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by Rob Horning

4 Sep 2008

This happens every time I make the mistake of tuning into the Republican convention: I end up extremely frightened for America. The glee with which the Republican party repeats its new slogan “Drill baby drill” is extremely unsettling, as it shines a light on the nihilistic, end-times animus that fuels it. The underlying belief behind the slogan is that there is no hope for innovation when it comes to energy resources, and restraint in the form of environmentalism or conservation is an expression of weakness in the coming war of all against all for what’s left on the planet. Government only serves to impede this anarchic struggle, which is why the Republican party apparently believes the preservative restrictions the state places on despoiling economic behavior must be lifted. It’s another indication at how reactionary the party is, how it seems utterly unable to grasp the notion of future consequences. The slogan, rendered more accurately, would read: “Suck the world dry, there is no future!”

Writing in 1982, historians Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen noted in Channels of Desire the peculiar American fixation on despoiling as a perverse form of patriotism. “The adversarial interpretation of the relationship between people and the natural world is prominent in commercial ideology and production. Waste and throw-away are signatures of what is often termed ‘the American way of life.’ ” They then quote this astounding remark from Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who demonstrates how this contemptuous attitude can be reconciled with a certain strain of end-times Christianity. Asked whether he favored preserving the land for future generations, Watt replied, “I don’t know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” So in light of the Rapture’s imminence, we should drill, baby, drill.

Fitting for an eschatological view of the universe, we are supposed to believe that such contempt for the future will somehow assure that the past will return. But the small-town USA of the 1950s is gone for good, thanks in part to Republican economic policy. If anything, last night seemed like 1992 all over again, with conservatives vilifying cosmopolitanism and diversity and trying to bait the country into a needlessly destructive cultural civil war, as if we don’t all share the same needs for things like better health care, a job-generating economy, and a sense that the country won’t be destroyed by environmental catastrophe. Tuning into the RNC, you’d think such problems don’t exist, and that the real problem is elitist overlords from the Demonic Northeast threatening to dismantle families and extinguish Christianity. As Douglas Rushkoff notes, the Republican Party is eagerly transforming itself into the “hate party.”

Megan McArdle’s analysis here seems apt. With nothing substantive to say about any issue, the Republicans are out to launch an “all-out cultural war.” (McArdle’s awesome line about Romney’s speech perfectly captures the occasional arbitrarity of conservative contempt: “Mitt Romney seems to use the word liberal in a randomly perjorative fashion.  I half expect him to say ‘I was eating breakfast this morning, and my hash browns were all liberal.  I sent them back and told the waitress to bring me some good, conservative hash browns.’ “) Of this war, Sarah Palin is the harbinger. Ingeniously, the Republican party would like to make the election a referendum on her, as a person, and they are expecting that on that personal level, many American approve of the values she claims to represent. But at the level of ideas, she is a far-right conservative crusader, far outside of the mainstream, and the ideas she represents will probably prove abhorrent to Democrats and independents alike if they (or the press) bother to ferret them out and reinforce them clearly.

by Rob Horning

4 Sep 2008

At his blog, economist Lane Kenworthy posted a compelling look at growing income inequality in America, illustrating with graphs how median income has fallen away from per-capita GDP—meaning that as the economy has grown, less of the benefits of that growth have been spread across the entire class distribution of the population. Kenworthy points to this as a source of strain on the middle class and sees it as a fundamental subtext for the upcoming presidential election.

Generally speaking, Democrats regard this inequality as a matter of those at the top leveraging their advantages to seize more and more of the pie. The solution to this, typically, is a progressive tax regime that takes away some of those financial advantages, redistributing the wealth created to those below. The rich resent this, as they tend to misconstrue the gains derive from passive investment as their just deserts for risk taking. (Whereas Marx describes capital as “dead labor that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has purchased of him.”) But the middle class potentially has their tax burden lightened while getting improved government services financed by the new tax revenue.

Republicans obviously don’t see it this way. They instead evoke the past, when inequality was not so stark (thanks to policies they rejected at the time) and try to paint a picture of progress as failure and disruption, as individuals being crushed by a distant federal government that is essentially their enemy. The solution to the problems the middle class faces, from this point of view, is a recommitment to individualistic values of self-reliance and a church-based, small-town-size community (while scorning community organizers, the existence of whom signal a localized disharmony that conservatives are loath to acknowledge), and a repudiation of the idea that a federal government has any meaningful role in most people’s lives. This seemed to be the subtext of Sarah Palin’s angry, demagogic speech at the Republican convention last night—that small town people should be wary of those purporting to have expertise. At the Washington Monthly site, Steve Benen articulated the theme of the RNC this way:

Seriously, what’s the message of the week in St. Paul? That Republican governing works? No. That Republicans have a legitimate policy agenda? No. That the next four years should be different from the last eight? No. It’s simple: “Your house may be on fire, but don’t trust that man standing outside with a hose, because he doesn’t share your values.”

The Republicans offer voters an opportunity to live in a fantasy world in which they really are self-reliant and government is unnecessary; where “values” really are so uniform—perhaps because they are mandated by a God whom everyone must worship—that there aren’t any meaningful conflicts among groups that the state would have to mediate. All you need is a military to protect the homogeneous group from outside infiltration. (This is why conservatives are so quick to ridicule “political correctness”—because the existence of diversity, competing interests, fundamentally threatens their ideology of government. The only competing interest, from the conservative point of view, are those that the marketplace sorts out.)

Meanwhile, when voters abandon the idea that the atheistic federal government should work for them, it becomes captured instead by professional politicians and the corporate interests they serve—it becomes a machine of plunder, as Jamie Galbraith details in The Predator State. Ideologues like Palin ultimately provide the cover for kleptocrats like Duke Cunningham and his ilk.

by Colin Covert - Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

4 Sep 2008

Burn After Reading (opens Friday): After their moody Oscar triumph No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers let their hair down with this spoofy crime farce. Two dimwitted Washington gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) try to blackmail a CIA agent (John Malkovich) for the return of a CD-ROM containing his memoirs. The duo treat their scheme more like a prank than a felony until the misanthropic spy gives them a violent taste of reality. Tilda Swinton plays the spook’s irritable, unfaithful wife, George Clooney is her bumbling lover, and J.K. Simmons is an incompetent intelligence czar.

Ghost Town: After a near-death experience, testy New York dentist Bertram Pincus sees dead people and finds they’re just as needy and pushy as the living. One pesky spirit wants him to break up the planned marriage between his widow and a dull suitor, and when Bertram falls for the lovely, intelligent woman, he enlists the ghost’s help to chase her himself. On paper, it looks formulaic, but there’s a raft of solid talent involved, from Ricky Gervais (of the BBC’s The Office) in his leading-man debut to writer/director David Koepp (one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite collaborators) to Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni as the ghost and his former wife. (Opens Sept. 19.)

Lakeview Terrace: In this racially charged thriller, a black LAPD officer (Samuel L. Jackson) takes increasingly threatening action to force out the mixed-race couple (Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson) who move in next door. Director Neil LaBute delivers excruciating suspense as the feud escalates to dangerous violence. It’s also observant about subtleties of discrimination and powerfully acted. Jackson seems to have taken a lesson from Denzel Washington’s bad cop Oscar performance in Training Day. He’s scary, ferocious, cunning and treacherous. (Sept. 19.)

W: Oliver Stone and politics go together like kitchen matches and kerosene. His quick, low-budget biopic of our commander in chief is guaranteed to be a partisan broadside; I’m hoping it’ll be shamelessly entertaining, too. With a lawn-lacerating car accident, boozing and a brawl between young George and his dad, the trailer could pass for an Adam Sandler comedy. Josh Brolin takes the title role, but I’m most eager to see that irrepressible hambone Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney. (Oct. 24.)

Synecdoche, New York: From its obscure, tongue-twisting title to its reality-warping narrative, nothing in Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut takes the easy route. The story is a fable about creativity, imagination and aging, told through the life of a theater director creating an epic play on a lifesize set of New York City. The ever-astounding Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the lead, with a starry cavalcade including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Hope Davis as the perplexing women in his life. Coming from the quirky Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it’s certain to be arty, elegant and more twisted than a barrel of pretzels. (Oct. 24.)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno: The new wave of raunchy-but-nice comedy reportedly ratchets up a few notches with the latest from a writer/director famous for his crude wit, Kevin Smith (Clerks). Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks star as longtime friends who decide to fill their empty bank accounts by shooting a blue movie in Pittsburgh with local amateur talent. While the film doesn’t quite deliver on its title (it’s rated R), it’s definitely rude. The late George Carlin, one of Smith’s mentors, would be delighted at the tone of salacious silliness. (Oct. 31.)

Quantum of Solace: The latest James Bond adventure reportedly takes off 20 minutes after the finale of Casino Royale, with 007 on a personal vendetta to punish everyone responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd. The trail leads Bond (Daniel Craig) to a ruthless businessman (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) making a grab for Latin America’s natural resources. If the film continues in the cool, high-energy path of its predecessor, the 22nd in the Bond series could be the movie that gets everyone to stop talking about The Dark Knight. (Nov. 14.)

The Soloist: Sometimes you have to get past the synopsis and put your faith in the talent. A disillusioned journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) befriends a schizophrenic, homeless musical prodigy (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of performing at L.A.‘s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Also on hand are Catherine Keener and Stephen Root, director Joe Wright (Atonement) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich). My fingers are crossed that this one will avoid Hallmark Channel schmaltz and soar to multiple-Oscar glory. (Nov. 21.)

Australia: No surfing, Foster’s beer or glamour shots of the Sydney Opera House here. It’s a historical-romantic saga from hipster auteur Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). An English aristocrat (Nicole Kidman) who has inherited a huge cattle station recruits a rough-hewn stockman (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head across hundreds of miles of near-impassable terrain. There’s high-society dancing, courtship and ferocious aerial attacks from Japanese dive-bombers as World War II erupts. (Nov. 26.)

by Christel Loar

4 Sep 2008

The twelfth, and final, episode of Season Two of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, September 4, at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is what all 11 of the previous amazing lineups were preparing viewers for: Brian Wilson, Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. All three performers are living, writing, singing proof that talent is often a family affair.

Brian Wilson opens the show discussing how Rubber Soul impressed him so greatly that he went on to write “God Only Knows” because of it. Brian Wilson’s band is made up of members of the Wondermints, among several other musicians. It’s clear from the between song banter that this group of people, Brian included, is very comfortable together, and it’s even clearer once the performances begin, that this is the rare, perfect musical combination. So it’s only fitting the band should have some of the most perfect compositions to perform. “Sloop John B” is up first, and after a false start for a piano problem, it swells until the various voices mingling threaten to carry the viewer away on a wave of goodwill. Yeah, it’s not supposed to be an uplifting tune, but Wilson’s arrangement—and his obvious pleasure at hearing it fill that room—can’t help but buoy you.

“Southern California”, comes from this year’s That Lucky Old Sun, and is an ode to Wilson’s home and his past. It’s a truly touching and beautiful song, and has that uniquely timeless quality of the very best Brian Wilson songs, in that it could’ve been released 40 years ago or 40 years from now, and it would still be just as gorgeous. The vocal harmonies, of course, are stunning. And that brings us to “God Only Knows”, which is Wilson’s favorite song for its “pretty melody and meaningful lyrics”. It has a lingering transcendence in this performance, which actually seems to add to the ambience of Abbey Road studios, rather than drawing from it. It’s a hauntingly beautiful effect.

Martha Wainwright steps up next with “Bleeding All Over You”, “Cheating Me” and “Coming Tonight” from her most recent release, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. “Bleeding All Over You”, from which the album takes its name, is a song about unrequited love and the way it can still haunt you even after you’ve moved on. Despite its subject matter, it’s a hummable, strummable tune made all the more catchy by Wainwright’s infectious vocal delivery.

“Cheating Me” is a harder, darker, but no less contagious in its chorus. “Coming Tonight” has a false start as well, but once the song gets going again, it begins to appear that this episode isn’t so much about the stars, the performances or this particular lineup’s genetics, but about the sheer songwriting prowess.

Teddy Thompson begins his segment by referring to his parentage (“My mom is Linda Thompson… she’s like the British Museum, my dad’s more like the vault down below where they keep all the stuff they don’t show you!”). Thompson gives us “In My Arms” and “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” from his latest album, A Piece of What You Need. “In My Arms” is a song which Thompson claims is the first of his that has ever made him want to move to it, but dancing isn’t his inclination. However, if it’s yours, you’re going to love this song. It’s got that mid-‘60s girl-group rhythm, a great bit of organ and some fabulous “oooohs” from Thompson. It will make you believe, as Thompson sort of intended, that A Piece of What You Need is a happy record. “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” is another of the performances in this episode that point to these artist being grouped together for their enviable abilities to write songs just like this one. And Thompson’s voice on this is particularly strong.

The brilliant second season of Live from Abbey Road comes to a close with Thompson dueting with Wainwright. They are friends from way back, so the rehearsal and pre-performance banter come off as completely natural. When they begin their stripped down, almost sad, and, yes, haunting cover version of “We Can Work it Out”, it’s mesmerizing. It’s also quite an impressive way to end a very impressive season. Let’s hope season three of Live from Abbey Road has even more world class artists and wonderful lineups to come.

by David Pullar

4 Sep 2008

Air travel is something of an occupational hazard in my life—partly because of (obviously) my occupation and partly because of my geographically dispersed family.  So I spend a lot of time in airports, my time there equally divided between airport bars and airport bookshops.

I don’t usually buy anything in the bookshops.  $7 is a steep price for a beer, but you can’t very well sneak one in from outside just in case your flight is delayed.  $28 for a paperback is completely avoidable when you can plan your reading needs in advance.  The generally disappointing range of books is another factor.  It’s rare that anything on display catches my attention.

I’m always reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when the airport bookshop is named “Just Crichton and King”.  Although in recent times it’s more “Just Brown and Rowling”, the idea is still the same: sell the most populist, mass-market books you can think of, in big piles.

Australian airports are particularly bad, something that was brought home to me by the excellent range in the Great Canadian Book Company at Vancouver airport last week.  At Canberra airport (a city of 300,000 people and a frequent destination) the poor range is hardly surprising, but larger airports like Sydney and Melbourne don’t have the same excuse.  Even in a major airport, the lack of competition tends to leave shops perpetuating the narrow idea of the “airport novel”.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of trash, to be fair, and at least page-turners have the virtue of keeping you awake and engaged when on a long flight.  Many is the time I’ve attempted to read something dense and complex only to fail with the combined distractions of turbulence, snoring neighbours and intravenous airline coffee.

I probably would have had better luck with a Michael Crichton than I recently did with Robert Musil’s epochal The Man Without Qualities, a dense, misanthropic exploration of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Fourteen hours over the Pacific Ocean and I managed a mere five pages before I gave up and watched Prince Caspian on the little TV screen.  The first volume is over 700 pages and I barely made a dent.

This teaches me that picking the right book for a flight is more complex than merely grabbing whatever you’re currently reading.  It’s a special case and deserves careful thought.

Everyone would have their own unique selection criteria.  Do you like to take a couple of books and see what you’re in the mood for?  Do you trust the serendipity of the airport bookshop selection?  Can you even read on a plane or is it just a bad reading environment?

I think next time I’m going for something punchy.  With big print for my sleep-deprived eyes.

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