Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A History of Violence, or Why Sarah Palin Knows Exactly What She Is Saying

Why are Americans so enamored with guns and violence? What is the dog-whistle code in which Sarah Palin is speaking when she urges her Tea Party followers not to "retreat" but to "reload" with the "U.S. and Alabama flags" whipping in the wind behind her? Why does she insist on using the images of crosshairs on a map on which she "targets" Democratic incumbents?

Recognizing that the question of why we are so violent and into guns is well covered ground, here are what I would consider the primary historical factors.

First, our country was born out of armed conflict with -- an insurgency against -- Great Britain. Armed revolt holds a hallowed place in our history.

Second, the land on which our country was founded, and on which it grew, was ripped from the original inhabitants at gunpoint and (often) through actual slaughter. Might equalled right of possession in early American history. The image of swarthy savages being held off and precious beacons of (European) civilization spared through the use of violence is a standard part of American mythology.

Third, our nation relied heavily, in the first half of its history, on the peculiar institution of slavery, which was policed and managed through violence. The plantation masters' monopoly on violence and weapons allowed them to contain and discipline their slaves, who of course outnumbered their European masters.

The legacy of all of this is to lend a very special weight to the Tea Partier's -- and especially Palin's -- fixation on guns and arms. They are not simply referencing the celebrated history of armed resistance against the tyranny of King George; they are also referencing the greater firepower that allowed Europeans to clear the land of the savages and the monopoly on violence that allowed Europeans to enslave Africans. That's why, I believe, Palin knows exactly what she's doing in deploying her reckless terminology.

Fear of a Black President

To the Tea Party contingent, guns represent (1) what they view as their sacred right to violently overthrow the tyranny of a government lead by a black, crypto-Muslim man; (2) the power/right with which this land was claimed by their European ancestors (i.e. "true, blue-blooded [sic] Americans"), and (3) the force with which Africans (not so different from the ones currently living in the White House) were kept subjugated and obedient. Given our current position in history, one quickly sees why Palin's choice of words has so much resonance among this crowd. The Tea Partiers represent a dwindling demographic, feeling threatened by the encroaching blacks and browns, convinced that they are oppressed by a tyrannical government (from which a good number of them are happy to receive governmental assistance) run by a socialist crypto-Muslim half-breed.

The crypto-Confederate flag of Alabama, which was flown proudly behind Palin at the Searchlight, Nevada Tea Party rally.

Considering the recent rash of violence and threats in the wake of the passage of Health Care Reform, the charges against Christian militants in the midwest, etc., I hope that the reckless incitements of Palin and her fellow travellers -- and their moral responsibility -- are not forgotten should someone inspired by her or her crowd act upon those words.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Children, Parents, and Merit

As we move into the season of college acceptance (and rejection) letters, anxious seniors tearing open envelopes thick (or thin), my thoughts turn back to that ancient (and tired?) debate about individual merit.

Merit, in the context of school admissions, etc., is, in my view, an interesting and complicated issue that defies simple categories or easy answers.

For example, is the cultured, well rounded, articulate, well travelled high-school senior more meritorious than the daughter of immigrant parents -- parents who don't speak English well? Some kids grow up having Dickens and Austen read to them by parents who themselves went to the finest schools; the parents of these children usually have libraries full of books, engage their children all their lives in intelligent discussion, encourage their children to be well rounded, expose them to art, sports, other cultures, languages, etc. Other kids are raised by parents who don't speak English that well, who can’t afford to provide these kinds of opportunities to their kids, etc. (Many children of non-English speakers will, no doubt, have intelligent and thoughtful discussions in other languages, but that these discussions are not in English has consequences, I believe, on the SAT, in English verbal facility and confidence, etc.)

Is it fair to look at a seventeen-year-old and her accomplishments, many of which were scheduled, programmed, set up, and, not to put too fine a point on it, paid for and guaranteed by her cultured, educated parents and deem all of the seventeen-year-old’s accomplishments her own? Even the seventeen-year-old’s verbal facility, vocabulary, self-assertiveness, etc. -- the very core of her personality and qualities -- are not, if we’re being honest, I think, really her “own” –- whatever that may mean in this context. (And looked at this way, this may make any discussion of "owning" personal qualities impossible, given parenting, genes, disease, environment, etc.)

I don’t envy the position college admissions committees are placed in. The finest and most “meritorious” candidates – based on grades, activities, interests, abilities, skills, etc. -- will almost always come from households of educated parents –- whether those parents are rich or not. Children of parents who speak another language, who lack the same resources (financial, educational, cultural), etc., will often lack an entire childhood of education outside of the classroom.

I don’t know how these disparities should be accounted for. It’s not simply a question of affirmative action, though that is unavoidably part of this discussion. It’s also a question of taking economic and social status into account, and, further, recognizing that class perpetuates itself not solely through money, but through education as well. The children of parents who went to Stanford or Dartmouth or Amherst, etc., are likely to receive the benefits of seventeen years of education and stimulation that children of other parents will not be able to provide. And there's really no way to figure out what a child without such parents would have been able to accomplish if she had had such parents.

I believe what I’m saying is that a child’s accomplishments and achievements are often, to put it too simply, in truth the achievements of her parents.

I recognize that there’s an interesting discussion lurking here about the beneficial incentives to parents in doing the most they can to “improve” their children, that if the parents put in the effort, have the resources, it is not in the end “unjust” that their children reap the rewards, are deemed more “meritorious.” And I obviously haven't even touched on the issue of why children who have fast responses, whose brains process quickly, who learn quickly, etc. -- perhaps, not to be crass, children who have inherited "good genes" -- should be deemed more "meritorious" than other children. Are we rewarding genetic inheritance? Is it meritorious simply to be born smart? Or should we be instead rewarding effort, discipline, struggle? That is, should merit be something that should have to be earned, not simply inherited? What qualities or characteristics are "meritorious"? In determining merit, should we be attempting to consider individual achievements while correcting for the fortuitous benefits and advantages some children were born into or without (an obviously impossible task)?

Just something I was thinking about. As I said, I think the question defies easy answers. And it’s obvious, and will be the case till the end of time, that most parents (like my own, like yours) will do almost anything they can to try to improve the prospects of their children. That won't change. The question will always be, I think, how we decide which children -- who had no say in their parentage -- will be deemed "worthy" of access to the finest educations and opportunities. (And perhaps there's a question here for a lot of us about what we've actually "earned" and what we've simply received out of dumb luck and/or efforts made by others -- a question with answers that I know, for me, are humbling.)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak


A stunning film. Beyond its remarkably balanced and thoughtful treatment of both the resistance fighters and the French colonial forces, the film is also a technical marvel, in its use of music, its editing, and its cinematography. The film is shockingly relevant today, especially in highlighting the fluid and malleable nature of the label of terrorism, the futility of occupation, and the corrosive effect occupation has on the occupiers. Simply one of the greatest films I have ever seen. A+


Gripping, over-the-top, and enjoyable for a good part of the movie. The ending is a bit disappointing, as everyone has noted, though there are minor hints thrown in to try, unsuccessfully, to make the ending more complex than it is. As absorbing as the film is, the effect seems to dissipate immediately upon leaving the theater -- nothing stays with you. B-


In many ways, a hilarious film -- but possibly also a profound film. An often trippy take on the Book of Job, set to Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, and set in the aluminum-sided, squat ranch neighborhoods of 60's or 70's American suburbia. The Coen brothers riff on their greatest works here, but to a new, often dazzling effect. Their movies often feel like they keep trying to say something, over and over, in a way that we ultimately don't quite get (though we're kept thoroughly entertained all the while). Never has that feeling been as acute as it is here.

It does seem that the filmmakers are trying to say something by having the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, say, over and over, as the people around him take action and begin to destroy his world, "I haven't done anything!" Indeed, the film opens with the quote: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Gopnik is hounded throughout the film by someone calling from the Columbia Record Club: they want to be paid for the records they've been sending Gopnik. Gopnik (or his son) has apparently signed up for the Record Club, and they send him records, and charge him, if he doesn't do anything. As Gopnik's wife is telling him she is leaving him, Gopnik protests that "he hasn't done anything," and his wife says, "That's right. You haven't done anything."

The theme of passivity and reception, of allowing things to happen to one is highlighted in Gopnik's opening scene, where we see him in the doctor's office. The doctor is looking into his ear, and then checking his pupils: we're looking at Gopnik's portals on the world. We aren't shown Gopnik's hands or his mouth, with which Gopnik would actively participate in the world -- with which he would take action and do something. (When Gopnik later takes action, the shot focuses on his hands, taking action in the world.)

Later, Gopnik is on his roof, adjusting the television aerial, and as he touches it, he begins to hear television signals: he becomes a receiver, an extension of the antennae. Later, his son Daniel, at his bar mitzvah, is holding a metal staff, pointed at Hebrew script in the Torah. Daniel hesitates and a rabbi pushes the staff across the text -- and there's a sound like a needle across a record (record players keep showing up throughout the movie) and then Daniel catches a groove, and begins to read, singing a prayer, the staff moving along the text as he reads. (Daniel, in his opening scene, is shown in a close-up of an earphone in his ear; the earphone is playing rock music in his ear as he sits through a Hebrew class.)

The idea of simply allowing things to happen to one's self seems to be connected, at a profound level, to the distinctions between ancient Greek and Hebrew thought -- a foundational division in Western thought. Greek (and not-so-distantly related Indian) religion and philosophy emphasized the image, the aspects of vision and form. The Romans continued this. In contrast, God's command to the Jews was often "Hear, O Israel!" Where the Greeks (and Indians) reveled in physical forms, depictions of bodies, God forbade the Jews from creating or worshiping graven images, and emphasized the word. Greek and Indian gods appeared, took physical form; the Jewish God was never seen -- only heard.

So there is plainly a theme here, of being open to the world, allowing it to act upon you -- perhaps as a way of hearing God's voice -- but it's unclear if the filmmakers endorse this attitude toward the world, find it flawed, or simply find it a hilarious premise: have a character to whom things happen, and who is unable or unwilling to actually do anything. The film suggests, undermining its opening quote, that doing nothing is not always the moral, ethical, or wise choice.

In the bizarre but fascinating opening scene, a husband and wife confront a possible dybbuk -- a possessed body. The husband laughs off the possibility that the visitor is a dybbuk, but the wife takes action, stabbing the dybbuk with an ice pick. The strong suggestion, in my reading, was that the wife was correct to act -- though we cannot say with certainty that she was not wrong, and did not bring down a curse upon the family. Either way, the scene seems difficult to square with Gopnik's story.

Later, the father of one of Gopnik's students, referring to a perplexing situation Gopnik does not understand, urges Gopnik to "accept the mystery." In his class, Gopnik completes a proof "showing with certainty that the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty" (a line that seemed a bit on-the-nose). The filmmakers seem to be trying to underline this theme of allowing the world to happen to one's self and accepting uncertainty, but they show how this posture can lead to the collapse of everything. And when Gopnik does act, at the end of the film, it appears that he's immediately punished for it, with an ominous call from his physician (following up with Larry on the results of the physical exam we saw at the opening of the film). At the same time, a tornado is approaching Daniel's Hebrew school, and the children are milling around in the parking lot, watching it come -- doing nothing -- suggesting that passivity, and allowing the world to happen to you is often a terrible idea.

No doubt, the contradictory messages were intentionally constructed. And perhaps the filmmakers mean for us to accept the mystery of not knowing whether the film is suggesting that we should accept the world as it comes to us or attempt to change it. Perhaps the ultimate answer, as one of the rabbis Gopnik consults suggest, really does not matter -- or we're not entitled to it (if there is one). That the film raises these questions in such an interesting way is in itself a major feat.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The story of the inscribed teeth, set to Jimi Hendrix, is hallucinatory, incredible. The actors, mostly unknowns in Hollywood, are all excellent. The cinematography is wonderful.

To say to the audience "accept the mystery" could be seen as a cheap cop out -- somewhat like the "twist" in SHUTTER ISLAND. But it feels richer, more substantial that that. This film is full of substance, full of matter to be considered. It is confusing, seemingly contradictory, and not fully coherent, but it feels like an attempt to struggle with how to see the world. But that may be a reading too serious for the film, which in its choice of title, goads us not to take the film seriously, and to laugh at the absurd things that befall Gopnik. A-