Via Fark, some considerate whelps thought it would be a good idea to wear Straight Pride shirts to school during the gay-friendly, anti-bullying Ally Week:

Several students complained to high school administrators Monday -- the first day of an anti-bullying "Ally Week" -- when three students wore the T-shirts, which also quoted a Biblical passage advocating death as a punishment for homosexual activity.

The administration stepped in and asked them to cover up the offending messages, and they obliged.

Time was when I probably would have been in favor of the administration's position. High school is a miserable time, goes the reasoning, and this doesn't help.

But look at the context: this was happening amid an anti-bullying event organized by the campus Gay-Straight Alliance. The gay students are not isolated. If anything, the people advocating death for homosexuals are the marginal actors here. They want students to "learn about people who might have a different opinion than theirs," but if anything these clowns should have been the ones getting an education. The GSA should have allowed them to wear their hateful attire and then singled them out for being the heartless little assholes they are, mocked their backwards, iron-age beliefs, and shamed the bigots into covering their messages up.

That's the real free speech lesson. People have differing opinions that should be aired. But if you're going to say something controversial, then you're going to have to take responsibility for it and face the ensuing shitstorm. I would hope that we and our high schools have progressed enough that such a point could be made.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kenyan Anti-Colonialism

Addressing University of Indonesia students and staff while in Jakarta, President Obama praised Indonesia for the progress it's made since gaining independence:

Like other countries that emerged from colonial rule in the last century, Indonesia struggled and sacrificed for the right to determine your destiny. That is what Heroes Day is all about -- an Indonesia that belongs to Indonesians. But you also ultimately decided that freedom cannot mean replacing the strong hand of a colonizer with a strongman of your own.

Somebody call Dinesh D'souza!

h/t Jim Fallows