Short takes on politics, culture and life.
As a film studies major I've been trained to sit through any cinematic experience -- from Andy Warhol's 8-hour long Empire (yes, 8 consecutive hours of the Empire State Building in real time) to Derek Jarman's Blue (an hour plus of an unchanging blue screen dramatizing Jarman's AIDS-related blindness) -- and never abandon ship (incidentally I loved both films). It took all this training and more to endure this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Crash, which I saw this summer in, alas, its entirety. I've already written about how I'm not a huge fan of Brokeback Mountain, the other Oscar contender, but it's definitely a better film than Crash, which I would have walked out on had it not been for my stalwart companions.
White critics like Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the best film of the year, and David Denby of the New Yorker loved it. Denby wrote that it "makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing."
I couldn't disagree more; easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing is the epitome of the film. To my mind, Crash's central message is: There's a lot of racism in the world, but it's all rendered meaningless by a magical force. This force is called sheer coincidence. I'll happily spoil the denouement for anyone who hasn't seen it. The racist white cop (Matt Dillon) sexually molests a black women (Thandie Newton), but is really a good guy because he saves her from a car crash (oh, and because he loves his ailing poppy). His partner's (Ryan Phillipe) anti-racist protests are really irrelevant because he ends up killing an innocent black teenager (Larenz Tate). Meanwhile, a rich, racist white woman (Sandra Bullock) unfairly suspects a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) of being a crook, but it's okay because her Latino maid (and best friend) takes care of her when she injures herself. And on and on and on through a "compassionate conservative" rainbow of cast members each with their own neatly moralistic (but totally individualized) racial melodramas. As with the well-awarded musical Avenue Q, the moral of Crash is: Don't worry, everyone's a little bit racist.
Anyway, my amateur film criticism aside, you'll find a good dissection of Crash by sometime Nation writer Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan over at Alternet. LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas called it the worst film of the year. I agree.
The latest issue of Harper's Magazine contains a stunning 15-page article by well-known AIDS denialist Celia Farber (formerly of Spin magazine) that extensively repeats UC Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg's discredited theory that HIV does not cause AIDS. Among the claims that Duesberg makes (and Farber recounts approvingly) are:
AIDS is actually a "chemical syndrome, caused by accumulated toxins from heavy drug use."
"Many cases of AIDS are the consequence of heavy drug use, both recreational (poppers, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.) and medical (AZT, etc.)"
"HIV is a harmless passenger virus that infects a small percentage of the population and is spread primarily from mother to child, though at a relatively low rate."
"75 percent of AIDS cases in the West can be attributed to drug toxicity. If toxic AIDS therapies were discontinued...thousands of lives could be saved virtually overnight."
"AIDS in Africa is best understood as an umbrella term for a number of old diseases, formerly known by other names, that currently do not command high rates of international aid. The money spent on anti-retroviral drugs would be better spent on sanitation and improving access to safe drinking water."
The best rebuttals to Duesberg's hypothesis are here, here and here. Over at Slate science writer Jon Cohen has a piece examining the wave of "pharmanoia" afflicting mass media. As Cohen and others point out, conspiracy theories like Duesberg's warp and exploit some of the best political interventions made by AIDS activists: that patients should be engaged with their medical diagnosis and treatment, that clinical drug trials should be grounded in sound ethical practices, that the emphasis on virology has circumvented immunological approaches to AIDS and that attention to the effects of poverty, malnutrition and other diseases is vital to preventing and treating AIDS.
It's a shame that a magazine as well respected as Harper's has shirked its duty to report on these issues and instead published Farber's article. South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign has put together a comprehensive rebuttal of Farber's article documenting over 50 errors. I also post here a statement from HealthGAP and a letter to Harper's from Gregg Gonsalves of GMHC.
HealthGAP:"Harper's Magazine has stooped to new lows in publishing a lengthy article that rehashes old distortions by a writer who does not believe that HIV causes AIDS. Harper's should immediately publicly retract this article, and devote the same space to an accurate piece of news about the global AIDS crisis. We are very concerned that this inaccurate article will be used to fuel government inaction outside the US, where some heads of state, such as the South African President and the Minister of Health, have invoked AIDS denialist rhetoric rather than prioritizing antiretoviral treatment access for the 800 South Africans with HIV who are dying unnecessarily each day."
Gregg Gonsalves:"Dear Editors,I have been a long-time Harper's Magazine reader. I am sorry that the March 2006 issue is the very last that I will read.
With Celia Farber's article "Out of Control, AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science," your magazine has managed to destroy its 156 year-old reputation in 15 pages.
Farber is a well-known AIDS denialist and publishing her work is akin to giving the folks at the Discovery Institute a place to expound upon the "science" of intelligent design, Charles Davenport a venue to educate us about the racial inferiority of the Negro or Lyndon LaRouche a platform to warn us about aliens, bio-duplication, and nudity.
If Harpers was some fringe publication or supermarket tabloid then we could all laugh at Farber's weird conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. The sad thing is that unlike the hoaxes perpetuated on the New Republic by Stephen Glass several years ago, Ms. Farber's reputation as a crank is widespread. Thus, it seems that your editors, after careful research and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, decided that Ms. Farber was a serious journalist with a real story to be told.
If you choose to report falsehoods as truths when it comes to HIV/AIDS, how can I trust the veracity of the rest of what appears in your pages?
The folks at People For the American Way have set up this handy website that practically writes a FOIA request for you. All you have to do is print and fax. Of course, whether and when the feds get back to you is another matter. The Justice Department maintains that simple requests take an average of 19 days, while complex ones can take up to a year -- though I've heard of journalists waiting much longer for their results.
Speaking of FOIA requests, Tom Hayden gave a talk up here in Saratoga Springs on Monday. While I quibbled with his choice of title Democracy or Empire: You Choose -- since US imperialism past and present may well go by the slogan Democracy AND Empire: No Choice -- he did launch into a fascinating digression on the contents of his voluminous FBI file. The most chilling words contained within: "How do we neutralize Hayden?" (At which point a colleague mumbled, "Give him a tenure track job.")
If anyone comes up with similar results let us (and your lawyer!) know.
February has been a very queer month for the US military.
Early this month, the Defense Department admitted (in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee) that its TALON (Threat and Local Observation Notice) surveillance program engaged in "inappropriate" domestic spying on anti-war groups. As NBC News reported late last year, military intelligence labeled UC Santa Cruz's Students Against War a "credible threat" after they shut-down a recruitment visit and returned a few months later to spy on a kiss-in against the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Likewise, the FBI spied on a demonstration against military recruiters organized by NYU's OUTLaw. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (along with the ACLU) has filed a lawsuit requesting more information on the program and its impact on LGBT organizations.
On February 14, a 12-member commission assembled by the University of California (which included Clinton's Defense Secretary William Perry and Reagan's Assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb) concluded that the GAO has severely underestimated the cost of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The panel found that the total cost of implementing Don't Ask, Don't Tell (including discharging and replacing troops) during its first decade was $364 million, almost double the GAO figure of $190 million.
Among the revelations in the torture documents released by the ACLU on February 23, is the apparent use of gay porn as a torture tool in Guantanamo. In a series of e-mails, FBI agents working at Guantanamo complained about military interrogators' techniques to their supervisors. One e-mail notes that the Bureau and Army intelligence have "parted ways" and then reports:
Last evening I went to observe an interview of __ with __. The adjoining room, observable from the monitoring booth, was occupied by 2 DHS investigators showing a detainee homosexual porn movies and using a strobe light in the room. We moved our interview to a different room! We've heard that DHS interrogators routinely identify themselves as FBI Agents and then interrogate a detainee for 16-18 hours using tactics as described above and others (wrapping in Israeli flag, constant loud music, cranking the A/C down, etc). The next time a real Agent tries to talk to that guy, you can imagine the result.
You can access the results of the ACLU's FOIA here.
Finally, culminating a month-long investigation, on February 25, army officials recommended that seven paratroopers from the famed 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Fort Bragg be discharged after appearing on a gay pornographic website -- which gay bloggers quickly concluded was www.activeduty.com. (I won't make this link hot as a courtesy to those who are unwilling or unable to view gay porn at work!). More serious than a discharge under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, three of the soldiers face court-martial on charges of sodomy, pandering and "wrongfully engaging in sexual acts with another person while being filmed with the intent of broadcasting the images over the Internet for money." (Yes, while sodomy is perfectly legal for civilians after Lawrence v. Texas, military appeals courts have upheld military sodomy laws). Four others were demoted and penalized for underage drinking, drunken driving and adultery.
This confluence of events presents the unlikely but completely plausible scenario in which 1) military boys star in gay porn which is 2) subsequently used by military interrogators in Guantanamo to torture prisoners in violation of international law then 3) these same military boys are prosecuted for acts which are perfectly legal under civilian law but remain punishable offenses under a silly and discriminatory set of military policies while 4) the torturers and their supervisors get off totally scot-free. Ain't that America.
A friend of mine from South Carolina sent me the most astonishing article on his home state from yesterday's USA Today. Reporter Ron Barnett examines the quixotic quest of Cory Burnell, founder of Christian Exodus, to have all of the nation's evangelical Christian conservatives move to South Carolina.
Hey, why not? Good for the left (we can pick up all those borderline red states) and good for the far right. Tired of all those liberals and activist judges protecting abortion, legalizing gay marriage and funding public schools that teach evolution. Round up the kids, call U-Haul and head to the heart of the Old Confederacy. It's got 750,000 Southern Baptists, Bob Jones University, nice golf courses and rosy real estate values. When the Exodus gets into full swing, Christians can take over state government and pass some real laws. On Burnell's docket: outlaw abortion, mandate life support, install Christian symbols in the statehouse, eliminate public schools, ban government 'taking' of private property. Oh yeah, and one curious item critical of "the perils of imperialist entanglements abroad." Gee, could he mean Iraq?
The sheer absurdity of Christian Exodus (and the mix of values behind it) is a testament to how much the religious right has changed under the Bush administration. Burnell's formula (isolationism + Christian social conservatism + anti-state rhetoric, with a dash of concealed white supremacy) was once boilerplate for the Republican Party. But now, as Esther Kaplan, Gary Younge and Salim Muwakkil all report, the strategists of the religious right have their sights firmly set on international turf and the black church -- with progress on the former and not so much on the latter.
Of course, that's one problem Burnell faces; South Carolina is 30% African American and although most are Baptist, they also poll and vote to the left. His more immediate problem, however, is recruitment. He's only got 20 or so families to move. Oh, and Christian Exodus is based in Texas. And Burnell himself still lives in California. So much for whistling Dixie.
Larry Summers resigned. Alan Dershowitz called it an "academic coup d'etat" engineered by the "radical, hard-left element" at Harvard. He worried the PC-cops would end academic freedom and raised the specter of '60s, European-style student uprisings. But Sam pointed out that if the Crimson take to the barricades, it would be in defense of the administration, and I didn't even know Harvard had a radical, hard-left element!
Confused and seeking guidance, I bought David Horowitz's The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. It's $27.95 that will go to frontpagemag.com, but I couldn't resist. After I got over my disappointment at not making the cut -- alright, so I'm not exactly a professor yet, but I'm the kind of guy who picks up People's "Fifty Most Beautiful" issue and wonders how come the editors lost my headshot again -- I thumbed through the volume and here's the good news. The Nation is well represented. We got Stanley Aronowitz (CUNY), David Cole (Georgetown), Juan Cole (Michigan), Michael Eric Dyson (UPenn), Richard Falk (Princeton), Eric Foner (Columbia), Tom Hayden (Occidental), Robert McChesney (Illinois), and last but not least, the deadly Victor Navasky (Columbia). Vic's main assault seems to be disseminating "The Nation's far-left agendas throughout the American education system." There's also something in there about Vic and "other apologists for Communism" being complicit in the deaths of 100 million innocent people, but Horowitz glosses right over it to get to the pernicious RadioNation offense now airing on "forty college radio stations"! Yikes!
(I wish I could report that Victor had in fact colonized the minds of undergrads everywhere, but alas, when I tell students I used to work at The Nation the response I usually get is: "Oh really, which one?")
I can't figure out why mad law professor Patricia Williams didn't make the grade, but don't worry women are well represented on the Horowitz honor roll: Lisa Anderson (Columbia), bell hooks (CUNY), Mari Matsuda (Georgetown), Eve Sedgwick (CUNY), Bernardine Dohrn (Northwestern), Angela Davis (UC Santa Cruz) and Kathleen Cleaver (Emory) among others.
Anyway, Harvard doesn't have a single academic on Horowitz's list. Nonetheless, using the Summer's presidency as a case study and methodological "yardstick," Horowitz concludes that there are 25,000-30,000 radical professors at American universities who teach over 3 million students a year. Getting rid of these folks is Horowitz's version of "academic freedom," and he's launched a raft of bills and conferences through Students for Academic Freedom.
Between Horowitz's campaign and Dershowitz's vision of purges driven by the "radical, hard-left," the bodycount in the academy could get pretty high. Maybe, just maybe, if I keep my head down, don't say anything controversial, political or interesting, I'll land a tenure-track job. Then I can finally kick back and enjoy my "academic freedom."
For Bill Clinton it was a stain on a blue GAP dress; might Cheney's Waterloo be an errant spray of birdshot? The way the normally dormant Washington press corps has seized upon this so-called "scandal," you'd think the country's lifeblood (and this administration's credibility) flowed through Harry Whittington's 78-year-old veins. Finally succumbing to pressure from Democrats (Nancy Pelosi demanded Cheney "come clean on what happened in Texas"), the nation's editorialists, and even fellow Republicans like Ari Fleischer, Dick is going to make a rare public appearance in a few hours on FOX news. Not exactly enemy territory, but give the man a break. He shot a buddy and hasn't held a press conference in 3 1/2 years.
The folks over at HuffPo have really gone bananas over this one though. Torture proponent Alan Dershowitz hypothesizes that the VP must have been up to something really bad (like drinking and hunting). Bob Cesca repeats Sirius radio's Alex Bennett's rumor that Cheney's missing hours gave the administration time to cover up his own private Lewinsky. It's like mock trial club meets Weekly World News over there.
The only voice of reason in the lot is Harry Shearer's Eat the Press which attributes the whole brouhaha to a little "psychological theory called displacement." The lesson the Bush administration might actually learn from all this: Lie about uranium to provoke war (no big deal), don't report a minor accident for a few hours (get strung up). The next time someone stubs a toe in the White House, I'm sure they'll convene an emergency meeting of Congress. I suppose politics by proxy is better than no politics at all, but I just want to scream: It's the war, stupid.
Christine's last post on the American Family Association's successful scuttling of "anti-Christian" television programming makes an interesting counterpoint to much of the media coverage of the Danish cartoon demonstrations. Cast as "a contest between...immutable religious beliefs and uncompromising freedom of speech" (see Mahir Ali on Znet for the full critique), mainstream media have played the protests off as another "clash of civilizations." But freedom of speech is a poor framework for such a global and complicated story because "freedom of speech," however abstractly and absolutely put, is realized in local-national contexts. Critics have pointed to European and Canadian laws that prohibit varieties of "hate speech" (including bans on anti-Semitic and pornographic material). And as Christine's post reminds us, "freedom of speech" in the US doesn't mean media outlets are immune to boycotts and political protests, particularly from the Christian right. Think of the controversy over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" or Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary."
One way to think of this all is as a struggle to define and control sacred texts and images (the Prophet Muhammad, the Virgin Mary, the crucifixion of Christ) whose religious power derive from their segregation from other cultural and political symbols. The Prophet is not drawn, and he most certainly does not carry out suicide bombings. Jesus does not endorse a cooking show or swim in urine for kicks. Such attempts at religious control are fraught enough in mono-religious cultures, but become tragicomic in multicultural contexts (as the brouhaha over Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary made in part by African elephant dung reminds us). Secularism proposes to be that neutral ground that resolves the sacred and the profane (in part by censoring and limiting both), but the mainstream is having a hard time digesting this one.
Finally, I'll just point out that religious roots acknowledged, at least in Afghanistan, Christian Parenti writes that the protests are fueled both by anti-Western sentiment stirred up by occupation and by "specifically local political and economic grievances."
Though it has only been two years since it made its live debut on national television, Janet Jackson's right nipple has already left an indelible mark on American society. Many thought that The Nipple's legacy would be limited to introducing the expression "wardrobe malfunction" to the English language, as well as the astonishing revelation that there exists a fashion accessory known as a "nipple shield." Thankfully, both inventions have failed to catch-on. Nonetheless, The Nipple's impact on culture and politics has been profound and deep.
First, ABC broadcast the entire Super Bowl tonight (pre-game, game, half-time show and post-game wrap-up) on a five-second tape delay. I'm not much of a football fan, but the idea seems to me a violation of the democratic ethos of sports and mass spectatorship. Now, the privileged few who are able to cough up the lowest ticket price of $600 will be living history, whereas the masses huddled over nachos in their living rooms will be merely watching history.
Second, in a nod to critics, Super Bowl planners booked the Rolling Stones for this year's half-time show. I am a huge Stones fan, and the apparent fact that Mick and Keith now constitute clean, family-fare is hugely disappointing.
Third, Nipplegate was exactly what social conservatives needed to ramp up the culture war on indecency. In its wake the Parents Television Council launched a campaign encouraging its constituents to flood the FCC with indecency complaints. The result: broadcasters were charged a record $7.9 million in fines in 2004 including $550,000 paid by CBS for Ms. Jackson's "nasty" exposure -- a mere flesh wound to corporate media, but perhaps a harbinger of things to come. The Christian Coalition vociferously lobbied Congress to pass legislation dramatically increasing indecency fines; the bill passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, head of the Commerce Committee, floated the idea of extending FCC jurisdiction to cable broadcasters. If he succeeds, you can kiss programs like "The Sopranos," "Sex in the City," "South Park" and "The Daily Show" goodbye. Finally, not content to harass the FCC from the outside, last year conservatives placed former Concerned Women of America board member and anti-porn activist Penny Nance in the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis as a special adviser.
Last week Bush nominated telecommunications lawyer and lobbyist Robert McDowell to the FCC. If confirmed by the Senate, McDowell would restore the 3-2 Republican majority and re-ignite attempts to gut media ownership regulations. It doesn't appear that Bush was thinking of Janet Jackson's right nipple and the family-values crowd when he made this choice, but if the Senate takes the confirmation hearings seriously, McDowell should have to answer tough questions on both censorship and media consolidation.
The left-liberal blogosphere has been in hyper-drive critiquing Bush's SOTU address since last night. As I'm teaching a class on US empire, I couldn't resist having my students read it. One of our questions: the particular distortions and factual errors of Bush's address aside (see the Institute for Public Accuracy's fisking), how different was his imperial rhetoric from Presidential speeches of yore?
Bush's talk began and ended with references to America's "historic long-term goal," its "destiny" to "seek the end of tyranny in our world." In doing so, Bush followed the long historical arc that begins with Jefferson's memorable characterization of the United States as "an empire for liberty." I won't subject you all to my lecture, but merely point out that President Clinton likewise linked U.S. hegemony with our "timeless" mission to spread freedom in his first inaugural address.
A hard question the left has yet to take up fully is: What came before and what comes after this particularly noxious imperial presidency? As JoAnn Wypijewski points out in her brilliant article for Harper's on torture and the Abu Ghraib trials, so many left-liberals romanticize the U.S. pre-Bush. I think the kicker to her piece is particularly powerful:
We are moved by arguments to assign responsibility up the chain of command; to reaffirm the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare; to establish clear rules in Congress limiting the CIA, foreclosing "black" operations, stipulating the rights and treatment of prisoners; to shut down Guantanamo and the global gulag; to drive Bush and Cheney and their cohort from office; in other words, to set America right again, on course as it was after the Vietnam War, a chastened empire still wielding a fearsome arsenal but with liberal intentions. We have not yet learned to pull up the orchard, to forsake the poisoned ground.