It Felt Like a Kiss

As I said last weekend, I’ve been on a heavy Adam Curtis kick recently.  Century of the Self is quite a worthwhile flick, but his latest, It Felt Like a Kiss, really pushes the boundaries.  An experimental film commissioned initially by the BBC, Curtis collobarated with the Punchdrunk production company on it.  It certainly has the feel of installation art in terms of disturbing images and disturbing music (special pieces by the Kronos Quartet jumped out at me, as did the frequent use of early Velvet Underground), but it has at bottom messages about politics, power, individualism and consumption that are sometimes ambiguous, often unsettling and always trenchant.  Beware of the super-quick montages.

My one gripe is that Curtis can tend towards the paranoid.  By his own admission, a lot of today’s politics is driven by paranoia.  Fair enough, but I’m not sure about a couple of his assertions, like that the ‘computers that controlled the Cold War and guided the rockets to the moon’ were put to use analyzing the credit data of all Americans, or that the unnamed ‘founder’ of the CIA’s Clandestine Services (formerly the Directorate of Operations) went mad and committed suicide, but as film montage with a message about the politics of consumerism and desire, the film stands on its own.

Italy note: thanked alongside the AP, New York Daily News and ITN archives is Italy’s own Mediaset.

Obama at Tuscon

After a British colleague thoroughly exhorted me to watch Obama’s Tuscon speech, I did so. The fact that my own family wrote me in praise of it somehow didn’t provide the same motivation. It’s a fine speech; particularly towards the end where he couches his dreams of what American could be in the terms of a child’s thinking — specifically the child slain in the shooting, Christina Taylor-Green. The president’s words were intended to unite, not divide, as is his wont. Much is made of this usually, but to see it in practice is a rare thing, to be appreciated. Which is why I can’t figure out why there are those who look askance at the motives behind his speech, or who decry it as some sort of sign of the weakening of the American psyche — that the leader is expected to give comfort to a wounded nation. The art of the funeral oratory as powerful way to praise the dead while exhorting the nation and the living goes back to at least the fifth century before Christ: “So died these men as becomes Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier outcome.” Finally we have a leader who is able to stand with the ancients on this.

If that’s not good enough for you and if you prefer words to go to the living, then watch Sal Giunta — America’s humblest hero — receive the Medal of Honor from President Obama. Those who feel that the president is not “of the people” should pay especial attention to his off-script asides and the quiet, comforting words he speaks off-mic to Giunta, who is clearly not entirely comfortable at being singled out for his bravery but who wants to do right by graciously accepting the honor.

On Wrestling with Angels

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel

Have you ever wanted to do something difficult, perhaps out of frustration, or to beat fear?  Maybe you ran a marathon, or took up biking, or read a long book or worked out a difficult puzzle.  What you in all likelihood did not do was have men ten years your junior punch you in the face and break some of your bones, while you — of course — were trying to do the same to them.

But this is precisely what J.D. Daniels — pictured dragging a tire to train — did for over two years, and he writes about it in the fall edition (not the winter edition, which is just on the stands) of the Paris Review.  His account, with the decidedly understated title of “Letter from Cambridge” is well worth your time, and I’ll break my non-commercial policy to encourage you to buy the magazine.  As Lorin Stein somewhat refreshingly reminds us, it is not meant to be surfed.  Daniels’ piece you’ll have to shell out for.  You can get a Houellebecq interview for your dozen clams, too.

But most importantly, you will get the sense that you are at home, instead of having someone who puts “Big” in front of his name with zero sense of irony dislocate your shoulder, break your nose and arm-triangle you into submission.  You might be relieved about this at first, but then you might wonder what it means that you are sitting at home.  You may find yourself pondering the words of the Brazilian dojo-master who asks Daniels in one of several explanatory asides, “without fighting, when you feel this in your life?  […]  Two, three times?  It make you a more major person.”

Some people wrestle with their demons.  By his own admission, Daniels wrestles with angels.

The Trap

I first encountered Adam Curtis via 2004’s The Power of Nightmares, which I watched while I was a graduate student. It was an interesting and provocative thesis — that the rise of the neocons had a parallel in the rise of radical Islam, and that both were based in the politics of fear. His style of film collage, often heartily ironic, mixed with unadorned interviews, fit the subject matter well. More than anything I appreciated his quest to see big-picture issues — something rare for the political commentator, who tends to get bogged down in details.

I was excited to have the chance to watch 2007’s The Trap this weekend, another three-part series for the BBC. The unlikely threads he traces here are even more ambitious than those in The Power of Nightmares — and accordingly, are sometimes more tenuous. All the same, the similarities he sees between game theory, pharmaceuticals and the DSM, performance targets in government, and Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty are fascinating, and those are just the bigger issues he touches on.

Initially I disagreed with his characterization of John Nash. I didn’t like the way that he played up Nash’s schizophrenia and played down the rigor of game theory. As anyone who’s every struggled through a game theory problem set knows, it’s a challenging discipline and not merely Cold War paranoia. Nash comes off badly in the first episode but Curtis is more sympathetic towards him in the second, when he admits that the assumptions behind the actors in game theory — that human beings are necessarily always totally rational and coldly self-interested — is flawed.

The greater problem is that this assumption is not limited to merely game theory but is common to all of modern economics. Curtis seems to place the origin of the modern era’s increased control and anxiety squarely on the shoulders of this limited understanding of the human condition. I think most practicing economists realize that the model of human beings as mechanistic and calculating is just that — a model. As Curtis glibly points out, no out actually acts this way, aside from economists themselves and psychopaths. But that’s a shortcoming of a science that tries assiduously to measure utility, the quantification of which has been contentious since the days of J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. It’s an imprecise science that deals with data precisely.

The problem, I’d argue, is when political leaders base all of their actions on this admittedly limited model, assuming that the model of human beings that it presents must be as rigorous as the methods with which it treats datasets and trends.

At any rate, it’s a fascinating film that tries to cut to the big-picture issues of what ails us in the modern era. Most filmmakers and TV producers skirt such diagnoses. Other 20th-century giants that get an interview include Friedrich von Hayek, James M. Buchanan,Thomas Schelling, R.D. Laing, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Alexander Haig, Samuel P. Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and Jeffrey Sachs. How can you go wrong with a cast like that?

If that’s not enough of a sell, pop addicts should like the soundtrack which features Yo La Tengo, Brian Eno, Morricone, LCD Soundsystem and music from the Godfather, as well as Shostakovich and Sibelius.

Finally, for those interested in Italy, Paul Ginsborg has correctly identified the kind of liberty that the current prime minister is always going on about as Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty.  The third episode is all about how negative liberty has been appraised and unleashed in Britain, America and the rest of the world, so it deserves a careful study.

Tonfo, and Ri-Tonfo

Just to keep things somewhat organized, I’m breaking this out of today’s roundup.  Yglesias, like most normal people with a sound and sober understanding of the dismal science, is totally baffled by Italy’s deeply dismal recent growth.

U + V = W or 'ri-tonfo'

Not that I blame him.  But I think one of his commenters, Halfkidding, hits it on the nose:

Italy has a sprawling unofficial economy, it doesn’t do bubbles especially real estate ones and I strongly suspect it’s household debt burden is comparatively small. And households mean a lot there. In some large measure wealth is held not so much by individuals there but by family. A stupendously stabilizing phenomena. There are many complex cultural reasons why macro economics means less there than perhaps anywhere in the developed world. Throw in that their multi national corporations are highly successful if not in pure profit terms in terms of persistence and stability in large part because of design and a talent for it. Something not possible to even quantify perhaps. It’s embedded in the culture.

At least that’s what the Italians think.  Here’s a good piece on this in Italian in which the author starts off by translating ‘double-dip’ as ‘double thump.’  A ‘tonfo’ is a ‘dip,’ economically speaking, but in Italy one does get the sense of playing thwack-a-mole with fiscal and monetary policy more often than not.  Is that to be blamed on monetary union?  Ask a man on the street and you’ll hear yes: the days of joyously lira devaluation are sadly gone, but according to most economists, that’s a very good thing.  But what about growth?

The Chains are Broken, the Knives are Sharpened, the Glock is Photographed

Morning roundup:

Interesting times in Tunisia.  Is it the Arab’s world Gdansk or is that too much to hope for?  We’ll see.  But it’s something.

I was heartened to see that Yglesias also excused himself from blogging extensively on Tunisia for much the same reason that I did: ignorance.  But he goes a bit further and discusses the incentive for high growth in the country,including a quote from Tyler Cowen as well.

On this side of the Mediterranean, the judiciary is coming out against Berlusconi with knives sharpened, talking about trying him as a sex offender.  I agree with Rodotà writing in the Observer back in November that it’s really tiresome how the man seems to dominate the headlines.  There’s just no escape, even when actual revolutions are happening in the next country over.  Annalis Piras, in London for L’Espresso, astutely points out that attempts to defeat Berlusconi legally just make him stronger during elections — which probably will get called early this year.  How to get out of this Chinese finger trap?

Up in Austria, Mr. Glock’s past tribulations seem like the sort of violent betrayal worthy of a Bernhard novel.  Across the waters in the US, our gun-obsessed culture futiley tries to understand madness, criminality and legislation by zooming in on the weapon itself.   I’m not sure why we have this misprision.  There are many reasons but the most overarching could have to do with David Reisman’s assertion that Americans tend to locate things outside themselves, which Margaret Mead also noticed.  While I dig around JSTOR for the original, here’s Todd Gitlin in his introduction to the 2001 edition of the Lonely Crowd:

Mead herself pointed to a passage noting that other-directed conformism predisposed Americans to project power centers outside the self — a reason the paranoid streak in American life loomed so large, and perhaps also a reason Americans were excessively afraid that the Russians would take them over.

What if we just substitute “immigrants” or “socialists” for Russians?  Does that make it clearer, and take some of the blame away from a pugnacious octogenarian Austrian engineer?  I’d hope so.  The Times piece shamefully ignores much of what is true about human society and economics of supply and demand.  Chekhov’s rule may be true in fiction but less so in real life: just because the gun is there, it doesn’t have to be fired.

News from Tunisia

What happens when you call early elections

I am the first to admit that I know very little about neighboring Tunisia, aside from Bettino Craxi’s Hammamet exile and some happenstance encounters with Tunisian street kids in Bologna.  Despite the recent death of a RAI reporter, the only North African that the Italian press will give column inches to is Ruby.  But that’s the Italian angle.  Fortunately, I have a friend living in Tunis who wants to get his angle out.  Here is his open letter to the press.

The full story of what is happening in Tunisia is being portrayed as a story of Islamic radicals trying to overthrow a US ally.  Although there is mention of the government having fired on the public, it completely understates what is happening here.

This is a secular revolution against a secular dictator who has ruled with an iron fist, denying his people freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, while enriching his own family through graft and corruption.  Each day, there have been large protests downtown.  By the time you wake up in the morning and read this, today’s protest will probably already have been dispersed by riot police with rifles and tear gas, assisted by snipers on neighboring buildings.  Close friends of mine have heard gunfire outside their homes, and others with contacts in hospital emergency rooms have been tracking victims who are brought there after being shot by the police or the army.

In my own neighborhood, the soldiers patrolling the streets have already fixed bayonets onto their rifles.  I am staying home, barricaded inside my house with loads of food and water.  During the daytime it is possible to go out onto the street, but today there is a general strike nationwide, so everything is closed.  Besides, all the grocery stores closed early yesterday due to the curfew, and partly because they were running out of food to sell anyway.  There was a huge line outside the bakery that remained open yesterday in the afternoon, as I, like others, waited to buy baguette to be ready for the coming days when stores may or may not be open.

Many of my friends have been firsthand witnesses to the violence.  Although barely covered in the US media, Tunisians are telling the story through YouTube and Facebook videos that show dead bodies, protesters in the streets and a gunshot victim being videotaped as surgery is conducted on him.  This is happening in the neighborhoods where we live.

As I write this, I am viewing scenes from outside the interior ministry taken by my friends on their iPhones and posted to Facebook… the crowds seem ready to “storm the Bastille” as a thin line of interior ministry policy block the entrance.  The army seems to have abandoned the government to its fate.

Any assistance in getting this story out to the media in a more complete and detailed form would be greatly appreciated.

The Sacred, the Profane and the Nothing-Based Economy

A friend recently sent me one of those scarcely credible “grosser than gross” stories that both defy and defile the imagination, and that seem to be all the more popular amid the anonymity of the internet. Yet this one was far from anonymous. and written in a style that is, by the author’s own admission, angry, recklessly confessional and contemptuous. Interesting… but who is the person behind the persona?

How journalism became SEO

Maureen Tkacik is taking the pulse of journalism, or what used to pass for it, more astutely than most so-called “real journalists” — or ones with a fancy beat instead of ex-Jezebel and Gawker ranters, although her street cred includes the WSJ as well.  Her understanding of media and of the world as driven by artificial, drummed-up demand that journalists are increasingly complicit in creating is incisive.

In a very different way, her take on journalism’s complicity in creating self-perpetuating systems is similar to Glenn Greenwald’s continuing indignation with journalists who serve and protect the very government they might be actually reporting on.  But that’s a thought for another post.

Whatever you do, make sure you at least read the first 7/8ths or so of “Look at Me” in the Columbia Journalism Review — by way of taking an unflinching look at the state of journalism today, it makes a bigger point about the “virulent new self-obsessed model for journalistic success” that has taken hold of not only the profession, but of wide swaths of Western culture as well. I say “Western” so I can include American Idol along with Big Brother and Uomini e donne.

She’s also thorough in her take-downs of various not-quite-sacred cows such as Malcolm Gladwell and the Wharton School.

Side note: as a reluctant two-time Washingtonian, I was glad to read some history of Wonkette. After two years of often-clandestine blogging from the Balkans, I was shocked to come home on furlough in 2004 and read about how political blogging along the lines of Ana Marie Cox’s, was the “next big thing” in no less than the New York Times. But Tkacik has some words about that, as well as how history repeated itself in 2007 with Emily Gould.

Give the CJR piece your full attention; it’s well worth your time and worth the dread it may instill in you.  If it’s a different kind of dread you seek, then once you’ve checked out Maureen, you can check out Moe.

Post-Holiday Post

Happy Epiphany everyone. I’m just in from an utterly exhausting holiday trip to Rovigo, Louisville and Washington DC, and after yesterday’s 24-hour trip home, I’m too spent to do much other than post this ridiculous 1951 Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Charlie the Dog.

Ah, crude stereotypes of Italians and Ed Butz-like linguistic appropriations! Still, I knew that WB’s typing had to extend beyond Pepé Le Pew and Speedy Gonzalez. Someone obviously had a deeper understanding of italianità, because there’s an obvious homage to the pre-WW1 greats of the Scala in the cartoon — the sign up in the restaurant (“Melba Tetrazzini Gadski Martinelli”).

Otherwise: see the Social Network, if you’re one of the few people that hasn’t already. I fully believe it took large liberties with the Truth in all senses (is Harvard still so good-old-boyish; do programmers really spend so little time coding and so much time partying — these have been thoroughly debunked elsewhere), but it’s good storytelling, and I think must hit on some basic kernel of truth in that Zuckerberg is a brilliant, slightly amoral geek with powerful driving ambitions — much like the world’s last true uber-geek, Bill Gates. (This ascendancy is broadly hinted at in the film — and those who incredibly don’t know who Gates is are those who miss out, although I sincerely doubt that there was one person at Harvard in 2003 who didn’t actually know of Bill Gates.)

Totally unrelated: why does Hemingway, who dealt with the problem of bilingual conversations rather elegantly in A Farewell to Arms, stumble so hard in For Whom the Bell Tolls by using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for tu? It seems so basic. I’m not the only one who noticed, of course.

More after I’ve caught up on sleep.