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Thursday, May 3, 2007

In discussing Marilee Jones, the former dean of admissions at MIT who resigned after it was discovered that she had doctored her own résumé more than 25 years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich offers this cynical interpretation of college education:

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one’s ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. And whatever else you do in a white-collar job, most of the time you’ll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end—whether in library carrels or office cubicles—does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned—although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming.

As Christopher Hayes notes in linking to the piece, this is “credentialism run amok.”

Credentialism is when employers require things like college degrees (from preferred schools) for their own sake, not for any skills they guarantee. This prerequisite serves a filtering function to weed out superfluous people—those who can’t game the admissions system, or haven’t been docile enough to be trained from an early age to prepare for it, or lack the money or the know-how to get it out of the existing aid systems—and allows meritocracy to be undermined by the very act of trying to institutionalize it. Certainly, credentialism explains why so many college students pointedly lack the love of learning one might idealistically expect from those electing for more education; they just want the degree the system requires. To them, college is just an especially obscure bureaucratic apparatus. Learning is so insignificant to students that it doesn’t even reach the point where it can be debased by being instrumentalized. (The need for diplomas for their own sake has opened up the lucrative business of online colleges, which streamline the process and strip it to its essentials, the fulfillment of the essential paper shuffling and the rather arbitrary requirements to spend so many hours exposed to so much standardized material. The rare spontaneous moment you’ll encounter in classrooms is perfectly suppressed, making th credentialing process much more businesslike.) Instead college education functions like cultural taste; the things one claims to know, just like the things one claims to appreciate, are a bit beside the point of being able to plausibly and convincingly state to someone else that you know or appreciate them. The object of the learning or the appreciating disappears, becomes a mere algebraic variable in an equation computing one’s social capital.

Because credentialism is so widespread, employers don’t seem to expect anybody to know how to do anything; they merely expect new employees to attend orientation meetings and follow pre-established procedures. This makes an employee’s willingness to defy established procedures and at the same time articulate why they needed to be defied—a capability of thinking about the process while making sure it is carried out—all the more valuable. Jumping through hoops gets you credentialed, but it won’t get you promoted; ambition seems to be a matter of ignoring the procedures or testing them for cracks that you can slip through, since if the procedure was airtight, everyone who serviced it would be fixed in place; the whole system would be static. Anyway, this is to say aspirants are wise to learn how to think about processes rather than results and to consider how they can profitably do more than what they are told to do. I felt I could generally tell the best students by how far they were willing to go without explicit instructions, and I often was aware of the paradox of teaching “critical thinking” as I often pretended to do—it basically means teaching disobedience, preparing students to ultimately recognize the limits of what you say.  It was more important that they learn something other than what I would spend my time talking about and they would take down in their notebooks. If they only learned what I tried to teach, I would see that as a mark of our mutual failure. No wonder I had to quit teaching.

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dem Debate sheds light on the troubling shift in the Supreme Court

During last week’s Democratic Presidential Debate, there was a brief question and answer session concerning the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to uphold a specific abortion ban. A number of Dems emphatically denounced the outcome. The speedy exchange was only a glimmer in the 90-minute debate, but it addressed an issue that should be of concern to the American people.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upheld a law banning a rarely used procedure carried out in the middle-to-late second trimester of a pregnancy. Understandably, the Dems did not defend the procedure itself – which should only be used in cases where the mother’s health is at risk – but instead focused on the court’s rationale and the further implications the decision could have.

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Thursday, May 3, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Betty Davis
Anti Love Song [MP3]

He Was a Big Freak [MP3]

Buy at iTunes Music Store

“For the first time, Betty’s critically adored first two albums are being lovingly re-mastered from the original master tapes by Light In The Attic Records to sound as ferocious and revolutionary as they did when they first sprung on an unsuspecting world in the early ‘70s. In recent years, rappers from Ice Cube to Talib Kweli to Ludacris have rhymed over the intensely strong but sensual funk of Betty Davis. One can hardly imagine the genre busting, culture-crossing musical magic of Outkast, Prince, Erykah Badu, Rick James, The Roots, or even the early Red Hot Chili Peppers without the influence of this R&B pioneer. Ms. Davis’s unique story is unlike any other in popular music. Betty wrote the song “Uptown” for the Chambers Brothers before marrying Miles Davis in the late ‘60s, influencing him with psychedelic rock, and introducing him to Jimi Hendrix—personally inspiring the classic jazz-rock fusion album ‘Bitches Brew.’ Betty not only wrote every song she ever recorded and produced every album after her first, but the young woman penned the tunes that got The Commodores signed to Motown. The Detroit label soon came calling, pitching a Motown songwriting deal, which Betty turned down. Motown wanted to own everything. Heading to the UK, Marc Bolan of T. Rex urged the creative dynamo to start writing for herself.”—Light in the Attic Records [releasing 15 May 2007 in the U.S.]

Get Him Eat Him
2x2 [MP3]

The Old Soul
Nectar of the Nitwit [MP3]

The Race
Feathers [MP3]

Walls [MP3]

Cary Brothers
Who You Are [MP3]

Dan Deacon
The Crystal Cat [MP3]

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Sweetie is a strange experience, a movie made up almost exclusively out of hints and suggestions. Nothing is ever discussed outright in this amazingly nuanced narrative, and issues that appear to be boiling below the surface are simply allowed to simmer and soak into everything around them. Obviously, as portrayed by Australian auteur Jane Campion in her first feature film, this is a family hiding a mountain of damaging dysfunction behind their dry, sometimes even dopey, demeanor. Whether it’s just a simple case of one child’s uncontrolled id crashing into the rest of her family’s slighted and submerged egos, or something far more sinister and suspect, the result is a ticking human time bomb waiting to insert itself into situations and simply implode.

As a tale of people picking each other apart for the sake of their own sense of security, Sweetie represents one of the most amazing family dramas ever delivered to celluloid. But there is more to the movie than just a sizable sibling spat with parents unable to control their progeny. In the hands of Campion, fresh from success in the short-film arena, this is art animated, a purposefully arcane cinematic vision made meaningful and important by the way in which this skilled filmmaker positions her lens.

While many will see Sweetie as the catalyst, the crazy deluded sister whose extreme case of angry arrested adolescence leads the rest of her kin towards all kinds of dire decisions, it is actually Kay who plays the mechanism for change more times than not. Always willing to challenge her parents, but never able to find the words to express her emotions, she is all outbursts and whining, pure pain pouring out of her horribly wounded heart. While she is clearly unlike her sibling in outward appearance, inward ability or perplexed personality, she is equally adept at making the familial world revolve around her. Sweetie simply acts out, making her demands as apparent as possible. When they are met, she is only semi-satisfied. She pushes for more, and when she doesn’t get it, tends to revert right back to her spoiled square one.

Kay, on the other hand, is skilled at the silent, suffering approach to approval. She wants everyone to acknowledge her sister’s interpersonal deficiencies and wears her many tiny triumphs as mental medals to prove her priggish superiority. To argue that one or the other is the only causational component is foolish. Both are on paths of stagnant self-destruction and it will take an act outside their control to create a break that will either free them or forever lock the family in a cycle of denial.

Something is being avoided here, and all arrows point to Father, Sweetie, and some manner of unnatural attraction. That Campion doesn’t come right out and scream “child abuse” or “incest” is one of Sweetie‘s more intriguing - and irritating - elements. We don’t like our issues to be open-ended, without clear-cut indicators of side, morality, and meaning. When Kay spies her sister giving “Daddy” a bath, it is an unsettling scene. The sexual aspect is also amplified by both characters’ approach to physicality. Kay is completely cut off from her boyfriend Louis. Sweetie will sleep with anyone—including her sister’s limp lover. So it’s not hard to accept that sometime in the easily-dismissed distant past, Sweetie was a victim of some kind of unhealthy relative relationship.

But maybe that’s not true. Perhaps her overt carnality is just a recent development, a way of dealing with a life overloaded with disappointment. After all, Sweetie lives in a perpetual dream of fame and privilege, a fantasy fostered almost exclusively by her dad. So it could be that her present state of mind creates the perception of childhood trauma, while the truth is actually more complicated and less scandalous than we apparently want it to be.

There are also obvious hints of mental illness with both sisters. Kay has developed such a hatred for trees (naturally, Sweetie and Dad share many a private moment in the family tree house) that she actually attacks the poor defenseless plants with a kind of insular insanity. Her sister, on the other hand, is a “Goth girl, interrupted” mess. Fashions forged out of broken bits of cloth and cut-up dresses, eyes smeared with dark circles of black, Sweetie suggests the kind of kid who has spent decades trying to escape who she is inside. We do get a chance to see her as a youngster, and the pleasantly perky ginger we witness is a shock.

It’s as if Campion is purposefully playing with our perception of the character to keep any and all possibilities about her past in play. Indeed, Sweetie is a film that loves the notion of acuity, of how the seemingly normal can be nutty and an inviolable vice versa. Tossing in obtuse sequences where unusual imagery is intercut into the narrative, and a use of angles that often suggest something slightly askew existing just out of frame, Campion’s compositions make us aware that the images are just as important as the dialogue being delivered and the performers providing the necessary emotional truth.

The cast here is truly amazing, doing something that few films and actors even attempt. Campion has purposefully created individuals that walk the fine line between empathy and ennui, likeability and loathing, and constantly causes them to cross back and forth between the two extremes. At first, we feel this is Kay’s story, and Karen Colston does a brilliant job of getting us on her side. Of course, the minute we arrive at some manner of understanding, Kay contorts and confronts our feelings for her. Similarly, Sweetie is a cruel comic contradiction who would be pitiable if she weren’t such a sensational slag. Geneviève Lemon, required to do most of her acting with her eyes and remarkable bulk, finds the sad soul inside this spoiled sow, and manages to make us care even as Sweetie continually makes us cringe.

As a battle of will between two wounded women, Campion sets up a kind of call and response - or better yet, cause and effect - style of storytelling. The minute her mad bitch of a sibling starts going off the deep end, Kay cranks up the hurt homebody routine. The result is the film’s real theme—that within each family, love and hate become part of a tainted tug of war where nobody wins and everybody loses.

This is best highlighted in the film’s three main subplots. The girls’ parents separate, and sides are instantly drawn. Mom ventures out into the wilderness, ending up a cook for a group of Outback cowboys. Dad initially seeks Kay for help, but we soon learn that he really needs Sweetie to feel calm and complete. Bob, Sweetie’s pick-up “producer” sex partner, also represents the reality of the character’s sense of self. Looking to the obvious junkie for confirmation and affection, she literally drains him of life until he is left, flat on his back and covered in coffee, in a local diner.

Kay’s live-in lover Louis is a little trickier. An admirer of transcendental meditation and spirituality, he original hooked up with his current paramour after learning their love was fated by a fortuneteller. But his eye is constantly wandering, from a fellow TM devotee who flaunts her tantric sex manual, to Sweetie herself, who practically molests him on a trip to the beach. It is clear that both gals are starved for love, needing any manner of recognition, good, bad, or indifferent to fuel their failing sense of self.

It all rushes to a head in the final scene, a sequence that becomes a kind of metaphysical showdown between Sweetie, her parents, her past, and her sister. Kay is also clearly in confrontation mode, making everything that’s happening about her, her decisions, and her desire for change. On both sides of the battle are Dad (staunchly status quo) and Mom (ready to involve the authorities for the first time in decades). When a real outsider is tossed in—in this case, a rascally young neighbor boy named Clayton—it crosses everyone’s wires, leading to judgments that otherwise would not be made, and results that no one could easily have expected.

The ending of Sweetie is indeed odd. It seems to suggest that only one person was responsible for the familial unrest, when we know very clearly that this is not true. As a matter of fact, it even goes so far as to argue that much of the destruction foisted onto the clan could have been avoided had certain “institutional” steps been taken beforehand. Nothing seems really settled either. One character even envisions their life the way it used to be, back before things got out of hand, back when things seemed simple and pure.

By placing us in these contradictory realities, Campion creates a truly unreal atmosphere, a cinematic sense that guarantees Sweetie turns out to be a true motion-picture masterpiece. Riffing on references that she was hung up on at the time (including a closing moment lifted directly out of the David Lynch oeuvre) and purposefully framing her scenes to throw both the actors and audience off guard, the look of this movie is simply amazing. Initially, no one is seen straight on. We view shoes, the side of someone’s face, the top of a person’s head. Then, slowly, people start to creep in towards the middle of the compositions. By the time we get to the end, when anarchy rules the lives of everyone involved, Campion keeps the action centered.

There are also times when blocking provides the necessary undercurrent to an otherwise ordinary scene. While Dad is crying, Mom, Kay and Louis step out onto a vast Australian highway, and the overwhelming vista, matched against Campion’s purposeful placement of her players (Mom up front, Kay off to one side, Louis far off in the background) suggests everything we need to know about whose making the decisions here.

It’s a stunning conceit, one that works much better than a viewer initially imagines. Instead of making everything cold and distant, it allows elements from outside the sequences, as well as information and emotions we’ve experienced previously, to float in and permeate the action. When Sweetie is wrestling with Clayton, we sense something unsettling. As the visual remains off in the distance, we suddenly recall the moment where Sweetie and her father infer some inappropriate contact and the aura of such abuse makes us instantly fear for what will happen next. Similarly, when Louis learns the truth about the tree he planted at the start of the couple’s relationship, the lack of any outward arguing allows us to fill in the blanks from the preceding discussions the pair have had.

In a sense, Sweetie is made up of nothing but the vaguest of recollections, without any real reason or outright rationale for all the tension and turmoil on hand. Sure, the main character is a harried handful, the kind of girl child that will end up dead, drugged up, or deposited in a home for the rest of her restless life. But that doesn’t mean that Sweetie deserves such a fate. She simply wants to share her purpose and pain with everyone. And they too have been more than happy to channel their inner emptiness into her…just like all families seem to do.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007
by John Carvill

Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s
by Mike Marqusee
Seven Stories Press
October 2005, 367 pages, $116.95

Bob Dylan has always enjoyed confounding audience expectations. During the 45 years that he’s spent alternately basking in and shrinking from the glare of the public eye, he has presented his fans with more curves than a convention of Brazilian belly dancers.  Probably the most famous and far-reaching early instance of Dylan pulling the carpet out from under his fans’ feet, was the unveiling of his newly electrified music at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

The traditional Folk contingent’s horrified reaction is widely regarded today as a pitiful case of some hopelessly out-of-touch, die-hard folkies not ‘getting it’, everyone enjoying a rueful chuckle at tales of Pete Seeger trying to cut the power cables with an axe during Dylan’s performance. But Mike Marqusee points out that the Newport Festival “was a nonprofit enterprise with a social mission,” providing “a link between the Southern civil rights movement and the folk community of the urban North,” that the performers and audience shared “a political as well as musical ethic,” and that this was a tradition worth defending from the corruption of market forces. The Newport people were right to cherish their tradition, and wise to be highly suspicious of the likes of Dylan’s dollar-worshiping manager, Albert Grossman. They associated the authentic with the acoustic, whereas to them “the electric guitar represented capitalism.”

Though Dylan was viewed by many as guilty of a double betrayal, turning his back not only on Folk but also on the leftist politics with which it was inextricably linked, Marqusee’s narrative demonstrates that nothing is clear cut. The book is full of paradoxes, contradictions and conflicts, not least within the ‘60s ‘movement’ itself. Dylan was on the platform behind Martin Luther King when he delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech, having been down South to witness the ‘American Apartheid’ of systemic, state-sponsored racism at first hand (despite Grossman’s grumbles about the cost of the trip). There had been fierce squabbles behind the scenes that day, between those who argued for more confrontational speeches and the relatively compromise-ready King, and the songs he chose to play signaled Dylan’s own “hard-edged, increasingly radical political perspective,” particularly ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’, a song “not about freedom and unity, but outlining a class-based analysis of the persistence of racism.”

Marqusee skillfully traces the convoluted history of the American left, from the 1930s Communist Party which sought to position itself as “a homegrown people’s movement for social justice, not a sect of European proletarian revolution,” through the ‘Social Patriotism’ created by the New Deal’s focus on American identity, to the emergence of the ‘New Left’. Dylan’s songs did a lot to fuel the “mass radicalisation” of the 1960s, which led to the traditional ranks of “red diaper babies from the Northeast” being swollen by an influx of “new recruits from the Mid- and Southwest ... these innocent children of the postwar boom and a conformist culture had leapt from conservatism over liberalism into radicalism. They wore cowboy boots and smoked dope. They were Dylan’s people.”

But Dylan’s people didn’t appeal to Dylan at all, especially when they turned up at his Woodstock home looking for ‘answers’, and he later went out of his way to repudiate the counterculture, perpetuating the idea that he had jumped on the left-wing bandwagon as a shortcut to money and fame. But as Marqusee says, at the time Dylan wrote those songs there was no bandwagon to jump on, as “white American youth subscribed to opinions that ranged only within the narrow band between deeply conservative and cautiously liberal,” and “defying and deriding anti-communism ... was regarded as a serious career risk.”  And Dylan was willing to take that risk. At a rehearsal for what was to have been his first national network TV appearance, on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was asked to substitute another song for ‘Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues’. He refused, and his appearance was cancelled.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that given the depth of his talent and scale of his ambition, Dylan was never destined to carry on writing what he called his ‘finger pointin’ songs for very long. Instead he embarked on a “creative firestorm,” issuing a series of jaw-dropping masterpieces which transformed popular music and, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, proved that “great art can be done on a jukebox.”

But if Dylan won the musical argument, the accusation that he abandoned political protest is less easily dodged, and the issue is at the heart of this book. Marqusee sets out to dismantle the myth that Dylan first embraced then forsook leftist politics, but he doesn’t shrink from portraying Dylan at his equivocating worst, quoting an exasperating interview Dylan gave to folk magazine Sing Out in 1968 in which despite being repeatedly pressed for his views on Vietnam, he not only refused to state that he was against the war but even went so far as to suggest that he might in fact be for it. Even given Dylan’s established reputation as a cagey, cranky, and contrary interviewee, whose innate irascibility was known to flare up into open aggressiveness when provoked, this is shameful stuff.

On the other hand, Dylan had an overwhelming desire not to be pigeonholed or adopted as anybody’s mascot. When he was presented with the Tom Paine award by the establishment liberals of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, he didn’t so much throw them a curve as suck them into a spiraling vortex of outrage, delivering a drunken speech in which he claimed, only weeks after JFK’s assassination, that he saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald.  For Dylan, the political was always personal, and Marqusee makes the excellent point that his more personal, “bitter-sweet, love-hate songs” were composed in the same vein as the political ones: “moodily aggrieved and tenderly utopian at the same time.”

The critical and commercial resurgence, which Dylan has enjoyed in the last decade or so, has thrown up many treasures. This perceptive, elegantly written book is one of them. In exploring Dylan’s “complex and inextricable linkage to the riptides of the ‘60s,” Marqusee demonstrates that while Dylan’s art can provide a window into the 1960s, the decade and the “cultural and political tumults of the times” can also be used as a prism through which to view all of Dylan’s later work.

Dylan was never as politicised as his more politically engaged fans took him to be, but neither did the political sensibility, which had informed the protest songs, ever really leave his work. It can be felt in such mid-sixties classics as ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ or ‘Tombstone Blues’, and not only did the Weathermen take their name (and a slogan or two) from a ‘post-protest’ song, but when Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale founded their Black Panther newspaper, they did so to a constant soundtrack of Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’.

As Marqusee says, the early protest songs were not just an immense achievement but also “the foundation of Dylan’s subsequent evolution.” And it’s one we can follow all the way through to a song such as the recent ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, of which everyone, from the ECLC to Huey Newton to the people at Newport, would surely have approved.

Tagged as: bob dylan
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