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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Disney Does It Right

I agree with the film critic from The Telegraph: this is the best work of animation from Disney that I've seen in years. I saw it twice in the theater--the kids enjoyed Wreck-It-Ralph, as did I, enough that we went to see it two times during the holiday season. Both times this little film which played before Ralph, like the best short cartoons, simply melted us with its humor and beauty. The technique behind it--read the above article to learn about the new software used in making Paperman, or read this interview, or watch this video--is fascinating: actual hand-drawn flourishes animated on top of the CGI base. There's a wonderful style to it, and reading through the comments on the blogs reveals all sorts of at first unnoticed touches: the shape of the characters echo Aladdin, the paper airplanes hearken to the opening of Fantasia: 2000, and the hero's boss looks like no one so much as Bryon Brassballs from Dark Knight Returns. Endless levels here--which is what the best art is supposed to provide. Anyway, enjoy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

"Our Crab Guys, They Don't Have Meat."

Very nice, and the Beyonce is a serious improvement. But honestly, if these chaps had any real guts, they would have gone after the Inaugural Poem. That really needed it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Glenn Beck Gives Utopia a Bad Name

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

So Glenn Beck has proposed his grandest scheme yet: the construction of separate planned community, literally built around (in terms of architecture and overall design) the idealization (and arguably the idol-ization) of what he understands to be "quintessentially American" principles, to be called "Independence, USA." It'll be built somewhere in Texas, at a likely cost of over $2 billion, but Beck is not deterred; this is something, he says, the God is inspiring him to do.

Mockery ensures, of course, and at least some of that is deserved. If you watched his whole presentation (and I urge you to do so, starting here), it gets rather difficult to be sure exactly where Beck's ideas for a theme park end (so much of his vision apparently being preoccupied with the creation of media centers which will tell entertaining but "true" stories, beginning this year with the creation of a multi-media extravaganza about, it seems, the epic American battle of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, told from the point of view of the moon), and where his ideas for an actual living space begin. At one point in the presentation, while talking about the need for real self-sufficiency in Independence, Beck gestures at a picture of some powerful wind turbines built on a hill over the community, but then later says they were a mistake, inserted by the sneaky employee at Blaze TV just to piss Beck off, leaving the question of how this community will obtain its energy unresolved. He apparently likely imagines it being built somewhere in north Texas, but how many people will live there, or why they will move, or what they will do there, is similarly in need of more detail.

I'm sufficiently in sync with the cultural preferences of my mostly left-leaning academic tribe that such mockery of Beck comes easily to me; I've done it before, and will likely do it again. But in truth, I find Beck's utopian dreaming more fascinating than ridiculous. For starters, what kind of community does he have in mind here? Most of those who have reported on his grandiose vision have labeled it "libertarian" or "Ayn-Rand-inspired," comparing it with such paranoid ventures as The Citidel or, more ominously and meanly, Jonestown. Obviously you can't dismiss that kind of motivation; Beck has never pretended not to be inspired by the radical libertarianism/constitutionalism/individualism of a John Galt or a Ron Paul. And the problems with this kind of extremism, a real fetishization of personal liberty, are obvious; as Peter Levine tartly observes, if you truly take this kind of rejection of all forms of collectivism seriously, than "you secede from the corrupt, liberty-forgetting society around you and raise your kids in a setting where they will turn out to be libertarians (unless they rebel against you and define themselves as anti-libertarians, but even then you will have shaped them)...if you succeed, you will have forced them to be free." But Beck can't really be placed entirely within that category. If you listen to the whole presentation, and especially if you're familiar (which, as a fellow member of the Mormon church like Beck, I actually am) with the pious, family-centered devotional tropes he frequently makes use of, then you hear so much more which isn't exactly libertarian. He wants "wisely" planned living spaces, where all the streets are underground and everyone lives on a cul-de-sac, so people will get out of their homes and enjoy their neighborhood. He wants a marketplace where there is "no Gap stores, no Ann Taylor," but only craft-based businesses which offer apprenticeships, and don't require any "Ivy League" diplomas. He wants a local, sustainable food system. He wants, basically, a community which celebrates "simpler times." Sounds more Front Porch Republic than Galt's Gulch.

Jesse Walker call's Beck's vision "populist-utopian," but I think he's wrong there too. I mean, I suppose if one imagines "populism" in explicitly (and solely) Jeffersonian terms, that description might work--but in reference to the actual Populists, or the way the term has been used since then, there is little what Beck lays out here which suggests an attack on the powers that be or a restructuring of society around increased economic democracy and sovereignty. Indeed, aside from a few arguable swipes against corporate capitalism (which I suspect Beck is either unaware of or would deny that he made), the only thing which is attacked here is our education system. And this is where Beck truly comes alive, and truly reveals his dream as being, whether he realizes it or not, as being more about Plato's Republic than anything else. He essentially, if unintentionally, speaks of creating a civil religion, with an all-glass, sunlight-reflecting, impressively spired building at the center of the community (forgive the Mormon in me for immediately thinking "temple" and "Zion") which would be a repository of historical documents and artifacts from throughout history, so that whenever someone is confused about what America's real principles are, they can come to Independence, be "deprogrammed" from what is taught in America's universities, and "be shown the truth!" (Beck repeats that about three times.) I can't help but think of people being led out of the cave by the philosopher-kings, and seeing the sun (the Declaration of Independence! the Constitution! portraits of the Founding Fathers! and...other stuff, I guess) for the first time.

Years ago, I noticed a similarity between Glenn Beck and James Gordon "Bo" Gritz, another Mormon (though only for a short time) conservative who became convinced of conspiracies and truths which, somehow, his ideological fellows nonetheless weren't captivated by. (Look at all you fans of Glenn Beck: sure, you voted against Obama, but are you teaching your children the Mayflower Compact? Have you stopped shopping at the Gap? Why not?!?) And this led Gritz, as it is apparently leading Beck, to want to proselytize, to redeem, to create safe environments of learning that troubled people can flee from. Again, this is easy to mock, but I don't want to. I don't want to, because there is, at the heart of this impulse, a longing for a yeoman independence and interconnectedness, for communities of solidarity, for the truth which can be known when people are fully enjoined in their civic spaces. Populism was a way to communicate that idea, whereas libertarianism is, I think, too often a corruption of it. Either way, though, there is a transformative, utopian impulse here, and the impulse is which animates all the best kind of home-making and community-building. Too bad Beck's is so warped--and, frankly, kind of stupid--that he's apparently incapable to making the kind of critique of liberalism which would open up to him the real, plausible, communitarian alternatives out there, whether distributist or anarchist or social democratic or all of the above, in one fashion or another. Like Gritz, Beck knows what he wants (well, sort of, anyway), but he's unwilling to think carefully about what's really stopping him from having it (his own fellow citizens and the genuine appeal and logic of the liberal order, being a primary one). Thus does he make utopia a source of snide mockery. Like I said, a fascinating process, though a frustrating one as well.

I confirm the subscription of this blog to the Paperblog service under the username russellarbenfox.

Cats Are Smarter Than Dogs. Period.

I strongly suspect, on the basis of a totally unsupportable stereotype which I unfairly invoke solely on the basis of the annoying voice recording on the video, that this particular cat may be smarter than its owner too.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and the Ground on Which Communities Are Built

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The final sentence in Behind the Beautiful Forevers--Katherine Boo's wonderfully written, devastatingly detailed narrative of several fascinating, despairing stories that took place over the period of a couple of years in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi--sums up the message of the whole book as well as any concluding sentence I've ever read does: "If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits is uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" There is a deep truth, and a challenge, in that sentence: one which I was already cognizant of, but which, having just finished this much-praised book, will remember that much more firmly. Anyone concerned about the way in the shape and foundation of one's home or community may either open up or foreclose possibilities for justice or freedom or virtue needs to remember it--and reading this fine book is a good way to help that remembrance along.

The obvious referent of the final sentence is the wretched tale of Abdul Hakim Husain, a young man (perhaps 16 years old, perhaps 19--"his parents were hopeless with dates") whose tragic story forms the primary backbone of the book, though his life is only one of dozens whom Boo skillfully introduces us to. Very briefly, Adbul is the primary earner in his family of eleven, a scavenger of refuse whose skill at picking through and sorting different types of trash to later be sold to recyclers had given his family, through years of work, a tiny amount of financial stability and hope. They had been able to afford rejected bricks (the slum was surrounded by rapidly constructed luxury hotels, designed to serve the newly rich of Mumbai flying in and out of the nearby international airport, on whose land the slum sat) for their hut, making it the sturdiest dwelling along their makeshift street; they had been able to afford the tuition for a "third-rate Urdu-language private school" for the second-oldest son, Mirchi; they owned their own vehicle, giving them an edge in transporting the garbage they sorted through to recyclers; they'd even been able to save enough to make a deposit on a plot of land in a predominantly Muslim community outside of Mumbai, thus giving the the Husains the hope of becoming actual landowners and escaping the 3000+ person, half-acre collection of illegal, more or less desperately poor and uneducated squatters that made up Annawadi.

But it was not to be. As Boo expertly chronicles, the deprivation of Annawadi did not make for a united community, but rather a constantly shifting, usually bitter and suspicious, relentlessly competitive and often corrupt group of individuals. Anti-Muslim sentiments, common in Mumbai, were part of it, but most of it was just the plain and ugly truth that, when one lacks any kind of stable home to retreat to, or vocation to identify with, the smallest slights and most pathetic grievances can take on hysterical importance. The day came that the Husains were attempting some upgrades to their hut, installing some floor tiles and a stone shelf, working to make it level. The weak bricks which made up their walls crumbled somewhat in the midst of the construction, shaking their next-door neighbor's hut, occupied by another Muslim family, dominated by their sexually promiscuous, one-legged mother--who had been, predictably, subject to multiple levels of harassment, discrimination, and mockery by Annawadi's other residents--named Fatima. Some sand fell into the rice she was cooking. A fight broke out, with shouting and accusations aplenty; Fatima claimed that she would put the Husains "in a trap," complained to the local (and completely corrupt) constabulary at the Sahar Police Office, then dumped kerosene on herself and set herself on fire. As Boo puts it, Abdul's life "exploded" at that instance. What followed was arrest, police beatings, long confinement, bribery and doctored hospital reports and false claims on all sides, the collapse of the Husain's scavenging business and the loss of all their meager savings, and criminal trials which ultimately left Abdul's father exonerated of the accusation of inciting Fatima to commit suicide but Abdul in legal limbo, perhaps permanently. 

There is much more to the story than that, and that is only one of the many stories Boo has to share. But that specific reference--to Abdul's attempt to build a shelf level and straight, when his family's wall and foundations were rickety in the extreme, and the unforeseeable consequences which followed--not only encapsulates Abdul's story, but connects to the larger theme of the whole book. In an environment where the law is only sporadically enforced (and then usually only when a hefty fee is paid in advance), where criminality are the rule (at one point in the story Abdul resolves to no longer traffic in stolen metal, but in the face of complete deprivation abandons that pledge, to his regret: "I tell Allah I love Him immensely...but I cannot be better, because of how the world is"), where violence and despair go hand in hand (the book features several deaths, including the suicide of a young girl who saw death as the only way to escape beatings from her parents and an arranged marriage she detested), exactly what can be accomplished? That some things are accomplished is undeniable: among the Annawadi's inhabitants are at least a couple of young people who manage to get college educations and move out of the slum-squatting class (though in the case of one of them, that's at least partly the result of her mother's corrupt political maneuvering and marital infidelities). But for the great majority of the slum's residents, most of whom had fled to Mumbai seeking opportunity in the face of starvation in the countryside (the rural village home of one of the book's main characters was in the midst of drought, with much of the little available remaining land having been taken away by "large-scale corporate and government modernization projects") what they faced was the enduring continuation of the same: scrambling day to day, earning just enough to eat. No collective action was possible, because there were no collective resources to be harnessed to improve one's lot, and no trust that any such resources, even if they existed, could be used responsibly. While not quite a dog-eat-dog world (Boo notes that the rapacious yet resourceful folks she focused on lived in the comparatively more wealthy part of the Annawadi slum; they actually had huts, didn't sleep in the streets, and didn't have to eat rats or grass to survive, as the truly desperate of Annawadi residents did), it was close.

Boo, at one point near the end of the book, makes a rare, observational aside about what she had seen in her years of reporting:

At Annawadi, everyone had a wrong he wanted righted: the water shortage, brutal for three months now; the quashing of voter applications at the election office; the worthlessness of the government schools; the fly-by-night subcontractors who ran off with their laborers' pay. Abdul was one of many residents who were angry at the police. Elaborate fantasies about blowing up the Sahar Police Station had become the secret comfort of his nighttimes. But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together....Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, they improved their lot by beggaring the life chances of other people.

What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor looked down on one another, the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.

I think about my own home--on a quiet, older suburban street in Wichita, KS, in walking distance from our children's public schools and our church, in biking distance from my work at a small liberal arts college--and I reflect upon just how much social effort and investment, how much taxation and regulation, how much civil religion and traditional instruction, how much labor unrest and market response, and how many years of all of the above had to go into making the ordinary things I take for granted possible. Here, we have citizens who will call for ambulances and even attempt to help when they see someone hit by a car and dying in the street; police who respond to complaints and won't immediately ask for a bribe; schools where instruction of whatever quality actually takes place day after day; fathers who know that beating their wives and raping their daughters is immoral and wrong and may even (if prosecutors are doing their job!) send them to jail; jobs where employees have protection from arbitrary dismissal and receive a decent wage; city governments that will acknowledge that a backed up sewer is public health hazard and ought to be fixed; hospitals where trained care-givers have, at the very least, enough beds and drugs and needles to minimally do their work. And that realization leads me to reflect on how even just a slight fraying of the social fabric--through family breakdown, through the retreat from civic obligations, through the privatizing of public responsibilities (Boo writes trenchantly about how the wealthy of India had, throughout the boom years, "typically tried to work around a dysfunctional government" through setting up their own schools and security agencies, rather than improving the public safety net), and perhaps most of all through the government and corporate actions (and inactions) which leave people without any sustainable or dependable ground to build upon, and thus have no choice to flee, migrate, follow the whatever random winds of opportunity they think they see, even if it results them crowding their families into mostly hopeless slums--can start to unwind the many threads that make up the whole.

We're lucky people, the great majority of any of us who are reading this website--the ground on which the communities we are part of were built is, mostly, pretty solid. Not as solid as it might be, but far more solid than the sewage-infected ground of Annawadi. Boo did not write this book, I think, just to get her readers to think "there but for the grace of God go I"--but such is clearly one result of her writing, and it's not an unreasonable one. Those of us who have families and homes and neighborhoods and communities (local or national) where justice and freedom and virtue are, if not automatic, than at least genuinely available opportunities--as opposed to at-best random, unaccountable happenstances--need to keep in mind the enormous political, cultural, economic, and social work which has gone into distinguishing our fortunate environments from those of the Husains, and guard against letting our frustrations with the complexities of modernity lead us into picking apart the very ground our world is built upon.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Why Haven't I Seen The Hobbit Yet?

It's January 3, 2013, and I still haven't made it to the theater to see The Hobbit. Why not?

Party because of all the partially negative (or at least less-than-enthusiastic) reviews, I'm sure. But I'm an old and committed Tolkien geek, who tool Jackson's previous adaptions very seriously, even when I fully recognized all the ways they failed to work, even on their own terms as movies. Surely hang-ups with 48 fps cinematography isn't enough to dissuade me, is it?

Comments by other, certified fantasy geeks, like Alan Jacobs and Jacob T. Levy, cut closer to what is probably my main reluctance. Alan and Jacob expressing their criticisms (which are both reluctant, I should note; they both enjoyed themselves at the film) differently, but they ultimately point in the same direction: the transformation of the Thorin & Company into awesome, apparently unstoppable super-warriors or video-game characters, with the consequent diminishing of both the Gandalf-centric Important Stuff which Jackson has elected to lard these movies up with, and more importantly of Bilbo and his journey itself. That probably is the heart of it, there. Because, you see, I love Bilbo's story--and I mean its story, the way it's laid out in Tolkien's Hobbit, which I consider to be a tremendous children’s novel, really one of the very best of the genre. It's funny, exciting, surprising, dramatic, and filled with homespun wisdom--all of which is conveyed alongside hints of a deeper historical myth infecting the language and rhythm of the tale, but never stopping it from being what it is: one of the greatest works of youth fiction ever written.

The LOTR books were, by contrast, never really all that great as books. I mean, they included fantastic adventures and great scenes and powerful characterizations, but they weren’t primarily works of literature; they were works of world-creation, of myth-making. So while I think Jackson fundamentally misunderstood or rejected some of thematic basics of that myth in his cinematic adaptations of LOTR (primarily, making the overarching story more about Aragorn and the triumph of men rather than about Frodo and the end of an age), he couldn’t really do any harm to it, any more than the movie The Avengers can do any harm to the grand myths of Thor and Loki. And moreover, they brought much of it to brilliant visual life, and along the way elaborated upon or extended the myth in important ways (replacing Glorfindel with Arwen in their film adaption of Fellowship; building up an important dynamic between Aragorn, Eowyn, and Wormtongue in their adaption of The Two Towers; etc.). So even when the movies dragged (and heavens, did the adaption of Return of the King ever drag, until Jackson plugged the holes and polished it up in the extended edition), I still loved them, and saw them as a contribution to Tolkien's overall legendarium. But with this film adaption of The Hobbit, all I can see is a wonderful work of literature–a real and genuine story, not a myth but a novel–being blown up and transformed and hooked up to a myth it has no narrative business being a part of.

I’m sure I’ll eventually see the film–all three of them, in all likelihood!–and maybe I’ll repent of this judgment entirely. Maybe Jackson and Company pulled off some wonderful alchemy in making this film adaption. But from the trailers I’ve seen, the reviews I’ve read, and really all the news going all the way back to the earliest development of the movie, I just can’t shake the feeling the Jackson's Hobbit is just doing it all wrong. Whereas this adaption, I'm sure, got it right:

(Update, via Facebook: Jacob Levy pithily comments that "The Hobbit pays homage to Tolkien the myth-maker at the expense of Tolkien the storyteller." Well said.)