Friday, September 10, 2010

National Film Board of Canada: selections to watch online

After scrolling through the National Film Board of Canada's online archives and reading descriptions of various films, I came up with a list of the ones I thought looked interesting. I urge everyone -- especially those interested in documentaries and animation (they have many of each) -- to browse the archive yourself. (My list is hardly representative.) If you find any gems, be sure to let me know.

But first! Some of the one's I've already seen and recommend.

Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen. (Donald Brittain & Don Owen, 1965, 44 min). A Portrait of Cohen when he was known only as a poet.

Lonely Boy (Wolf Koenig & Roman Kroitor, 1962, 26 min). I saw this short documentary because it was added as an extra feature on the US release of Peter Watkins PRIVILEGE. The two films certainly make for an inspired pairing, but the short is also quite good all by itself. "This film portrays the story of singer Paul Anka, who rose from obscurity to become the idol of millions of adolescent fans around the world. Taking a candid look at both sides of the footlights, this film examines the marketing machine behind a generation of pop singers. Interviews with Anka and his manager reveal their perspective on the industry."

Four by experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett who, it seems to me, looks to have influenced Adam Curtis. (I'm thinking of Curtis' IT FELT LIKE A KISS in particular.) Lipsett is also the acknowledged influence of dozens of other filmmakers.

21-87 (1964, 9 min). I linked to this film long ago on The Tarpeian Rock. It's probably the best Lipsett to start with if you haven't seen any of his films. One of my favorite shorts. "An abstract succession of unrelated views of the passing crowd, and a commentary on a machine-dominated society."

Here are the other three:

Very Nice, Very Nice (Arthur Lipsett, 1961, 6 min). "Arthur Lipsett's first film is an avant-garde blend of photography and sound. It looks behind the business-as-usual face we put on life and shows anxieties we want to forget. It is made of dozens of pictures that seem familiar, with fragments of speech heard in passing and, between times, a voice saying, "Very nice, very nice." It was was critically acclaimed and plays frequently in festivals and film schools around the world."

A Trip Down Memory Lane
(Arthur Lipsett, 1965, 12 min). "Another incisive short film that looks at human might, majesty and mayhem. Compiled from some peculiar newsreel items of the last 50 years, the filmmaker calls this a time capsule yet his arrangement of pictures makes it almost explosive. There are hundreds of items, once front-page stuff, but all wryly grotesque when seen in this reshuffle of the past."

Free Fall (Arthur Lipsett, 1964, 9 min). "An experimental film from Arthur Lipsett, Free Fall is an assortment of film trimmings assembled to make a wry comment on humankind in today’s world. It evokes a surrealist dream of our fall from grace into banality."

Worth seeing:

This Is a Recorded Message
(Jean-Thomas Bédard, 1973, 10 min). "Made up of hundreds of cut-out color ads presented in fragmented, rapid succession, this animated short takes a critical look at consumerism in a material world. Seductive advertising is seen as the main motivating force in shaping the desires, the needs and, to a large degree, the lives of modern men and women."

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And now: the unseen & unknown.

You Are on Indian Land (Mort Ransen, 1969, 36 min). "The film shows the confrontation between police and a 1969 demonstration by Mohawks of the St. Regis Reserve on the bridge between Canada and the United States near Cornwall, Ontario. By blocking traffic on the bridge, which is on the Reserve, the Indians drew public attention to their grievance that they were prohibited by Canadian authorities from duty-free passage of personal purchases across the border, a right they claim was established by the Jay Treaty of 1794."

The Things I Cannot Change (Tanya Ballantyne, 1967, 55 min). Looks like a Canadian CATHY COME HOME of sorts, only a documentary. "This film is considered to be the forerunner of the NFB's Challenge for Change Program. It is a look at the Bailey family, as seen from the inside. Trouble with the police, begging for stale bread, the birth of another child, and through it all, the father who tries to explains his family's predicament. Although filmed in Montreal, it's the anatomy of poverty as it occurs throughout North America."

Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry
(Donald Brittain & John Kramer, 1976, 99 min). "This feature-length Oscar®-nominated documentary focuses on Malcolm Lowry, author of one of the major novels of the 20th century, Under the Volcano. But while Lowry fought a winning battle with words, he lost his battle with alcohol. Shot on location in four countries, the film combines photographs, readings by Richard Burton from the novel and interviews with the people who loved and hated Lowry, to create a vivid portrait of the man."

The Persistent Peddler
(Claude Cloutier, 1988, 8 min). "Featuring a salesman and a consumer, this animated short is a humorous study of the patterns that define buyer-seller relationships. The Persistent Peddler is based on Claude Cloutier's hit comic strip La Légende des Jean-Guy, first introduced in Quebec humour magazine Croc."

Remember Africville (Shelagh Mackenzie, 1991, 35 min). "This short film depicts Africville, a small black settlement that lay within the city limits of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the 1960s, the families who lived there were uprooted and their homes demolished in the name of urban renewal and integration. Now, more than twenty years later, the site of the community of Africville is a stark, under-utilized park. Former residents, their descendants and some of the decision-makers, speak out and, with the help of archival photographs and films, tell the story of that painful relocation."

North China Factory (Tony Ianzelo & Boyce Richardson, 1980, 56 min). "This documentary from 1980 depicts a factory community in China where over six thousand workers process, spin and weave raw cotton into 90 million yards of high-quality cloth per year. Also seen are the workers' residential, social, recreational and educational facilities, all of which are located on factory property. The film presents an engrossing study of a lifestyle that is very different from that of the Western world."

High Grass Circus (Torben Schioler & Tony Ianzelo, 1976, 56 min). Wiseman meets Herzog? One can only hope. "This feature-length documentary offers an inside look into the workings of a travelling circus. Filmed in 1976, directors Tony Ianzelo and Torben Schioler followed the Royal Brothers' Circus as they set up their tents and put on their show. Fascinating to watch, the film captures the 24-hour-a-day brand of magic that the circus evokes while revealing the nature of the people who run it."

Nobody Waved Good-bye (Don Owen, 1964, 80 min). I hope the acting is good! "This award-winning feature-length drama from the 1960s tells the story of a teenage boy who rebels against his parents' middle-class goals and conventions."

Aftermath: The Remnants of War (Daniel Sekulich, 2001, 56 min). Looks to be done in the History Channel style, but perhaps still worth watching. "This feature-length documentary reveals the unspoken truth about war - it never really ends. Archival images and personal stories portray the lingering devastation of war. Filmed on location in Russia, France, Bosnia and Vietnam, the film features individuals involved in the cleanup of war: de-miners who risk their lives on a daily basis, psychologists working with distraught soldiers, and scientists and doctors who struggle with the contamination of dioxin used during Vietnam. Based on the Gelber Award-winning book by Donovan Webster, this film conveys the fact that war doesn't end when the fighting stops."

Crossroads (Don Haldane, 1957, 28 min). I don't have any expectations for this one, I'm just curious how it compares to Hollywood's silly GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, a film with basically the same subject matter but made ten years later. Reminds me of PHILADELPHIA -- "one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS" -- made 7 or 8 years after PARTING GLANCES (which, by the way, contains a very great performance (and debut) by Steve Buscemi). Oh, Crossroads, yes, I almost forgot: "This sensitive drama tells the story of a couple, Roy and Judy, and the reactions they encounter when they announce their intention to marry, reactions complicated by the fact that Roy is black and Judy is white."

The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar (Peter Pearson, 1968, 49 min). "The setting for this drama is a logging community, focusing on a man who chooses the unfettered life and uncertain income of an itinerant bush worker, even though it means that his family lives poorly as a result. The film is a study of the effects on family life of isolation and deprivation. Features a wonderful performance from a young Margot Kidder."

Salt (Karen Shamy-Smith, Louise Leroux, Amber Goodwyn, Morgan Gage & Beverly Brown, 2000, 79 min). In all probability this is junk, but I'm a sucker for films concerning young people. "These provocative 20-minute movies made by high school students provide an insider's look at youth culture. Made by four 17-year-old directors with help from a professional crew, Salt is a four-part filmzine: four films, four flavours, four windows into youth culture that explore alternative education, Montreal's flourishing independent music scene, the troubling practice of self-mutilation and a quest for the punk subculture."

Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child
(Alanis Obomsawin, 1986, 29 min). Low expectations for this one too, but who knows. "This short documentary is a moving tribute to Richard Cardinal, a Métis adolescent who committed suicide in 1984. Taken from his home at the age of 4 due to family problems, he spent the rest of his 17 short years moving in and out of 28 foster homes, group homes and shelters in Alberta. A sensitive, articulate young man, Richard Cardinal left behind a diary upon which this film is based."

Acts of Defiance (Alec MacLeod, 1992). "This feature-length documentary recounts the events that surrounded and led to the so-called "Mohawk Crisis" of the summer of 1990. The film focuses on the Mohawk territory of Kahnawake, in Quebec, but also reflects on the relationship between Canada and its First Nations at a particular time in history."

The Bronswik Affair (Robert Awad & André Leduc, 1978, 23 min). With some neat collage animation. "This funny yet serious short film demonstrates the effectiveness of advertising and the marketing machine. Its comic appeal lies in the characters and the absurd situations they find themselves in, but it also shines a harsh light on our tendency towards needless consumerism prompted by a steady flow of commercials."

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Harmony Korine's new short "Act da Fool" & other stuff I've missed

New Harmony Korine short "Act da Fool" (2010) made with/for the fashion line Proenza Schouler. Find out a little about it HERE. I haven't seen TRASH HUMPERS yet (check out these custom made VHS copies for sale) but I get the impression Korine is descending into self-parody. At the very least, this new short seems to owe a bit too much to David Gordon Green's George Washington. (To which Korine might respond: I haven't even seen that fucking film!)

(edit: I just watched this with the sound off and liked it quite a bit more.)

Here is another short film of sorts that I just saw for the first time. Looks like it originally aired on (and was made for) MTV. Note the quick shot of the cover of Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Speaking of self-parody, here's the 45-second short film Korine made for the ensemble project ONEDREAMRUSH.

I also just discovered two short films Korine produced. The first, The Aluminum Fowl (2006), by James Clauer, looks to be incredibly influenced by Korine, and, again, indebted to George Washington...

The other Korine production is a short film by Brent Stewart called The Dirty Ones (2008). You can watch it on youtube HERE.

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Anyone who wants to see a film that's as fresh and original as Gummo and Julien Donkey Boy were in their day should check out Chris Fuller's Loren Cass (2008).

loren cass poster
Or something by Giuseppe Andrews, a filmmaker who hardly ever gets the credit or mention he deserves, especially compared to someone like Korine. He's also a musician who makes good, original, and often humorous music that is somewhat reminiscent of Ween.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Sleeping with Weapons: Why did John Lurie disappear? by Tad Friend

6/24/11: "I’m writing about this profile, because I think this profile is a failure. It fails to do justice to its subject (opting instead to be clever and arch in that New Yorker way, clever, condescending, self-satisfied, off-handedly cruel, lazy, elitist, devoid of bona fide literary purpose), and actually supplants reasoned consideration of Lurie’s life as a whole for a willingness to do him genuine harm."

For John Perry's side of the story, go HERE

* * *

john perry painter

John Lurie (08/22):

Tad Friend of the New Yorker approached me about doing an article about my life and work. He said he believed in no surprises and he said he would have failed if the article were just to be about my stalker situation. Well, I was surprised and Tad certainly failed.
What is not mentioned in this article is that after the shoot, I offered to come back and shoot anything that was needed. But John Perry said no.
At no time did John Perry ask me to return to shoot anything.
What is also not mentioned is that I actually made it to the end of the portrait before I collapsed.
What is abundantly clear from the email chain between John Perry and I, is that Perry began insulting my character when I had not watched his video within 12 hours of him sending it to me.
When these insults made me say that I didn’t want to hear from him any longer, he went insane.
He called me hundreds of times, came to my house in the middle of the night ringing my doorbell over and over, while screaming on the phone, “You have to come down and get what you deserve!”
When I emailed him that he had to stop or I would be forced to go to the police, though that was the last thing I wanted to do to my friend, as he already had a pending case for threatening two policemen with a baseball bat.
John Perry went to the police and filed a false police report against me.
Then he sent me an email saying, “John, I went to the police and filed a report. I told them the truth. That you owed and previously agreed to pay me the money you owe me, but that you threatened me with violence and said if you saw me you were going to hit me with a baseball bat. I am assuming you were serious, so if I see you on the street and you approach me I will defend myself. I am now protected by the law, in the event something unfortunate transpires between us.”

Any person with an IQ over 40 realizes that this is a threat.

Next, he found out where my doctor was and sent me an email saying he would wait there.

He did many, many more things after this. But I will just leave it there. John Perry knows what he did and it is enough for me to leave him with that for the rest of his life.

I would like this to be over. I would like to be safe and I would like to know for certain that I am safe. But after the thousands of threats it will be hard to ever believe this.

I do not believe John Perry is gay and I did not say he was behaving like a rebuffed lover.
These were words, among many, Tad Friend attributed to me that I did not say.

I do not mind if John Perry gets attention for his paintings. I only think that it is shameful for anyone to give him this attention because he threatened someone who is ill with Advanced Lyme Disease, in such an obsessive fashion for so many months.

I also wanted to say that John Perry was perhaps the most decent person that I ever met in my life. He just goes crazy from time to time. Really crazy. And then does everything he can to keep that a secret.
But when John Perry was my friend, I was proud to have him as my friend. He was more sensitive and moral than my athlete friends and tougher and more real than my artist friends."

* * *

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Wave Pictures – Leave The Scene Behind (2010)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bill Hicks, American Rebel

I found a book called American Rebels at a used bookstore for 3$ and purchased it after being delighted to see in the table of contents none other than Bill Hicks and Frederick Wiseman. It was sorta like finding Lord Byron in Russell's History of Western Philosophy -- that is, until I looked through the book a bit more and saw that it was trying to be an alternative anthology of America. So, instead of being grateful that it had included some neglected figures, I was left thinking about all the people it could have had in it instead of, say, Mario Puzo and Frank Sinatra. Sadly, the day when I find the likes of Bill Hicks and Frederick Wiseman in a serious book on America -- listed alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln (Byron is sandwiched between Hegel and Schopenhauer in Russell's book) -- will have to wait. Until then, enjoy this short article on Hicks by Tom Gogola. It isn't half bad. (Do I recommend American Rebels? No. Unless the publisher stumbles here and reads this illegally reproduced excerpt. In which case I change my answer to: "Three-dollars was barely too much for this fascinating book!")

* * *

"They never tell you just how funny the meetings can be. Sure, there's a passing reference in the Big Book to AA-style laffs, but not much detail, not much in the way of expected punch lines. The humor is almost never light -- how can it be? -- but rather the humor that induces one to lowering one's head, rubbing one's eyebrows, and shaking one's head as a fellow addict shares a story that all too often sounds suspiciously like our own. In the immortal words of Alfred E. Neuman, it's humor in a jugular vein. They don't tell you this, possibly because to do so would violate the spirit of anonymity in "the room," but the stand-up aspect, at times, runs particularly strong. I've seen it happen again and again: The lights are dimmed and the "qualifier" is suddenly deadpanning his way through one tragicomic episode after another, preaching to a cramped room full of the fully converted and the counting-days alchs -- and earning those grimace-grin nods of recognition and a few belly laughs along the way. Sometimes there's a well-timed but not-so-funny punch line that caps off a qualification and punctures the reverie, hammering the don't-drink message home. "Then I shanked my grandmother with a pair of scissors and did twelve years upstate." Silence. Chairs scrape. "Show of hands?"

But mostly you are left feeling relieved, franchised -- "I'm not the only one who flushed $6,000 worth of pot down the toilet!" "I'm not the only one who seems to have misplaced the month of August 2002!" "I'm not the only one with an unrelenting, raging hatred for humanity!" These are the axioms that keep you coming back, the shock of recognition that makes the whole world go round, sans the room spinning -- even in the face of the occasional dud qualifier who can't get off the subject of his poor cat with an eating disorder and then my mother died and I started wearing her wedding dress to work and got fired fuck them. Such are the perils of getting sober in Greenwich Village.

The AA-as-Caroline's Comedy Club routine puts catharsis first and clever last, generally eschews irony -- except for the meatfist irony that this is the last place you'd thought you'd end up -- and never laughs in the face of death, since, as we all know, death will always get the last laugh.

If there ever was a poignant reminder of this fact, it is found in the story of the late comedian Bill Hicks, an epically funny man who could leave you gasping for air at the observational power of his left-leaning invective, the brilliance of his avowedly un-PC misanthropy, and the sheer raging funny that poured out of his clever, sick, ecstatic mind.

Hicks died a classic drinker's death, succumbing in 1993 to the incurably unromantic pancreatic cancer at the ripe old age of thirty-two. From the department of Life's Unfair, Hicks had largely conquered his "demons" by the time he died -- they apparently were legion and included just about every chemical agent found in a typical "garbagehead's" arsenal of oblivion. But he had purged his kit bag of just about everything by 1993, save psychedelic mushrooms and cigarettes. And, one is compelled to assume, pot. He is the only comedian that I know of ever to have cited 'shroom guru Terence McKenna in one of his bits, and not in that profoundly irritating Dennis Miller way of referencing for the purposes of deliberate obscurantism. (After taking a McKenna-prescribed, so-called heroic dose, five grams of mushrooms, Hicks reported with great aural fanfare, that his third eye had been thoroughly squeegeed -- he considered psychedelics to be evolution enhancers, and would also cite Jung to advance this argument.)

Hicks was Southern-born and raised, was never married, and was known for his relentless touring schedule; all those podunk nights on the road -- sixteen years' worth -- had the net benefit of leaving him totally at ease with his audience. There is an unforced intimacy to a Bill Hicks performance, like you're at a party with a particularly funny guest who has something to say about everything, and everyone, and even though he's hogging up all the conversation, you're rapt in his presence, and put up with the occasional meandering anecdote because you know the funny is right around the corner. Hicks could be brutally self-deprecating one moment and shitting all over his audience the next, expressing open hatred for them, and then becoming aghast at the knee-jerk self-immolation he was engaging in -- and the routine never failed to endear the room to him. His touchstones were Control and Complacency -- he could be vicious in his jeremiads against distraction-addicted fat Americans and their equally despicable blubbery children. One of his most infamous, and therefore beloved bits involved telling the parents among his audience that their children weren't special at all. He knew this because after engaging in Onan-the-barbarian activities, he's wiped "entire civilizations off my my chest... with a gray gym sock."

There are many reasons Hicks was the best comedian of his generation, and the most-missed chronicler of the vulgar machinations and paradoxes that characterize American politics and culture. During a time when the dominant observational posture was one of ironic detachment, an unfortunately long-lived modus operandi of the putatively engaged-and-literate set, Hicks was blunt, mortally engaged, and totally unshackled when it came to venting his rage. He had the strength of will to grapple mano-a-mano the absurdities and outrages of, say, Waco, or of the first Gulf War, without stooping to the smug-n'-clever level -- he was, in fact, as equally scornful of the sunken-chested fence-sitters of the irony era as he was of their over-the-horizon targets. Yes, that means you, Dennis Miller.

Plus, in true antihero fashion, he was big in England, and pretty much a cult sideshow in the States. Just like Noam Chomsky. In a way, Hicks was like the funny version of ol' Noam, except that unlike the linguist-provocateur, Hicks headed straight for the personal motives of the involved players to get a laugh, whereas Chomsky, to his ever-loving detriment, generally deems such motives to be irrelevant -- ours is not to wonder why George Bush, Jr. invaded Iraq, ours is only to decry. Realizing full well that the aforementioned conjecture is perhaps a little too reductive for some, it nevertheless brings great pleasure, to imagine what Hicks might have been saying about the younger Bush. During the first Gulf War, Hicks had flipped the "Support the Troops" slogan on its head and repropagandized its gotcha message: "I support the war, but oppose the troops." No doubt, this time around he would have connected Saddam Hussein's 1991 claim that he would watch the senior Bush's head rolling down the equivalent of Main Street, Baghdad "like a soccer ball," with his eager-to-please draft-dodging former cokefiend of a son rolling the Abrams tanks, at long last, into said city to vindicate his prudent pappy. And we'd be laughing with him, bitterly and with no small measure of say-it-brother fellowship, all the way to the looted Bank of Baghdad. It's not ironic, it's RPG comedy, and Hicks would also no doubt say, the joke is on you, America. Now go fuck off and get back to your Webster reruns.

Hick's death is all the more embittering when you consider the torrents of media-generated gibberish, horrifying cultural trends, and plain old bad shit that have flowed down the pike in the decade since his passing. In 1993, he was railing against American Gladiators, Waco, and the pro-life movement. In retrospect, it all seems so... innocent. On the latter issue, it is worth noting that the Letterman show torpedoed a Hicks appearance some months before his death because the comedian had made the pretty uncontroversial, if not outright goofy suggestion that if those folks were so pro-life, they should stop picketing medical clinics and instead "link arms and block cemeteries." It's a little silly, but c'mon, the image is priceless. As it turn out, the Late Show on which Hicks was to appear happened to have as one of its sponsors... a pro-life organization. [see this post for more on the Late Show debacle, including a link to the performance.]

Anyway... media generated gibberish, horrifying cultural trends, and plain old bad shit. Of course, it seems that the past decade has had more than its fair share, that there has been an exponentialized acceleration of junk culture, jackass politics and endtimes mayhem in the U.S.A., but that may be only because it suits the writers' agenda to have it so. Still, it has been a doozy of an intervening decade -- the O.J. trial, Monica Lewinsky, Survivor, call phones, Fox News, Fear Factor, Princess Di, the Gingrich Revolution, Woodstocks II and III, Chadgate, JonBenet Ramsey, Columbine, OKC, SUVs, The O'Reilly Factor, WTC, the Genome -- and had Hicks been around to chronicle it... hmmm. Dunno. The only certainty is that most Americans still wouldn't know who the hell he is." --Tom Gogola

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Vanishing Liberal by Kevin Baker

How the left learned to be helpless

On the first day of December last year, Barack Obama stood before the assembled Corps of Cadets at West Point and announced his decision to send another 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. The president’s nationally televised address was, in many ways, the most honest speech made to the American people by their leader in a generation. Obama conceded that our client state in Afghanistan “has been hampered by corruption” and “has moved backwards.” He told us he had rejected “a more dramatic and open-ended escalation” of the war because that would require setting “goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” He called on the nation to restore “the connection between our national security and our economy,” since “our prosperity provides a foundation for our power,” which means therefore that “our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended—because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.”

It was as if the president were walking back half a century of American overreach and hubris in foreign affairs, back past John F. Kennedy’s inaugural declaration that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Now Obama was finally conceding that there were limits. It was an argument in the very best tradition of American democracy: educational, unshirking, and honest; grounded in history; cognizant of physical realities and limitations but no less cognizant of humane and democratic principles. Had Obama delivered these words soon after he took office, as a prologue to making a major change in our foreign and military policies, they would have justified every hope his liberal supporters had for him.

Instead, of course, these words were merely a coda, a belated attempt to reassure us that the policy of escalation Obama had just announced was nothing of the sort. The decision stood: 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. After stating the case for standing down in the most deliberate, accurate, and insightful words possible, our president went ahead and did the wrong thing anyway.

How could this be? It was the question that Obama’s most fervent supporters had been asking themselves for months, as their candidate discarded almost every vision of a new America, a new world, that he had described during his campaign. By the time of his West Point speech, health-care “reform” had already been transformed into yet another scheme to transfer wealth to the richest corporate interests in the country. The stimulus program had been botched, the promised money delayed and diverted from badly needed public projects into unhelpful tax cuts. The banks had been bailed out but not the people, and any significant proposals for repairing our infrastructure, addressing climate change, re-regulating the financial markets, or rebuilding New Orleans were generally acknowledged to be dead letters.

Now, with the president’s decision on Afghanistan, our foreign policy settled back into its familiar pattern of endless war for unknown purposes. To people who had been clamoring for real change in how we work and consume, how we live in the world and with one another, this retreat to the failed policies of the recent past was stunning. No other president in our history had so thoroughly spurned his political base in so short a time.

To understand how this could have happened, it is instructive to pay less attention to what Obama said in his West Point speech and more to where he said it. That is, in front of the designated heirs to an officer class that in recent years has accrued unprecedented influence over policies once thought to be the exclusive domain of elected officials. Obama’s choice of venue provided the perhaps-too-liberal president a reassuringly martial podium, and in doing so it assured the Pentagon of an outcome its officers had in good part already determined by means of their own scandalously insubordinate intelligence leaks, and a recasting of history that assigned themselves sole credit for whatever “victory” was won in Iraq.

The president had undertaken a similar act of obeisance a few months earlier on Wall Street, where he had gone to plead for the cooperation of the financial sector and was faced with an even less enthusiastic audience of stone-faced officers. Two weeks after the West Point speech, the heads of some of the largest bailed-out banks failed even to show up for what was billed as an important White House conference on loosening lending restrictions and creating jobs, pleading “inclement weather.” And all the while, Republicans were stonewalling the health-care bill that was meant to be the cornerstone of Obama’s legacy.

Despite such receptions, the president continues to press for “bipartisanship” and elite consensus. One of the most charismatic politicians of his time, a man who was able to raise the most money and draw the biggest crowds in American political history has apparently decided that his new job is to fluff up the generals and bankers and politicians who not very long ago were in panicked disarray. Armchair psychologists from the Maureen Dowd school of political commentary like to analyze this conversion in terms of the elusive personality of Obama himself. Others prefer to dwell on the surprising ineptitude of his administration. And some simply accept his about-face in terms of the political exigencies of an essentially conservative nation, concluding wistfully that Obama is confronted by so many barriers to change—Republican obstructionism, the treachery of this or that Democratic senator, the nature of the Constitution itself—that the country is now ungovernable.

All of which may be true. But it only skims the surface of a greater tidal shift, one that has little to do with Obama himself and in fact has inundated the whole of our democratic process. This shift, which is subtle and has been many years in the making, might best be understood by considering a design underlying many of the interrogation techniques we employ at the (still-unclosed) prison at Guantánamo or at the black sites we still maintain, wherever they are. That is, bringing about the state known as learned helplessness.

The expression dates from a famous set of experiments by Martin Seligman some forty years ago, in which he found that dogs exposed to repeated and seemingly random electric shocks eventually stopped trying to escape those shocks, even when they could very easily do so. This insight gave rise to “no touch” torture, pioneered in large part by the CIA, whose efforts to “break” prisoners involved all manner of techniques, from the unsavory to the absurd, such as depriving prisoners of sleep for weeks on end, bombarding them with ear-splitting noises, exposing them to extreme heat and cold, shackling them in “stress positions,” tying bras to their heads, making them bark like dogs, and waterboarding them. There is no evidence that such practices enhance the odds that prisoners will provide more useful information to interrogators. It is well established, though, that they will make prisoners docile, and so the techniques remain popular.

For decades now, as our public discourse in general has become more scattered, random, and irrational, Republicans—funded by corporate and other elites in the private sector—have stunned Democrats with absurdist attacks that have proved to be effective at garnering votes and, more important in the long term, at hampering Democrats even when they hold the majority. Democrats have been reduced to a state of psychological helplessness, one in which any political obstacles—ranging from the prevarications of stalking horses like Senators Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, to the plaintive cries of the tea-baggers out in the streets, to the sterner demands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Big Pharma—are transformed into insurmountable organic obstacles.

We have learned to be helpless. And in this state of political depression, it no longer matters how many elections liberals win for the Democrats, or how badly Republican, right-wing policies fail or how much damage they do to the country or the world. There is simply no way to do anything differently.

Such hapless fatalism is, of course, in direct opposition to every tenet of American liberalism, which is rooted in the idea that human agency is still possible in the modern world—that democratic action can make a difference when ranged against vast, impersonal forces and supposedly immutable “laws” of human society. Liberalism’s antecedents lie in one nineteenth-century rebellion after another—against laissez-faire capitalism, patriarchy, slavery, Social Darwinism, and other efforts to transmute political dispositions into irrefutable “social science.” American voters of the time were regularly assured by authoritative voices that “hard money” was an indispensable economic principle; that women, people of color, and many varieties of European immigrant were inherently inferior; that any attempts to regulate the “natural” workings of the economy, even private charity, would thwart human progress because they interfered with the culling of those who, in Herbert Spencer’s description, were not “sufficiently complete to live.”

Crusades against these self-serving philosophies of the wealthy and the powerful were waged in a series of determined grassroots movements—from abolition, universal suffrage, and women’s rights to the first revolts of working men and women in the cities and the mills—that were the essence of the democratic idea. They presumed that ordinary people, learning from their own experiences, could challenge and overcome the superstitions powerful elites used to oppress them. And in so struggling, they would free not only themselves but many others, so that they, too, could contribute to the progress of the human enterprise.

The first attempt to fashion this idea of agency into an enduring, broad-based political movement was Populism, which began in the 1870s as an agrarian uprising. American farmers, who still made up the majority of the population, were confronted with a monetary system that depressed crop prices and gave financiers a near monopoly on capital. Many families were forced deeper into debt with every harvest, even as unchecked financial speculation regularly set off Wall Street “panics” followed by devastating depressions lasting anywhere from several months to several years.

The farmers had come to view both major parties as hopelessly unresponsive. Elections tended to be colorful festivals, often decided on the basis of personality or gaffes endlessly harped on in the outrageous, highly partisan media of the day. It was the time of the “Mugwumps” and “the Plumed Knight”; “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!,” and “James G. Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine”—phrases that mean as much to us today as “Borking,” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and “swift-boating” will to Americans a century from now.

Candidates appealed to voters mostly by appealing to their ethnic and social identities, “waving the bloody shirt” to remind their audiences of the treasonable crimes the other side had committed during the bitter culture wars of the Sixties—the 1860s, that is. No matter who won, the local and federal governments were understood—with good reason—to be the wholly owned creatures of corporate entities whose enormous wealth dwarfed that of the governments themselves. When offices changed hands, the new group of political professionals and their sponsors were the only people likely to benefit. Any and all appeals to the court system were useless. Just thirty years after it had supported a federal income tax to fund the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the very practice unconstitutional, an “assault upon capital” and the start of “a war of the poor against the rich.” In 1886, the Court wielded the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the rights of freed slaves, as a shield against the regulation of big business, ruling that corporations were now somehow the same as people.

But the farmers had not yet learned that they were helpless in the face of such corruption. In September of 1877, a small group of men met at a farmhouse in Lampasas County, in the heart of Texas. They called themselves the Knights of Reliance, and though that name was soon changed to the Southern Alliance, their original appellation reflected their determination to rely on themselves and no one else to alter their situation. By 1890, they were the National Farmers Alliance, with some 500,000 members in the South and another 100,000 in Kansas alone. Gathered under the banner of the People’s Party, and inviting input from everywhere, the Populists quickly assembled a host of solutions and formulated ways to get them done—perhaps the most imaginative and genuinely grassroots political movement in American history.

The leaders of the People’s Party organized a circuit of thousands of farmer-lecturers who spoke to audiences about problems they knew, in terms they understood. The Populists had ideas for dealing with every obstacle—many of them amazingly sophisticated and effective. In the halls of the nation’s legislatures, they demanded the public ownership of railroad, telegraph, and telephone infrastructure; a graduated income tax; the direct election of U.S. senators; recall provisions; the secret ballot; laws to allow labor unions to organize; an expanded money supply; and a “sub-treasury” system of storing crops so that farmers could not only wait for the most favorable conditions before putting their goods on the market but in the meantime could draw credit from that reserve rather than from Wall Street.

All of these ideas and more were promulgated in the Populist lectures, which were attended by as many as 2 million people in forty-three states. These meetings provided some of the most poignant moments ever recorded of American democracy in action: Wagon trains six miles long heading out to the prairie to listen to brass bands and lectures on currency reform. Fourth of July “Alliance Day” rallies drawing as many as 20,000 people to learn about the “money trust” and the gold standard. Suppers, box socials, and sing-alongs, all dedicated to providing a useful airing of complicated political ideas that might improve the life of every participant. And when their demands and petitions were not enough to budge the leaders of the major parties, the Populists went into electoral politics.

Despite widespread and often illegal voter suppression by the major parties and a less-than–enthralling candidate (the largely forgotten James Weaver), the Populists captured four states outright and more than 8 percent of the overall presidential vote in 1892. Over the next four years, the People’s Party regularly drew 25 percent to 45 percent of the vote in some twenty states. The Populists were serious about taking power. In the South, they crossed the great racial divide to make alliances with black farmers. And when electoral fraud threatened to rob them of the State House of Representatives in Kansas, they briefly took control of that chamber by force of arms.

The ineluctable problem the Populists faced, though, was that they represented a class in steady decline. Theirs was at heart a nostalgic movement, trying to revitalize a receding agrarian order through radical new methods. Despite their support for unions, they had trouble making any inroads in the fast-growing cities, which they distrusted in the first place. Amid their frustration, some retreated into purest fantasy (Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, for one, was an Atlantis enthusiast), while some gave themselves over to paranoia about immigrants and about Jews on Wall Street, thereby tainting the entire movement. In the South, the Populists’ occasional interracial alliances provided an excuse for white supremacists to wage a campaign of mass violence and electoral fraud against them.

Most of the movement was lured into the Democratic Party by William Jennings Bryan in 1896. The Populists had seriously considered nominating the socialist labor leader Eugene Debs as their candidate for president, which might have cemented an alliance between workers and farmers and dramatically altered the course of American history. But Bryan was young (thirty-six) and charismatic, and he had electrified the farmers with his “Cross of Gold” speech, in which he advocated the coinage of silver to increase the money supply and solve the farmers’ credit problems. The Populists knew their failure to throw in with the Democrats would have meant an immediate victory for a thoroughly corporatized Republican Party, and so they relented. As it happened, Bryan lost by a narrow margin, 51 percent to 47 percent, despite an overwhelming Republican advantage in money, and the People’s Party dissolved in the wake of the election. The Populists had cracked open the American political system for participatory democracy. But they had also begun to learn about the limits of that system.

The Republicans themselves, even in victory, could not ignore the growing demand for government accountability. The standard of reform was taken up by the Progressives, almost all of whom were current or former G.O.P. members. The Progressives were far more in step with their times. They tended to be prosperous citizens of towns and cities. For a soapbox, they offered not a formal lecture circuit but a newsstand full of stylish magazines printing muckraking articles with such catchy titles as “The Treason of the Senate,” “The Shame of the Cities,” and “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” They were savvy enough to get some of the Populists’ best ideas passed, and they contributed a few of their own, including potent antitrust laws; the regulation and public ownership of utilities and mass-transit systems; clean-food, drug, and water regulations; nature conservation; and a larger civil service.

The Progressives rebutted the past century’s conservative “social science”—which had proposed another kind of helplessness, in the guise of biological destiny—with the new philosophy of pragmatism, then being espoused by the likes of John Dewey and William James. The pragmatists rejected notions of destiny and refused to take anything on faith. They insisted on testing assumptions and preferred the authority of statistics and experience to the claims of ideology. They believed fervently in education, in self–improvement, in man’s ability to alter his environment, and in the necessity for government to level the playing field and provide a safety net. Whereas the Populists had tried to reform a dying social order by democratizing it, the Progressives would invigorate the new world of the cities and the suburbs by giving its citizens, many of them immigrants, the tools to better themselves—to tap the immense human potential that was everywhere amid that astonishing collection of strivers, tinkerers, and questioners known as the American people.

Once in office, though, the Progressives often acted as elitists, trying to impose their own ideals of behavior on the people they ruled. Like the Populists, they were predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestants who needed to win the support of a population that was increasingly made up of new Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Time after time, Progressive coalitions overcame the formidable power of the urban, usually Democratic machines, winning elections when municipal corruption got out of hand—only to perform what that old Tammany sachem George Washington Plunkitt called “the sky-rocket act” and plummet back to earth. Rather than concentrate on the material needs of the urban masses, Progressive reformers wasted their mandates on ancillary or irrelevant issues, such as halting purely political appointments, balancing municipal budgets, and “sabbatarianism”—making sure that theaters and saloons were shuttered on Sunday, the one day most working people had to enjoy any such form of recreation. Again and again, Progressives went down to resounding defeats after single terms.

By the 1920s, “Progressive” was an almost meaningless term, much as it is today. Conservative politicians, including Calvin Coolidge, were happy to appropriate the label, even as corporations snapped up progressive-sounding ideas and terms—much as they attach themselves to “green” ideas and terminology today—creating such ostensibly liberal institutions as “company unions.” Worst of all for the Progressives, many of them had lined up behind the most egregiously awful, imposed idea of their time: Prohibition. Swayed by health statistics, and the thought of all the money the poor would save by not indulging, even such laudable public servants as the community activist Jane Addams and the conservationist Gifford Pinchot found themselves joining an unfortunate assemblage of interest groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, in support of the war on liquor.

Prohibition was the first great issue on which liberal elites would display what was to become their greatest vulnerability: letting the reforming impulse slide over into unrealistic plans to reshape not just society but human nature, and refusing to acknowledge the particular class interests that produced that impulse. Such Progressive tendencies begot deadly political caricatures that would be flung at all liberals—quiche eaters, limousine liberals, bobos, etc.

As is usually the case, it was the liberals themselves who cleaned up the mess, undoing Prohibition in 1933. And under the immense pressure of the Great Depression, it was liberalism as a whole that came into its own, fusing reformist impulses into a single movement grounded in practical, urgent reforms. The liberals of the New Deal implemented the nation’s Social Security system, pushed through a steeply graduated income tax, and provided immediate relief that kept people eating and working, in their jobs and on their farms. They also made fundamental changes in the nation’s power relationships and reversed disastrous economic policies. Finally subsidizing crop prices as the Populists had agitated for, they halted, then healed, the catastrophic climate change of their time—the soil damage that had reduced the Dust Bowl to near desert and sent enormous clouds of dirt swirling across the country and out to the Atlantic. With the Tennessee Valley Authority and the creation of other public power authorities, they provided consumers throughout the South and West with a “public option” that checked private utility costs and provided millions of people with electricity. They extended public infrastructure. They built new dams, bridges, schools, hospitals, even entire towns.

Beyond all of this, however, what the New Deal did was to liberate whole new classes of the American people and bring them into the democratic process. The support of government liberals for labor was critical to creating the modern union movement and giving millions of Americans some control over their working conditions. Farmers, too, got a say in what they would grow, and when. Urban reform movements had backing from Washington. For the first time, a liberal coalition in New York was able to last for more than one term. Its leader, Fiorello La Guardia, might be considered the embodiment of the liberal ideal: uncouth, urban, and from the streets; Protestant and Catholic and Jewish in background and belief; uncompromisingly honest and dedicated to good government and willing and able to do things that improved the day-to-day existence of working and poor people.

There was no longer an impregnable upper class in the United States; the path to improvement was now open to all. That is to say, everything that might have been granted before as a privilege—by the city political machines, by wealthy philanthropists, or by the noblesse oblige of the old Wasp order—was now available as a right.

For a generation, liberals learned from their successes. In gaining control of the federal government at nearly every level, liberalism became at times an almost perfect perpetual–motion machine for the reformist impulse. It is stunning, for instance, to recall how popular, crusading books of the 1960s were debated and translated into congressional hearings and then into effective government programs, whether they concerned poverty (as did Michael Harrington’s The Other America), environmental degradation (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), or consumer safety (Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed). Grassroots citizen movements such as the campaign to end atmospheric nuclear testing received almost instant attention from the Kennedy Administration, which then concluded a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Labor leaders were regularly invited to the White House and to political conventions, where they served as major power brokers.

This period marked, in many ways, the apex of the open society. Thanks to the new pressures of the Cold War, a highly fluid party structure in which both of the major parties now had liberal and conservative wings, and the practical political skills of Lyndon Johnson (who grew up not far from Lampasas), a staggering variety of reforms was passed. Programs such as Medicare significantly reduced poverty, increases in financial aid made college available to many American families, and an array of environmental regulations salvaged our water and air quality. Liberals went to the courts—which were now on their side—to guarantee defendants a lawyer, pull down censorship laws, and establish “one man, one vote” as the law of the land. In Congress, in the White House, and in the streets, liberals got behind the next great wave of liberation movements, ending almost all legal discrimination against women and ethnic minorities and helping gay Americans out of the closet.

But with such success came, inevitably, corruption and reaction. The “Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson insisted, the very first time he used the term in public, “is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.” Yet no society can go on ceaselessly challenging itself, any more than it can “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship.” Protestors became radicalized beyond their ability to be accommodated or appeased by the state. Unions became complacent and (though this was grossly overstated) corrupt. Above all, liberal constituencies began to resent solutions imposed by courts or bureaucrats, even when they provided necessary programs or broke societal logjams. These conflicts paralyzed the Democratic leadership and fueled the suspicion—growing even within the liberal base—that liberalism itself was helpless.

As the New Deal coalition began to unravel, another political movement was growing in force, one that, in its appropriation and inversion of Populist rhetoric, themes, and methods, is best described as counter-Populism. The father of modern counter-Populism was George Wallace, who over the course of four presidential campaigns perfected the language to cloak his racial appeals in the guise of anxiety over rising drug use, crime, sexual and gender liberation, urban decay, and societal disorder; who spoke to the growing fear that the world was beyond the control of working people, or at least white working people. It was Wallace who delighted in exposing the hypocrisy of elite liberals and raised the question of why wealthy Northerners should trouble themselves over the rights of black people in the South. His counter-Populism harked back to a mythologized past when the social order was firmly authoritarian.

Wallace’s South was whole and complete, disturbed only by the attempts of mysterious, “pointy-headed bureaucrats” from Washington to stir things up. Similarly, his working-class followers were also whole and complete. There was no need for self-improvement, or to acknowledge the intrinsic problems of the world and devise ways to fix them. Instead, human agency consisted in blue-collar whites giving their votes to Wallace, so that he could make all the bad things go away. Ironically, his strategy was such that he even ended up suppressing violent resistance in Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement, using the state police apparatus to help root out some of the most psychopathic resisters to integration. Popular protest of any type was to be channeled exclusively into his own political campaigns.

The Republican Party got the message. The G.O.P.’s move to the right was not simply one of racial demographics, the much-vaunted “Southern strategy”; it was, as well, a notable change of rhetoric and of posture. Conservatives would abandon the discredited principles to which they had clung for decades—the eternal verities of hard money, balanced budgets, classical economics, and an elitist social order—in favor of a corporatist economics complete with whatever deficit-busting state subsidies were necessary, fundamentalist “low-church” religion, and the idolization of the white working class. It was a new variation on counter-Populism: voters would be courted with continual praise for their ethnic and cultural superiority while a large and intrusive state was turned over solely to the ends of corporate elites, thereby ensuring a steady flood of campaign money.

Republicans had considerable success with such appeals, but they got their biggest boost from what should have been a tangential issue when the Democrats managed to bog themselves down in Vietnam. This was the ultimate Progressive example of listening to impractical theorists and imposing a solution that was workable only in theory. Somehow, even as the Nixon Administration continued to bungle the war, it seemed to prove everything that the right was saying about liberals in every sphere. The Vietnam quagmire split the old liberal coalition decisively, betrayed the trust of many patriotic Americans who had been assured of both the war’s necessity and its viability, and sent the economy into a brief but unsettling tailspin.

And yet, bad as it was, the debacle in Vietnam discredited the Pentagon and Cold War hawks as much as it did Washington liberals. The backlash, as with that over civil rights and the other liberation movements, was severe but short-lived, and when it was over the right still seemed to be at a cultural standstill. Women were not going back to the kitchen, gays were not going back to the closet, black people were not going back to the back of the bus. Throughout the South, interracial coalitions elected moderately liberal Democrats to state and city governments in the middle and late 1970s. Liberal philosophies, liberal convictions, and liberal standards of civil society were now predominant and often unassailable. Even the mightiest icons of the right wing, such as Governor Ronald Reagan in California, did not seriously challenge the basic assumptions of the liberal state. Six years after his last presidential campaign, George Wallace, again running for governor, was publicly apologizing for his racial demagoguery and appealing to black voters. When Richard Nixon admitted about the same time that “we are all Keynesians now,” it could as easily have been said that “we are all liberals now.”

Once the United States regained its footing at the close of the Vietnam War, and looked back on all the progress that one wave of determined reform movements after another had brought over the past hundred years, the next question should have been: To what new heights will we now ascend? Even if decades of political dominance had turned some liberal professionals and bureaucrats toward reaction and obfuscation, and even if some liberal interest groups were deeply suspicious of others, the fact remained that the power of the state could still serve as an invaluable tool in bolstering populist movements and passing critical legislation.

The trouble was that—much as the Populists had been folded into the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan—liberalism had now been folded into a Democratic Party that, in considering only its short-term institutional needs, was about to disembowel itself. It turned out not to be necessary for the right to actually become Populist. Absorbing the old cant now constantly echoed by an intimidated or captive mass media—that liberals are naive, impractical, “out of the mainstream”—Democratic leaders fell for the idea that the right represented the true will of the people, and acted accordingly.

The most incredible expression of this trend was the internalization by Democratic leaders in the 1980s of the Republican charge that the Democrats were the party of “special interests.” Suddenly, the myriad individuals liberalism had helped to liberate—union members, African Americans, gay people, women—were illegitimate political actors, no better (or even worse!) than corporate lobbyists. It was ludicrous, but it worked, in large part because it shifted the balance of power not just to Republicans but also to the whitest, wealthiest, most conservative Democratic elites. Assuming a posture of helplessness before the Republicans’ fraudulent Populism, the Democrats acquiesced to and assisted in bundling up the nation’s industrial base and shipping it overseas—a policy that shut down the working-class escalator to a better life, gutted the unions, and deprived liberals of their main source of political power.

The liberal political system had relied in large part on maintaining American cities as self–perpetuating economic engines, where industrial and postindustrial economies existed side by side. People of all kinds could work at unionized blue-collar jobs that paid well enough for them, or their children, to make the leap to the white-collar jobs of the future, right next door. When liberals and conservatives alike rushed to embrace the new ethos of “globalization,” a basic power relationship was reversed. America’s business leaders no longer had any stake in the success of the national project, and they accelerated the shipment of both jobs and capital overseas.

The government began to lose—indeed actively to toss away—the chance for true human agency that liberals had fought so hard for in the preceding decades. Instead of building constituencies as counterweights to the rapid consolidation of power by global corporations, politicians in both major parties now had to spend nearly all their time going hat in hand to the leaders of those corporations, trying to raise money. Even as Democrats worked to give up power, they also made sure to ostracize any persons deemed embarrassingly radical—women and people of color in particular—with arranged “Sister Souljah moments” in which party members competed to see who could display the most “independence” by insulting core constituencies.

Working people now faced the same hard choice the Populist farmers had faced a hundred years before. Told relentlessly that they represented a dying class from the “Rust Belt” past, they were instructed to fall in with one major party or the other. Presidential primary campaigns became extended bouts of purging and self-criticism, in which Democrats fell over one another to swear fealty to the paradoxical goals of higher military spending and balanced budgets. Candidates donned duck-hunting gear, grabbed shotguns, and made elaborate displays of assumed folksiness. Party leaders began hunting for self-financed millionaires to run for office, and New York City, once the laboratory for all that was successful about the liberal project, ended up simply electing the richest man in town mayor.

This abasement reached its nadir in 2008, with Obama and Hillary Clinton’s bowling and shot-drinking competitions. Democrats had completely unlearned the lessons of coalition building that had served them so well, and learned a new lesson: candidates with the audacity to be black or female could attract the sympathy of blue-collar white men only by condescending to them. Yes, working people have been known to enjoy a whiskey and a few frames after a tough day. They also invented folk music and the blues, like to watch Shakespeare and read the Bible, formed the world’s great unions, and came up with ingenious plans to get a few cents more for their crops. But a political class that has learned helplessness must spread it among the people; it’s the only way it knows how to survive. Patronizing any group is the first step to ignoring it entirely.

And so we arrive at the present moment, in which the people are not asked to do anything. The fine words and able presentation of Obama, whether delivered at West Point or on Wall Street or in the well of the House of Representatives, obscure the fact that they are subtle parodies of a century of liberal argument. Whereas the Populists’ soapbox lecturers or the Progressives’ magazine exposés or FDR in his radio “fireside chats” explained the way of the world to the people and argued for why and how that way must change, Obama—like most Democratic leaders—concedes that the way of the world is wrong but tells us why it must stay that way because, some time in the past, powerful interests decreed it so.

Thus we are told that single-payer or a public option may be a good idea but that private insurance companies are simply too well–ensconced for reform. Afghanistan may be hopeless, but we have already committed to it. The power of the people is never activated, nothing much is asked or required of us, even as thugs overrun congressional town-hall meetings.

Instead, the party that claims to represent all progressive interests in this country proceeds with its impervious, self-interested agenda. The administration’s stated priorities for the near future are to balance the budget before a deep recession has abated and to commit the nation to a long-running war in a dysfunctional Asian country that we neither understand nor care about—thereby promising to repeat, simultaneously, the two worst mistakes made by liberal presidents in the past seventy-five years. As for the long term, the White House will form a commission bent on cutting “entitlements,” such as Social Security and Medicare, that are the bedrock of retired Americans’ prosperity.

Obama is an adroit politician and, like the last adroit Democratic president, he may be able to secure another term in the White House. Perhaps he will even be able to keep a Democratic majority in Congress, though this now seems unlikelier by the day. But to treat this as a triumph of activism is to say that a prisoner retains free will because he is able to stay in his cell. Obama, the congressional Democrats, and most of our politicians at every level now maneuver within political confines defined by financial and military interests they cannot conceive of challenging. Perversely, our ruling elite today is one of unparalleled diversity, and includes unprecedented numbers of women, minorities, and individuals who have worked their way up to power on brains and determination alone, usually without having inherited connections or wealth. It is a meritocracy much like the one long envisioned by many liberal reformers—and it has decided to capitulate, reap its considerable rewards, and draw the ladder up after it.

Who will challenge this shining fortress upon a hill? The right-wing pseudo-Populists who have devoured the Republican Party may win some victories in the short run. But the Tea Party and its fellow travelers have already become a jointly owned subsidiary of News Corp. and the likes of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks lobby. (To understand just how fraudulent the movement is, one need only look at the $549-a-seat price tag for tickets to its first convention, and the $100,000 speaker’s fee paid to Sarah Palin. So much for box socials and sing-alongs.) Right-wing Populism is anyway inherently contradictory, a demand that the state recede to a size that will leave its citizens utterly defenseless against the gigantic forces at loose in the world today. No one is going to abolish the Federal Reserve, or the income tax, or Social Security and Medicare; if they did, small businesses and working people would be trampled beneath the corporate entities bent on their exploitation. The counter-Populism of the right is the prisoner’s last, despairing option, to move from learned helplessness to suicide.

Coming to power when he did, with the political skills and the majorities he possesses, Barack Obama squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity. But it is increasingly clear that he never intended to challenge the power structure he had so skillfully penetrated. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations are, once more, people, American democracy has snapped shut again—the great, forced opening of the past 130 years has ended. There is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics. The idea of modern American liberalism has vanished among our elite, and simply voting for one man or supporting one of the two major parties will not restore it. The work will have to be done from the ground up, and it will have to be done by us.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Philistines and Philistinism by Vladimir Nabokov (from "Lectures on Russian Literature")

"A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time. I have said "full-grown person" because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron. "Vulgarian" is more or less synonymous with "philistine": the stress in a vulgarian is not so much on the conventionalism of a philistine as on the vulgarity of some of his conventional notions. I may also use the terms genteel and bourgeois. Genteel implies the lace-curtain refined vulgarity which is worse than simple coarseness. To burp in company may be rude, but to say "excuse me" after a burp is genteel and thus worse than vulgar. The term bourgeois I use following Flaubert, not Marx. Bourgeois in Flaubert's sense is a state of mind, not a state of pocket. A bourgeois is a smug philistine, a dignified vulgarian.

A philistine is not likely to exist in a very primitive society although no doubt rudiments of philistinism may be found even there. We may imagine, for instance, a cannibal who would prefer the human head he eats to be artistically colored, just as the American philistine prefers his oranges to be painted orange, his salmon pink, and his whiskey yellow. But generally speaking philistinism presupposes a certain advanced state of civilization where throughout the ages certain traditions have accumulated in a heap and have started to stink.

Philistinism is international. It is found in all nations and in all classes. An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen. The mentality of a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler in regard to the arts and the sciences was utterly bourgeois. A laborer or a coal miner can be just as bourgeois as a banker or a housewife or a Hollywood star.

Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists. But it should be admitted that all of us have our cliché side; all of us in everyday life often use words not as words but as signs, as coins, as formulas. This does not mean that we are all philistines, but it does mean that we should be careful not to indulge too much in the automatic process of exchanging platitudes. On a hot day every other person will ask you, "Is it warm enough for you?" but that does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a philistine. He may be merely a parrot or a bright foreigner. When a person asks you, "Hullo, how are you?" it is perhaps a sorry cliché to reply, "Fine"; but if you made to him a detailed report of your condition you might pass for a pedant and a bore. It also happens that platitudes are used by people as a kind of disguise or as the shortest cut for avoiding conversation with fools. I have known great scholars and poets and scientists who in the cafeteria sank to the level of the most commonplace give and take.

The character I have in view when I say "smug vulgarian" is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he also is typified by something else: he is a pseudo-idealist, he is pseudo-compassionate, he is pseudo-wise. The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as "Beauty," "Love," "Nature," "Truth," and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.

The philistine, in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting next to him. The philistine is often a snob. He is thrilled by riches and rank — "Darling, I've actually talked to a duchess!"

A philistine neither knows nor cares anything about art, including literature — his essential nature is anti-artistic — but he wants information and he is trained to read magazines. He is a faithful reader of the Saturday Evening Post, and when he reads he identifies himself with the characters. If he is a male philistine he will identify himself with the fascinating executive or any other big shot — aloof, single, but a boy and a golfer at heart; or if the reader is a female philistine — a philistinette — she will identify herself with the fascinating strawberry-blonde secretary, a slip of a girl but a mother at heart, who eventually marries the boyish boss. The philistine does not distinguish one writer from another; indeed, he reads little and only what may be useful to him, but he may belong to a book club and choose beautiful, beautiful books, a jumble of Simone de Beauvoir, Dostoevski, Marquand, Somerset Maugham, Dr. Zhivago, and Masters of the Renaissance. He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh's or Whistler's respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.

In his love for the useful, for the material goods of life, he becomes an easy victim of the advertisement business. Ads may be very good ads — some of them are very artistic — that is not the point. The point is that they tend to appeal to the philistine's pride in possessing things whether silverware or underwear.

I mean the following kind of ad: just come to the family is a radio set or a television set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or table silver — anything will do). It has just come to the family: Mother clasps her hands in dazed delight, the children crowd around all agog; Junior and the dog strain up to the edge of the table where the Idol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background; and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, stands triumphant Dad or Pop, the Proud Donor.

Small boys and girls in ads are invariably freckled, and the smaller fry have front teeth missing. I have nothing against freckles (in fact I find them very becoming in live creatures) and quite possibly a special survey might reveal that the majority of small American-born Americans are freckled, or else perhaps another survey might reveal that all successful executives and handsome housewives had been freckled in their childhood. I repeat, I have really nothing against freckles as such. But I do think there is considerable philistinism involved in the use made of them by advertisers and other agencies.

I am told that when an unfreckled, or only slightly freckled, little boy actor has to appear on the screen in television, an artificial set of freckles is applied to the middle of his face. Twenty-two freckles is the minimum: eight freckles over each cheekbone and six on the saddle of the pert nose. In the comics, freckles look like a case of bad rash. In one series of comics they appear as tiny circles. But although the good cute little boys of the ads are blond or redhaired, with freckles, the handsome young men of the ads are generally dark haired and always have thick dark eyebrows. The evolution is from Scotch to Celtic.

The rich philistinism emanating from advertisements is due not to their exaggerating (or inventing) the glory of this or that serviceable article but to suggesting that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser. Of course, the world they create is pretty harmless in itself because everybody knows that it is made up by the seller with the understanding that the buyer will join in the make-believe. The amusing part is not that it is a world where nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving or eating celestial cereals, or a world where the game of the senses is played according to bourgeois rules, but that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts — especially in this wise quiet country.

Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism — poshlust. Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust. It is possible to maintain that a simple, uncivilized man is seldom if ever a poshlust since poshlism presupposes the veneer of civilization. A peasant has to become a townsman in order to become vulgar. A painted necktie has to hide the honest Adam's apple in order to produce poshlism.

It is possible that the term itself has been so nicely devised by Russians because of the cult of simplicity and good taste in old Russia. The Russia of today, a country of moral imbeciles, of smiling slaves and poker-faced bullies, has stopped noticing poshlism because Soviet Russia is so full of its special brand, a blend of despotism and pseudo-culture; but in the old days a Gogol, a Tolstoy, a Chekhov in quest of the simplicity of truth easily distinguished the vulgar side of things as well as the trashy systems of pseudo-thought. But poshlists are found everywhere, in every country, in this country as well as in Europe — in fact poshlism is more common in Europe than here, despite our American ads."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fassbinder video interviews

Fassbinder interviews from the OOP Fox Lorber DVD, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972). The various film excerpts contained in these interviews have been crudely excised for the purposes of saving time and removing spoilers. Unfortunately the videos appear to be slightly out-of-sync.

Might take a few moments to load.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Flashes of Flora - John Lanchester

Review of Vladimir Nabokov's unfinished, posthumous book The Original of Laura (Dying is fun). A friend of mine ripped this out of a magazine last week at a bookstore and died in the gun fight that ensued. Please enjoy this in his honor. H. J. Horace (1981 - 2010).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

JD Salinger: 1919 - 2010.

In the summer of 1999 I had just graduated high school, and I was on a road-trip with my friend Devon. At some point (July?) we were staying with someone he knew in Montana (June?) who happened to have a copy of CATCHER IN THE RYE sitting somewhere that caught my eye, and I remember staying there reading it while everyone else left to go do something. I liked it a great deal at the time, and I'm very glad to have gotten a hold of it then because I think 18 is probably right around the end of when it can be fully appreciated.

When Norman Mailer said "Salinger was the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school" he was insulting him for having an adolescent sensibility and a slim range, but it was also a compliment, however backhanded. Mailer recognized that Salinger perfectly captured something very particular: the spirit and feelings of youth.


Friday, January 22, 2010

citizens united vs. federal election commision

This ruling, quite simply, is madness. It's bad enough that corporations were long ago made into legal persons under the law, but allowing them unprecedented monetary control over elections via the bankrolling of any candidate of their choosing; well, it's likely to be catastrophic. And to think that many people are considering this a victory for free speech!

Who knows. Maybe nothing will change. Maybe this will lift the veil on what has already been going on in this country for decades behind the curtain. Maybe. Hopefully. But this seems destined to drastically change the face of American politics (unless it's curtailed), forever rendering the broken engine of our machine completely unrepairable (maybe it already was). Or worse: it could officially replace our "old-fashioned" rusty machine with a brand new, shiny, completely different kind of machine!

The questions concerning me at the moment are 1.) whether or not the changes are going to be drastic. 2.) if they're going to be obvious. (After all, I am already convinced that America is, for the most part, a corporate dictatorship.)

* * *

Tempus est optimus iudex

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." --Frederick Douglas

"The lesson of the Holocaust is the facility with which most people, put into a situation that does not contain a good choice, or renders such a good choice very costly, argue themselves away from the issue of moral duty (or fail to argue themselves towards it), adopting instead the precepts of rational interest and self-preservation. In a system where rationality and ethics point in opposite directions, humanity is the main loser. Evil can do its dirty work, hoping that most people most of the time will refrain from doing rash, reckless things -- and resisting evil is rash and reckless. Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience -- the instinct of self-preservation will do, encouraged by the comforting thought that it is not my turn yet, thank God: by lying low, I can still escape." --Zygmunt Bauman

"The guerrilla has the initiative; it is he who begins the war, and he who decides when and where to strike. His military opponent must wait, and while waiting, he must be on guard everywhere." --Robert Taber