Catiline, Dowd, and the Felonious Frog

Maureen DowdMartin Longman, or as I think of him “the felonious frog,” wrote an inspired rant about Maureen Dowd. Many people have covered Dowd’s most recent column, most notably Digby: yet another column about her disappointment that (this time) President Obama does not rush back to Washington because of something Dowd things is oh so important. (Crabgrass on the White House lawn, perhaps?) But Longman took a very clever approach in, With Apologies to Cicero. It is a parody of The First Oration Against Catiline, so I wish he had given it the title, The First Oration Against Maureen. But I fully understand why he didn’t.

But this puts Longman in the place of Cicero and Dowd in the place of Catiline. I like Longman so I don’t mind associating him with Cicero, although there is much to dislike about Cicero. It’s hard to put Dowd in the Catiline role. Her career has exemplified the kind of middle-of-the-road, cultural liberal commentator who though often amusing is politically uninteresting. Above all, she is no threat to the powerful—this is what makes her long relationship with The New York Times so understandable. And Catiline, regardless of what else you can say about him, was not the kind to make nice.

Martin LongmanI think that Catiline has gotten kind of a bad rap. It’s not that he was wonderful or anything; I don’t think any of those guys were great as human beings. Did Catiline kill his first wife and son so he could get a better wife? Did he act like a despot while governing Africa? Did he cut off the head of his brother-in-law and parade it through the streets of Rome? Who knows?! History has been written by people inclined to make him look bad. Although, I kind of think he did do these things.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that he was a strong advocate for the plebs, which did not put him in well with the likes of Cicero who considered them, well, plebs. And yes, Catiline was power hungry and he was probably using the plebs as a base of support because he didn’t have a lot of other options. And I have little doubt that he would have been a terrible ruler if he had taken over Rome. But he did stand for something—and something radical at that.

To call Maureen Dowd vanilla is to gravely insult my favorite ice cream flavor. In the political realm, Dowd is more like plain yogurt. And even that overstates her importance. But it is possible that Cicero’s speech is more appropriate for her than for Catiline. Because Catiline definitely had committed treason against the Roman Republic. And so Cicero’s understated Oration with its “We are so tired of your trying to overthrow the Republic all the time!” tone probably addresses Dowd’s crimes against journalism better than Catiline’s crimes against the Republic.

Regardless, Longman’s piece is brilliant. He’s the first paragraph:

When, O Maureen, do you intend to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end of that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now? Does not the biweekly mockery of the populace—does not the laughter throughout the city—does not the scorn of the people, and the union of all good men and women—does not the precaution of writing behind a firewall—do not the looks and countenances of this venerable body here present, have any effect upon you? Do you not feel that your plans are detected? Do you not see that your conspiracy is already arrested and rendered powerless by the knowledge which every one here possesses of it? What is there that you wrote last night, what the four nights before— where is it that you were—what demented muse that you summoned to meet you—what design was there which was adopted by you, with which you think that any one of us is unacquainted?

I believe that Ms Dowd will be abusing our patience for at least another decade. Catiline died heroically, shortly after Cicero wrote those words. No one wants that for Dowd. But couldn’t she go off somewhere alone and write novels like Anna Quindlen?

Christie Was Determined to Kill Tunnel

Josh BarroAbout a year ago, I wrote, Josh Barro Phenomenon. It was a response to his article, How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure. In it he provided an apologia for Chris Christie’s decision to kill the new Hudson River tunnel. His argument was that Christie was only against it because it was larded with pork. I countered saying that this is always what people claim. No one ever admits that they are doing this kind of thing because they want to use the money on their own crony capitalism.

Chris ChristieBarro hit back, tweeting to me that what I had written was the stupidest thing he had read all day, and he had read some really stupid things. I was honored that he read me. I was not at that time used to such people reading the site. But as I noted in an update, “I don’t see his problem. He is providing cover for the same conservative politicians that he claims to want to reform.” Even at the time, I thought it was clear that Barro wasn’t fully processing my argument because of his rage at me. (Admittedly, I was not very nice. I wrote, “Josh Barro is a middling writer who uses most of his intellect to make conservative ideas sound palatable.”

Let me quote from the article, where I don’t think I could have been more clear:

Barro tries to sound very Serious by arguing that the project is “overly expensive.” But that is always always always the reasoning for a politician to kill a project. No one ever says, “I’m killing this very popular tunnel because I hate public transit.” (Christie has no problem spending money on expanding the New Jersey Turnpike.) Instead, politicians say, “I’d love to support this very popular tunnel, but I just can’t because it is too expensive.” Or whatever. So all Barro’s “reasonable” arguments about wasteful spending just allow people like Christie political cover when they make entirely ideological decisions.

So who was right? Did Barro nail it when it when he claimed that Christie was the Good Conservative just looking after the money of the people? As it turns out, no. Charlie Pierce brought my attention to the fact that the Department of Transportation was working behind the scenes to get Christie to go along—offering him “concession after concession.” And none of it mattered, because Christie never intended to allow the tunnel to be built. Martin Robins, the original director of the project even said that Christie had no intention to do it. He would always come up with a reason to justify not doing it—just like I said.

But what did Christie want to spend the New Jersey people’s money on? Pierce explained:

Instead, in 2012, Christie shoveled $260 million in tax breaks into the construction of the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City…

Revel filed for bankruptcy 10 months later. Not only that, but the casino economy, which Big Chicken prefers to things like building rail tunnels and so on, is pretty much imploding…

So, to sum up, Big Chicken’s tenure as governor is marked most conspicuously by his involvement with casinos. He finagled pension money into the Wall Street casino, and lost a bundle. He plowed tax breaks into the actual casinos, and lost a bundle. Quite frankly, it’s hard to believe that he isn’t walking down the Boardwalk wearing a barrel at this point.

But I’m sure that Barro has not lost faith. I’ve noted before that he seems to have man-crush on Christie. And if he was naive enough last year to claim that Christie had good reasons for being against the tunnel, I’m sure he’ll have good reasons this year to apologize for Christie. It is probably like John Roberts’ idea of corruption. We need a three camera set up recording Christie saying, “I hate public transit so I’m going to kill this tunnel no matter what. Plus, I want to use the money to give my friends tax cuts and building contracts.” With that, plus Christie publicly admitting that the video is real, maybe Josh Barro would admit that Christie isn’t the Good Conservative that Barro so desperately believes must exist. Somewhere.

Fun With Zero Mostel and the HUAC

Zero MostelI was talking to Will last night and the subject of Zero Mostel came up. It was actually a conversation about Mel Brooks and what a total jerk he is. As an example, I talked about his treatment of Mostel during the production of The Producers where the cast and crew divided into two camps: the Zero camp and the petulant manboy camp. Anyway, I had said that Mostel was a legend in New York, and he would have been a huge star had he not been blacklisted.

He was effectively blacklisted long before the official blacklist. He was briefly in the Army, where he was refused a position as entertainment director of Special Services because he was “definitely a Communist.” He went on to entertain the troops for the rest of the war via the USO. But after the war, Hollywood wouldn’t hire him until Elia Kazan hired him for Panic in the Streets. After that, he did a number of movies. It is amazing: then as now, Hollywood is run by a bunch of followers. Regardless, this only lasted for a year before Mostel was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). After that, he didn’t work in Hollywood for another 15 years.

I assume that there is video of his testimony before the HUAC, but I haven’t been able to find it. I did, however, find this amazing clip of Jim Brochu in his one-man play, Zero Hour. He does Mostel really well. Here is the part of it from his testimony before the committee. Take a look; it really is great:

It’s very funny, but it also highlights the absurdity of the committee. These really were show trials without any point but to show how powerful and important the Representatives (and the Senators in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations) were that they could get people to grovel before them. It was public shaming for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, there was another side to it. You can hold a whole nation in line by claiming that any liberal activity—unions, civil rights, anti-war—is really the work of the Great Existential Threat (communism then; simply “liberalism” now, because the word has been so effectively vilified). This is why it was widely claimed that Martin Luther King Jr was a communist. Martin Luther King Jr was not a communist.

And Zero Mostel wasn’t a communist. The HUAC knew this too. He probably was nominally a communist in his youth. But what did it matter in 1952? Nothing. And it is clear today. And future generations will look back on us as the fools we are. Broad swaths of the middle class have been convinced that the real America is some mythic thing that will be found if we just funnel enough money to the super rich. Above all, let us not deal with our real problems. We need more of the same! But that is America in a nutshell: in the 1950s, we pretended to save freedom by destroying it. Now we pretend to save the middle class while destroying it.

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

Rufino Tamayo

Rufino TamayoOn this day in 1899, the great Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo was born. He is from that great period of revolutionary art in Mexico. But he rebelled against it. This was not because he was conservative. But any clear-eyed view of revolution shows that it almost always most hurts the people it is intended to help. Certainly during his early years, Tamayo was criticized for this although no one seems to have ever questioned the brilliance of his work.

As a result of this, he left Mexico in 1926 to live and work in New York. In 1949, he moved to Paris for a decade. But after that, he returned to Mexico for the rest of his long life—he died a couple months short of his 92nd birthday in 1991.

It’s hard to categorize Tamyao’s work. Wikipedia calls it “figurative abstraction,” which I suppose is as true as anything. But his work is quite varied over his long career, so any one description is certainly insufficient. I see a lot of Paul Klee in his work—especially in Tamyao’s use of colors. See, for example, Watermelons. But I’m fascinated by this painting that is rather different, Hombre Mirando Pajaros (“Man Looking at Bird”):

Hombre Mirando Pajaros - Rufino Tamayo

Happy birthday Rufino Tamayo!

My 2014 South Napa Earthquake

South Napa EarthquakeI suppose I should say something about the earthquake we had here over the weekend. It is now more or less officially known as the 2014 South Napa earthquake. That’s about 30 miles away from me. And it happened early Sunday morning.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. I woke up and thought, “Oh, we’re having an earthquake.” Then I went back to sleep. You see: I’m a California boy and we may be wimps about many (in my case “most”) things, but earthquakes are officially No Big Deal. But the moment I fell back asleep, I was awakened again. That got my attention. So I sat up and threw my legs over the side of the bed. But the motion was such that I fell over. And then it stopped.

There was a moment of calm and then the electricity went out. It stayed out for about two hours. Other than having some trouble sleeping because of my computer crash, there really wasn’t much of an effect on my life. I thought it sucked that I could not immediately go to the United States Geological Survey website and see how big a quake it was, but that was it. Such was the minutia of this quake on my life.

In the morning, I was surprised that the earthquake was only 6.0 magnitude. It felt bigger than than 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was of magitude 6.9. But I was a whole lot closer to the epicenter of this so that’s probably why it felt stronger—because it was, for me. But I figured the 6.0 magnitude wouldn’t cause much damage. I was surprised and sad that it did.

A couple hundred people were injured in the quake—a couple of them quite seriously. There was one death, but it seems to have been coincidental. And the damage has been estimated to be about a billion dollars worth—a lot for sleepy little Napa.

It speaks well of California building codes that the damage was as limited as it was. I can well image the effect of such an earthquake in other parts of the country, or in very poor countries. According to Wikipedia, earthquakes in this range can result in up to 25,000 fatalities, although this quake was at the bottom of the range. But even here, there would have doubtless been a lot more injuries if this had happened 12 hours earlier or later.

We Californians keep waiting for The Big One—something like the 9.2 magnitude 1964 Alaska earthquake. But there may be good news. The drought in California is so bad, that by the time that quake comes, California may be a ghost state.

For a good visual overview of the quake damage, see my local NPR/PBS affiliate KQED, South Napa Earthquake Photos.

The “Black on Black Crime” Dodge

Ta-Nehisi CoatesThe notion that violence within the black community is “background noise” is not supported by the historical recordor by Google. I have said this before. It’s almost as if Stop The Violence never happened, or The Interruptors never happened, or Kendrick Lamar never happened. The call issued by Erica Ford at the end of this Do The Right Thing retrospective is so common as to be ritual. It is not “black on black crime” that is background noise in America, but the pleas of black people…

The pattern is the transmutation of black protest into moral hectoring of black people. Don Imus profanely insults a group of black women. But the real problem is gangsta rap. Trayvon Martin is killed. This becomes a conversation about how black men are bad fathers. Jonathan Martin is bullied mercilessly. This proves that black people have an unfortunate sense of irony.

The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.

This history presents us with a suite of hard choices. We do not like hard choices. Here’s a better idea: Let’s all get together and talk about how Mike Brown would still be alive if Beyonce would make more wholesome music, followed by a national forum on how the charge of “acting white” contributes to mass incarceration. We can conclude with a keynote lecture on “Kids Today” and a shrug.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Black People Are Not Ignoring “Black on Black” Crime

What Is the Goal of Education Reform?

Could Someone Help Me OutImagine the day when all the teachers unions have been neutered and all the bad teachers have been fired and only highly effective teachers are left. In other words, imagine the utopia that the so called education reform movement is working so hard for. Then ask yourself a question, “How are we going to get good teachers to work at schools that serve low income children?” Certainly we won’t pay them more—at least by default—because that goes against the very idea of how we fund education where more money is spent on richer kids. We also aren’t likely to see such teachers getting the “good teacher” bonuses. They will be teaching with less and worse infrastructure to kids with parents who do not have as much ability to help at home. So why would a teacher work with low income children except out of a sense of altruism?

This is a really important question for the education reform movement. Obviously, there are solutions to this problem. We could, for example, provide financial incentives to teachers to work in low income areas. But that would require a policy change. We could provide more funding for schools serving low income children. But that would require a policy change. We could start providing financial incentives to low income families. But, again, that would require a policy change. Any and all of these could be priorities for the education reform movement right now. But they aren’t.

My point here is that the main policy goal of the education reform movement doesn’t seem to lead us anywhere with regard to the better education of our kids. I’ll fully admit: it seems to be doing a hell of a job decreasing worker rights. But the best you can say about the stated goals of education reform is that it will get rid of a small percentage of teachers who are incompetent and whip some other teachers into shape. This isn’t something that is going to revolutionize teaching, much less help the students who need the most help.

What I fear will happen is that after the “reformers” are done stripping away teacher rights, all the money (and therefore enthusiasm) will go away. Then we’ll be left with pretty much the same system we have now—except, of course, teaching will be an even less appealing job for exactly the kind of people we would want teaching. This kind of shortsighted and simplistic approach to problems is very common here in America.

Remember after 9/11 how suddenly flying was a much bigger pain without us being any safer? Remember how the changes that were made were the ones that were easiest for government and business? Remember how difficult changes like separate compartments for pilots were not done, because they just weren’t easy and would cost money? Well, that’s education reform. Whenever I get into an argument about education reform, I always hear the same thing, “Well at least they are doing something!” It is more correct to say, “At most they doing something.” And that something doesn’t seem to have much to do with improving education.

In the end, we will have a mediocre education system, just like we do now. It might be slightly better, but I think it will likely be slightly worse. And we’ll have the same choices that we have now if we are serious about reforming our educational system. But then, like now, we avoid those hard things. Because we aren’t very serious about reform. And the people subsidizing “reform” aren’t interested in it at all.

See Also

Alfie Kohn and Real Education Reform
Problems with Standards-Based Education
Liberal Education Reform Push Conservative Ends

Image edited from one displayed on Hemlock on the Rocks.

Hail to the Washington Racists

Washington RedskinsYesterday, Ken over at All Things Democrat had an interesting suggestion, A Proposal on the Washington Football Team Name. The name? The Washington Racists. Personally, I’ve been thinking of them as the Washington Genocides. (Interestingly, I am not the only person to think of this.) But Ken backs up his idea.

Back in May, Ken wrote another article, Dan Snyder & Roger Goodell Are Not Racists But George Marshall Was. This is in reference to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell statement, “The intent of the team’s name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image.” Saying it doesn’t make it so. George Marshall was the guy who bought what had been the Boston Braves and changed the name. He also made the coach dress up in a headdress and war paint for games. And, of course, Marshall fought against the integration of football.

What is most interesting, however, is that the Washington fight song honored the native peoples with the following lyrics right out F Troop, but without the respect:

Hail to the Redskins!
Hail, victory!
Braves on the warpath!
Fight for Old D.C.!
Scalp ’em, swamp ‘um
We will take ‘um big score
Read ‘um, weep ‘um, touchdown
We want heap more

Fight on, fight on, till you have won
Sons of Washington
Rah! Rah! Rah!

These were the lyrics that were used into the 1980s. F Troop was canceled in 1967, and it is far more evolved in its presentation of native peoples, even if Chief Wild Eagle was played by an Italian:

Ken makes an excellent point, “It is beyond laughable when league officials and Washington team management and fans claim the name is a sign of respect, and honorific of American Indians.” But it still comes back to the same point: it doesn’t even matter if Dan Snyder thinks he is honoring Native Americans: they don’t think so. It’s like if someone calls you “meathead” all the time. You tell them to stop. They respond, “But I only say it out of respect for you!” Well, if they really respected you, they would respect your opinion that you don’t like to be called “meathead.” The “redskins” name is racist and I figure Dan Snyder is more racist than most people too. But he doesn’t have to admit that. All he has to admit to is that the name is rude.

As for the name, The Washington Racists is growing on me. I’ve reworked the fight song:

Hail to the Racist!
Hail to genocide!
We signed some treaties
Soon they’ll know we lied!
Rob ’em, kill ’em
Whip them till they’re raw
It doesn’t matter
We’re above the law!
Kill and lie and cheat, till we have won
Sons of Washington
Rah! Rah! Rah!

It’s catchy. I think the Washington Racists could really catch on.

Forever Recession on Purpose

Forever Recession

I found this graph in an article this morning by Brad DeLong, In Which I Go Around, Over and Over Again, in Circles as I Try to Understand What Is Going on in Europe. What is displayed in the graph is GDP for the European Union. You see that it grew very predictably from 2000 to 2008 and then the crisis hit and the recession started. But then the economy started to recover very consistently (although anemically) from 2009 to 2011. And then it just died.

Everyone understands the recession. But why, after a short period of recovery has the economy stagnated? In a word: austerity. It has somehow become God given knowledge that governments should raise taxes and cut spending. This will supposedly create a strong economy because… Well, the truth is that no one can really say anymore. They used to have the work of Alberto Alesina, but that’s been shown to have been wrong.

Also this morning, Paul Krugman quoted the German government spokesman Georg Streiter saying, “We continue to work for stronger growth and employment and our government still believes there is no contradiction between consolidation and growth.” By “consolidation” he means austerity. You would think that the graph above would prove that there most definitely is a contradiction. But don’t expect those in charge in Europe (especially in Germany) to admit that. As I say a lot around here: bad economies are great for the rich.

DeLong’s article included an extended quote from Eurointelligence, in which they talk about how German newspapers are obsessed with the French budget defict:

Frankfurter Allgemeine and other German newspapers hardly mention any of this—they cover the overshooting French deficit obsessively. The paper’s Paris correspondent has an outraged editorial, which fails to mention that the French economy outperformed the German economy in Q2 (and for the period since the beginning of the Eurozone as well)…

What’s going on in Europe now is one of the cases that students in the future will look back on and say, “What were they thinking?!” People will look at graphs like the one above and rightly wonder how those who were pushing for austerity could have missed such an obvious problem. Of course, the point is that those in power don’t care; they have bigger fish to fry. And the German papers aren’t publishing graphs like that or even talking about the issue. And when they do talk about bad economic times, German nationalism tends to rear its ugly head with the people thinking it is all about those morally bankrupt countries in the south who over-borrowed. (And who, exactly, were the bankers who over-lent? The Germans. Not that the bad economy has anything to do with such old “sins” at this point.)

DeLong presented another graph that looks at the change in 10-year bond rates compared to five years ago for the US and Germany. They are right in line with each other up to the beginning of 2013. But then they uncouple in a big way with the bond rate decrease in Germany over twice what it has been in the US. This is going in the opposite direct that it should be going. But it is a great opportunity for Germany: it could spend some money. But it is insisting on austerity all around. The idea is that all of Europe will save its way to prosperity. But that isn’t how it works.

The “tighten our belts” argument always sounds reasonable. But in a macroeconomic sense, it doesn’t work if everyone is cutting back at the same time because everyone’s expenditures is everyone’s income. So austerity only makes sense in the context of the already rich and what is good for them. Meanwhile, there is widespread suffering in Europe. And it will apparently only abate when the rest of the world is doing really well economically. That will allow Europe to recover via exports. But that could take ten years. And what’s really sad is that if and when that happens, the power elite will proclaim, “See! Austerity and growth are compatible!”

Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea TanningOn this day in 1910, the great surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning was born. Sadly, she is probably better known as Max Ernst’s wife than as a painter. But her work is amazing. And she was basically a self-taught artist, which is remarkable given the classical aspects of her work. Before she was recognized for her serious work, she supported herself as a commercial artist in New York.

I called her work surreal, but that’s only because that is what she is best known for. Her later work is more abstract. I can see the the surrealism in it, but probably just because I know her earlier work. It is supremely confident and beautiful. She was also a poet and short story writer. You can read more about that and see an example of her later work in, With Our Souls in Our Laps.

Tanning only died two years ago at the age of 101. You can check out a number of her works at, ArtOdyssey. Here is one of my favorite of her paintings:

Surreal Painting - Dorothea Tanning

Happy birthday Dorothea Tanning!

Three Liberal Movies From 2006

James Fillmore is a regular reader and a prolific commenter around here. I am pleased to present his first guest post. He lives in Minnesota. Despite an exhausting job, he somehow manages to write so that the rest of us may benefit. He told me he “enjoys writing reviews of movies/books on occasion” and while his “minuscule audience tires of reading him, they secretly know he is always right.” Such arrogant self-deprecation makes him a perfect fit at Frankly Curious! —FM [Update: James e-mailed me regarding this introduction, “The intro was fine, though I’d lose the noble-sounding-job shit. You’ve taught; you know as well as I do that people do difficult, useful jobs because people find them challenging and interesting. We ain’t ‘heroes.’ We just deserve a living wage and financial speculators deserve, well, I’ll halt myself at ‘severe chastisement.'” So James isn’t a hero. In case you were thinking that he is, cut it out! -FM]

V for VendettaIn 2006, three movies were released that had very noticeable leftist leanings; that made 2006 a fun year to watch movies. Hollywood, no matter what the imposing Bill-O or your local AM radio lunatics say, isn’t generally leftist, except on social issues. Movie executives want to live in a world where their children are free from prejudice based on race, religion, or sexual orientation; they tend not to mind a world where they make gazoodles of money and their Mexican housemaids are paid quite a lot less.

So movies which suggest society is broken and could stand a serious upgrade are fairly rare. This is distinct from the more customary “society could use some tolerant enlightenment by those of us who make movies for lots of money” variety. Yes, John Sayles and Spike Lee are still alive, but they don’t count; they make their politically significant movies with duct tape and lemonade-stand funding. I’m talking about three movies with wide national releases (or two, and one that had wide release in Minnesota, a cold place you wouldn’t like) that had, as their point, “Yer cuntry iz boned! Press ‘restore.'”

In March came V For Vendetta, which is the most entertaining “Zorro blows up Parliament” film ever made. It was produced by Joel Silver (of the Lethal Weapon series, in which Mel Gibson and Danny Glover take on apartheid and exploding toilets), written by The Matrix creators the Wachowskis. The Matrix movies, at least until they stopped making any sense whatsoever, had a political undercurrent about “waking up” to tyranny. The first movie features a song by super-liberal Tom Morello called, literally, “Wake Up.” And when Joe Pantoliano’s character makes a deal with mean robots to betray humankind in return for getting his happy brainwashed state back—saying “ignorance is bliss”—the mean robot makes a point of calling him “Mr Reagan.”

In V for Vendetta, the undercurrent is made explicit. It’s 1984, or close enough with John Hurt—who was Winston Smith in the unseen movie version, playing Big Brother here—and everyone’s in a miserable daze. Enter V and humanity presumably lives happily ever after. It’s a damnably enjoyable piece of anti-Bush propaganda, with terrific performances by Hugo Weaving (the mean robot of The Matrix turned hero/savior here), Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, and Stephen Fry (maybe Fry’s best film work), alongside others less famous and just as good. (Roger Allam, playing a Fox News-type, looks so much like Christopher Hitchens it’s spooky.) You want your demonization of “terror” as a means to enact sweeping social controls? You got it. You want an anthrax scare? You got it. The tyrants also oppress gays (the most powerful subplot in the film, for me, the Wachowskis, and Karl Rove’s 2004 election strategy—if you’re keeping score)? You got it!

The movie has affected a lot of people. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and FedExes copies to everyone everywhere, inspiring revolution. There are a lot of protesters who wear these masks in real life today. Personally, I find the “if people wake up, they’ll riot in the streets and solve all our woes” message simplistic. Rioting in the streets makes for good television but doesn’t really get you anyplace; you need to educate and organize citizens in the old, tedious, door-to-door way. That’s what the civil-rights movement did, and it took decades of buildup before it was able to make effective large-scale demonstrations. When I saw protesters outside my front door wearing those Guy Fawkes masks during the 2008 Republican convention, I wanted to slap the kids; get out of the movies and go sign up some poor people already. But their hearts were in the right place, and that’s something.

Alan Moore, who wrote the V For Vendetta graphic novel (which I have not read), didn’t like the film. In an AV Club interview, he said that he regards both capitalism and socialism as ways to organize industrial societies which probably won’t be around much longer. On the “not much longer” front he may be right. A segue to:

In September you had Children Of Men, based on a novel by PD James, and directed by visual maestro Alfonso Cuaron. (You may have puked in your space helmet seeing his Gravity.) The novel, as far as I could tell, was about the sterility of academic leftism in the face of real-world issues; the movie is about sterility as a metaphor for all the horrible stuff each of us feels powerless to fix, like global warming or the humanitarian disasters in Iraq or Gaza or wherever the next one is.

It’s a stunningly effective exercise in visualizing, “Oh God we’re doomed!”—featuring some long takes (like the opening one in Gravity) that would make Orson Welles proud. (His line about movies being the “biggest toy-train set any boy ever had” applies to Cuaron, who digs the technical challenges of filmmaking.) Watching it, I was alternately depressed into a coma and blown away by the sheer virtuosity of the thing.

Children of MenPolitically, the movie isn’t a rouser like V; there are no easy solutions offered. There are no solutions offered, period; the best efforts of well-meaning people break down into factional leftist squabbling, which anyone who’s read an internet BDS debate (or anyone who’s seen Life Of Brian) will recognize. Clive Owen is a cynical public employee who drinks to numb his disillusionment. Michael Caine, in maybe his finest performance (Like Fry! It’s a trend!), plays an ex-activist living in the British equivalent of Northern California who is focused on growing killer strains of weed. The always magnetic, always unpronounceable Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a crazy factional leftist terrifying and sympathetic. And the great Julianne Moore gets the Janet Leigh part, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

If you watch the film (few did), many things stick in your memory, but one remains with me especially. Warring soldiers see a baby, the first baby anyone’s seen in 20 years, and the fighting halts; basic humanity overcomes hatred and ideology, for a moment. Then somebody shoots at somebody and everyone goes back to murderous mayhem. Yeah, that’s just about right.

The DVD of Children Of Men has an hour-long Cuaron documentary featuring the likes of Naomi Klein, James Lovelock, and Slavoj Zizek talking about the end of the world, and it’s well worth watching. Zizek in particular charms me; he has a goofy accent that makes his incredibly overbearing, pretentious use of the English language seem quirky rather than domineering—like Werner Herzog, but in a better mood. And, finally, speaking of barely decipherable Euro accents…

In December, you had Sweet Land. I can’t write about the film without tearing up; it might have been the most intense experience I’ve had at a movie theater in my adult life.

The film takes place in post-WWI Minnesota. The Swedes and Norwegians loathe each other but are attempting to put these petty differences aside to unite for a nobler cause: loathing the Germans. A Norwegian farmer (Or a Swede; I get them confused.) brings over essentially a mail-order bride from Germany, and all hell breaks loose. All heck, actually; it is Minnesota.

Sweet LandSweet Land is a very difficult film to watch for the first 30 minutes or so. It seems like nobody is speaking the same language and it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. That’s because the movie is about the immigrant experience, where nobody speaks the same language and it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. Gradually, you get a sense of the story, and you realize the confusion was intentional; it’s meant to give you a sense of what being an immigrant in these isolated farming communities might have felt like. The movie’s very effective at bringing an isolated farm community to life. You will never take heated indoor plumbing for granted again.

The only actors you’ll recognize are Ned Beatty, as a town burgomaster, and Alan Cumming (the guy who hosts Masterpiece Mystery) as a farmer who just can’t stop screwing his wife and so has a zillion kids he can’t feed. Neither actor has had too many opportunities to really take a part and run with it in films (Beatty getting raped in Deliverance doesn’t count, as good as he was in that). So both have one of their best-ever scenes (Trend!) in a dinner sequence, where Beatty gives a bored speech obviously aimed at Cumming about the Virtues Of Thrift And Temperance or some such. Beatty’s character is insulting Cumming’s without coming out and saying it (that’s sometimes called, in these parts, “ScandiLutheran passive-aggressiveness.”) The point isn’t to dispense helpful wisdom; the point is for the powerful to demean the weak and seem noble in doing so. It’s a great scene, played beautifully by both.

Eventually the Norwegian farmer and his German mail-order bride come to the aid of Cumming, because in a tiny farming community, you’ve got to knuckle under to the burgomaster or stick with your neighbors; they choose to stick with the neighbors out of what appears to be more “American Gothic” sheer stubbornness than any political drive. (Socialism is mentioned in the movie, but the characters have more pressing concerns than dreamy ideology. Knowing your Marx won’t pay off the landlord.)

The writer/director, Ali Selim, has a German-heritage parent from Minnesota and a Muslim-heritage parent from Egypt. So the themes obviously meant a lot to him; he battled for 15 years to get Sweet Land made. He hasn’t made a feature film since, but he works a lot in TV.

When I saw Sweet Land, in a small independent theater in Saint Paul, we were a bit early and the previous showing was just ending. In the lobby, a young couple walked out, complaining that the movie was slow and boring. I assumed they were possibly right, and that’s why they were the only attendees. Then, a few minutes later, the rest of the audience came out—all older, and all wiping their faces. If you see the film, you’ll understand why: the final shot knocks you into an Old Yeller-level of absolute helpless bawling. But they are happy-sad tears.

So That’s The Year In Lefty Movies, 2006. V for Venddeta was about riots fixing stuff, Children of Men was about stuff being unfixable, and the one nobody outside Minnesota has ever seen, Sweet Land, was about how fixing stuff actually happens, by resisting one burgomaster at a time. You can watch them on the standard pay services, or get them for free from your local library. You already pay taxes to get movies from your library for free, and unless you are a colossal jerkhead you don’t mind paying these taxes, so why not actually use your local library to watch a few DVDs? Honestly, you can do this; and it’s pretty awesome.

Why Reed Richardson Needs His Own Blog at The Nation

Reed RichardsonThis morning, I finally got around to reading Reed Richardson’s newest column, If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1%) Press. And I realized something: my sidebar had an error. You see, Richardson writes a column most weeks, and it is posted on Altercation, Eric Alterman’s blog at The Nation. I’m not quite sure why that is. I think Richardson may have been an intern at the nation under Alterman or they are friends or both. Regardless, at the end of Alterman’s commentary is the obligatory, “Now here’s Reed” (or something very similar), followed by Richardson’s column.

I’ve been reading Alterman for years. He is one of those writers who I’ve read so much that I don’t even think about him; much of his view of American media have simply become a part of my thinking. As a result, over the past couple of years, I’ve come to look forward more to reading Richardson than Alterman. But that’s especially true recently when all the older master does are his Alter-reviews.

Eric Alterman has fine taste is music and narrative art and he is well worth reading. For example, he prefers Shaw to Shakespeare and Mozart to Beethoven. My kind of guy! But some time ago, I began thinking that Alter-reviews were written each week to remind me that Eric Alterman has a better life than I do! So I tend to forgo his insights about plays and concerts I will never attend.

But even though I was going over to Altercation each week primarily to read (!) Richardson, my sidebar referred to “Eric Alterman.” So this morning I changed the link to “Altercation.” I figured that that was a good compromise because (1) that is its name and (2) Alterman still writes for it—even if the politics are sporadic these days.

The real question is why I even have to do this. Would it really be such a big deal for The Nation to provide Richardson with his own blog? He has, after all, written at least one cover story for the magazine, The GOP-Fox Circus Act. Not that I’m saying The Nation should just do things for my ease. They did, after all, add the #nowheresreed anchor name to <i>Altercation</i> at my urging. (Such is the juice I have with the liberal media establishment!) How could I ask for more?

As for this week’s column, it’s about how Meet the Press is pushing David Gregory out, only to be replaced by David Gregory, I mean, Chuck Todd. I make it a point never to watch the Sunday political shows unless I can watch Mary Matalin get upset when Paul Krugman brings up “science” and other distasteful things like “facts.” Otherwise, Richardson nailed the reason why these shows have always sucked and will always suck:

As a result, most Sunday news show hosts serve as purveyors of the Washington conventional wisdom as much as, if not more than, the officeholders they’re purportedly covering. Meet the Press, and with it the whole Sunday morning news show genre, has devolved into a kind of cloistered, clubby, faux-accountability chinwag, one where a rich and powerful host mostly asks gentle questions of rich and powerful politicians about things that mostly only matter to rich and powerful viewers. (Or, even worse, rich and powerful journalists and pundits simply talk amongst themselves.) Voices and issues considered outside the mainstream—or in DC parlance, “not serious”—end up either marginalized or completely disappeared from the discourse. Need more proof? Look no further than the Sunday news show advertisers, a list of which is routinely populated by multinational conglomerates and defense contractors. (Boeing exclusively sponsors the Meet the Press news app.) These companies know that the “programming” they’re selling adjacent to on Sunday morning isn’t about to question the status quo.

There was never any hope that NBC was going to replace Gregory with Glenn Greenwald. As it was, the network (as MSNBC) fired Phil Donahue back during the Iraq War because they were afraid to have even one voice to push back against the administration. So of course the mainstream media are going to be the fearful lapdogs of the power elite.

This the main reason we need people like Eric Alterman and Reed Richardson. And it may seem that Richardson gets more attention under the Alterman umbrella. But I think it is time to decouple the two. Or at least to start the process with cross-posting. Plus, I could really use another “Weekly” link.