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Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Ten Best Movies I Saw in 2021

As always, these are my choices among all the movies I saw in 2021, not my choices among the all movies released in 2021.

Three of the films I'm ranking as among my ten best for this year are music documentaries constructed out of re-discovered and re-worked existing footage, and of those three, the purest example, the only that works best as a movie, is without a doubt Amazing Grace. Filmed by Sydney Pollack, this movie captured the live recording of Aretha Franklin's famed gospel album of the same name, January 13 and 14, 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The audio couldn't be synchronized with the visuals, so the tapes were left in a studio vault for 35 years, after which began a 10-year legal battle to get the finished film actually shown. The results are worth the wait. The movie has tremendous music; that's to be expected. Even greater is the fact that it ends up being a tremendous cultural and anthropological and historical document as well, capturing the intense, even pentecostal, spirituality which attended the heady alchemy of spirituals, soul music, and rhythm and blues which could be heard in Black churches throughout the early 1970s. The penultimate number from the second night, "Never Grow Old," shows a Franklin caught up in the spirit, one of the most moving visuals I've ever seen. A great, important film.

Attack the Block is a straight-up fight-the-aliens flick, and it's fabulous. Like all the best genre films of movies sort, it gives us short but persuasive introductions to all the main characters, then throws us directly into the action, which adheres to all sorts of predictable tropes--though giving them all sorts of new life while so doing--but also surprising us with a couple of clever (but not too clever) twists. By the time--less than 80 minutes in!--John Boyega's Moses makes his triumphant, death-risking dash into the aliens' den, you're cheering just like the crowds outside do. I hope the sequel they're talking about actually happens.

One of these years I'll have to break apart this list, and start distinguishing between "best movies" and "best multi-episode visual production," or some such thing (since calling them "television shows" or "miniseries" obviously doesn't work any more). But until then, I have to call The Beatles: Get Back, all nearly 8-hours of it, a movie, and it's an incredible one. No, I won't deny that it probably didn't need to be that long--but what would I have cut? It's hard to say; clearly the 60 hours of footage which Peter Jackson had to work with from the Beatles' original Let it Be sessions included a lot of dross, just random noodling around the studio, and yet setting up the wonderful music and insights of this film perhaps required giving us viewers as exhaustingly immersive an experience as possible. Anyway, more thoughts of mine here; the point is, this is a monument, worthy of the monumental band which it takes as its subject.

Bo Burnham: Inside  is the first video of any sort by Bo Burnham that I've ever seen; I totally missed his YouTube career, and haven't seen any of his comedy specials or any of the movies he has appeared in or made. So why did I watch this? Primarily because, during the summer, our younger daughters, both of whom had seen the movie, watched a long YouTube commentary on the film which they found kind of fascinating, and wanted to show it to me. So that I meant I had to watch the movie in order to watch the commentary, and so I did. And man, was this an eye-opener. There's a profound--if often inchoate--wisdom to Burnham's sometimes hilarious, sometimes kind of horrifying movie, casting already-exhasting topics like performativity and authenticity in the internet age into startlingly new (to me, anyway) contexts, and doing so with such a sharp musical sense.("Welcome to the Internet" is an evil masterpiece.) Weeks after watching it, I couldn't shake some of the questions it made me ask myself, and that's the sign of a great film. (Oh, and the YouTube commenting on the movie was pretty thoughtful too.)

I'm not sure what exactly led me to watch Douglas Sirk's 1959 Imitation of Life, but whatever or whomever it is or they are, I owe them a debt of thanks. Superficially it's a weepy melodrama, with lots of hammy acting and oppressive music cues. But if you're willing and able--as I fortunately was--to turn off the cynicism and just embrace this overripe story, it's actually immensely rich. It's the story of a bi-racial girl who reasonably sees sexual escape as her best route out of the second-class status forced upon her, no matter who it hurts, and of an honestly striving--though still oblivious--career woman who stands up for liberal truths but apparently had no idea her African-American maid had a rich life outside her orbit, and much more. It effectively wraps smart takes on race, art, culture, class, feminism, marriage, and more into its overwrought running time. I kept getting gobsmacked by the ridiculously unsubtle--but still perceptive--turns the script kept taking, one after another. Well worth it.

I'd heard much praise for the original Swedish Let the Right One In over the years; all I can say is that it's all deserved. Such a strange, creeping, compelling story of bleakness and the weird feelings of love and friendship and attachment which can emerge in the midst of such darkness nonetheless. There's all sorts of marvelous little details in this vampire story; many simply emphasize its omnipresent darkness (the fact that little Oskar is clearly a budding sociopath, surrounded by other fully developed sociopaths) but others surprisingly become a counterpoint to it (Virginia's suicide becomes, in retrospect, almost a hopeful sign of someone trying to hold to the light in the midst of a descent into banal horror). A solid, provocative, kind of lovely horror movie.

Minari is a glorious, humble ode to family and nature, though not, I think, in any kind of romantic way. The family in question is one of constant arguments and deep divides; the natural world is one whose bounty is only incidentally (and at the film's conclusion) shown to be given freely, otherwise being depicted as something that has to be wrested out of the ground with hard labor. Through it all, though, there are constant returns to quotidian decency: David and Anne writing notes, begging their parents to stop fighting; Soon-ja defending the children against unnecessary discipline and bonding with them over games of hanafuda; Paul as a strange kind of guardian angel, guiding the family, against their own expectations, to a spiritual connection with the land. It's a beautiful movie in every way.

Despite being, I think, more familiar with the history of pop music than the average radio-listener in America, I had never heard of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival before, and thus was like millions of others who, when this film was released, was in for a serious education. Summer of Soul really deserves the Get Back treatment; I could have watched nearly 8 hours of these lost performances from more than a half-century ago, and I hope the filmmakers eventually make available on dvd extended takes of these wonderful performances, from the more than 40 hours of footage which is apparently available. But for now, seeing these clips along with contemporary interviewers--for whatever it's worth, my favorite moments were the 5th Dimension (not milquetoast at all!) rocking "Age of Aquarius," and the Reverend Jesse Jackson (still very much the young civil rights radical, before age and ambition took its toll) leading everyone in prayer--made for marvelous viewing.

West Side Story was never my favorite Hollywood musical; while there were segments of the 1961 version that I still consider today probably the most powerful combinations of song, scenery, and dance that I've ever seen on film, over all the elements of the movies story which, in 2021, can't help, I think, but be received as both kind of racist and kind of ridiculous weighed it down. Spielberg's fabulous remake of West Side Story doesn't fix all of that; in some ways, the occasionally heavy-handed script which Kushner developed merely swapped one set of eye-rolling moments for another. But for all that: this is a terrific movie musical. "Dance at the Gym" had me dancing in my seat at the theater, the setting and performance of "One Hand, One Heart" was totally convincing, and giving "Somewhere" to Rita Morena was a genius decision. I was especially captivated by Ansel Elgort's Tony; he made the weakest part of the 1961 movie into, in my view, the strongest part of the 2021 version. So while some parts of this remake didn't fully work for me, those limitations can't stop this brilliantly visualized and executed cinematic creation from landing on my top ten list.

I can't imagine a more total inversion of Spielberg's approach to West Side Story--sumptuous and detailed and hyper-realistic--than Jacques Demy's delightfully bonkers Young Girls of Rochefort. This 1967 movie--a homage to the classic Hollywood movie musical style? or a parody of it? or both?--was simply outrageous in its stylized use of color and costuming, and its story was so crammed with campy musical conventions that it's kind of remarkable how Demy was able to orchestrate it all such that they weren't just crashing into each other.  A student of mine has been urging me to give Demy's films a look for months, and from other movies of his, I know he was capable of taking both a serious and surrealist approach. But Young Girls simply delighted me with its lightness (a pair of musically talented twins looking for love!), its ridiculous choreography (dancers selling Honda motorcycles!), and its total embrace of utterly stereotypical "Frenchness" (the sad older woman who left her lover--who pines for her still!--because he had a stupid name!). Demy understood something which, perhaps, Spielberg should have kept in mind; as great as his achievement with West Side Story was, musicals really kind of have to be a little campy, a little outrageous; you can't make it all grounded and "real." There's not a moment of reality in Young Girls, and dang it, that's what makes it great.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2021

As always, these are my choices among all the books I read in 2021, not my choices among the books published in 2021.

While I'm no scholar of St. Augustine, I've read a fair amount of his writings before, including the entirety of The City of God in graduate school. But I had never read Augustine's Confessions before, not as a complete book, and after spending a year and a half reading the Apostolic Fathers, the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, I decided this would be an appropriate text to finish up the year with. I'm glad I did. It is every bit as powerfully introspective as everyone has said it is for the last two millennia; Augustine's masterful language conveys an honest sense of struggle and doubt that has become an obvious model to millions. On a personal theological note, I appreciated the challenge which Confessions confronted me with. For decades, the understanding of the Christian message which has seemed most intuitively true to me has been that of Paul's Letter to the Romans, with its focus on sin and grace. Augustine's expression of that understanding--complete with notions like original sin--has thus been one I have long subscribed to, theologically if not confessionally. Yet in reading the complete Confessions, I was confronted with the fact that Augustine's absolutist logic cannot avoid leading one to accept that Christians should have no love for the world whatsoever, and that's not something I think I can accept. So Confessions made me want to go back to the scriptural texts, after reading nothing but canonical commentaries upon them for so long, and for that I'm grateful.

I've been a fan of Wendell Berry for years, and The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is in many ways an ur-text for all his subsequent writings. I assigned it in a political theory class this year for the first time in many years, and as I re-read it, it kept surprising me, making me wonder if I hadn't read the whole thing before, or if I'd just forgotten it entirely in the years since. In any case, while I would recommend any number of essays or poems or works of fiction by Berry before this book to those unfamiliar with his agrarian arguments, I would nonetheless point every fan of Berry back to it, at one point or another, as a summation that they must struggle with. And it is a struggle! This passionate condemnation of the whole network of economic, cultural, and educational systems which have transformed the work of farming and, really, all of humankind's relationship with our natural environment is a profoundly radical statement, but also the expression of a deeply particular and in many ways cranky worldview--his weaving together of ecological concerns with racial and sexual ones is provocative, but also pretty disconcerting to readers today. But that's Berry, I think; you have to take him whole, if you take him at all.

I'd never read any Octavia Butler before, and so this past summer I decided to rectify that with her "Parable" series. Parable of the Sower is a powerful, enveloping near-future story; really, it's barely science fiction at all, given how intuitively plausible the environmental breakdown, governmental collapse, religious authoritarianism, and economic dislocation it describes is to us today. That it's a deeply painful read goes without saying; the voice Butler gave to Lauren Oya Olamina, through whom we see the deaths of family, friends, and random others, not to mention the collapse of one plan after another, is tremendous. But I have to put Parable of the Talents even above that; in this book, Butler invented and brought together other voices, including ones from the more distant future, all representing figures from Lauren's grand project--several of whom pointedly despise everything about Lauren's "Earthseed" vision--and through whom we gain a deeply nuanced, sad, and yet still resolute vision of what it means for human beings to move forward, past our own worst tendencies. A great, great book.

I've read both of Matthew Crawford's previous books, and found them both to be provocative and insightful in equal measure. Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road fits that description as well, with the added challenge of being the book which reveals (probably unintentionally, though Crawford is such a meandering and disorganized writer--something he cops to in the introduction to this book--it's hard to know sure) much about Crawford's own character, and I'm not sure how much of that character I actually like. Crawford, like Wendell Berry, a crank, though not an agrarian one. Instead, Crawford is a gear-head, a lover of speed and of making machines with his hands, and he has the philosophical chops to dig into what it means, as a matter of both economy and culture, to push against massification and homogenization in this age of late capitalism, and instead celebrate local communities and individual creator. This celebration, however, invariably involves Crawford praising of those who achieve mastery and pull themselves up by their bootstraps; while by no means a sophomoric libertarian thinker, Crawford, at least in this book, cannot help, I think, but discomfort his liberal readers by laying out, without condemnation, the emergence of hierarchical structures--including occasionally deeply sexist ones--within those worlds of work which are simultaneously sites of resistance to concentrated socio-economic power. This isn't a gaslighting book; multiple times in the book, Crawford takes the time to emphasize how the mentalities he is (rightly, as an independent creator) somewhat suspicious of are nonetheless unambiguous goods, pointing to the lives of mentally and physically handicapped friends which have been made much better by government regulation and the evolution of social norms. It's a tribute to Crawford's writing that he can walk that line as well as he does.

I picked up On Juneteenth, a short book of essays by this historian Annette Gordon-Reed, thinking it would be interesting to learn a little about the history of the holiday. I ended up learning a huge amount, with the title essay, "On Juneteenth," actually being one of the lesser contributions to the book, though quite brilliant on its own. Overall, though, what fascinated me so much about this book was Gordon-Reed's voice, speaking as one of America's foremost historians but also as an African-American woman, born in 1950s Texas, who has never lost her love for and her fascination with her own state. This was a book that I immediately recommended to Texan friends of mine, because it helped me see--through Gordon-Reed's thoughtful reflections on everything from the role of Native Americans in the slave trade to the integrative role played by the movie "Billy Jack" in the consciousness of her generation--just how it is that Texans can have such a passionate attachment to their own culture. This is a Harvard professor who adores Six Flags Over Texas, who has deeply complicated memories of how other Black families treated hers once her parents pushed her to attend an integrated elementary school, who can remember her favorite soda pop on hot Texas nights. Sometimes you read something that opens you up to a world you'd never thought about before; this book that for me.

I was aware of Gracy Olmstead's writing from various publications, but I didn't know what to expect from her memoir of the small southwest Idaho town she grew up in; to be honest, I was probably disposed to be critical of it, thinking that it might be re-hashed localist stuff without much wrestling with the deeper issues environmental and personal issues which a story like hers would have to involve. Suffice to say, I was wrong. Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind is a marvelous book, deserving of a place on the shelf with the best, most thoughtful and touching localist writing out there. I wrote at length about the book already, so just read this here if you want to know more; or better, just read the book.

I picked up a copy of Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time at a conference this summer, where attendance was small and the pickings at the book fair even smaller. But I needed a book to read on the flight home (which ended up being a ridiculous mess all on its own), and when I saw this book I remembered hearing good things about it. Reflecting that I hadn't read a solid, stand-alone 20th-century history book in some time, I picked up. Really, that was the best decision I made that whole trip. Katznelson's thesis is straightforward: the modern bureaucratic and democratic welfare state which the combination of the New Deal and World War II built in America emerged the way it did entirely due to conflict with, negotiation with, and often acquiescence to, multiple totalitarian pressures: Germany and the Soviet Union, most obviously, but also Italy (I had no idea just how extensive and complicated were the connections between Italy's fascist government and different segments of America's society in the 1920s and early 1930s, but Katznelson has the receipts), and then, crucial, the white supremacist American South, whose determination to protect their racist culture had far reaching consequences not just for the construction of social policy in the United States, but even foreign policy as well. By looking closely at congressional hearings and committee votes, Katznelson built an argument that I found entirely persuasive, one with major implications for how one thinks about 20th-century American history.

I've been both informed and inspired by Charles Marohn's Strong Towns movement for years, and his most recent book, Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, only furthered that opinion. Early in 2020, I'd hoped to be able to bring Marohn back to Wichita to speak at Friends University; thanks to the pandemic, that was delayed by more than a year, finally taking place last October. Many conversations--and ideally, actual action, as opposed to just talk!--that I hope will progress further from that conference are still in development; in the meantime, you can read my thoughts on Marohn's deeply practical but also theoretically wise argument for reclaiming control of our roads from the "infrastructure cult" here.


I came late to the work of Terry Pratchett, whose writing never fails to make me smile. Sometimes the man took so much pleasure from setting plates a spinning in his books that he left aside anything like a compelling plot, in favor of just writing paragraph after paragraph of ridiculous stuff. I can't say that Raising Steam is entirely free of that tendency, but after having discovered his marvelous character Moist von Lipwig last year, I was determined to check off all his subsequent appearances in Pratchett's oeuvre, and I'm glad I did. Making Money was a charming book, a worthy successor to Going Postal, but I have to highlight Raising Steam because it actually put all those spinning plates to work. This predictably hilarious story of locomotives coming to Discworld manages to also incorporate all sorts of reflections of urbanism, capitalism, immigration, racial and religious diversity, community traditions, and all sorts of other things which technological change invariably upends. So yes, a fun Discworld novel, but also maybe something a little bit more.

I read Erik Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias ten years ago, and I've never read since any work of socialist or radical theory that was equal to its detail, complicated, demanding, but deeply clarifying perspective on what it means to challenge the capitalist. How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st-Century is a comparatively much less detailed and demanding, but no less clarifying, restatement of Wright's ideas, completed shortly before his death in early 2019. Wright's ideas emerged from the analytical Marxist tradition, so the much more anarchist/localist character of my own socialist sympathies were definitely not his own. Yet Wright nonetheless provided me, both in this book and in his earlier writings, a rigorously sociological language by which I could articulate and thus feel that more confident in my own most fundamental egalitarian belief: that resistance to capitalist inequalities will be best realized, not through revolutionary parties and movements, but through the communities and neighborhoods and communes which arise "interstitially" within civil society. As the broader political systems around us become ever more dysfunctional, that's an important lesson to keep in mind.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Place (and Place-ness) of Occupy, Ten Years On

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Before 2021 comes to a close, let's remember the many tributes, found in many year-end wrap-ups written just about exactly ten years ago (including one of my own), to the tens of thousands of people across our country, and the tens of millions of people around the world, who stood up in 2011, and fought for their local communities, and strove to reclaim their cultural strength against oppressive elites. I am, of course, talking about Occupy.

Obviously, not many people talked about Occupy--whether we mean Occupy Wall Street or any of its other many incarnations--that way, either at the time or since, whether they be those who were directly involved or those who merely cheered them or castigated them from the sidelines. With their their class-based talk of the "99%" challenging the "1%," and their attacks on everything from oppressive student loans to growing wage gaps to spiraling health care costs, it was easy to assume that Occupy--in the United States at least--reflected the complaints of underemployed college grads with progressive politics, and nothing more. True, some people recognized that its radicalism was broader, more cultural and communal, than that--Jedidiah Purdy, for one, argued that OWS provided conservative as well as liberal, socialist, and anarchic lessons for us all, one of which ("It is sometimes necessary and appropriate to appeal to...[the] sentimental ties that join individuals in group") I think sums up what happened in Zuccoti Park in New York City from September to November of 2011 as well as anything written about it since. What, after all, held together the people drawn to those protests, and inspired them to built those makeshift communities, more than the stories and testimonies which those suffering through the Great Recession stood up to share?

Most, however, look back upon the Occupy movement as a failure, a perhaps inevitable and in any case an embarrassing one. The essayist Freddie deBoer recently summed up the results of Occupy pithily, claiming that, given the apparent absence of attacks upon the power of capital in progressive circles today (I say "apparent" because deBoer--a wonderful writer but not, I think, at his best here--appears to base his judgment perhaps too much on that which he sees posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), one must conclude that OWS's failure is "almost complete." Even those deeply sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street's general aims--specifically, challenging the financial and social power of the 1%--see it as having been a "leaderless, ultimately structureless collection of people," unfortunately reflecting the tendency of those on the left to engage in "mindless repetition" and talk in circles in an "outwardly incomprehensible loop." Those inclined to rant about the undeniably jargony woke-speech of many of those concerned with social justice today can easily connect the dots.

But such connections would miss the real point of Occupy, I think, and the real reason its messy provocations and demands have nonetheless continued to reverberate and recur within American discourse, shaping the way many of us think about economic equality and its disruptive effects. That lesson is contained less in what the protesters said, much less how they said, and rather in what they did: they occupied. Meaning that their argument about the oppressive power over our lives, our family finances, our economic plans, and our communities' fiscal integrity which the 1% wields was literally grounded in a claim to a space. A public space, wherein human beings can and should be able to democratically, deliberately, determine the risks and rewards of their collective choices. An inhabited space, wherein those who make their homes and contribute to their cultures and simply live can act with the sort of freedom that not being subject to what Thomas Jefferson derisively called (in a recreation of a historically unsubstantiated but intellectually truthful dinner conversation) the "moneyed interest" and "New York stock-jobbers" allows. A space wherein one can insist that the laws of the market (especially as mastered by those whose wealth and advantages enable them to) are not, as Wendell Berry has insisted, "inevitable." To claim such a space, and to occupy it in the face of the (elitely developed) rules which claim that the people, gathered together, simply cannot, should not, must not, act or organize or vote in certain ways, is and has been central to the arguments against finance capitalism which millions concerned about preserving their places and their choices in this world have made ever since the Industrial Revolution, if not earlier.

The centrality of occupying a space was key to the 19th-century Populist movement, for example, though it was rarely articulated as such. After all, the whole point of organizing at community granges in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa, and Texas to challenge the power of the railroads was exactly because this alliance of farmers and ranchers and homesteaders wanted to defend the communities and the ways of life which had developed in those places, communities and ways of life that were being driven to ruin by manipulative railroad shipping rates and punitive lending and mortgage practices. They wanted their families and their children's families to be able endure in place, and they knew that collectively fighting on behalf of the integrity of their places, rather than giving in to an individualizing acceptance of the undemocratic, unaccountable, why-don't-you-just-sell-out-and-invest-in-stocks-instead-marketplace, was their only option. Such a fight would be inconceivable without a sense of place-ness. The better observers realized this parallel at the time, seeing in Occupy Wall Street in 2011 a model for a twenty-first-century, "open-source populism," with the places where we stand and build lives for ourselves being much more inclusive and interdependent than was the case in the 1890s or 1930s, but nonetheless playing the same conceptual role of pointing us towards that which we want to conserve in the face of the atomizing effects of concentrated capital. While the ideologies and trajectories followed by other instances of populist occupation--including everything from the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle to the water protectors at Standing Rock to the Little Mountain Cohousing village in Vancouver to the Solidarity House Cooperative in Laramie--their commonalities remain: people inhabit places, and so fighting on behalf of the democratic treatment of people must, or at least should, incorporate a defense of a place, whether literal or metaphorical or both.

This is what Occupy Wall Street did: it made its rejection of financial rules visible and present in a particular location, and proceeded to speak and act and protest against all the ways in which economic oppression disrupts the freedom of people in their places by making that location into a human space--complete with publications and libraries and all sorts of other things which humans do. Still, the embodiment of a defense of the ability of people to freely build and securely maintain their neighborhoods, communities, and ways of life--in other words, their places--in the actual establishment of a place itself, however audacious and authentic and influential such an action may be, doesn't lend itself to specific, programmatic plans of political action, any more than the neighborhood or community which anyone reading this lives in itself manifests a ready-made set of talking points or calls for legislation. That's just not the way human spaces work. And so, of course, in terms of a direct legislative and organizational consequences, Occupy comes up short.

It was perhaps this utopian populist element of Occupy--the insistence that in these places, these people possess the sovereign power (or at least ought to) to determine for themselves how to live--that made it less than entirely admirable to some leftist and localists who either opposed it or thought it silly and inconsequential. For Michael Walzer, the long-time editor of Dissent and one of the most perceptive and respected voices on the American left, the Occupy movement was "heartening" but nonetheless primitive; the point of such movements, in his view, is to establish not a place but rather "a presence on the actual ground of democratic politics--where parties are organized and elections fought." The aim that is, according to him, is not to occupy any real or conceptual territory, but to win that territory over to one's side, which means specifically "to force a political party to adopt [one's] program." (The fact that Walzer was, at best, only grumpily tolerant of the enthusiasm which greeted Bernie Sanders's own Jeffersonian and populist form of democratic socialism is, perhaps, revealing here.) Obviously, there is much truth here. Walzer, like just about everyone else deeply committed to a point a view in our democratic society--whether it be anti-tax libertarianism or democratic socialism or Christian integralism--wants to see that view itself established as a matter of law and policy and culture, and not merely as a organizing premise for families or neighborhoods or churches to make use of. This is, of course, a desire complicated by the realities of federalism and the many different, subsidiarian ways in which identities are articulated and authority distributed in our country, to say nothing of others. But it is also complicated by Walzer's own deep belief in the necessity of starting with local, particular places.

Geoffrey Kurtz, a political theorist and scholar of Walzer's thought, has written essays which explore this dynamic indirectly. While never mentioning Occupy Wall Street or Walzer's comments upon it, Kurtz observes that Walzer's ideas have long exhibited, to a sometimes greater and sometimes lesser degree, a tension regarding the experience of belonging. He agrees with other scholars that Walzer's political philosophy is one which takes seriously the proposition that human beings construct and dwell within "moral worlds that contain the resources necessary for their improvement," meaning that visions of more egalitarian, more fair, more free and just arrangements of the power otherwise claimed by the economic elite should not be top-down, all-or-nothing impositions. Rather, Walzer's is a "decentralized democratic socialism," strongly opposed to the administrative state, and thus one which "conveys the possibility of a socialist politics that does not worship progress and innovation." But why then would Walzer not be an enthusiast for similar municipalist experiments around the world, for what his own journal labeled "experimental utopias," which OWS was clearly an early, and perhaps incoherent, but nonetheless fully intentional example of?

Kurtz provides no direct answer--but he does suggest that Walzer is perhaps dispositionally "uninterested in understanding the core of that which he wants to conserve." In an unpublished paper of his, Kurtz digs even deeper into Walzer's oeuvre, insightfully pointing out the ways in which Walzer, a secular Jew, nonetheless implicitly acknowledges that "the mutual recognition of persons depends on a mystery," one that Walzer himself is disinclined to explore or see fully committed to by any of the hypothetical socialist citizens he invokes, all while admitting that those mysteries of belief and identification and attachment "can be the moral basis for a political commitment in the sense that it orients and sustains those who recognize it." While this is admittedly a large interpretive leap, I think that Kurtz can help us understand why it is, then, that even some of those whose particular socialist politics ought to align them strongly with the sentimental and local and communal form which Occupy's protest against economic exploitation took, saw it nonetheless as an impressive yet fundamentally childish step, rather than a model to be embraced. To put it crudely, and probably a little unfairly, but perhaps nonetheless accurately: such thinkers probably aren't believers…while holding up a sign, sitting at a lunch counter, sticking a flower in a gun, setting up a tent, and occupying a space in the face state and corporate power is an act of utopian belief and faith. A belief, to go back to Berry's insight above, that something may not be--and should not be accepted as being--an economic, and therefore social, inevitability.

In reference to the aforementioned "experimental utopias," perhaps the best comparison with Walzer's--perhaps limited but still clearly wise--approach to conceiving of a more egalitarian politics is the arguments of Murray Bookchin. The contributions of Bookchin and Walzer (left and right in this photo) occupy very different corners of the radical democratic quadrant of American thought, despite many similarities--their concern for pluralism, their respect for communities, and their suspicion of efforts to take the struggle against capitalism out of the hands of ordinary people. Bookchin, who would have been 100 years old this year, was of a different generation and orientation than Walzer. Whereas the latter made his mark primarily in the post-Vietnam era of Ronald Reagan, fighting within the Democratic party for what the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, Michael Harrington, called "the left wing of the possible," the former's fights on behalf of what he came to call "social ecology" and "communalism" were fought outside of either of the dominant political parties in America, both of which were transforming throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the individualist, environmentalist, and technological waves which washed away the statist, post-WWII New Deal consensus began to emerge. Fundamentally, though, the key difference may simply be that Walzer, in the wake of those waves, has long insisted that taking the energy they unleashed and using them to build political agendas and structures is the only radical politics worthy of the name. Anything other than that, however deeply felt and expressed, is mere play-acting.

That warning should never be entirely dismissed by those who believe another world is possible; as any reader of the Epistle of James can tell you, belief needs organization and structure to bring possibilities about. But that belief, that confidence in anarchic actions and democratic demands and communal alternatives, must come first. And moreover, as Doug Henwood observes in his own conflicted-yet-deeply-appreciative recollections of OWS, anarchic actions, properly understood, do (or at least can) have a structure to them, and need not be nearly so disconnected by constant discussion from concrete action as Occupy and other utopian experiments have stereotypically been seen to be. Bookchin's insights into how people can truly, freely--while still methodically!--make the places they occupy into transformative spaces is one that needs to be remembered by localists and radicals and everyone who cares about the common good today, 10 years on. As one activist put it, invoking Bookchin's faith in ecologically conscious communities which reject the supply chains of global capital, the legacy of Occupy Wall Street was "something that touches our deepest spiritual yearning," in a very un-Walzerian sense; "its practice says: 'We will no longer live in hatred and competition. We will live in love and community.'" In our deeply divided current moment, is there any better model to carry into our (hopefully) increasingly local-community-focused, (hopefully) increasingly egalitarian, (hopefully) increasingly small-d democratic future? I think not.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The Osmonds' Christmas, and Ours

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The Osmond Christmas Album came out 45 years ago today, on December 18, 1976. I'm talking the original double-LP, of course, not the corrupt CD version which cut all of Merrill's and Jimmy's songs and was released 15 years later. For American Mormons of a certain age, the original--all 20 tracks of it--was an essential part of the holiday canon. It generated intense discussions of Mormon-specific trivia (was Donny singing to his then-girlfriend Debbie on "This Christmas Eve"?), gave rise to heated debates about family rules (surely, because it was the Osmonds and it was the holidays, we could play "Sleigh Ride" on Sundays, couldn't we?), and required parental intervention as arguments broke out over who was better at picking up and dropping the needle without scratching the vinyl when it came to skipping over "If Santa Were My Daddy" (which, of course, everyone did). Anyway, listen to the full thing here, if you feel so inclined (I have the original recorded onto a cassette tape--which, miraculously, I think 33 years on, still plays). Or watch the 1976 special, broadcast the day before the album was released. Man, Paul Lynde wasn't remotely Mormon, but I think he kind of loved my tribe, nonetheless.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Getting Get Back

I spent a good chunk of Thanksgiving weekend watching Peter Jackson's superb and somewhat overwhelming Get Back, along with--according to my students anyway--most of the white dads in America. Maybe so. I'm a Beatles fan, but not a Beatles fanatic, so I'm not going to pretend that I found every moment of it's nearly 8 hours of running time transcendent; there's an awful lot of pointless noodling around the studio and interminable bickering over the mics in its three episodes. Still, the transcendent moments were there, as we watch these awesomely talented people deal with time's passage and frustrating miscommunications and other people and a general lack of direction, and still nonetheless generate brilliance, sometimes through serendipity and sometimes through plain head-banging hard work. Here's a few reflections:

The Women: I think it was Rob Sheffield in his wonderful Dreaming the Beatles (which I reviewed here) who observed--as I'm sure thousands of other Beatles fans have, but I think it was he who called it to my attention--that John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared, among many other things, a genuinely remarkable and unusual connection to their chosen life partners, Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman. What other pop and rock performers of remotely their caliber, and especially male performers of their misogynistic 1960s era (and while neither Paul nor John were apparently the sexist monsters many other rock titans were, between Paul's relationship with Jane Asher and John's relationship with May Pang, neither did either man have any feminist cred to be proud of) might have ever considered forming bands with and recording albums with their wives? Yet they both went on to do just that, multiple times. The almost childlike devotion these two men in their 20s had to these women they'd fallen in love with--or at least the devotion visible on camera in January 1969--was profound, and it's constantly present in Get Back, between John and Yoko in particular. We see her sitting beside John for hours, day after day, knitting or providing a shoulder for him to lean on (or fall asleep upon) as the sessions go on and on, with her watching everyone, sometimes curiously, sometimes disapprovingly. Then in the third episode, the touchy-feely-kissy giddiness of John and Yoko, when they learn her divorce is final, is somewhere between delightful and downright embarrassing. Paul, for his part, becomes much less of half-desperate, half-annoyed songwriting machine and more of a joking, laughing music-maker when Linda, with her daughter Heather, shows up. I wish the mics which the filmmakers had hidden everywhere had managed to pick up Yoko and Linda's conversations, which you see continuing on and off throughout the whole series; their discussions are animated, and sometimes appear either intense or hilarious: what jokes or criticisms or hopes or fears about their partners and children and careers were they sharing? There are other women who intrude upon the Beatles sanctum--we see Pattie Boyd and Maureen Cox, and of course the omnipresent "Apple scruffs," the condescending name for the female groupies who were forever crowding around the studio, mostly hoping for a glimpse of Paul--but these two, on my viewing at least, are the background characters whom much of the action nonetheless revolves around, whether anyone realizes it or not.

The Quiet One: If there is any overall story to Get Back, it is clearly the story of George Harrison, who comes into the studio on day one with the outline of a couple of songs--"I Me Mine" and the future classic "All Things Must Pass"--to share, and who gets essentially no support for them from any of his bandmates. In the beginning he is vocal with his opinions and animated in expressing them, but over the first episode you see him get beat down again and again as the John and Paul show--which mainly consists of Paul insisting that they need a schedule, since John half the time withdraws into Yoko's perpetual silence--and their songs dominate the proceedings. You can't help but root for the man, and I say this as someone who has become less of a George fan over the years; his songwriting chops were strong, his guitar playing superb, and his overall musicianship simply brilliant, and yet for all that, the tendency by some (I having at one time been one of them) to present his contributions to the miracle that was the Beatles as greater than those of the Lennon-McCartney juggernaut is simply silly. But perhaps the fact that he was a mere demigod playing lead guitar for a couple of Olympians only makes it more poignant. Ringo Starr was--and still is--an excellent and instinctive drummer, but he knew the pecking order, and was at peace with it (at one point during Get Back you see him just standing, smiling in delight, as Paul plays the piano; "I could stand and listen to him play for an hour" he confesses to the camera). George was looking for more, and was determined to find it, whether outside the band (which he quits at the end of the first episode, only the rejoin by the second) or inside it. Batting away the talk of extravagant productions in Tripoli or unseemly charity shows in hospitals, he focuses on changing the band; at different times, he encourages his bandmates to invite Eric Clapton to join them, or even Bob Dylan. When the keyboardist Billy Preston, who was just visiting the studio, is dragooned into the recording session, George is his greatest champion, insisting that he's providing exactly what they need, trading riffs with Preston as they hammer Paul's composition "Get Back"--which Paul had knocked around ad nauseam over the previous two weeks--into its gorgeous, final shape. And George is doing that constantly, always looking to jump in and add something--perhaps for self-interested reasons, but perhaps not? His walking over to Ringo as he was happily plunking out a silly ditty he'd come up with about an "Octopus Garden," and proceeding to try out chords to build up Ringo's tune into a song, is pure George: quietly serving the music, by insisting upon his contribution to it.

The Duo: In the end though, it all comes back to the two friends who bonded over Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, and all the liberation which early American rock and roll provided to a couple of teen-agers from Liverpool in the mid-1950s. Paul admits (though only privately to John) that he'd ignored George, and is sorry about it, and he regularly tosses Ringo compliments as he does his solid drummer-for-the-Beatles job. But ultimately, it is John that Paul is most clearly focused on trying to get engaged and inspired. And rightly so, because when John does occasionally emerge from Yoko's shadow or his own weariness and get fired up by the music, the man is brilliant, wickedly funny, and a fierce guitar player. As Alan Jacobs observed, when John emerges from his shell, it's like a musical flood: suddenly he and Paul are back in their bedrooms, trading riffs, singing snatches of show tunes and dance hall music, the sort of songs which Paul's family delighted in and loved to sing (and curiously enough, the same sort of songs which, at a different time, John--who was always changeable and rarely dependable--once dismissed as "Paul's granny shit"). The album which ultimately emerged from the Get Back sessions, Let it Be, is characteristically filled with top-flight pop music, but none of those songs, I think, captured what the Beatles were, and by January 1969 could still sometimes manage to become, than "One After 909," a blusey number that John and Paul had written a decade or more before, back when railroad cars and America and stardom were all delightful fantasies of the future for them. Seeing them cut loose with this number during the rooftop concert at the end of Get Back, rocking back and forth on their feet, their heads bopping and hair flying, and I, at least, couldn't help but think to myself: oh yeah, that--that energy, that rhythm, that joy--is what Beatlemania was really all about. It probably couldn't have lasted in that form for long anyway, and Macca himself has carried one version or another of it forward for more than a half-century beyond the tortured efforts to hold it together revealed in this wonderful documentary. But I appreciate the deep dive this series provided, into both the technical work and the revealed motivations which attended two titanic figures in the history of popular music. If nothing else, Jackson has made Lennon's final lines--"I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we passed the audition"--less of a snark, and more of a meaningful coda, than I'd ever heard them to before.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Test Results (the Annoyingly Regular Crow-Eating Post)

So, nearly everything I suggested was likely yesterday was proven wrong by late last night. So the Political Science 101 model failed the test, right?

Yes and no. Clearly, it shows how your basic ground-level politicking--the face-time and the hand-shaking, the knocking of doors and the hanging of literature on door handles--can overcome real disparities in paid advertising, when it comes to low-turnout elections where name recognition is paramount. Both Maggie Ballard--the winner over incumbent Cindy Claycomb in District 6--and Mike Hoheisel--the likely winner over incumbent Jared Cerullo in District 3--outperformed those incumbents in the even lower-turnout primary elections in August, so the evidence of their ground-level game was manifest. I simply assumed--as the model does--that when it came to the general election, absent major new voter activization (which the model, and I, mostly associate with media expenditures, since the one-on-one, doorstop activization of irregular voters is, while obviously effective, also very time consuming and very difficult to scale up), those primary accomplishments would be unlikely to indicate success against the advantages of incumbency. That was wrong, and clearly the people around Ballard and Hoheisel (and Mayor Brandon Whipple, who strongly backed both) knew better than what I took Political Science 101 to be teaching. The Hoheisel win, which isn't certain and will be razor-thin regardless, in a very unengaged district and in the face of an incumbent who was essentially still a newcomer to Wichita city politics, was always going to be more likely, and I said so yesterday. But Ballard's triumph, especially once the major motivator of Claycomb's uneven record on a non-discrimination ordinance was resolved in favor of a vote which many in the fairly progressive District 6 wanted, and especially in the face of Claycomb's major media purchases, really was unexpected--as unexpected, according to Political Science 101, as Mayor Whipple's victory in 2019, in fact. So hey, bad for the model, and bad for us to relied too much upon it.

As for the school board elections, there I will not the fault the model, but rather my own application of it. In retrospect, it's pretty clear that, despite my assumption about the levels of name recognition for all four incumbents (based mainly upon advertising paid for by outside Democratic groups which lumped them all together), in fact only one of the incumbents, Julie Hendrick, had sufficient levels of acknowledgment for herself as candidate to withstand the concerted efforts by the GOP to sweep the incumbents out. I knew one of the incumbents, Mia Turner, quite likely would not have been able to build such supportive local associations since her appointment to the seat, but I failed to note Rosales's contentious record in office (and how much the entrance of Holly Terrill, a progressive friend of the winning city council Democrats, into the race would essentially keep that contention information in voters minds, thus lessening and splitting his support), and I simply didn't take seriously enough the efforts of local Republicans to target Ben Blankley specifically. In the end I was quite surprised, but I'm not sure someone who kept a closer eye on the histories and trajectories of each of these candidates would have applied the model as poorly as I did.

In short, yes, the Political Science 101 model can and, in this case, did fail (partly). But I'm also a bad political scientist. Thank goodness I can use my training as a political theorist as an excuse.

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

A Local Test

Let us assume that the local elections in Wichita today represent a test of basic Political Science 101. Probably a bad assumption, and one that would therefore lead me to make some bad predictions, but then my record for accurate electoral predictions is mostly abysmal anyway.

So today there three seats on the Wichita City Council and four seats on the Wichita School Board up for grabs. All seven seats are currently occupied by incumbents running for re-election. While there have been positive signs for turn-out, both nation-wide and locally, over the past three elections (2018, 2019, and 2020--very positive for that last one), I don't see any evidence which convinces me that this off-year, non-mayoral, municipal election will see anything better than an extreme small voter turn-out. That means the advantages of incumbency, primarily name recognition, will be paramount. Thus Political Science 101 says that, all things being equal, all seven incumbents will be re-elected.

What are the variables which might challenge that conclusion? When it comes to the school board races in the state of Kansas, as Sharon Iorio has observed, we have seen national PACs, supported by the state and county Republican parties, providing organizational and financial assistance to slates of nominally (but not actually) non-partisan candidates, mostly campaigning on the mostly fictitious threat of critical race theory being taught in the public schools. Has that political and monetary support made a difference--that is, has it activated enough less-engaged Republican voters to boost turn-out in favor of those challenging the incumbents? Especially given that at least one Democratic-leaning PAC in Kansas became alarmed and jumped into the advertising game in support of the incumbents fairly late in the cycle? 

In the absence of polling, it's impossible to give a strict Political Science 101 prediction. But going solely off visible advertising, social media presence, and traditional media coverage, my bet is that, with one exception, it wasn't enough. That one exception would be Mia Turner, who doesn't enjoy the full benefits of incumbency; she was appointed to her position last March to fill the vacancy left after Mike Roadee resigned (partly due to his frustration with USD 259's support of a non-discrimination policy focused on LGBTQ students). Without the name recognition which comes from having won an election, as well as being based in District 5, a fairly conservative part of Wichita with a small non-Caucasian population (Turner is African-American), all means that she may not have the intense local networks which can informally activate voters. Is she likely to benefit from the aforementioned Democratic advertising? Of course. But will it be enough? Another impossible question. I would bet, though, that if any of the incumbent school board members running for re-election lose out to their challengers (Turner's is Kathy Bond), it might be her.

How about the Wichita City Council races? In the case of District 1's Brandon Johnson, given his strong name recognition, his ten-to-one fundraising advantage over his opponent, and the intense networks he has built throughout northeast Wichita since his years as a community activist, I'd say that there is a greater likelihood of Johnson being incinerated by a space laser today than him losing. In the case of District 6's Cindy Claycomb, her challenger, Maggie Ballard, has a genuinely meaningful (at least in the sense of being capable of actually activating voters and changing votes) electoral argument against her, especially in the progressive--and highly motivated--Riverside neighborhood in her district. But with Claycomb's eventual support of the city-wide non-discrimination ordinance (thus undermining one part of the argument against her), with her tremendous fundraising and advertising advantage (see here), and with her long-time connections to established moderates and liberals throughout her district, Political Science 101 says that, however impressive Ballard's door-knocking ground-game may be, Claycomb will still emerge on top.

Will District 3's Jared Cerullo fare any different? Like Mia Turner in the school board races, Cerullo wasn't elected to his position; he was appointed to fill the vacancy left by James Clendenin when he resigned in disgrace, and that appointment came after a long, divisive, party-line process. For that reason, and also due to the fact that Cerullo found himself attacked by both Republicans and Democrats in his district for different reasons during the contentious debate over the non-discrimination ordinance, it's possible that Cerullo has lost potential votes of support from out of his district, and the ensuing party networks and social infrastructure those voters might have brought along with them. Enough to give his challenger, Mike Hoheisel, a shot of ousting the incumbent? Especially given the fact that District 3 has by far the lowest regular voter turnout of any district, meaning that the winner of this race may well do so by dozens of votes, Political Science 101 says that if anyone were to bet on any of the city council challengers, Hoheisel would be the one.

Results will start coming in at 7pm; guess I'll log on to see how wrong I am then. [Crow-eating addendum here.]

Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Tale of Two (Actually One and One-Half) Dunes

Why only two (or one and one-half, since Villeneuve's Dune is explicitly presented as the first to two parts)? Shouldn't I include Frank Herbert's original book in the comparison? Others might choose to do that, but I don't. Not because I haven't read it; I did...37 years ago or so. While I've never forgotten the basics of the story and have attended to its evolution through other novels over the years, I've never returned to the original book itself in all the decades since. (Oh, and what about the Sci Fi Channel mini-series? Sorry, never saw it.)

Unlike millions of other nerds, Herbert's Dune and its attendant mythology, despite its sweep and majesty and fascinating detail, never became a Bible for me, never was something that took up permanent residency in my imagination, never inspired me to return to it against and again, as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the original series of "Star Trek," or more recently the Harry Potter books all did. While I would never deny the book's significance or power, it's secondary to me: despite having digested a lot of classic sci-fi in my early years (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke--you know, the Trinity), it's possible I might never had read Herbert if it wasn't for lining dutifully up in the winter of 1984 and catching David Lynch's beautiful, phantasmagorical mess of a movie. I approached the books with Lynch's movie as my point of reference, and the same thing happened last night, as I sat with friends taking in Denis Villeneuve's wonderful adaptation on an IMAX screen. So my tale most fundamentally isn't really about the book, much less Herbert's larger mythos; it is rather a tale two films, one which is nearly 40 years old, and one that is only halfway done. Seems somewhat unfair to slap them together, but what else is blogging for?

So, to get the main point out of the way: the Dune of 2021 is a fantastic, visually stunning movie. It tells the first part of Paul Atreides journey well, none of the performances were worse the adequate and some were kind of revelatory, and there are some scenes which are just amazingly gorgeous. (The brief, long-range view we have of the ornithopters flying over the landscape of Arrakis in the scene where Duke Leto and his party go to investigate the spice harves had me just shaking my head in amazement.) The film moves at a stately pace, but it's never sluggish, or so I thought; there were only a couple of points during its 2 1/2-hour running time where I felt the momentum of the film kind of drain away (they really didn't need the sand storm at all, or at least not several minutes of it). Whereas pacing is what truly, above and beyond any complaints (many of which I think are unfair) about over-acting or cheap special effects, is what prevents the Dune of 1984 from being an actually good movie. Yes, Lynch faced all sorts of studio interference, but in the end he signed off on a three-hour script and film, which then later was hacked down to a little over two hours--but even with the best reconstruction of Lynch's 3-hour vision available, Lynch's pacing is still pretty bad. You just can't have an effectively told cinematic story when you spend 2/3rds of your running time telling less than 1/2 of the story you have planned; it can't help but feel jumpy and rushed and underdeveloped. You have to cut stuff, and while I pretty much love everything from the novel which Lynch chose to keep in, I can't deny that the results made for a movie much less than the sum of its parts.

You can say Villeneuve was blessed with having a more supportive studio or being less of an auteur-weirdo than Lynch or whatever you like, but in this absolutely fundamental aspect of filmmaking, of assembling and streamlining a final visual product, he did a better job. A perfect job? No, not at all. By cutting all the backstory to Dr. Yueh's betrayal, Villeneuve made that rather crucial plot point come off as abrupt and silly (not to mention taking away all the cool context that Piter De Vries provides, leaving him in Dune 2021 as just an important lackey, not a fascinating psychopath). By cutting all references to "the weirding way," Lady Jessica's sudden combat prowess at the movie's end becomes an inexplicable surprise (and this is particularly unfortunate, since Rebecca Ferguson played Jessica as much more emotional and conflicted than was the case in Dune 1984, and it would have been interesting to see that double-sided aspect of her life made more explicit). Finally and more importantly, as least to me, cutting all substantive references to or depictions of the Spacing Guild and the Navigators robbed the story of the spice's central, spooky role; we don't get to see its weird and awesome and terrifying power, and are left with just accepting spice as a cool, dangerous, useful, and really expensive and rare hallucinogenic drug. Now--were any of these cuts (or others) fatal to the movie? Not at all. But taking a novel like Dune, cutting it half, and making the first half into a well-paced two-and-a-half hour movie, requires choices, and all of those choices had costs.

But anyway, leave that aside--we're all geeks here, right? So what about those particular parts I mentioned above?

Dune 2021's costuming and set design is very different from Dune 1984's, but not entirely different. There are many elements of 1984's crowded, alternately gaudy or shabby, always very lived-in, proto-steampunk colors and bric-a-brac and ostentation that I actually kind of adore, and I was pleased that Villeneuve didn't dispense with the medals and hats and pipes and flags and other overtly imperial elements entirely. In fact, in some ways he leaned much further into that kind of 19th-century-colonizer-aesethetic than ever Lynch thought to; while the parallels are present in the 1984 movie, in 2021, it is made undeniable--from the veils of the Fremen women to the lattice-work on the walkways of the city of Arrakeen to the chanting of the Freman crowds--that Arrakis is essentially the Islamic (specifically Bedouin) Middle East. I'd always thought that the reading of Dune as a white-savior story was always a kind of silly interpretation, but I wonder if Villeneuve was explicitly asking for it.

If so, that leads to what to me is the most intriguing area of comparison: how the role of Paul Atreides, as he become Muad'Dib and the Kwisatz Haderach, is being contextualized. While obvious every creative work is open to endless (re-)interpretation, I think the most accurate take on how Dune 1984 approached Herbert's complex story of political, religious, and psychological machinations is to stipulate that, while the Bene Gesserit never believed it until it was too late, their breeding program actually ended up fulfilling, in the person of Paul, the role of Fremen's prophesied messiah. This is why the Reverend Mother Mohiam is so horrified and terrified by the ultimate revelation of Paul's power on Arrakis; the Kwisatz Haderach is supposed to be their end goal, not the Fremen's! 

Of course, in the book Herbert (rather condescendingly, I've come to feel when I've thought back about it occasionally over the years) stipulates that Fremen mythology is just that: myths and superstitions that were planted by the Bene Gesserit themselves, with the long-range plan of being able to be made use of by them, as part of future plots. Dune 2021 is obviously taking that aspect of the story seriously, though how seriously will remain to be seen in part two. In this movie we saw Paul, as the spice makes his visions of the future more and more prominent, angry at his mother, both resentful of the Bene Gesserit having seeded ideas of a messiah among the Fremen, because now he feels terrified that he's going to be locked into fulfilling them. Of course, that's very true to the books! But how does it work as a movie? There is a reason, I think, that Stephen R. Donaldson's fascinating (and occasionally repulsive) stories of Thomas Covenant have never been optioned for film treatment--I suspect smart producers and screen-writers blanch at the idea of building a cinematic epic of speculative fiction around a protagonist who actively disbelieves, treats abusively, or simply is otherwise distanced from their own position in the story. If Villeneuve continues to develop the story in this way in part two, with Paul exhibiting a frustrated double-consciousness towards his own persona, it'll make for an audacious (and difficult) cinematic adaptation, that's for certain.

Though actually, this is one way in which the choice of Timothée Chalamet to play Paul Atreides might work. Some people adore Chalamet's work, I realize, but I count myself as one of those have a hard time seeing him on the big screen as anything other than a small and callow teen-ager. He'll grow out of that common visual association, I'm sure (Leonardo DiCaprio eventually did), but for the moment, making us understand the Paul on the screen as a confused teen-ager thrust into something over his head, abruptly concocting plans (like his sudden idea of challenging the Padisha Emperor when talking with Liet-Keynes--whose expanded role in this version was fantastic) and feeling put upon, really works. In my head-canon, Kyle MacLachlan as the obviously-already-grown Paul, a young adult anxious to please his parents but otherwise obviously independent, is a fascinating character; the T.E. Lawrence parallels are obvious and undeniable. But perhaps in conceiving of the story the way he did, Lynch was obliged to work with someone who could present on the scene a surprised, but authentic, messiah? Which I think, at least, MacLachlan did superbly well? Villeneuve, in choosing, Chalamet, may have committed himself to bringing a different, more authentic, but also much more difficult to put on the screen, take of Dune's psychology. I wish him luck; he has shown himself as someone simply brilliant at creating futuristic mises en scène--I don't know how anyone could look at the spaceships of Dune 2021, just hanging there in the air, and not feel like Villeneuve has an unparalleled skill at putting "space" on the screen in all its immensity--but at handing internalize moral contradictions? That's a different kettle of fish entirely.

Okay, this is way too long already. I thought it was a great movie; I hope lots and lots of people go see it. It isn't perfect, but it's much better than the movie which shaped my thinking about Dune 37 years ago, even if that failed movie--with its creepily Lynchian horrors and oddly appropriate moments of over-acting and utterly hypnotic Dune-inspired original lines: "the sleeper must awaken," "it is by will alone I set my mind in motion," etc.)--will always be close to my heart. All hail Dune 2021! Let's hope Villeneuve gets to make part two, and then these movies can inspire nerds for the next 40 years or so.

Friday, October 08, 2021

When Kansas Republicans Become Libertarians, Sort Of

[An article of mine in Current magazine, which is an updated approach to a column that originally ran in the Wichita Eagle and which I expanded upon here.]

President Biden’s September announcement that either COVID-19 vaccinations or regular COVID testing would be mandated of all federal workers, as well as all who work for businesses that employ 100 people or more, was, it goes without saying, divisive. That divisiveness, though, is not entirely widespread. According to the latest polls, Biden’s actions are supported or at least unopposed by two-thirds of the American people, and despite many predictions about protests and resignations, the data suggests that vaccination-reluctant Americans are coming around. So the opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandate in reality seems to be fairly localized.

Take the Republicans in my own state of Kansas, among whom opposition to Biden’s vaccination mandates really is widespread. Not only did the leadership of the Kansas GOP immediately unify around a condemnation of Biden, but one of our U.S. senators was the first to introduce legislation to strip Biden of the financial power to enact his order, a proposal that was defeated on a party-line vote. This fact might align with those who assume the opposition to Biden is entirely a matter of party polarization, and surely it mostly is. But looking at the claims made by Kansas Republicans brings up arguments over ideas as well—although exploring those ideas is a frustrating endeavor.

The language employed by Derek Schmidt, Kansas’s Republican attorney general, is perhaps the best guide to this strange debate. Schmidt, who is planning a 2022 challenge to Kansas’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, was quick to join with other Republican leaders in threatening to fight the Biden vaccination mandate all the way to the Supreme Court. While doing so he made his principles clear: “Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice” that should not be subject to a “government decree.” 

There are many ways in which Schmidt’s formulation is directly aimed at Governor Kelly, who has fought with the Republican majority in the Kansas legislature over mask mandates and school closures for the past eighteen months. Such language will likely be central to his gubernatorial campaign. But at the same time, it presents some Kansas-specific intellectual confusion.

This because in 2022, in addition to voting for a governor, Kansans will vote on the “Value Them Both” amendment, a proposed anti-abortion amendment to Kansas’s constitution. Schmidt is closely tied to the proposed amendment since it is a response to a Kansas State Supreme Court case wherein the Kansas attorney general defended a state law that outlawed a particular second-trimester abortion procedure. The state lost on a 6-1 ruling, with the court declaring that the language of Kansas’s constitution supports the right of a woman to choose to access abortion services, an interpretation Schmidt has regularly condemned. In a recent interview he repeated his condemnation, and strongly connected his support for the amendment to his campaign to return “pro-life” values to Kansas. So far, that’s consistent enough.

But when the interview turned to the public health fights of the past year and a half, Schmidt explicitly affirmed the formulation of “choice” employed in the very same Kansas Supreme Court decision he insists needs to be overturned. He repeatedly emphasized that the choice to get vaccinated is an “individual decision for individual citizens, not for the government,” and that “people ought to be entrusted with” the right to choose what is medically best for themselves. Schmidt concluded: “People do have a right . . . well actually the Kansas Supreme Court in a different context calls it a ‘right to bodily integrity.’ . . . I don’t mean to conflate the two debates [but] . . . it is quite a thing for the government to order a needle to be stuck in someone’s arm.”

The interviewer pushed back at this point, observing that a woman’s choice to make use of abortion services is an even more personal decision, involving an even more intimate question about one’s “bodily integrity,” with government restrictions that may force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term presumably being “quite a thing” as well. Schmidt’s response: “There is, of course, a difference . . . At least in the view of those of us on the pro-life side, there are two persons’ interests who have to be accounted for in the abortion context. That is not so, or at least less so, in the vaccination context.”

Two points come to mind about all of this. First, if Schmidt sincerely believes that vaccinations should be treated as a matter of personal choice due to the “right to bodily integrity,” such as is reflected in the very case he is seeking to invalidate, then he really should read that case again. Because the deciding majority did, in fact, touch upon the problem of the government sometimes requiring that needles be stuck in arms. The court concluded, while citing other decisions, that their interpretation of the Kansas constitution’s language regarding choice posed no threat to well-established precedents for state-mandated vaccinations so long as individual health exemptions are provided—which, as it happens, the Biden plan does.

Second, Schmidt’s reference to “two persons’ interests” in the case of abortion is also perplexing. What are we to make of someone who presumably holds to a deep belief in preserving unborn life but then looks at the question of vaccinations, hears the clear evidence showing the threat that remaining unvaccinated poses to the lives and livelihoods of millions of others, sees the death that refusing vaccination is bringing into hospitals every day, and still insists that not being required to put a needle in your arm is the more defensible position?

There are ways in which Schmidt’s employ of this particular “pro-choice” formulation could be made more intellectually interesting, even if not coherent. Perhaps one could ask if he in fact denies the life-threatening character of COVID-19, or wonder if he’s going to go full libertarian and attack vaccinations against childhood diseases as well. At the same time, one might be forgiven for suspecting that treating Schmidt’s language as worthy of intellectual engagement simply plays into a cynical, situational game. Maybe in his circle it’s all just political messaging, all the way down. Americans like the idea of choice, and so when one political party advances policies that require restrictions as a matter of public health, wave the banner of choice and oppose them; it’ll resonate with the American people! As for the accusation of inconsistency, well, that can be dismissed as a persnickety concern that won’t get any play on social media anyway.

Those of us who maintain any kind of civic hope must constantly be on guard against such crude reductionisms. Ideas matter, and bad ideas, if exposed, should be noted for what they are. Being as clear and as consistent as possible in our language, and being open about whatever inconsistencies they involve, is essential to doing so; this is a point as old as Orwell. But talking with my students here in Kansas, I recognize I’m in an increasingly marginal position.

COVID-19 hasn’t been alone in bringing stresses to American political discourse that have confused the ideological positions that have long defined our major parties; Trump, of course, has been a primary player as well. But whether we blame Trump or the pandemic or both for our disorientation, it is sad that in the midst of our present crisis principled disagreements over matters of great import—personal liberties and public health—have been hard to find. American democracy requires parties that can advance such arguments honestly. Playing games with them—as too many leaders of the Kansas Republican party are doing today—simply invites further cynicism about the place of ideas in politics, at a time when more cynicism is the last thing we need.