Cool video

I did a search for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Happening Brother” and found this video clip from the music documentary Save the Children.  It is interspersed with montages of black neighborhoods in early 1970s Chicago, which is especially interesting.  The footage moves from adults on rundown city streets to children at storefront churches to families walking in the park to children playing in fields and on waterslides, evoking the them of saving the children (the footage is from Chicago’s Operation PUSH).

A row about rowhouses

Always the clued-in urbanite, my friend Jon recently pointed me to an article in the Washington Post about new building on D.C. rowhouses:

In their search for more space, property owners have forever tacked on additions to the backs of their houses. But now developers and homeowners, yearning for more house and, in some cases, more profit, are building skyward, a direction that preservationists say is threatening the charm of older neighborhoods.

District officials don’t keep statistics on rooftop additions, or “pop-up” roofs, as they are known. But they estimate that at least 200 have sprouted in recent years as real estate values have soared.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I understand the desire to preserve a character in the neighborhood, but current urban dwellers should be able to modify a neighborhood to their needs as well. After all, the originators of the row houses did just that when they built their homes, and I’m sure some of them were subject to charges of gaudiness back then. I do think there is room for zoning to prohibit property that takes up too much of a lot and so forth, but I think preserving “history” for its own sake loses some sight of the purpose of a neighborhood. I guess, as with many things, balancing competing interests is the best we can do.

Just a blip between economic good times: revising the Depression

Columnist Amity Shales Shlaes does what no journalist should do–at least not with lots of research and interviews–she sets out to treat the Depression era and swiftly discredit the Roosevelt’s administration’s response. Shales Shlaes is herself a conservative, so it is not surprising that she summarily dismisses Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambitious programs and policies. Still, such easy critique is a tall order for anyone, because the Depression-era programs seemed to have worked. Not only did they provide a safety net to millions of struggling Americans who were hard-hit by job loss, deflation and the resulting run on U.S. banks, but they modernized the government’s interaction with the industrial economy, an economy much more interrelated than agrarian economy of 19th Century Ameirca.

John Updike pens a review of Shales‘s Shlaes’s book in the New Yorker. From excerpts and Updike’s description at least, the book reads as dogmatic and somewhat delusional. An example:

American capitalism did not break in 1929. The crash did not cause the Depression. It was a necessary correction of a too-high stock market, but not a necessary disaster.

Updike’s anecdote about his Depression-era memories is a welcome antidote to Shales‘s Shlaes’s removed analysis:

My father had been reared a Republican, but he switched parties to vote for Roosevelt and never switched back. His memory of being abandoned by society and big business never left him and, for all his paternal kindness and humorousness, communicated itself to me, along with his preference for the political party that offered “the forgotten man” the better break. Roosevelt made such people feel less alone. The impression of recovery—the impression that a President was bending the old rules and, drawing upon his own courage and flamboyance in adversity and illness, stirring things up on behalf of the down-and-out—mattered more than any miscalculations in the moot mathematics of economics. Business, of which Shlaes is so solicitous, is basically merciless, geared to maximize profit.

As Updike suggests, Shales Shlaes should have taken a page from Studs Terkel, who published a compendium of interviews with veterans of the Great Depression.

At least from Updike’s review, it comes across that Shales Shlaes fails to rise to the essential task that must be put upon her if she is supporting a Coolidge approach to the market crash and subsequent depression of the 1930s: she must prove how not intervening–the early response to the Depression–worked over the latter response. It seems that many people who were against Roosevelt’s response to the Depression were unhit by the Depression or cushioned well enough that it didn’t impact their success in the laissez-faire environment. Reliance on such people in order to advance a revisionist view of the Depression is incomplete and willfully ignorant of the difficulties exacted upon most Americans during that era.

No flash photography

In the late summer of 2004, I made the requisite trip with my study abroad group to the Louvre in Paris. We proceeded through the busy museum with a few particular destinations in mind, foremost of which was the Mona Lisa. Just as the Sistine Chapel had been a let down after seeing many other frescos before it in the long procession through the magnificent Vatican Museum, so too did the Mona Lisa seem like just a blip in a sea of masterpieces. Yet, this blip presided over a horde of people who all crowded around it to take photos marking the day that they laid eyes on the woman of perpetual eye contact. Looking back upon this anti-climactic moment, I recall that sea of museum paparazzi much more than I do my brief meeting with the eyes of Mona Lisa.

In the last month, I have made two trips to the National Archives of the United States of America to see the Constitution and the original Declaration of Independence. Before an Archives guard releases the group mostly comprised of tourists into the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, he warns us to disable the flash on our cameras or risk confiscation. In this dimly lit hall, visitors nonetheless attempt to take flash-free photographs of the faded, partially illegible documents that are protected by thick glass. Rather than even attempt to read these historic documents, these tourists reflexively reach for the camera to take a photo that surely will not make the words of the document more lucid nor captivate the poor friend or relative who is subject to a slideshow of the family trip to the Nation’s Capital.

As someone who enjoys taking photos a little too much, I sympathize with the impulse to document every site seen on a trip, especially the famed and fabled ones, but there’s a point where this need for the Kodak Moment takes away from the real moment. Sure, the undocumented site may not live in material memory, but certainly a viewing of the Mona Lisa or the Constitution will forever live in the mind, and sometimes that is enough. When those tourist photographers were madly snapping away at the Mona Lisa, I wondered whether they even liked the painting, whether a critical thought about the painting passed through their minds.

The other problem with taking photos in museums is that it is intrusive. For the moments when the camera-wielder is taking his photo, the line of sight between his camera and the painting is his zone. If one walks through a gallery with many amateur photographers, one has to constantly be mindful of not intruding upon their attempts at photos. Engaging with the art, which can be a peaceful, private activity is intruded upon by their obtrusiveness. No longer is the museum a place centered around the objects viewed; it becomes a series of snapshots for the future-thinking picture taker who imagines the slide show or photo album that will come of this visit instead of the history and background of the object at hand.

A good quote

Just have to note this, if for no one else but myself:

A prime test of an historian’s skill is the extent to which he does justice to these complementary forces, repetition and novelty.

From this article, by Roger Kimball.

Top Ten Cool Things of the Year (in the U.S.)

This wasn’t such a great year. The situation in Iraq deteriorated even more, and yet OJ Simpson’s absurd book seemed to generate more outrage among some–namely the over employed entertainment media. So, what was great about 2006? Not a whole lot. Doing my best to remember what on earth happened this year, I’ll try to extract the few cool things that did happen, in no particular order:

1. Stephen Colbert at the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner: In May, Colbert helped draw attention to an event that usually serves as a bad inside joke for a few hundred people by humorously critcizing the president’s famous ego. He mocked Bush’s supposed steely resolve–”Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will”–cutting it down to the publicity stunt it is:

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

Not only was Colbert’s bit itself hilarious, but it became a watershed media event. YouTube, 2006′s ubiquitous website, proved especially useful in the days after the event, allowing people to access what really went down at the dinner rather than taking the mainstream media’s word for it. Their word was often non-existent, because many outlets initially determined the event not newsworthy–including The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune–despite the ramifications of the event: one of the country’s most clever comedians had pointedly skewered one of the most insulated of modern presidents, who was sitting just a few feet away. It should be no surprise then that the second target of Colbert’s routine was the lackadaisical media–many in attendance at the dinner–who have so often failed to vigorously question George W. Bush about his agenda:

Over the last five years, you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. … And then you write, ‘Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

The event was remarkable for fusing politics and entertainment for constructive good, for being accessibile to a mass audience, and for serving as a jumping off point for debate about the usefulness of the media. The Colbert performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is perhaps the emblematic event of a year of consumer participation in newsmaking.

2. The Democratic Victory in the 2006 Congressional Elections: One can easily imagine the media narrative that would have persisted had the Republicans maintained control of Congress after the November 2006 elections: that Americans were satisfied with the direction of the War in Iraq despite visible reservations, that the economy wasn’t bad enough to require a renewed focus on growing inequity–like the recent cuts in student aid and the failure to increase the minimum wage–and that, in general, Americans were satisfied with the Republican social agenda. A wisdom that had prevailed for years changed on November 7.

Up against a gerrymandered Congress, the Democrats still won big in the House. They also managed to eke out victory in the Senate, knocking out some formidable incumbents like George Allen of Virginia and Conrad Burns of Montana. Furthermore, they won with great help from the so-called “liberal bloggers,” whose fundraising, organizing, and message generating did justice to the term netroots. The Democrats in 2006 were not the Democrats of 1996, who relied upon the contributions of moneyed coffers and directed most of their energies to retaining the presidency rather than making inroads in Congress.

The new Congress is focusing on a different course in Iraq–though it is still up to the intransigent President to assume one–and on economic issues that were ignored under one-party rule. Plus, the 2006 election was also a victory against apathy, with the number of voters up in the usually less participatory midterm elections. Especially encouraging: 24 percent of Americans 18-30 voted, the largest percentage in 20 years.

3. Harvard, then Princeton and UVA, End Early Decision: In September, Harvard and then Princeton and the University of Virginia moved to end the early admission option, deciding that it favored savvier applicants from more advantaged backgrounds. Although other top schools do not yet see the need to eliminate early decision, Harvard at least brought to attention the need for universities to be attentive to the disparate sophistication of prospective students with the college application process. Although some schools, like my Alma mater Northwestern, have made some reasonable points on why early decision still suits them, it is good for universities to publicly discuss institutional inequities. Hopefully, Harvard and its peers will figure out how better to assist both low income and middle class students with the costs of their education.

4. TV Programming Continues to Improve: Although there is still drek on television–there always will be–some TV programming continues to delight. While I think some of the critics favorite shows, particularly “Weeds” and “Scrubs” are overrated, “The Office,” “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show,” and HBO programming continue to shine. “The Office” was rightfully awarded an Emmy for its fantastic ability to find humor in the mundane and for the genuine performances put forth by its cast. After a reportedly bumpy first year, “The Office” figured out how to adeptly adapt the British version to reflect the nature of the American workplace in year two. (Now, there is a French and German version of “The Office,” showing that the workplace is a universal source of humor, though not necessarily the same humor). Office romances, career dissatisfaction, narrow-mindedness, and the American work ethic are depicted realistically and hilariously. To think, 10 years ago, the only good things going on network TV were “Frasier,” “Friends” (meh) and “Seinfeld,” and the sitcom (shudder) reigned supreme. Hopefully, the cool event of 2007 will be that cable companies lose their regional monopolies and prices decrease (I wish).

5. Some Bad People Went to Prison: This year, Jack Abramoff and Jeffrey Skilling, two men who enjoyed far too much power in the 1990s, were convicted to formidable prison terms. Abramoff was convicted of conspiracy to bribe a public official, defrauding a client, and tax evasion, and was sentenced to the minimum of 10-years, in anticipation that he will cooperate with investigations of other corruption cases. He and his lobbying firm contributed to the excess of Republican-controlled Washington. Abramoff was intimately involved with disgraced former majority leader Tom DeLay, who his lobbying firm treated to trips to the North Mariana Islands, and Abramoff himself secretly funded the trips of other Republican Representatives. Abramoff’s corruption is too extensive to document here, but concurrent to his demise went the careers of a lot of disgraceful people, including DeLay, Randall “Duke” Cunningham, and Robert Ney.

Jeff Skilling, former CEO of the defunct Enron Corporation might be the person most single-handedly responsible for the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001, in which the state’s recently deregulated electricty grid allowed for Enron employees to manipulate the energy markets in there, causing prices to spike and supply to be unevenly distributed. Too bad Skilling can’t provide redress for all of the pension plans that were decimated by the Enron collapse as well as for the electricty bills and costs incurred by the state of California during the energy crisis.

6. Immigrant Rallies Across the Nation: Often defined by their demagogic opposition, tens of thousands of immigrants and those in favor of immigrant interests rallied across the nation in April, drawing attention to their contributions and advertising their presence to Congress, which was then considering immigration reform. For a group that fills mostly the least desirable jobs in the country, immigrants get a lot of flack, despite that the United States is a nation of immigrants. A typical complaint against illegal immigrants is that they use up public services, but wouldn’t pushing for legalization and thereby getting them to pay into the system be a good way to prevent this? Of course, this would have to be accompanied by pay approximating a living wage…

7. FDA Approves HPV Vaccine and Plan B OTC: The current administration has not wholly succeeded in stymieing progress of its agencies. The FDA approved the Human papillomavirus vaccine and over the counter (OTC) Plan B contraception. Though religious zealots will probably tell you otherwise, there is never anything wrong with vaccinating against a sexually transmitted disease. The idea that it encourages unprotected sex or sex in general is like saying that a flu vaccine encourages not washing one’s hands. The approval of Plan B also generated controversy, but it will make an unpleasant process easier to handle for many people.

8. An Inconvenient Truth Brings More Attention to Global Warming: In a year of erratic temperatures and a hostile climate, Al Gore used his influence and celebrity for good, bringing attention to the force behind climate fluctuations. It is amazing that the existence of global warming needs such a forceful defense, even though it is not in scientific dispute, but that is why Gore’s contribution was so constructive. Though of course not as watchable as a movie like Casino Royale, Gore does an admirable job of meticulously deconstructing the arguments against global warming and detailing those for it. If parts of our country are submerged under water in the not too distant future, Al Gore can (somberly) say I told you so.

9. Google Buys YouTube: In an acquisition that didn’t reek of evil, the search engine giant bought out the user-generated content giant. Not only does YouTube’s searchable video content model seem commensurate with Google’s model, but Google appears to be an encouraging parent corporation, managing to maintain the integrity and while innovating its other acquisitions, like this here software I’m using. (Meanwhile, the telecom market is consolidated by another dispiriting merger, as AT&T’s absorption of Bell South Corp. is approved by the FCC).

10. Bob Woodward’s State of Denial Released: The tipping point of popular opinion against George W. Bush must surely have been reached when Bob Woodward–establishment journalist and former Bush administration cheerleader–released State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III. Woodward’s book seemed to cement the view that the War in Iraq was a mistake, and that its execution was poorly managed at best, providing an indictment of all of the key actors in the administration who consistently lied and misled over the years to save face.

This was a pretty difficult list to come up with, because this was a pretty difficult year, but I know I’m forgetting things. Please comment with any additional suggestions or any recommended subtractions.

Apocalypto wasn’t accurate?!?!

An article in Salon from Mayan expert Marcello Canuto about Apocalypto–nay–Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and questions over its accuracy:

The movie tracks a young Mayan man who is captured in a surprise raid on his village. Forced to abandon his family, he and his companions are taken to the nearby city to be sacrificed. He manages to escape and, pursued by his captors, attempts to return to his village to save his family. During his getaway, he reaches a beach where he witnesses the arrival of Spaniards.

This final scene tells us that the movie focuses on Maya society on the eve of Spanish contact in the 16th century. Yet the Maya city portrayed in the movie, central to its plot, dates roughly to the 9th century. This is akin to telling a story about English pilgrims founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and showing them living in longhouses described in “Beowulf.” In fact, Gibson incorporates Maya images from as far back as 300 B.C. Throughout the movie, these anachronisms make Maya civilization seem timeless, and undermine the idea that the Maya could and did respond to change.

Another question I had more about the logistical accuracy of Apocalypto: how did main character Jaguar Paw so quickly and expertly find his way back to his village in the forest of the Yucatan peninsula from the city center? And who is supposed to symbolize Jesus–Jaguar Paw, or his water-birthed child? Also, why was the forest so close to the cornfields as well as the beaches that the Spaniards land on?

Actually, I was disappointed that Apocalypto did not actually tackle head-on the downfall of Mayan civilization, whose supposed causes–pestilence, colonization, depression of trade, slave revolt–are in dispute; however, maybe it’s for the best that Mel Gibosn is not the one to do this. As Canuto says of Gibsons enormous inaccuracies:

If there were ever an apocalypse in the history of the Maya — and herein lies the ultimate demoralizing irony of the movie — it would be because of European contact. But in the movie, after two hours of excess, hyperbole and hysteria, the Spaniards represent the arrival of sanity to the Maya world. The tacit paternalism is devastating.

Nonetheless, I loved Apocalypto only because it was totally INSANE; and fortunately it has compelled me, as the writer hopes, to look into the real history of Maya civilization rather than trust Mel Gibson.

Review of movie I haven’t seen: Bobby

I continue to feel more motivation to review movies that I have not seen than those that I have. Although I have seen a variety of films recently–The Queen, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Jules et Jim, Network (again)–I only want to review Bobby, the movie about the second most famous Kennedy (or maybe third or fourth). Actually, Bobby is less about Robert F. Kennedy, JFK’s brother and once U.S. Attorney General, than it is about the mood of the country when RFK was assassinated in 1968.

Though I am admittedly curious to see this movie, a few of its attributes worry me. First of all, “directed by Emilio Estevez” is not particularly encouraging. The Post says Estevez is “best known” as one of the “Brat Pack” actors, but among members of my generation, it’s much worse: he’s Coach Gordon Bombay of The Mighty Ducks and D2. He has said, “Quack, quack, quack, Mr. Duckworth!” in a movie. He is a poor man’s Charlie Sheen (who happens to be his brother). Just to clarify, his dad is Martin Sheen, and he had to play a hockey coach in a stupid (but admittedly hilarious) kids movie!

Secondly, the cast aims to be an exciting ensemble and as such includes one-note actors like Helen Hunt, Lindsay Lohan, Ashton Kutcher, and Heather Graham. A film that aims to create an aura around a consequential historical figure totally does itself in if it casts Ashton Kutcher in any role, even as an extra. As for Heather Graham, I was not aware that she was still around, but she has the honor of being my least favorite actress of all time. Her over-acting ditz schtick made the sequel to Austin Powers exponentially worse than it already was, and she looks like an albino bug.

Finally, and most importantly, from all accounts, Bobby is based upon the premise that Bobby Kennedy was a good guy. That is not to say that the film is incorrect to portray him as a figure who inspired, because he did, especially in the mounting turbulence of 1968, but it adds nothing new to the popular historical picture of Bobby Kennedy, which, as tends to be the case with historical figures, is not a very multi-faceted picture. To his credit, he visited Appalachia to bring attention to the plight of the impoverished, and he became a voice of calm in the early throes of instability in Vietnam, but he was also the legislative aide to Joseph McCarthy during the opportunistic witchhunts of the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and he was, by all accounts, a ruthless operative bent on enforcing loyalty to himself and his brother. He also gave written approval to the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr., who the discredited J. Edgar Hoover suspected as a Communist, though in fairness, Kennedy also leant support to the enforcement of Brown v. Board of Education and worked hard to desegregate the government. I can certainly see how it would be interesting for a film to explore how a U.S. politician impacted the American people–I often wonder how consequential political figures are upon peoples’ day-to-day experiences–but the portrayal of this oft-recounted historical moment risks bringing nothing new to the table.

Why History is a major Major

On graduation day a few weeks ago, some of my fellow history majors and I mused a bit about the way our convocation ceremony was organized, with each department lumped in their own section. Right then I felt a history major’s pride swelling up, a pride that is pretty much recognized only by a fellow history major, because the non-major who inquires about our area of study is (amazingly) far from moved to regard us in awe. Instead, upon learning of our major, he will form a quizzical expression, pause for a couple seconds, and then finally reconcile himself to our real intentions: “oh, you must want to teach,” we are knowingly told.

Even (and perhaps especially) for those who do want to teach, the history major who loves his studies does so because history accounts for every other area of study that is offered at the university. Physics, for instance is not an immortal field (not that it’s not important, useful, and incredibly interesting); rather, its existence can be accounted for by human experience, by the advancing interest that humans had in the last five hundred years in the ability to explain and quantify physical phenomena.

Lining up for convocation, one of my history friends even half-joked that political science isn’t a real major, an ironic statement given that history and poli sci people are often lumped together, because both majors study similar events and they both produce graduates who tend to go to law school. However, in certain ways, the two are fundamentally opposed: where the study of poli sci–like economics–suggests that there is a science to human behavior that repeats itself, the study of history acknowledges that this is not the case, that in each period of time, an event that may have seemed similar to past events yielded from different actors, motivations, circumstances, and so forth. We might believe that Iraq is not another Vietnam, though we can understand how it is a failed mission just as Vietnam was. We might believe that George W. Bush is not another Richard Nixon, even though they are both guilty of similar indiscretions.

So that, in sum, is why a history major may think s/he is special: there is no immortal explanation for events–not that there aren’t lessons to be learned from the past–but rather just human experiences that have preceded us and will follow us. So, though it may annoy you to read this smug proclamation that our major represents an all-encompassing area of study, if it makes you feel better, the other majors usually get the higher paying jobs. ;-)

New Wave Punk…Versailles…Running Aristocrats…Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette

There’s not a whole lot I can say about the film Marie-Antoinette that has not been said by film reviewers who have already seen the movie. It got “lusty boos” at the Cannes Film Festival and is described by the New York Times reviews that I have linked to as a gilded Versailles presented through a gilded conduit of one bred in Hollywood (not to mention that the soundtrack includes the likes of The Cure and New Order). According to reviewer Manohla Dargis, “Ms. Coppola’s period film, which is playing in competition, conceives of her as something of a poor little rich girl, a kind of Paris Hilton of the House of Bourbon.”

Reviewer A.O. Scott also sees Marie-Antoinette as “Holding a mirror up to Hollywood.” Maybe there is something to the idea that Hollywood has an eerie similarity to Versailles–the frivolity, the unmitigated decadence, the navel-gazing–but it seems like Coppola is too enamored with the ritualistic luxury that surrounded and pampered Marie-Antoinette to realize this. As James Rocchi says, “Much of Coppola’s film is given over to sequences of dancing, trying on clothes or relaxing — all of which may have been important elements of Marie Antoinette’s life, but they hardly make for thrilling cinema.” I would add that it hardly makes for relevant cinema.

The problem with portraying Marie-Antoinette in this manner is that it neglects that her significance lay primarily in the severe contrast between her (and others at the Court of Versailles’s) lifestyle and those of most other French people at the time. Coppola’s approach adds yet another uncritical piece of celebrity worship to an already overflowing mass. Perhaps Coppola is so accustomed to the attention she and fellow celebrities get from the press just for being celebrities that, in her mind, the peasants storming Versailles would have been just as enamored with Marie-Antoinette’s life as the average American supposedly is with the life of her and her colleagues in the equally insulated and disconnected world of Hollywood. They’re not really storming the palace to overturn a social order, they’re storming the palace for autographs, right?


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