There comes a time in every epoch when pragmatism simply evolves into extreme acquiescence and surrender to the forces of apathy and do-nothingness, a guarantor of the status quo in all of its easy, democratic criminality--its fortress of greed.
You could line up all the pols in the U.S. in a straight row and examine them head to toe and not find a single man or woman capable of admitting, never mind ending, the corruption of their vocation--Buddy Dooley
Consider this. You’re a mob boss. You run a $1.8 trillion network of businesses across state lines and continents. Many of these are legit, but a select subset of them – not so much. Every so often the illegal components flare up; some Washington commission launches an investigation, someone blows a whistle, people lose their homes, a pack of investors sheds a ton of money and lawsuits fly. You get reprimanded and have to pay lawyers and accountants overtime to deal with the paperwork. You settle on fines with the government — $10 billion worth. Then you keep going with no one the wiser, no wings clipped, no hard time. After all of that — you say you’re sorry, forfeit some money you didn’t even make yet, and (maybe) resign with boatloads more of it.--NP
Interesting woman. She lived in the belly of the beast at GS and elsewhere, saw the light and writes about it with authority.
It takes a village...of whistleblowers, turncoats and righteous folk.
Actually, in terms of their respective products Fordism offered a lot more choices than Starbucks. In the mid-1950s, the options available to the purchaser of a Chevy Bel-Air 4-door sedan were infinite, from a rainbow of paint and fabric combinations including a paisley-pattern roof. The shapes and styles of the cars were prodigious in baroque variety. And the cars were often cheap. As for Starbucks, the company’s basic signature is over-roasted beans and its core achievement is to have people fork over $3.50 for a cup of coffee. Starbucks is a predatory franchiser and its arrival in any town usually heralds the extinction of existing small cafes and diners. Its signage, across America and around the world through 13000 outlets, advertises not Penn’s “customized, personalized products” but unending repetition.--AC
Forty-six years after its making I’m yet convinced that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist is not only among the greatest films of the director’s career, but also one of the greatest films period.
No film speaks louder or more succinctly, in my estimation, about where we are, unsurprisingly, today.
Bertolucci began his career in revolt, lashing out at the injustices of capitalism and the blinding middle-class decadence he witnessed as a young man. The son of an affluent and highly regarded poet, he was born in Parma, Italy. As a young man, Bertolucci fell under the spell of family friend Pier Paolo Pasolini, who gave him his first job in cinema and became his mentor.
Bertolucci's first films dealt with an early personal conflict of values. Awakening to the struggle of the lower-classes, he sought a method of disowning the comfortable. To combat the emptiness of bourgeois conformity, he turned to Marxism in the 1960s. His second film, Before the Revolution, probed questions of political identity. How is the tension between individuality and forms of governance reconciled? How does one live a moral life within the framework of materialism and the uneven hand of fate? What choice has man between how he feels and what society expects?
They're age old questions, and every artist deals with them. In fact, they are among the major foci of great art. Answered or not, they reflect the artist's worldview—that is, their importance is judged on a scale by the artist, whose work is always metered by perceptions of "what it means."
The "it" can be everything or nothing and anything in between. It depends on what you mean by “it,” famously uttered Clinton the husband with an artist’s flourish (he was a sax man, recall, riffing).
Of course, one doesn't necessarily have to be an artist to deal with such questions. One need only be human and engaged with life. But artists are the messengers, and what they do interests me, so I keep my eye on them.
Bertolucci's early movies fit my style, and a few of them have sat near the top of my Top 25 list for years.
His movies speak to political evolution in the context of self-examination.
The Conformist, finished and distributed in 1970, gave the filmmaker international cachet. The story of how one man deals with 1930s fascism and his own broken psyche, the film's appeal rests in its recognition of an historical imperative—that individualism is in constant peril under the restraints of governance overly reliant on bureaucratic stridency and pettiness and the propensity of stakeholders to crush dissent in its many forms.
Bertolucci wasn’t condemning governance per say, but rather isolating and examining elements of totalitarianism as he understood them in both the historical record and everyday life.
If you've seen this film, you know its message is as pertinent today as it was in 1970, when aspects of fascism similar to Mussolini's in the thirties were once again infiltrating Western thought. The rise of neoliberalism and Cold War propaganda fit each other well and lingers as a new cold war beckons amid our many hot ones.
The Kent State Massacre, in 1970, is one obvious example of fascist suppression in the U.S. from that era. Like mindless conformists, members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire at a student demonstration, killing four innocent people.
Neil Young wrote and sang about it.
There are of course many other more recent examples from around the world, from the squelching of dissent in China to the fundamentalism of the Taliban, and more recently al Qaeda and the Islamic State, to elements of the Christian Right here in "the greatest country in the world." What they have in common is the ability to herd people into a niche that makes conformity expected and of paramount importance across a social spectrum. Holdouts are regarded as outlaws and are ultimately shunned by the conforming mass and its overlords.
Today, the American police state is teetering on the cliff of a totalitarian imperative as the tentacles of a law and order mentality and the surveillance state are ascendant, enmeshed and fitting.
Tomorrow's news will bring more evidence that the murderous conformist is still plying his trade, in the name of one ideology or another. The stifling of cultural differences in the U.S. has become a parlor game for a mainly white technocratic class in full blossom. Ask a black man in the line of fire.
Bertolucci's career took off after The Conformist appeared. He made the blockbuster, Last Tango in Paris, another mendacious breakthrough that probed its characters’ damaged psyches. The popularity of that film allowed him to make the five hour-long epic, 1900, his final exposition of his hoped-for utopianism. The film didn't sell well, crushing Bertolucci and causing him to rethink his ideals, which is unfortunate because it is my second favorite in his canon.
With The Last Emperor (1987), he moved into the mainstream and altered much of the political ideology he had so carefully manipulated as a young filmmaker.
Correspondingly, his movies became less interesting.
It may seem odd at first to couple the work of Sebastian Junger with Bertolucci while trying to comprehend the dimensions of conformity in these times.
Sebastian Junger, you may recall, is the author of The Perfect Storm, a gripping account of a fishing accident in the Outer Banks region of the Atlantic off the coast of New England. George Clooney starred in the movie, which wasn't too bad, but not nearly as riveting as the book.
I read his 2010 reportage, War, shortly after it appeared. The book wasn’t nearly as inspired as Storm, but it was a fascinating read nonetheless. For the purpose of this essay, let’s call War a book about conformity uncovered—that is it deals in part with what happens to warriors who belatedly discover that the fusillades of their imagination are real and not elements of a video game.
We could also call it a book about American imperial precepts flying out the window at inopportune times, conjuring the old question: What if they started a war and nobody came?
Junger spent a year embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in a Taliban-controlled segment of Afghanistan's Kunar Province near the Pakistan border, entering and leaving the region five times over the course of his 14-month embed.
Taliban fighters controlled a thirty-six square mile swath in the southern area of the province, in the Korengal Valley.
The valley is a tight area of villages hugging the Korengal River, which confluences with the Pech River to the north. The stretch of road from the Pech River to a series of U.S. outposts situated at the lower end of the valley was then in the heart of Taliban fighters' turf. At the time of Junger’s reportage it was considered the most dangerous road in the country. A majority of U.S. casualties in the Afghanistan War were occurring in the Korengal Valley when Junger embedded with the troops in 2008. He describes in detail what happened there over a harrowing year.
War correspondents are usually nuts, and Junger was no different at the time. (He has since sworn off reporting from war zones.) He got caught in firefights, had a Humvee blown out from under him, and fell in love with the Army grunts he wrote about. Like the soldiers under his reporter's gaze, he lost interest in the politics of America's war and turned survivalist to cope.
Junger notes that grunts in the main are unconcerned with moral questions. There are no moral questions when someone is shooting at you. Reading War, one is struck by how all the memoirs and reportage of war correspondents are usually so similar. (Michael Herr’s Dispatches, his Vietnam reportage, was different, more a reliable hallucination about surviving the shit and less gung-ho than most.) Inevitably, the writer falls in love with the troops, drops attempts to question the war's meaning on any level that hasn't a warrior's slant, and tells a gripping story.
In other words, you've read this book before.
The usual suspects show up in the narrative. Only their names and home towns have changed. The crusty old-timer reappears, along with the cherries new to the killing business. The rough but brilliant sergeant is in the hooch next to the frightened and inexperienced young officer. The types are ready-made for a movie set. (In fact, Junger and his photographer, Tim Hetherington, documented their experiences and made Restrepo, a digital video of the action. Hetherington later died in Libya, a reporter in the wrong place when the mortars fell.)
In War, commanders are asses more concerned with dress codes than strategy. The soldiers are quick with their bios and tell Junger things like: it was either the Army or jail; the Army or a dead-end job in a Subway sandwich shop; the Army or boredom.
In rare cases there is patriotism, or rather something like it at first which quickly ebbs.
This book doesn't reach the plateau of the best books about war, but it is serviceable, particularly in the way the author draws the terrain of Afghanistan and Korengal Valley, as well as the personalities of the kids who travel into harm’s way in support of America’s military.
I am reminded yet again about the vagaries of conformity.
Waiting for a train one morning on 5th Avenue, I fell into conversation with a fellow going to his job at the central library in Portland.
He told me how he secured his job, which I won't get into; suffice to say it was not through what might be considered normal or old-fashioned channels.
You see, he was a contract laborer, a temp in economically tempestuous times. Our conversation turned to wages and how the American economy has been stymied by stagflation, the reality we love to hate, which is a terrible problem for a vast segment of low-income workers in the U.S. and has been for years—well, since the U.S. government and the masters of the universe, the corporatists, conspired to give us our present economic model.
Naturally enough, the conversation turned to the day the free-fall of real wages for workers started, which we agreed was the day Ronald Reagan became president and over the next eight years when the effects of Reaganomics took hold and dug in. I mean, this fellow and I, about the same age, were in sync.
We commiserated some more, recalling that when the bad actor-turned president died, a vast outpouring of sentimentality seized the nation, perpetuated by the contrived sentimentality of big-assed corporate media.
My new friend was quick with it, knew the score, had been around the block a few times, had read the news, was in tune, had been there and done that, had been a witness to history, had felt the hard hand-slap of fate, was down with it, was as clear as the Oregon sky on a rare good day, was hip and knowing, etc.
He said, "Because Americans are stupid."
That was the correct answer, exactly what I wanted to hear! And this was a stranger, honest to God, not some crony in the street, or a planted co-conspirator of mine tempting passers-by to berate us.
This was an honest-to-God citizen of Portland, a beautiful character, a truth-teller.
Then, being brilliant but perhaps lacking a few synapses like the rest of us aging folk, he said Reagan always reminded him of Peter Sellers in that movie...what was it called...you know…Sellers plays this...
In his view, Ronald Reagan was Chauncey Gardiner in Being There, the Jerzy Kosinski satire about an ignoramus thought to be a sage.
Indeed, perhaps Kosinski was inspired by Ronnie…
The train rolled to a stop in front of me and this brilliant man I'd come to know so well after only five minutes. We got on, certain we had solved one of the great mysteries of life, and went our separate ways.
It was then, too late as I rode to my next appointment with reality that I thought of something else, something I would have liked to mention.
I was thinking about Terry Southern, who had the balls to tell Stanley Kubrick that Dr. Strangelove was a comedy and not the oh-so-serious anti-nuclear muckraking political tract Kubrick believed he'd conceived.
Kubrick listened and a classic was born. It was again—this man was a bona fide genius if one ever lived—Peter Sellers who turned Kubrick on to The Magic Christian (Southern's masterpiece about human greed and conformity), and the book opened the director's mind to the possibility that Southern just might be a special kind of thinker. Plus, face it, if you were Kubrick and Sellers was telling you something, you were going to take it seriously.
Southern knew what kind of film Kubrick was, without knowing it, actually making, because the novelist was intimately connected with the absurd. Southern understood plenty about comedy and its role in blowing apart the dearest old myths of his nation. To Southern, nothing was as absurd as a nation willing to annihilate humanity to save humanity.
Take another myth, which Southern obliterates in The Magic Christian, surely one of the top ten funniest fictions ever written by an American: The myth of the detached fiscal aesthete, the man who is above needing or wanting money.
Guy Grand, an eccentric billionaire (sounds familiar), has a wicked cruel streak and a desire to demonstrate how hypocritical people can be. He gives people money to illuminate that nothing is too debasing for an American to try if enough cash is offered in exchange. At one point Grand tosses 100K into a vat of shit and tells people to have at it if they want, and of course people jump into the vat to retrieve the money.
And that is just one of the many situations Southern created to demonstrate his discomfort with the American conformist.
Trump has made his fortune by marketing and selling his name. He slaps his name in large bold letters on Trump Tower, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, and so on. He has even managed to get his name on property he doesn't own! The name Trump is his brand, his product; he sells his name. When he seeks financial backing for a project, he insists that he be paid very well for the use of his name, even if his name is used just to get investors or bank loans. The condition is that he gets paid for the use of his name, even if the project fails and goes into bankruptcy. Time and again, his companies have gone bankrupt; but though others — builders, employees, investors — lose money, Trump is always paid for the use of his name. What it is about the name “Trump” that sells, and would it sell if it were changed a bit?--GL
While we're at it, Clinton is a little too close to "clit" for comfort, and Trump reeks of triumphalism.
I think Election 2016! is straining everyone's brain.
It is rumored that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will give short televised statements prior to Monday night’s first presidential debate at Hofstra University, expressing their innermost sorrow about the wrecked marriage of Brad and Angelina and acknowledge the dark times we are living through.
This will happen before the candidates move on to less significant matters.
I joke about Brad and Angie, but the presidential candidates will definitely, with the help of big TV, dodge important subjects while attempting to impress upon the audience the profundity of their concern for _________ (fill in the blank).
Election 2016! (I keep hearing echoes of G.W. Bush saying, “They hate our freedom.” Or, “You’re either with us or against us.” This is terribly invasive, like hearing a snake rattle before it strikes you, or Robert Reich telling me Hillary will be a “fine president.”)
I know some people are looking forward to the “entertainment value” of the Clinton vs. Trump debates, and to a degree I get it. The candidates are hilariously inept, hilariously vague, hilariously rich and hilariously hideous.
Such is the dilemma of imperialists everywhere, and bottom line—that’s show biz.
Neither is “presidential” in the old-fashioned sense, or remotely likable. Neither wants to discuss the real problems facing the US, though I did see a tweet from HC the other day saying something really needs to be done about the latest spate of police violence unleashed on Black Americans.
It’s true something need be done, but we won’t see it happen until neoliberal pols like Clinton and imbeciles like Trump are run out of the room.
But that’s your problem America. I’m here to talk about the French playwright Antonin Artaud, and what became known as the Theater of Cruelty.
For surely that is what awaits us in Monday’s first debate; a bit of theater, a touch of cruelty.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest theater artists to ever live, Antonin Artaud is today a neglected man, particularly in the US because…well, because Americans prefer musicals.
But like any artist worth his hill-of-beans art installation in a fancy gallery, Artaud in his time (1896-1948) had plenty to say about the world as he knew it.
Today, in a US that can't get enough mainstream in its bloodstream, he is completely unknown, except by other theater artists and historians. This is but one reason why much of the rest of the world has a skeptical view of the US and its abiding stupidity and will to cultural arrogance, which is so frequently and stupendously wrong-headed.
(Hillary places her “deplorables” neatly in a basket and somehow miraculously avoids the same fate! Not in my book, sister.)
In a nation whose leaders, circa 2002, began disparaging Euro (freedom fries, the old Europe, etc.) influences during the tick-tock of its war machine's coo-coo clock hour; in a nation of profound ignorance reveling in its moronic worldview; in a nation rigged against the influence of intellectual advancement that is not attached in some meaningful way to capital; in this nation of half-wits and shoddy politicians who have joined together to debase and destroy culture, only to replace it with doll houses (“ticky-tacky boxes”) filled with painted figurines and all manner of gizmos that serve to enslave the majority—it is in this nation that the hicks have conspired to take over—and they have ignored Artaud.
Artaud is rolling around in his grave, cursing the gods and saying, "I told you so!"
Unhinged from an early age, like Donald Trump, Antonin Artaud invented the Theater of Cruelty, describing it as an expression in open space which should envelope the audience in an incomprehensible reality; theatrical expression becomes cruel in that its focus and intent is to remind the audience that it is already dead. Theater becomes the heart and blood of the living, and provokes either physical illness or discomfort.
Theater becomes a social polemic by making the audience uncomfortable with living, or rather by recognition of the uncomfortable that seizes humanity in our darkest suffering. Surrealists, of whom Artaud was an early organizer, argued passive life is smug—complacence and deadness are indistinguishable.
Theater should then be shock therapy in a sense, hinted Artaud, which happens to be one of the treatments the artist finally succumbed to in his battle with schizophrenia.
If theater fails to make one feel dizzy with angst and trepidation, if one does not feel his senses exploding, myth deflating, anger regenerating, the play has failed on some primeval level, suggested Artaud.
Artaud was, again like Trump, mad, which in art may have some value, but which in politics can lead to worldwide calamity.
Oh, but how the playwright suffered for his genius and hallucinations! He wrote his major theoretical and philosophical works between stays in various psychiatric wards.
Over the course of his life his dependency on opiates drove him deeper and deeper into a hallucinated reality. His friends stuck by him through the madness, but he did die alone in a hospital, of stomach cancer, in 1948.
At one of his last public performances, he made his friends, some of the leading figures of France's intellectual hierarchy, so uncomfortable that they fell into a pin-drop silence of wonderment. Mad and drug-addled for years, Artaud read his discombobulated lecture aloud, repeatedly losing his place, his thoughts tangential and fragmented, until he began to speak in a gibberish tongue only he understood.
Finally, he dropped his papers, then his glasses, and fell to the floor groping as the audience gasped and fell silent, embarrassed that it had come to this.
Artaud was hopeless!
But was he? Andre Gide waited, waited, watching Artaud from the front row as the lecturer frantically tried to gather his papers, find his glasses, and continue with his presentation.
Gide applauded and raced up to the stage, embraced Artaud with both arms, raised him off the floor and led him away.
It was not a cruel trick, but rather a cruel reality. Artaud had proved his point by making everyone feel miserable.
And so shall Hillary and Donald Monday night as they spew their sickening gibberish from the stage before being pulled from harm’s way by their Gide-like handlers.
Mind you, all in the interest of television, illusion, and a cruel reality.
The activity of nonreading is something that scholars rarely discuss. When they — or others whose identities are bound up with books — do so, the discussions tend to have a shamefaced quality. Blame "cultural capital" — the sense of superiority associated with laying claim to books that mark one’s high social status. More entertainingly, blame Humiliation, the delicious game that a diabolical English professor invents in David Lodge’s 1975 academic satire, Changing Places. In a game of Humiliation, players win points for not having read canonical books that everyone else in the game has read. One hapless junior faculty member in the novel wins a departmental round but loses his tenure case. In real life, the game has been most happily played by the tenured professor secure in his reputation. Changing Places had apparently inspired my adviser’s confession to someone at some point, and the information then wound through the gossip mill to reach me, standing around in the mid-1990s with a beer, trying to hide my own growing list of unread books.--AH
Most people read in their fields of interest. Myself, I rely somewhat on reading to discover what interests me.
The most likely resolution of the social divisions now roiling the West would come through broader distribution of political and economic power. That this is the one solution that the system of official politics exists to prevent creates a paradox that officialdom is incapable of resolving. The last time that economic democracy was meaningfully addressed was during the Great Depression when citizens (an army of veterans more precisely) surrounded the White House ready to burn it to the ground if relief wasn’t provided. Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka understand the issues and have the ideas needed for social resolution. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump don’t.--RU
For headstrong women who know their own desires, growing up in conventional society sometimes feels like inhabiting a haunted house. At first, there is so much promise, mysterious and tantalizing. As you pull open that heavy wooden door with the gargoyle knocker, you feel flattered by its intimidating proportions—you are necessary and important, maybe for the first time ever. But soon you catch fleeting glimpses of dark spirits who whisper in douche-bro baritones that you don’t belong and never will. You develop a recurring suspicion that you’re merely a pawn in some elaborate game, that even if you’re brave you can never be a real player. The floor shifts under your feet, the walls shake, you awake at midnight to heavy breathing. "She was asking for it" is scrawled across the wall in blood. You tell your story the next morning, but no one believes you. Did you imagine the whole thing? Is some unearthly force trying to make you feel weak and lost? Or are you just losing your mind?--HH
The legacy of Attica is a nation where breathing while black is a crime punishable by death. Another day, another black body — whether holding down a corner or holding a toy gun, driving while black, standing while black, running while black, laying on the ground unarmed with hands in the air while black, it doesn’t matter. They’re shot dead in the street with the rank impunity of a now fully paramilitarized law enforcement arm of the ruling class -– and then another city burns. The infrastructure of schools bears no aesthetic difference to jails so when the transition happens there is no surprise. The affluent board themselves up in gated communities and venture out in SUV’s only a paint job removed from the military version used to quell riots. The legacy of Attica is a volitional blending of the two parties to a point of the indistinguishable. I’ve sat next to Democrats voting for Hillary who literally channel George W. Bush when they say, “the terrorists hate us for our freedoms” and we’d better “fight ’em over there before we have to fight ’em here.” The legacy of Attica is a gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the steady stream of tepid, loose stool by the “progressive left” who use their intellect in ways that finally reveal what intellectualism is, at bottom –- a toothless defense mechanism for the sullied, the supine, the sold out.--AT
Today, if a novel is accepted into the American canon, it is as a masterpiece of individualism that subsumes material and social being into the spirit of a lone genius. If a social world is present in a novel of repute, our critics gobble it up and excrete it as imagination. In the early twenty-first century, realism has come to be synonymous, in the blinkered American critical consensus, with a curiously antisocial novel. It never occurs to critics that realism could only seem real because of the dilapidation of collective dreams. Nor do critics worry that the “social issues” presented in our novels rarely attain the complexity of cable television. Or that a novel genuinely concerned with social life (or even the social role of a single person) could itself, against this backdrop, be idiosyncratic. It’s sad, in other words, that the novels of Jonathan Franzen register to most as sociopolitical literature. Freedom isn’t a social novel on the level of Wharton. It’s a decelerated twenty-four-hour news channel.--JS
What is the emotional reaction of sports fanatics? My guess is something like the following: shock, surprise, betrayal, anger, anxiety, and hopelessness. In cognitive psychology, we explain the emotions of individuals by the interpretations and explanations people give to them. In the case of being a fan of professional baseball or football, there are collective emotions and collective explanations. My claim will be that collective emotions, their interpretations and explanations are rooted in the propagandistic nature of what sports means to sports fans at this point in history in the United States.--BL
Think of it: an inept toady of the rich and powerful, with a neoconservative worldview and a mindless determination to maintain American world domination by military force is pitted against a billionaire huckster-buffoon, with an authoritarian personality and the maturity of an unhinged adolescent. Could it get any worse? Hillary Clinton is a living reminder of all that has gone wrong with American liberalism and of all that is deplorable in the status quo.--AL
The “War on Terror,” which former President George W. Bush officially launched in late-September 2001, and which President Obama officially rebranded as “The Series of Persistent Targeted Efforts to Dismantle Specific Networks of Violent Extremists That Threaten America” in May 2013, has, at this point (i.e. fifteen years into it), become our official consensus reality … or in other words, “just the way things are.” An entire generation has come of age during the “National State of Emergency With Respect to Certain Terrorist Attacks,” which President Obama recently extended. For most of this unfortunate generation (which some are calling “Generation Homeland”), the sight of soldiers in body armor, rifles held in the sling-ready position, patrolling the streets of their towns or cities, the absurd “security procedures” at the airport, the hysteria pumped out by the mainstream media, the sanctimonious memorialization of anything even remotely connected to the “Certain Terrorist Attacks” in question, and all the rest of it, is entirely normal, the way their world has always been.--CJ Hopkins
Terry Simons is the founder of Round Bend Press Books, Round Bend Press Detritus, and an associated writing/editing service to aid and abet renegade authors. He has worked as a day laborer, dishwasher, factory drone, community organizer, journalist, media consultant and freelance writer. He attended the University of Oregon and Portland State University, where he read journalism, politics, literature and history. He is the author most recently of "Along Came the Death Squad: Political and Scattered Notes."
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