Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sin and Suds

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Pirates, Terrorists and Zizek

The attacks in Mumbai have me thinking about Zizek again. I have Welcome to the Desert of the Real back out on my desk and I’ve been flipping through; returning to passages outlined; thinking about the nature of terror and stateless actors generally. I am wondering how truly novel these concepts are in the long view of history. We are seeing increased media accounts of these kinds of things; terrorists; pirates; they are not new. Why do the media present them as novelties, or at the very least, why do the media portrayals make them feel novel to me?

Zizek (2002) asks if international terrorists are “the obscene double of the big multinational corporations – the ultimate rhizomatic machine, omnipresent, albeit with no clear territorial base” (p.38). The same framework could be placed on recent pirate attacks. They attack, without sponsorship, whether of a state or a corporate body, not that those two entities are segregated anymore.

The coinciding spectacles of terror and piracy stand in stark contrast to the west’s increasingly blurred lines between state and corporation. Abstruse forces are bringing international capitalism to the brink; poor Allen Greenspan’s ideology failed him, not to mention the rest of us. The invisible hand of the market is slapping us around. We struggle to stabilize our markets, while still trampling retail employees to death. Meanwhile, “pirates are living between life and death…who can stop them? Americans and British all put together cannot do anything."

Contrasting forces are at work; simultaneously pulling the world toward opposite polarities. Terrorists and pirates are the “rhizomatic machines” Zizek describes, the multinational corporations their counterpoint. We have contrasting images of corporate titans begging before congress and terrorists rampaging through Mumbai. The state gradually takes over the economy; we are in the last throes of neoliberalism. Meanwhile, a small cadre of men in speedboats, who are also now shooting at cruise ships, bring international oil concerns to their knees.

The contrast between the two is stark. The free market dies as corporation and state become increasingly intertwined; state power and centralized control increase. Pirates and terror cells decentralize control and challenge the power of states and corporations. Zizek says, “the notion of the ‘clash of civilizations’, however, must be rejected out of hand: what we are witnessing today are, rather, clashes within each civilization” (p. 41). Perhaps we’re witnessing both.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Countdown Begins

This didn't take very long. We haven't even had the inauguration yet and they're already starting to countdown to the end of Obama's first term. This drives home part of the reason that McCain lost. He, and his supporters, did not give the public a reason to vote in support of McCain; only reasons to vote against Obama. You can't win an election that way.

In 96 the Republicans ran Dole against Clinton and they thought that their hate for Clinton was persuasive enough to convince the general public to vote for Dole. In 04 Democrats did the same thing in the Kerry campaign against Bush. The problem was that the general public did not share the Republicans' visceral hate for Clinton or the Democrats' visceral hate for Bush. There were things the public disliked about Clinton and Bush; but they did not amount to the same level of disdain. McCain's campaign was predicated upon the same disdain for Obama; and that became the only message of his campaign. Attack, attack, attack!

I think negative campaign ads are an important part of the process. I disagree when I hear someone saying how they hate the negative ads and wish the campaigns would not use them. The problem is when the negative ads become the central part of a campaign strategy, as they did with McCain. You have to present yourself in the best light and your opponent in the worst light. If all you're doing is the latter, that negative light starts to reflect onto you. Apparently the group running the above ad on Drudge didn't learn a damn thing last night.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Obama Turn

It's a good night. And it happened on my son's birthday. He's our little good luck charm. In my paper from the Obama Effect conference I used the phrase the "Obama Turn." Obama himself and his victory symbolize a transition to a new era; for liberalism, the Democratic Party and most importantly, the nation as a whole.

As one last point, Drudge continues the religiofication of Obama. Something I have addressed in my paper and in this space in the past. I'm interested to see how this rhetoric is employed in the conservative critique over the next few years.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Palin/McCain Ticket

I picked up this screen shot from Gil Smart's blog. It's funny to me that a McCain campaign ad is just a big picture of Sarah Palin.
Who is the Republican presidential nominee again? I guess it's a good idea to give your nominee as little media exposure as possible. Especially in your paid media.

It's even more telling that Palin has already been asked about her career plans for after this election. The implication there being that once McCain is defeated Palin is the natural choice for the GOP four years from now. A prospect I find puzzling considering the disaster she has been in this election. She has fired up the base a little more, but lost the conservative intelligentsia. From David Brooks to Kathleen Parker to Peggy Noonan, the elite of the conservative coalition are not going to be happy with her four years from now. I don't understand how she has not been officially dubbed "damaged goods."

I have occassionally found myself wondering how different this campaign would be if McCain had chosen Tim Pawlenty or Charlie Crist or even Joe Lieberman for VP. I don't think it's going too far to say that with Lieberman McCain would have lost the base but maybe won the election. A McCain/Lieberman ticket may have even created a braoder shift in the electorate, puching some out of the Republican tent, bringing others in and creating an entire new right wing movement outside of the GOP. It's fun to speculate.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Lil' O'Reilly

I love this.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

American Carol

The New York Times reviewed the new right-wing comedy "An American Carol." Setting aside the fact that, based on the previews, the movie appears to be aimed at the simple minded wing of the conservative movement, my favorite line of the review comes at the end:

“An American Carol” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes swearing and satirical bigotry.
What is satirical bigotry? Does that mean the movie itself has a message of bigotry, but the bigotry is kind of funny? Are they satirizing bigotry?

Friday, October 03, 2008


I don't think I will ever understand why the right finds Palin appealing. Didn't they get enough folksy charm from Bush for the last eight years?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Quote of the Week

Oh, the sadomasochistic tedium of McCain's imprisonment in Hanoi being told over and over and over again at the Republican convention. Do McCain's credentials for the White House really consist only of that horrific ordeal? Americans owe every heroic, wounded veteran an incalculable debt of gratitude, but how do McCain's sufferings in a tiny, squalid cell 40 years ago logically translate into presidential aptitude in the 21st century? Cast him a statue or slap his name on a ship, and let's turn the damned page.
-Camille Paglia

As much as I disagree with her some times, when she hits the nail on the head, she really hits it.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Thought Bodies in Social Media

My Ph.D. work has just begun and I find myself reading some work that I had not expected to enjoy as much as I am. The work is in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS). While this field is largely new to me, it has not been difficult to find ways that it relates to the area of media studies. The first week of readings is filled with discussions on the arrangement of information, its classification, the defining of terms, the nature and purpose of historical narratives and, most interesting to me, what this all says about the dominant modes of thought of a given time; how power is attained and maintained.

In one of the readings Radford and Radford (2004) relate philosophical questions of post-structuralism to LIS. In their discussion of Foucault they state that he “notes that his statements have the potential to ‘land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of.’”

They are able to do this because statements are real; they have a material existence and, as such, have the potential to physically circulate among readers. The readers, in turn, have the capacity to ‘manipulate, use, transform, exchange, combine decompose and recompose, and possibly destroy’ those statements. (p. 71-72)

I can’t help but place this view in the context of the newer forms of media. Does it apply to the blogosphere; to Youtube; to Facebook? Does it apply to the realm of social media?

Yes, all social media contain statements, mostly fitting the definition put forth by Foucault and Radford and Radford; statements that are oftentimes disparate parts, combining to make a “concrete” whole; there is most definitely a sense of arbitrary classification in social media, classification that comes from “the crowd” linking one thing to another based on little more commonality than their personal interest in the subject; statements that, however disparate, are subject to a system of rules that govern how discourse happens in a social network, how one conducts him/herself in respectful ways; statements that fit the post-structuralist character of being “fragile and open to subversion” (Radford and Radford, 2004, p. 61), the subversion that comes from a negative comment on a blog or the fragility resulting simply from the existence of the delete button on the keyboard.

At first pass, however, that fragility leads me to conclude that Foucault’s argument about the materiality is not wholly applicable to social media. I am forced to ask if materiality and disposability are absolutely contrary terms. Do these, to borrow Weinberger’s phrase, “small pieces, loosely joined” really have a material presence in any way? Is the monitor of my laptop the material presence of my Facebook profile? If I print out the text of this note does it lose its essence? Is the paper a dead, corporeal representation of the note (or any other artifact of social media)?

Part of the essence of the note (or the Youtube video, blog post, Digg link) is the comment function. Its fragility and openness to subversion (both to subverting and being subverted) is the fact that the page is ever changing or having the potential to change. The blog may have zero comments, but there is always the potential that the passerby may “StumbleUpon” it. When it takes on the materiality of the paper is ceases to exist as it was; it can no longer be linked to, commented upon, updated. More importantly, the links contained within the content are now deceased. Those elements of the page, which connect it to other bits of information, are no longer “live.” The content that is printed has shuffled off of its mortal (html) coil.

These connections, these links, are the essence of social media, of web 2.0. This discursive formation’s perceived materiality within the confines of a computer network stands in contrast to its true immateriality when it is given the same material form of the book on the library shelf: paper. Yet, the statements of the social network do have material effects. A negative comment on the blog has the same material affect as a negative comment in person; the anonymity of the comment may increase the affect on the psyche; the absence of comment, the silence, is equally affecting at times. The comment is affect “as stimulus…a state of relation…intensities between” (Seigworth, p. 1). As Greg Seigworth states, “thought is itself a body” (p. 2). But does that “body of thought” continue to exist as itself when it moves from mind to blog? Does Facebook contain the “intensities between” when I logout?

The answer is yes and no. Those “intensities between” are of our own creation. As Radford and Radford (2004) state “the world a person sees and experiences is one that is created by the relation of stimuli to other stimuli and not some ‘pure’ perception of the world as it really is” (p. 63). There is no “pure” existence of a Facebook page or a blog. I “author” the layout of my pages. I move, remove and re-move the elements, the stimuli, in relation to other stimuli. My virtual bookshelf is moved from bottom to top to show visitors what I am reading; my wall is shifted downward; I “poke” a friend; the Obama widget on my blog is featured at the top, beside the first post, the blogroll is deemphasized in favor of a tag cloud. But when all the work is done and the laptop is closed, does that content exist in the same way a book does?

Friends are another set of stimuli within the social network. There is randomization to who is at the front of my page when I login. When I receive a friend invitation I am always told who connects me to my “new” friend. We are all statements and the network of social media is contextualizing us for us. We are stimuli and Facebook "sees and experiences us" and tells us how we relate to other stimuli. But how material are our effects/affects? When my fingers are no longer tapping the keys and the bits of information are floating through the network they no longer have the material effects/existence that continue when I leave a book on a shelf. Do they really “continue to physically circulate among readers?” Or are they thoughts without bodies?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

“Over my cold, dead, political carcass”

The words stand out for some reason. It's not that the rhetoric of the cold and dead is anything unusual in politics. We had Charlton Heston's "cold, dead hands" a long time ago, which certainly wasn't the first time. This post at Think Progress is littered with tough talking politicians going after McCain on his stance on the 1922 Colorado River Compact. But the above quote stands out from the rest for me.

“Over my cold, dead, political carcass” -Bob Schaffer (R-CO)
The issue in question is not important to me. What I find interesting is the use of the word political. The connection between the abstract, elitist, withdrawn realm of the political and the corporeal. Strauss, among other philosophers, talks about the political realm as being separate; a concern for the elite. Schaffer has made it a physical divide; a sort of dualism. Maybe he could have said "over my cold, dead political soul." Turning the political into the secular religion; not too big of a leap for a Republican.

In this metaphor Schaffer has two bodies; his physical body and his political body. His legislative accomplishments, his career, are given a physicality. If he were to lose his bid for the U.S. Senate to Udall it would be, in a sense, an actual death. He will cease to exist in the political sense, and his "cold, dead, political carcass" will be powerless in its attempts to stop anything. If he runs for another office in the future it will be the attempted reincarnation of his political corporeality. Like Nixon's pheonix, rising from the ashes of his failed California gubernatorial bid to run again for the presidency.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Daughter of the Sheriff, The Daughter of the Judge

I just watched We Jam Econo, a documentary on the Minutemen. That's the awesome band, not the wacko vigilantes trying to keep Mexicans out of the country. It's a great film. I even got a little choked up when they talked about D. Boone's death. The Minutemen are great, but also love Mike Watt's solo stuff, especially Big Train. This video even had my little girl singing along.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bob Casey

“We’ve got a mountain of problems, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 32.”
-Bob Casey Jr., on Pennsylvania News Makers this week

I forget who it was that called Bob Casey Sr. the "last of the new dealers." I've been reading the Drury book on Strauss, Pierson's book on the Kennedy assassination, Zizek, Foucault's biopolitics lectures and there is one thing that I've been thinking, especially in the context of current events, what we really need right now is a good old fashioned New Dealer.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Quote of the Week

"Libertarianism is a politics born to be subsidized."
-Thomas Frank, in The Wrecking Crew, explaining why the number of libertarian think tanks in the U.S. is higher than the number of libertarians (h/t Political Wire)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Faux News at its best

From the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Georgia I've gotten the feeling from most of the coverage that Russia has been portrayed as an unprovoked aggressor. If there has been more balanced coverage I haven't seen it. Of course I would not argue that Russia is justified in invading Sheppard Smith says, there are a lot of gray areas in war.

I love when a conservative expresses moral ambiguity.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Liberalism and Not Liberalism

Recently my reading list has included an interesting book on neoconservatism’s roots in the political thought of Leo Strauss. In this book Shadia Drury contends, among other things, that modern neoconservatism consists of the “three pillars of…religion, nationalism and economic growth” (149). It is the nationalism that most concerns me because, as Drury points out, that nationalism “invites an aggressive foreign policy, it also destabilizes domestic politics” (p. 153).

It is in that context that we are forced to confront two recent news items; the crisis between Russia and Georgia and the murder (potential political assassination) of Bill Gwatney, the Chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Within these two events we see the potential impact of neoconservatism’s nationalism.

It is, admittedly, only conjecture, but it does not require too great a leap in logic to see the potential political implications of Gwatney’s murder. One need only turn to Ann Coulter to find a member of the mainstream of conservative thought advocating violence against liberals. Is it possible that a maniac who owned fourteen guns walked into Democratic headquarters and just randomly chose Gwatney to kill? Certainly. It is also possible that this is the rhetoric of the likes of Coulter being taken to its logical conclusion.

There is a violence and nationalism present in neoconservatism that is not present in liberalism. Neocons attempt to define “out” liberalism from the American identity. A similar tactic is not present in liberalism. The transformation of these words into violence against "others" has already happened; it is entirely probable that it has happened again; it is also probable that it will continue to happen. This is the destabilizing impact that neoconservatism has on our domestic politics.

Our foreign policy is not much better after two terms of Neocon rule. It should be said more often by Democrats, one Democrat in particular, that neoconservative policy has weakened America both diplomatically and militarily. Is there anyone who honestly believes that Russia would be doing what they’re doing if we weren’t still working on our time horizons? Meanwhile the neoconservatives are reverting to their cold war posturing. In the twilight of the Bush presidency they get what they really wanted: another fight with the Russians. We can all look forward to an overabundance of “Reagan single handedly won the cold war” film clips at the RNC convention.

And in our current state it’s not too far fetched for the Russian public, and much of the rest of the world, to accept the conspiracy theory claim that Dick Cheney is personally involved in creating the Russia/Georgia conflict in order to boost the candidacy of John McCain. This quote exemplifies the current divide between the U.S. and Russia:

In the old days under Soviet rule we didn't believe a word of our own propaganda but we thought that information was free in the West and we longed for it,” said Katya, a middle-aged Muscovite. “But we have learnt since that the West has its own propaganda and in some ways it is more powerful because people believe it.
This brings me to an internal debate I’ve been having. Political philosophy has become a debate between liberalism (that is free market, libertarian liberalism) and everything that isn’t liberalism. As Drury points out, neoconservatives themselves, a very illiberal bunch, have made allies with anyone and everyone who opposes true liberalism.

This may be a false choice, but it’s the choice that liberalism has created through its use of political debate. It’s a debate that we see in the quote above; it’s similar to how Siebert, Peterson and Schramm explained the contrasting views of liberalism and Soviet Communism. It’s a debate that is happening once again between the Russians and the U.S. More importantly, it’s a debate that we’re currently having internally, with the neocons on one side and liberals on the other.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Postmodern Right

"Not every wrong, or even every violation of the law, is a crime."
-Attorney General Michael Mukasey

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that, by definition, every violation of the law is a crime. Mukasey, in this comment, exemplifies neoconservatism. It is the belief that those who govern are above the law. The ghost of Nixon coming through Mukasey, saying that if the president does it it's not illegal. Even if it violates the law, it's still not a crime.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Over the last couple weeks two anti-Obama books have hit the shelves at your local Barnes and Noble. They both appear to be run-of-the-mill, unspectacular polemics, written in the mold of the “if candidate X gets elected the world is going to end and the suffering of all Americans will be limitless” kind of mold. The people who already hate Obama will read them and have their feelings reinforced, the people who support Obama will see them on the shelf and call them propaganda; nothing new to see here. However unspectacular they may seem, I could not resist writing a few notes about them because the quotes from the dust jackets are mind-boggling.

The first comes from Jerome Corsi, oh so cleverly titled Obama Nation. Corsi is no stranger to polemics being one of the authors of the Swift Boat Veterans book that help to sink the Kerry campaign in 2004. Here’s the quote that really got me. Just try to read it without feeling disbelief:

After an Obama presidency we would be a militarily weakened and economically diminished nation. Instead of being more united, our internal conflicts could well become more sharpened and more abrasive from four years of Obama leadership.
One has to wonder if Corsi has spent the Bush presidency in a cave, with his eyes closed and his fingers in his ears. Let’s start with the lack of unity from Obama leadership. Has Corsi even heard of Karl Rove? Does he not see the way the conservative echo chamber has turned “liberal” into a derogatory term? It’s also puzzling that Corsi would choose to write something that instantly brings the Bush presidency to mind. It’s as if he took something that someone had written about the last seven years and just changed the name Bush to Obama.

Our second entry comes from David Freddoso’s The Case Against Barack Obama. Like Corsi, Freddoso applies to Obama a criticism that is actually more fitting of George W. Bush:
As the least experienced politician in at least the last one hundred years to obtain a major party nomination for President of the United States, Obama appears to be escaping the appropriate examination that any man (or woman) who covets the Oval Office deserves.
Let’s compare just the political experience of Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Bush had a term and a half as Texas governor. Obama has seven years in the Illinois State Senate and four years in the U.S. Senate. That’s not to mention that Bush’s political career was preceded by a less than stellar business career and Obama was a law professor and community organizer.

Of course, any Democrat or liberal who pointed out Bush’s lack of experience was branded as an elitist. With a quote like the above one has to wonder if Freddoso has even heard of George W. Bush. I especially love that Freddoso implies that Obama “covets” the White House. Is it actually a sin for him to run for president?

While these two books will probably go largely unnoticed by the general public it is still a little troubling that there are two such books on the market and no high profile equivalent attacking John McCain. What does that say about the two candidates or their attackers? Maybe someone could take a few quotes criticizing Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs and just swap out Clinton’s name for McCain’s.

Monday, July 28, 2008


“While fear is dangerous, fear can also concentrate the mind and lead citizens to reengage.”
-Samantha Power, from the introduction to Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism

Saturday, July 26, 2008

McCain's Youth and Obama as Mussolini

A good clip from Dan Abrams show, which I don't normally watch.

The Fox News footage of McCain is an amusing point. The second part is what really interests me. The meme of Obama as cult leader or fascist or his supporters as irrational is something I've written on (I currently have a paper in the works on the subject). In this we see the point repeated, laying out the double-edged sword of, to use Hoffer's term, the "religiofication" of the political. Support for Obama is very enthusiastic, polls show his supporters are significantly more excited than McCain's (see here and here). At times passion for a political figure can turn to zeal; emotion clouds judgment (see Reagan lovers).

As Walter Lippmann points out, there is a thin line between idolatry and demonizing. Lippmann argues in Public Opinion that the processes of demonizing and lionizing are in fact one and the same. And this is my final premise; media re-presentations of Barack Obama have been used to simultaneously deify him and make him appear dangerous. When the public sees Obama speak before a stadium full of enthusiastic supporters the RNC wants the public to see rabid/fascist/irrational Democrats. Whether you're creating a hero or a villain, it's the same process.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Attacking a First Lady

This is just a thought in passing, but there are numerous examples of how the right is far worse than the left in its lack of restraint when it comes to dirty and negative attacks. Now, this is not to say that the left/Democrats are squeaky clean. We can start with the Daisy Girl ad when putting together a list of Democratic attacks through history. But there is one area where the GOP has definitely outdone the Democrats: attacking potential first ladies.

Michelle Obama has already been the target of various unfair criticisms and rumors. In 2004 they went after Theresa Kerry for, among other things, having the nerve to be wealthy! And let's not forget the possibly most attacked first lady in history, Hillary Clinton. Then again, Andrew Jackson's wife Rachel was accused of bigamy. Hillary Clinton was only accused of murder.

I can't think of one example where a sitting or potential Republican first lady has been attacked in the ways in which the aforementioned have been. I wonder if Cindy McCain will come under the same scrutiny that Michelle Obama has experienced and can probably expect.

Monday, May 19, 2008

re: Ben's request for a Top Ten list

This was a lot more difficult than I thought. I’m sure someone will think of something I forgot or take me to task for the ranking, both of which I look forward to. And I know, I know, Batman took up four of the spots. But how do you include one of those and not the others? Which do you drop from the list? This was a post that I planned to spend ten minutes on that has now eaten up too much time that should have been spent reading.

10. The Dark Knight trailer: So it’s only a trailer. It’s still awesome. It’s going to be the highlight of my summer. That and spending quality time with my wife and children. The Batman movie is obviously second on that list. It goes, wife and kids, Batman, Fourth of July picnic. That’s the hierarchy.

9. Greatest American Hero: Believe it or not, I just love the theme song.

8. Spiderman I and II (NOT III): Good, not great, but good enough to make the 5-8 range. It’s probably because they’re so recent and Spiderman is a childhood favorite.

7. X-Men I and II (NOT III): see explanation for #8

6. Unbreakable: M. Knight’s best and most underappreciated film. It is an homage to comic books. The nerd in me can’t resist that.

5. The Incredibles: I know it’s a kid’s movie. But it secretly contains liberal arguments for individual rights over the state (a la Harrison Bergeron), the ability of the individual to protect the state and, like in Iron Man, the villain is a defense contractor/weapons manufacturer.

4. Batman (the 60’s movie): “Must…reach…shark repellant…Batspray!”

3. Batman Begins: Christian Bale and Co. rebooted the franchise with a first installment that would make Loeb/Sale and Miller proud.

2. Batman: The Time Burton version that is. Jack Nicholson alone puts this one on the list.

1. Superman I: Christopher Reeve is the only true Superman. The rest are just pretenders to the throne. Again, I’m sentimental. “bum bum bum bum bum…BUM BUM BUM…bum bum bum bum bum…BUM BUM BUM!” I know you can hear it in your head.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

More Obama crowd

Drudge features this photo from an Obama rally in Oregon. As I have said here and here, this is going to be a meme for the summer and probably into the fall - Obama as cult leader. This complaint will be accompanied by the people who brought you "compassionate conservatism" and the Bush administration complaining about Obama's supposed lack of substance. They will fail to see how ironic they appear to be.

The word choice, alongside the image, is especially interesting. Beneath a crowd stretching for what feels like miles is the "Obama Mass," dual meaning of mass, implying both greatness in size and religious ceremony. It leads to a conjuring of images of the Pope, or a cult leader holding himself out to be a savior. Most of all, what the right will attempt to do is place in the minds of the voters the idea of the dangerous crowd, a great mass of people, naive, following the commands of totalitarian, unthinking. That is the worst part of it. The attack is on Obama supporters more than Obama. It says his supporters are somehow overly emotional, irrational, they can't be trusted; and so the voting choice can also not be trusted. It's an attack on the candidate through his supporters.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Subversive Superhero

I should begin this post with a confession. I am a comic book nerd. It’s pathetic but true. I love comic books. That being said, I finally have an opportunity to write down some thoughts about the Iron Man movie after having seen it a week ago. One of the things I find most interesting about film is the way contemporary issues of American foreign policy make their way into cinema. Iron Man is no exception to this rule.

The Nazis have been perfect all-purpose villains for decades. There was no shortage of war movies throughout WWII, not to mention the Office of War Information and its influence on popular culture and public opinion. There is also no shortage of Vietnam and post-Vietnam movies, Rambo of course topping off that category. The cold war worked its way into the American psyche in subtle ways through UFO films; hostile aliens being stand-ins for the Communists. It also presented itself more overtly in one of my personal favorites, Red Dawn. WOLVERINES!

It has been especially interesting to see the “war on terror” play out on the big screen. That’s where we find ourselves with Iron Man. Our hero is a defense contractor. What makes him the protagonist of the story is the fact that, after being held captive by terrorists in Afghanistan, the main character is reformed. He announces to the American news media that indiscriminate bombing is not doing the trick and that we need to find more humane and effective ways to battle the terrorists.

The antagonist of the film compounds this critique of the American military industrial complex. The character played by Jeff Bridges (warning: spoiler) is also a high level executive in the same corporation as our hero, the soon to be Iron Man. As it turns out, Bridges is a war profiteer. And not just that, he is a war profiteer who has been selling American technology to the terrorists. The leftist in me instantly goes to Prescott Bush, collaborating with the Nazis (or so the rumors go).

There is an explicitly anti-corporate tone to the movie as a whole. At various points Robert Downey Jr. is portrayed as being aloof and withdrawn from his wealth and power. He is shallow, surrounded by unearned financial largess that he apparently does not appreciate. That is, until he goes through the requisite transformational experience that is necessary to all superhero narratives.

The exclamation point on all of this is what may have been a line of dialogue that most viewers may not find to be too significant but I thought summed up these anti-corporate themes. As the antagonist has our hero on the ropes and is about to leave him for dead, as all villains do in superhero stories, he says to Iron Man, “you think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” And there it is. Throughout the film we see Iron Man labor over technology, his mechanical art, only to have the one character most symbolic of the corporation swoop in and appropriate it for his own means in one twist of the wrist. That line, worded and delivered perfectly, says so much about individual creativity and corporate appropriation of the work of the individual. It seems even more significant that Bridges delivers the line considering that he played Preston Tucker. Iron Man even featured a still from the film Tucker at one point; a movie whose themes are echoed in Iron Man.

Meanwhile, there are also underlying themes of the ability of an individual to outwit a corrupt bureaucracy and accomplish something for the greater good, the role of America as savior to the rest of the world, and the utility of advanced military technology (when it is under the control of that individual rather than the corrupt bureaucracy). In one scene four terrorists are holding innocent Afghani women and children at gunpoint. With a single push of a button Iron Man locks on target and simultaneously kills all four of them. He’s Uncle Sam in a shiny, metal, orange and crimson suit saving the Middle East.

While Iron Man was a surprisingly subversive critique of the military industrial complex and America’s exercising of its power abroad, at the end of the day there is no criticism for underlying assumptions of American military power. The solution is more exercising of that military might, just in more efficient ways and with a benevolent hand that helps people.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Peggy Noonan's Clintonian linguistics

So Peggy Noonan wants to have a discussion about Barack Obama's patriotism.

"Snooty lefties get angry when you ask them to talk about these things. They get resentful. Who are you to question my patriotism? But no one is questioning his patriotism, they're questioning its content, its fullness."
One can't help but get the sense that Noonan wants to debate the meaning of the word "is" here. The right wing's "patriotism dialogue" has become trite and sometimes dangerous. It oftentimes bores me. It's coarse and accusatory from Rush Limbaugh. It's lowbrow and free of thought from Bill O'Reilly.

But no one fills it with pretense quite like Peggy Noonan. Then again Peggy Noonan could probably find a way to make Pabst Blue Ribbon, a hoagie and NASCAR sound pretentious. And I just got done reading an essay critiquing deconstructionist architecture. So you would think that my tolerance for pretense would be on high right now. Nevertheless…

When this talk of Obama’s supposed elitism started I had an interesting discussion with my speech class about it. One of the things that came up was the contradiction of one politician accusing another of being elitist. “Aren’t they all kind of elitist? If you’re a Senator you’re not exactly an ‘Average Joe.’” Coincidentally we had been discussing red herrings and rhetoric the week before. “Aren’t there more important things to debate than what Barack Obama wears on his lapel?”

What Noonan’s column and this on going discussion about lapel pins and hands on hearts really got me thinking about was how differently the two political polls express patriotism. Noonan seems to imply that liberals find patriotism to be distasteful somehow. Of course it’s politically convenient for her to imply such a thing even if she doesn’t believe it. And that’s the big difference in how patriotism is expressed by liberals and conservatives. You won’t see many liberals impugn the patriotism of conservatives for the sake of scoring political points.

I’m reminded of a visit to Abilene, Texas a couple years ago. I drove around the town with my friend who lived down there and everywhere I looked I saw the American flag. The problem is that it wasn’t just on flagpoles. It was on everything. Painted on walls, minivan decals, it was a tool of commerce. And this is what I find to be offensive about the cultural conservative patriotism. It’s not an emotion, or a loyalty to nation or an ideal.

Patriotism is a tool: a tool of politics, a tool of propaganda, and a tool of commerce.

Patriotism elects presidents; incompetent presidents. Patriotism sells cars. Patriotism publicizes cable news networks. Patriotism propagates wars.

I think the commerce is what is most offensive. My friend and I drove past car dealerships and mini marts all with the word “freedom” or “liberty” in the name and an American flag in the logo. Do you really need to tell me that you love America in order to sell me a car? Can you just tell me about the gas mileage?

Then again, this could be a cultural difference in how one addresses others and expresses his or her feelings to them. When I’m at a ballgame and I see two guys chatting the through the entire national anthem my desire is to walk over and at least give them a piece of my mind if not smack them upside the head. When I see someone flying an old and worn American flag my desire is to pull into their driveway and give them the rundown on proper care and disposal of the flag. However, doing so wouldn’t make me more patriotic, it would just make me a jerk. Questioning a candidate on why they don’t wear the flag on their lapel is the same. It makes you a jerk, not more patriotic.

The again, maybe I’m just a “snooty leftie.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What has Joe Pitts accomplished in his political career?

The answer to the title of this post? Joe Pitts proved that that human body can continue to live without a functioning heart.

My friend Jerry sent an e-mail to me, I present here verbatim:

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to block the Bush Administration from cutting federal spending on Medicaid benefits for the poor by $13 billion over the next 5 years. Two-thirds of House Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for the bill which had 220 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.. The proposed Bush White House cuts were opposed by all 50 State Governors. The final vote was 369 to 62. Joe Pitts ever the champion of less government spending unless it goes into the pockets of wealthy corporations, joined the 62 members of Congress who voted to preserve the cuts.

Thanks Joe.
I was embarrassed by my representation in the Senate. Bob Casey solved that problem in 2006. Now we just have to do something about the embarrassing representation that Lancaster has in the House.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Obama Crowd

Once again Drudge carries a photo of Obama blending into an audience. This time it's accompanied by a headline about supporters fainting. There is the potential here for a new meme from Obama critics. Andrew Sullivan has discussed this critique of Obama's supporters. It is, to use Hoffer's term, "the art of 'religiofication'-the art of turning practical purposes into holy causes" (p. 6). This is an apparent goal of Obama's opponents in both the Clinton and McCain camps.
First, the claim is made that Obama just gives nice speeches without substance. It's similar to the "all hat, no cattle" criticism of Bush. Second, the "Obama supporter as fanatic" line is going to make its way through the media, especially, I suspect, talk radio and the blogosphere. Drudge makes this statement in a more subtle way through his choice of words and images. The fainting implies the supposedly emotional and irrational nature of Obama supporters.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Image and Drudge

One of the more interesting things about the Drudge Report is his use of imagery. Drudge has never really contributed anything to the journalistic art of word craft. His masterful choice of images makes up for it, even if he didn’t take the photos himself. A few images in particular have stood out and require some commentary. So I have been saving screen shots at different points since the days leading up to Super Tuesday.

The first set of images that started it all for me is this combination of photos of Hillary and Obama. Not to heap too much praise on Drudge, but he chose two images that sum up the nature of the two campaigns. These images have a very different impact when examined side by side as opposed to individually.

First there is Hillary, standing alone. The emptiness of this photo is a strong contrast to the overcrowded Obama photo. Where Hillary stands alone, the leader of a machine working behind the curtain, Obama blends into a crowd. You almost have to search the photo to find him, a commentary on the nature of mass movements and how their leaders often cease to be individuals but symbolic faces lost in the sea of the movement they lead, almost ceasing to exist. Equally important is the difference in size of the two subjects. Obama is small, in front of a large, mainly anonymous crowd. Hillary, again, is the bigger than life figurehead of a political machine. She doesn’t need individuals to support her.

Hot and Cool

McLuhan classified media as being either “hot” or “cool.” Hot media were those that were “high definition” or gave us all of the information leaving little room for participation on the part of the receiver. Cool media were “low definition” making it necessary for the receiver to fill in the holes, so to speak. In these stark, contrasting photos we find Obama and Hillary personifying McLuhan’s classifications.

There is a repeated pattern of the news media using photographs of Hillary Clinton that are very unflattering. In this particular shot Hillary’s most distinct feature is the redness of her cheeks. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to them. More importantly Hillary is the hot medium of the race. The information is all there for us to consume. We know everything about her. There is little room for participation.

This is contrasted by the angular coolness of the Obamas. Much criticism has been leveled at Obama for the vague platitudes of his performances (as if the other candidates use their stump speeches to present position papers). The vagueness is part of the appeal and why he has been successful. He is “cool” in the McLuhanian sense of the word. The outline is there, the receiver gets to fill in the holes. Obama reflects what the viewer wants him to reflect.

These two photos have so much more to say beyond “cool” and “hot” media. There is also a subtle statement about marriage, that I’m sure was unintentional on Drudge’s part. The Obamas have a young, fresh and happy marriage. Hillary stands alone, in the glare of the media. A glare that was, at least in part, caused by a downward spiral resulting from her husband’s outbursts against Obama. The Hillary photo is also very reminiscent of the "big brother" ad that made its way through the media.

Recurring Themes

Hillary and Obama have recurring themes for the photos that Drudge uses. For Hillary it is the machinations of power coupled with femininity. Here she is being prepped by makeup artists on a TV set, an image that recalls the opening to Fahrenheit 9/11 with Wolfowitz licking his comb or John Edwards coifing his hair before a talk show appearance.

In another Drudge draws a connection to the Iron Lady.

Finally, we have the little girl sleeping under the Hillary signs. Suddenly, in defeat, Hillary is transformed into that little girl. Power eludes her.

Obama’s recurring imagery is the mass audience, usually contrasted with an opponent who stands alone. Above I discussed this with Hillary. Here we find the same contrast with McCain. On top of the implications about level of support from the public are issues of age. McCain seems to be struggling to walk, Obama is moving with ease, smooth and cool. McCain’s photo is slow, Obama’s is fast.

Just today the Obama crowd photo resurfaced on Drudge. In this case the mass nature and disappearance of Obama was emphasized by the absence of his face. Obama stands with his back to the viewer, faceless and merging into the crowd. Again, he is the cool medium waiting to be filled in by the viewer.

Image is always a driving force in politics. Obama has largely missed the critical eye of the camera. This is even more noticeable when considering the negative photographic representations of Hillary, not to mention George W. Bush, both of whom are not friends of the photojournalist. But photos say things through more than just the candidates’ facial expressions and postures. Sometimes their surroundings are just as, if not more important. Obama is the “cool” with mass support. Hillary stands alone, larger than life and struggling to balance femininity and power. McCain is just plain angry.

Quote of the week

Sometimes she gets it right, a lot of times she gets it wrong, but Paglia is never boring. In this case she hits the nail on the head.

John McCain's courage under torture during the Vietnam War deserves everyone's gratitude and respect. But as a national candidate, the stumpy, uptight McCain is a lemon. Oy, that weaselly voice and those dated locutions and stilted intonations. Who needs a weird old coot with a short fuse in the White House? This isn't a smart game plan for the war on terror.

-Camille Paglia

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Romney campaign ends on a note of nonsense

Mitt Romney proves once again that, after the Bush years, the only thing the Republicans have left is the fear appeal.

“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win,” he said.

“And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”

-Mitt Romney
I would like to know what kind of person takes a comment like that seriously.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Montel Williams gets it right

I'm not a big fan of Montel Williams but he makes an excellent point here. This is something that students in my media and press classes bring up. Why is it that the media spent so much time on celebrity news and not enough time on more serious issues? That is not to diminish the tragedy of Heath Ledger's death. It's very sad. It's probably a safe bet that the reason the folks on Fox News don't want to discuss the tragedy of a soldier's death is because it reminds the public of why it is they've been questioning the Iraq war and the administration's handling of it.

It's funny to me how these right wing people accuses anyone who questions the war of not supporting the troops but when someone tries to recognize the tragedy of an American soldier being killed those same right wingers don't want to hear it. The Fox people in the above video go down a list of excuses for why there is a paucity of media coverage on casualties. And we can't forget Sinclair broadcasting refusing to broadcast the Nightline episode eulogizing members of the military killed in Iraq. You would think that episode would be something they would support. Then again, "support the troops" is just a political slogan to some people.

(h/t reddit user zewar)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Declaring preemptive war on John McCain

A pretty strong argument could be made that John McCain is the GOP’s strongest general election candidate. For some reason, which I can’t fathom, the conservative base really seems to dislike him. Maybe the fact that I (and others like me) don’t have a gut reaction against him in the way I do at the mention of…say…Dick Cheney, is one explanation.

Whatever the reason for the base hating him, he’s their best chance at keeping the White House. The Clintons have to know that there aren’t any red states that go blue for Hillary, against McCain. With that in mind, it seems to me that Team Hillary is launching a preemptive attack to nip the McCain candidacy in the bud.

First, the New York Times did Hillary the double favor of endorsing her while giving McCain the kiss of death. Now we have what amounts to an attack from Bill Clinton. The former president says, "[Hillary] and John McCain are very close…they like and respect each other." If the conservative base needed one more reason to distrust McCain, there it is. Of course, McCain didn’t “like and respect” Hillary enough to say anything when a woman at one of his events referred to Hillary as “the bitch.”

This is why the Clintons win elections. They’re tough and smart. While they pound away at Barack Obama, they kill McCain with kindness. It’s why the Democratic Party, unfortunately, seems to need them. Without Clinton the Democrats would probably have had twenty-eight years out of the White House. Maybe this year we can find a way to win without them.