Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Noah Adams: Hard Times Inspire Ky. College Students To Action

Hard Times Inspire Ky. College Students To Action
by Noah Adams

NPR's Hard Times series features stories of economic hardship and also stories of hope. We asked for ideas from listeners, and Emily Nugent of Berea College in Kentucky responded, writing: "With a student body composed entirely of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, Berea students know about the challenges Americans are facing." Noah Adams went in search of Emily and the Berea College story.

This school was started six years before the Civil War. It was to be both integrated and coeducational. And the poor students became part of the mission. The small college town, Berea, is right at the edge of the Bluegrass region. There's a rise of mountains to the east. It's where Appalachia begins.

By 1931, University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins was able to say Berea was in a "different class."

"It does what no other college can do; what it does must be done," he said.

This year, the Washington Monthly ranking of 100 liberal arts colleges has Berea at No. 1.

The school has 1,600 students, most of them from southern Appalachia, but there's someone here from every state. And at Berea, their tuition is free — all four years are paid for through the college's $931 million endowment. It might be the only way these students could go to college. On average, they come from families with household incomes of about $25,000.

Emily Nugent, a sophomore at Berea, is a political science major from Lapeer, Mich. She recalls coming with her mother for her first visit to the campus.

"I finished my tour, and my mom turned to me and said, 'If you choose this school or any school, I want you to be as proud of what you're doing as these students seem to be. I don't care what school you choose, but this is the only one I've seen where people seem to love what they're doing,' " Nugent remembers.

Choi, a senior majoring in Spanish and political science from Bergen County, N.J., came to this country from South Korea. After four years at Berea, he graduates next month. Soon he'll go to San Francisco and walk across America to call attention to the plight of immigrants.

"Especially in these hard times, I feel that people are placing blame on the other people who look a little different from everyone else. I've lived in this country for more than half my life, and I'm still undocumented," Choi says. "I feel that Berea has empowered me to go back to my own community, which is the immigrant community, and try to find ways I can fill my role in."

In October, about 40 Berea students rode a bus to New York City for the Occupy Wall Street rallies. Senior Kurstin Jones, from Cincinnati, was with them.

To Read the Rest of the Story or Listen to it in its entirety

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rebecca Solnit: You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can’t Stop the Spring

You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can’t Stop the Spring
By Rebecca Solnit

Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.

Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.

When civil society sleeps, we’re just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified. They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.

Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: “tear-gassing the kitchen tent.” Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?

Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.

Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began. The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish. After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they’d try to soothe it back to sleep.) “Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.

Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the ground, evicted the police, chanting, “You can go! You can go!” They went.

Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.
Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.”

The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal “occupations” on which this protean movement has been built, it can soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected forms. Another OWS sign, “The beginning is near,” caught the mood of the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order, and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.

The Best and the Worst

Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the “Occupy Wall Street” label, it’s actually two blocks north of that iconic place. It’s rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers crumbled.

What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do with what’s going on in and around the park, the country, and the world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released both the best and the worst in our society.

The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood -- think of them as civil society coming together in crisis -- largely rescued themselves, and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.

We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93, who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to civil society.

Ordinary people shone that morning. They were not terrorized; they were galvanized into action, and they were heroic. And it didn’t stop with that morning either. That day, that week they began to talk about what the events of 9/11 actually meant for them, and they acted to put their world back together, practically and philosophically. All of which terrified the Bush administration, which soon launched not only its “global war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan, but a campaign against civil society. It was aimed at convincing each of us that we should stay home, go shopping, fear everything except the government, and spy on each other.

The only monument civil society ever gets is itself, and the satisfaction of continuing to do the work that matters, the work that has no bosses and no paychecks, the work of connecting, caring, understanding, exploring, and transforming. So much about Occupy Wall Street resonates with what came in that brief moment a decade before and then was shut down for years.

That little park that became “occupied” territory brought to mind the way New York’s Union Square became a great public forum in the weeks after 9/11, where everyone could gather to mourn, connect, discuss, debate, bear witness, share food, donate or raise money, write on banners, and simply live in public. (Until the city shut that beautiful forum down in the name of sanitation -- that sacred cow which by now must be mating with the Wall Street Bull somewhere in the vicinity of Zuccotti Park.)

It was remarkable how many New Yorkers lived in public in those weeks after 9/11. Numerous people have since told me nostalgically of how the normal boundaries came down, how everyone made eye contact, how almost anyone could talk to almost anyone else. Zuccotti Park and the other Occupies I’ve visited -- Oakland, San Francisco, Tucson, New Orleans -- have been like that, too. You can talk to strangers. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to, so much do people want to talk, to tell their stories, to hear yours, to discuss our mutual plight and what solutions to it might look like.

It’s as though the great New York-centric moment of openness after 9/11, when we were ready to reexamine our basic assumptions and look each other in the eye, has returned, and this time it’s not confined to New York City, and we’re not ready to let anyone shut it down with rubbish about patriotism and peril, safety and sanitation.

It’s as if the best of the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was back -- without the foolish belief that one man could do it all for civil society. In other words, this is a revolt, among other things, against the confinement of decision-making to a thoroughly corrupted and corporate-money-laced electoral sphere and against the pitfalls of leaders. And it represents the return in a new form of the best of the post-9/11 moment.

As for the worst after 9/11 -- you already know the worst. You’ve lived it. The worst was two treasury-draining wars that helped cave in the American dream, a loss of civil liberties, privacy, and governmental accountability. The worst was the rise of a national security state to almost unimaginable proportions, a rogue state that is our own government, and that doesn’t hesitate to violate with impunity the Geneva Convention, the Bill of Rights, and anything else it cares to trash in the name of American "safety" and "security." The worst was blind fealty to an administration that finished off making this into a country that serves the 1% at the expense, or even the survival, of significant parts of the 99%. More recently, it has returned as another kind of worst: police brutality (speaking of blind fealty to the 1%).

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Monday, November 28, 2011

Time Magazine Covers: What Is Wrong With This Picture? (December 5, 2011 Issues)

Time Magazine's website

William Scott: The People's Library of Occupy Wall Street Lives On

The People's Library of Occupy Wall Street Lives On
by William Scott
The Nation

The People’s Library at Zuccotti Park—a collection of more than 5,000 donated books of every genre and subject, all free for the taking—was created not only to serve the Occupy Wall Street protesters; it was meant to provide knowledge and reading pleasure for the wider public as well, including residents of Lower Manhattan. It was also a library to the world at large, since many visitors to the park stopped by the library to browse our collection, to donate books of their own and to take books for themselves.

At about 2:30 am on November 15, the People’s Library was destroyed by the NYPD, acting on the authority of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With no advance notice, an army of police in riot gear raided the park, seized everything in it and threw it all into garbage trucks and dumpsters. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s Twitter promise that the library was safely stored and could be retrieved, only about 1,100 books were recovered, and some of those are in unreadable condition. Four library laptops were also destroyed, as well as all the bookshelves, storage bins, stamps and cataloging supplies and the large tent that housed the library.

For the past six weeks I have been living and working as a librarian in the People’s Library, camping out on the ground next to it. I’m an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and I’ve chosen to spend my sabbatical at Occupy Wall Street to participate in the movement and to build and maintain the collection of books at the People’s Library. I love books—reading them, writing in them, arranging them, holding them, even smelling them. I also love having access to books for free. I love libraries and everything they represent. To see an entire collection of donated books, including many titles I would have liked to read, thoughtlessly ransacked and destroyed by the forces of law and order was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. My students in Pittsburgh struggle to afford to buy the books they need for their courses. Our extensive collection of scholarly books and journals alone would have sufficed to provide reading materials for dozens of college classrooms. With public libraries around the country fighting to survive in the face of budget cuts, layoffs and closings, the People’s Library has served as a model of what a public library can be: operated for the people and by the people.

During the raid, Stephen Boyer, a poet, friend and OWS librarian, read poems from the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology (see [1]) aloud directly into the faces of riot police. As they pushed us away from the park with shields, fists, billy clubs and tear gas, I stood next to Stephen and watched while he yelled poetry at the top of his lungs into the oncoming army of riot police. Then, something incredible happened. Several of the police leaned in closer to hear the poetry. They lifted their helmet shields slightly to catch the words Stephen was shouting out to them, even while their fellow cops continued to stampede us. The next day, an officer who was guarding the entrance to Zuccotti Park told Stephen how touched he was by the poetry, how moved he was to see that we cared enough about words and books that we would risk violent treatment and arrest just to defend our love of books and the wisdom they contain.

At 6 pm on November 15, a group of writers and supporters of the People’s Library appeared at the reopened park carrying books, and within minutes we received around 200 donations. All night and into the next day folks stopped by to donate to and take from the collection. Because the new rules of the park forbid us from lying down or leaving anything there, Stephen and I stayed up all night to protect the books until other librarians came to take over for us. Frustrated and exhausted, but still exhilarated and eager to maintain the momentum of the movement, we kept the People’s Library open all day in the pouring rain, storing books in Ziploc baggies to keep them dry.

Then at 7:30 pm on November 16, the People’s Library was again raided and thrown in the trash—this time by a combination of police and Brookfield Properties’ sanitation team. The NYPD first barricaded the library by lining up in front of it, forming an impenetrable wall of cops. An officer then announced through a bullhorn that we should come and collect our books, or they would be confiscated and removed. Seconds later, they began dumping books into trash bins that they had wheeled into the park for that purpose. As they were throwing out the books, a fellow OWS librarian asked one of the NYPD patrolmen why they were doing this. His answer: “I don’t know.”

Five minutes after it started, the raid was over and the People’s Library’s collection was once again sitting in a pile of garbage. Yet just as the trash bins were being carted off, a man stepped out of the crowd with a book in his hand to donate to us: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. We joyously accepted and cataloged it, placing it on display under a new sign for the library that we made right then on a blank sheet of paper. A true people’s library, after all, doesn’t depend on any particular number of books, since it’s ultimately about the way those books are collected and lent out to the public.

We’re still accepting donations and lending books just as we always have, but we’ve reorganized ourselves somewhat. We now have three mobile units staffed by OWS librarians, which we can take anywhere we want. For the November 17 Day of Action, we made sure the People’s Library was there to supply books to anyone who wanted them. All day long, OWS librarians walked among the crowds shouting, “The People’s Library 3.0, mobile and in the streets!” For me, it was easily the most rewarding day in the six weeks I’ve been with the movement. The people we met at our mobile units—Occupiers from New York and other states, friends of the People’s Library, tourists—went out of their way to express their joy that we were still here. They also struggled to articulate their feelings of loss, frustration, anger, disgust and outrage over the seizure and destruction of the library. All we could say in response was, “We’re here to stay! Please take a book! They belong to you!” A group of eight OWS librarians even started a new chant: “Whose books? Your books!” It quickly caught fire with the other marchers.

To Read the Rest of the Article

Mark Ames: How UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi Brought Oppression Back To Greece's Universities

[via Danny Mayer]

How UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi Brought Oppression Back To Greece's Universities
by Mark Ames
The Smirking Chimp

A friend of mine sent me this link [1] claiming that UC Davis chancellor “Chemical” Linda Katehi, whose crackdown on peaceful university students shocked America, played a role in allowing Greece security forces to raid university campuses for the first time since the junta was overthrown in 1974. (H/T: Crooked Timber [2]) I’ve checked this out with our friend in Athens, reporter Kostas Kallergis (who runs the local blog “When The Crisis Hits The Fan” [3]), and he confirmed it–Linda Katehi really is the worst of all possible chancellors imaginable, the worst for us, and the worst for her native Greece.

First, some background: Last week, The eXiled published two pieces on Greece’s doomed struggle against global financial institutions—an article [4] on how the EU and Western bankers essentially overthrew [5] the nearly-uppity government of prime minister George Papandreou, and replaced it with a banker-friendly “technocratic” government that includes real-life, no-bullshit neo-Nazis and fascists [6] from the LAOS party, fascists with a banker-friendly fetish for imposing austerity measures. One of those fascists, Makis “Hammer” Voridis [7], spent his early 20s “hammering” non-fascist students for sport. Voridis was booted out of Athens University law school after ax-bashing fellow law students who didn’t share his fascist ideology. Today, Mikaes Voridis is the Minister for Infrastructure in the “technocratic” government. Imagine Lt. John Pike [8] in leather and an 80s hairdo, carrying a homemade ax rather than a pepper spray weapon, and you have Makis “Hammer” Voridis.

We also published a powerful and necessary history primer [9]by Greek journalist Kostas Kallergis [10] on the almost-holy significance of the date November 17 [11] in contemporary Greek history. On that day in 1973, pro-democracy students at the Athens Polytechnic university were crushed by tanks and soldiers sent in by the ruling junta dictatorship, which collapsed less than a year later, returning democracy to Greece. With CIA backing, the generals in the junta overthrew Greece’s democracy in 1967, jailed and tortured suspected leftists (meaning students and union leaders), and even went the extra-weird-fascist mile by banning the Beatles, mini-skirts, long hair, along with Mark Twain and Sophocles. The student rebellion at the Polytechnic, and its martyrdom, became the symbol for Greeks of their fight against fascism and tyranny, something like the briefcase man at Tiananmen Square, or the slaughtered rebels of the Boston Tea Party. That is why, as soon as the junta was overthrown and democracy restored in 1974, Greece immediately banned the presence of army, police or state security forces on university campuses. This so-called “university asylum” law turned Greece’s university campuses into cop-free zones of “political asylum,” where no one could interfere in the students’ rights to dissent against the government.

Today, thanks in part to UC Davis chancellor “Chemical” Linda Katehi, Greek university campuses are no longer protected from state security forces [12]. She helped undo her native country’s “university asylum” laws just in time for the latest austerity measures to kick in. Incredibly, Katehi attacked university campus freedom despite the fact that she was once a student at the very center of Greece’s anti-junta, pro-democracy rebellion–although what she was doing there, if anything at all, no one really knows.

Here’s the sordid back-story: Linda Katehi was born in Athens in 1954 and got her undergraduate degree at the famous Athens Polytechnic. She just happened to be the right age to be a student at the Polytechnic university on the very day, November 17, 1973, when the junta sent in tanks and soldiers to crush her fellow pro-democracy students. It was only after democracy was restored in 1974–and Greek university campuses were turned into police-free “asylum zones”–that Linda Katehi eventually moved to the USA, earning her PhD at UCLA.

Earlier this year, Linda Katehi served on an “International Committee On Higher Education In Greece,” along with a handful of American, European and Asian academics. The ostensible goal was to “reform” Greece’s university system. The real problem, from the real powers behind the scenes (banksters and the EU), was how to get Greece under control as the austerity-screws tightened. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that squeezing more money from Greece’s beleaguered citizens would mean clamping down on Greece’s democracy and doing something about those pesky Greek university students. And that meant taking away the universities’ “amnesty” protection, in place for nearly four decades, so that no one, nowhere, would be safe from police truncheons, gas, or bullets.

Thanks to the EU, bankers, and UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi, university freedom for Greece’s students has taken a huge, dark step backwards.

Here you can read a translation [13]of the report co-authored by UC Davis’ Linda Katehi [14]–the report which brought about the end of Greece’s “university asylum” law.What’s particularly disturbing is that Linda Katehi was the only Greek on that commission. Presumably that would give her a certain amount of extra sway–both because of her inside knowledge, and because of her moral authority among the other non-Greek committee members. And yet, Linda Katehi signed off on a report that provided the rationale for repealing Greece’s long-standing “university asylum” law. She basically helped undo the very heart and soul of Greece’s pro-democracy uprising against the junta.

And perfect timing too, now that one of Greece’s most notorious pro-junta fascists is a member of the new austerity government.

To Read the Rest of the Commentary and to Access Extensive Hyperlinked Resources

Who: Won't Get Fooled Again

Greg Mitchell recommends this video today at the Occupy USA Blog

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Michael Sicinski: Port of Forgotten Dreams -- Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (Finland, 2011)

Port of Forgotten Dreams: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre
by Michael Sicinski
Cinema Scope

Can there be such a thing as a productive political fantasy? This is far from a rhetorical question, and as I revisit Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film, which is without a doubt a political film for our times, I find myself grappling with this very question. This is because the idea of what constitutes “political representation” shifted, I believe, since Kaurismäki began making films in his proletarian-modernist style—a fact of which the Finnish master is very much aware. I actually suspect that the terms of the political, and what it means to represent it, locate it, assign it agency, have quite possibly changed in a significant way, from the moment in May when Le Havre had its world premiere at Cannes, and now, six months later, as it enters commercial release. To put it another way: does Kaurismäki’s fantastical optimism appear hopelessly naïve as the Occupy movement trudges on, in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets? What exactly would a properly activist film even look like right now? To begin to answer this question, and assess Kaurismäki’s place within any tentative web of solutions, we must work backwards, to understand what Le Havre is and where it comes from.

In a certain sense, there has been, at best, a pluralistic exploration, and at worst a crisis, in the very concept of “political cinema” since the general decay of the various international New Wave cinemas of the 1960s and ‘70s. D. N. Rodowick referred to this as “the crisis of political modernism” (typified, in some senses, by Straub-Huillet, Oshima, and mid-period Godard), the increasing uncertainty that stringent form and radical content would necessarily serve to mutually reinforce one another, or more to the point, that a sturdy recipe for cinematic radicalism, regardless of social or historical context, had been achieved. In a manner of speaking, the “last man standing” from this wreckage was Fassbinder, who, by channeling his leftism through Sirkian affect, found a way forward, even when certain of the far-left pieties that the political modernists held dear were undermined, if temporarily, by terrorist excess. The ur-text for this crisis of conscience is undoubtedly Fassbinder’s contribution to the 1978 omnibus Germany in Autumn, in which the news of German special forces storming the hijacked Lufthansa flight in Mogadishu induced panic in the filmmaker that all individuals with leftist ties would soon be rounded up indiscriminately. Meanwhile, his elderly mother prattles on about the need for a new, benevolent Führer.

If there is one dominant spirit presiding over Kaurismäki’s work it’s probably Fassbinder, although it’s not always readily apparent. Aki’s love for rockabilly, film noir, and the rebel streak in classic Hollywood (Nick Ray, Sam Fuller) makes him a much more obvious kinsman of Wim Wenders. But what Kaurismäki has consistently drawn from Fassbinder, in terms of a refined formalist politic, is a way of organizing and specularizing space, of rendering power visible on the interpersonal and the “street” level—that zone that Michel de Certeau designates as the place of small “tactics” rather than grand “strategies.” Kaurismäki’s shots frame characters and their environments with a highly sophisticated simplicity, pinning them down within a geographically defined “social gest” but at the same time delineating a persistently palpable three dimensions around them. What’s more, in his editing schemes, Aki continues this delineated space as socially defined, as a network of looks and gazes, of suspicions, solicitations and entreaties. His still frames verge on portraiture, but it is always a mode of depiction activated by the social contract.

To Read the Rest of the Response

Cinema Scope: Nicolas Winding Refn and the Search for a Real Hero

Nicolas Winding Refn and the Search for a Real Hero
Cinema Scope

“Hey, do you wanna see somethin’?”—Driver in Drive

In the middle of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a film punctuated by extreme flourishes of violence and vengeance, there is a period of peace. It occurs when Driver (Ryan Gosling), a quietly contained guy who holds down three jobs—auto mechanic, movie stunt driver, and getaway driver-for-hire—is asked by his auto-shop boss (Bryan Cranston) to drive home customer and Driver’s neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her little boy. En route, Driver takes a surprising detour from the street down to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, one of the city’s most iconic images, a grand public-works project born out of vast and tragic flooding the city endured generations ago. The river, choked into a narrow canal and surrounded by an elegantly paved canyon, has been used in too many movies and TV shows to possibly count, most recently by Bruce La Bruce for daytime sequences of L.A. Zombie (2010). Driver, true to character, uses it as a racetrack and as a bit of stunt track—mildly, as a kid’s in the car, and he’s a gentleman at heart—but also as a road to get somewhere.

The typical deployment of the Los Angeles River in cinema is as a symbol of dead ends, final stops, the place where the city dies, and people along with it. Not so for Refn, for whom Los Angeles is a new city, a place of discovery. Viewed from the majestic prospect of a high angle in long-shot widescreen, Driver stops at the place where the concrete river ends and gives way to the wild river, a startling image even for native Angelenos. He knows these kinds of places, having driven everywhere (so, in reality, does Gosling, who knows the city expertly and drove Refn around town as research, inspiration, and preparation). Refn understands those many places in Los Angeles that make it fairly unique, and reverses the usual clichéd knock on the place as one long paved sprawl. Constantly, the paved cityscape surrenders to the natural world, sidewalks dissolve into dirt trails, roads simply stop, buildings reach their limit when faced with cliffsides, massive chaparral, impregnable mountain ranges that cut through the metropolitan area. Driver leads mother and son to the wild river for a Tom Sawyer afternoon under the sun, a Southern California utopia—the ultimate getaway—an idyll that defines Drive and Driver in fundamental ways.

Superficially an action movie, Drive is actually a film in search of romance, zigzagging through an obstacle course of fairy tale and myth, and a hall of mirrors in which characters can be read as fantasy projections of others while being aware of themselves as figures inside a myth. Beloved in Cannes after days of disappointing films in the competition, Drive was perhaps welcomed by some for the wrong reason: as some kind of new read on Melville’s Le samourai (1967), with Gosling processing Alain Delon’s stoic killer. For once, the director has a sound interpretation that he’s willing to share with whomever cares to listen: Refn correctly argues that Drive’s foundation is in fairy tale, particularly its thematic of a character’s discovery of his own heroism, which Driver finds through the course of nurturing and protecting Irene, who’s made paradoxically more vulnerable when her convict husband returns home from prison. The necessary elimination of dragons—in the form of Albert Brooks’ ice-cold mobster Bernie Rose and Ron Perlman’s put-upon mobster Nino, to say nothing of a few nameless hitmen along the way—doesn’t so much make Driver into a killer, although he wreaks revenge with frighteningly intelligent brutality. Rather, it transforms him into a mythical figure who satisfies the imaginings of those around him, including Irene, who can nevertheless only marvel at him while knowing she can never have him. This is vastly different from Melville’s heightened existential world of professional killers who function by a code and live like lone wolves, apparently free of the need for genuine and reciprocal human contact. Delon’s Samourai is a corporeal killing machine; Gosling’s Driver is a young man in formation, whose work comprises (per his three jobs) repair, escape, and entertainment, and who finds his self during a gauntlet that perhaps only he can survive—an accidental knight who slays the beast.

This is a far stretch from James Sallis’ novel on which Hossein Amini’s screenplay is based, and, as Refn describes it, wildly different from Amini’s previous drafts written as a potential Universal franchise for Hugh Jackman. Sallis’ superb, laconic book, hardboiled to the core, as affectionate toward its city as it is cynical about the city’s most famous (show) business, could have been adapted pretty closely, even with its obsessive (and perhaps needless) jumps in chronology. But a knowledge of the book is helpful in appreciating the grand achievement in American cinema that Drive is. Hollywood has always been open to the invasive notions of outsiders, particularly European directors with strong points of view. Lubitsch, Lang, Boorman, Preminger, Wilder, von Sternberg, Herzog, Verhoeven, and von Stroheim all managed to import their native sensibilities with little compromise into the Hollywood system, and generally thrived intact. Refn’s ambition is clearly to make big movies for large audiences by his own sometimes-radical standards, which include mixing the hyper-violent ecstasies of the Pusher trilogy (1996, 2004, 2005), highly theatrical characters like Tom Hardy’s Bronson (2008), dreamlike dances of death as in Valhalla Rising (2009), and the romance of transformation in Drive. His new film is an act of will, pulling a fine but fairly standard piece of high-class pulp into something richer and more dynamic, modern in its self-consciousness as a work of art and entertainment, and Wellesian in its capacity to astonish, shock, and tease the mind’s perceptions. The fact that Refn is soon making a re-do of Logan’s Run with Gosling is a suggestion of a large-scaled cinema that’s aware of its kinetic powers, its artistic breadth, and its ability to kick it into the fifth gear.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

James L. Neibaur: The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator
by James L. Neibaur

Released in 1940, a good dozen years after the talking-picture revolution, The Great Dictator shows silent-screen icon Charlie Chaplin finally conceding to the new format by confronting it head-on with a film that was both topical and challenging. Unlike Buster Keaton, Chaplin was not as interested in the technology of cinema as he was with character and narrative. While a fascinated Keaton wanted to experiment with talking pictures, Chaplin continued to release movies that were largely silent well after sound film had become the norm. Chaplin claimed, in interviews, that if his beloved Little Tramp character were allowed to have a specific language, he would no longer be a universal Everyman. Thus, his only releases during the 1930s—City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936)—were largely silent, save for music Chaplin himself composed, as well as carefully orchestrated sound effects. His choice to allow us to hear the Little Tramp’s voice in the latter film was via a musical number done in gibberish.

Chaplin’s success releasing silent films during the talking-picture era shows how much power the comedian had by that point in his career. Reports in movie-trade magazines as early as 1929 stated how theaters that were not yet equipped to show sound movies were losing business. Mediocre early talkies were drawing several times more than some of the best silent films. By the time Chaplin was filming Modern Times, studios were cutting up their dramatic silent features, which had been box-office successes only five years earlier, overdubbing silly music and wisecracking narration, and releasing them as sarcastic short comedies. Exhibitor H.E. Hoag stated in 1930: “A silent comedy is very flat now. In fact, for the past two years, my audiences seldom laughed out loud at a silent.”

The bigger studios hastily transformed recently shot silent features into talkies by dubbing in voices and sound effects. The smaller studios did not have the funds to accomplish this, and thus their silents of late 1929 and early 1930 received very little distribution, save for small-town theaters that were not yet equipped for sound. But by the 1930’s sound was so firmly established in the cinema that only someone with the status of Charlie Chaplin was able to pull off making a silent picture and enjoying a lofty level of success. One theater in Wisconsin reported record attendance for City Lights, despite snowstorms that closed roads. People were said to have walked through blizzard conditions to see the film.

Evidence has recently surfaced that Chaplin had considered making a talkie about colonialism in 1932, even to the point of having a manuscript prepared. But, for reasons we may never know, this film was not produced. By 1940, however, Chaplin decided it was time.

As the Third Reich came to power in Germany and began characterizing Jewish people negatively, word got back to Chaplin that a 1934 booklet entitled The Jews Are Watching You had been published, claiming that he was of Jewish heritage. A caricature of Chaplin, lengthening his nose and emphasizing his dark curly hair, referred to the comedian as a “little Jewish tumbler,” who was “as disgusting as he is boring.” Chaplin was not Jewish, but refused to deny it, believing such a denial would be “playing into the hands of the anti-Semites.” Friends had already been commenting on the fact that Hitler wore a mustache similar to Chaplin’s, and a rumor persisted that the dictator chose his facial hair specifically to resemble the beloved comedian. More intrigued than insulted, Chaplin chose to fight back using comedy.

As he composed the script, Chaplin arranged to play two roles in The Great Dictator, using his noted resemblance to Hitler as the axis of his film. The humble Jewish barber appears to be an extension of his classic Little Tramp (even to the point of being clad in similar dress). The barber’s lookalike is dictator Adenoid Hynkel. It would seem that the heartless persecution of Jewish people by Nazi storm-troopers would hardly lend itself to comedy, and Chaplin later admitted that, had he known more about the atrocities, he would not likely have made the film. But somehow Chaplin effectively balances the humor with the underlying message.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Best of the Left: Compilations of Reports on the Occupy Movement, Pts. 1-7 (September - November, 2011)

[A great collection of reports on the Occupy Movement -- thanks Jay Tomlinson! Check back at Best of the Left for future reports and for compilations on other subjects/themes]

#538 The 99 Percent Wakes Up (Occupy Wall St Part 1)
Act 1: Congrats to Wall St. Protesters – The Progressive Air Date: 9-27-11 Song 1: Hi – The Only Thing I Ever Wanted
Act 2: Irony of Police Attacks on Protestors – Jimmy Dore Air Date: 9-27-11
Song 2: Pumped Up Kicks – Torches
Act 3: World Economy Going to Hell – Dan Carlin Air Date: 9-28-11
Song 3: Eleanor Rigby (Strings Only) – Anthology 2
Act 4: Fox News Gives Wall Street Protesters the “Fair & Balanced” Treatment – Media Matters Air Date: 10-3-11
Act 5: Keith Olbermann reads first collective statement of Occupy Wall Street – Countdown
Song 5: The Times They Are A-Changin’ – The Essential Bob Dylan
Act 6: Protesting is a Priviledge? – Majority Report Air Date: 9-28-11
Song 6: Turtle (Bonobo Mix) – One Offs… Remixes & B Sides
Act 7: Fox Host says Tea Party was Organic, Occupy Wall Street is Not – Media Matters Air Date: 10-5-11
Act 8: Michael Moore says We oppose the way our economy is structured – Countdown

#539 We are the other 99 percent (Occupy Wall St Part 2)
Act 1: Police Are On The Wrong Side At The Occupy Wall Street Protests – Lee Camp Air Date: 9-25-11
Song 1: All These Things That I’ve Done – Hot Fuss
Act 2: Romney Would Complain About Class Warfare – The Progressive Air Date: 10-5-11
Song 2: Revolution – I Am Sam (Music from and Inspired By the Motion Picture)
Act 3: The Screaming Majority song on Occupy Wall St – Majority Report Air Date: 10-7-11
Song 3: Up nights – Amsterband
Act 4: The TRUTH About The Occupy Wall Street Protests – Lee Camp Air Date: 9-27-11
Song 4: Free to Decide – Stars – The Best of 1992-2002
Act 5: Panic of the plutocrats – Green News Report Air Date: 10-11-11
Song 5: Take ‘Em Down – Going Out In Style
Act 6: CNNs Erin Burnett informs viewers about protesters – Counterspin Air Date: 10-06-11
Song 6: I’m a Worried Man – Countryman
Act 7: Erin Burnett’s horrible Occupy Wall St report – Majority Report Air Date: 10-7-11
Song 7: We’re Simple Minds – Spring Came, Rain Fell
Act 8: Occupy DC Event Infiltrated By Conservative from American Spectator –Young Turks Air Date: 10-10-11
Song 8: Solidarity Forever – If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle
Act 9: Purge the agitators at Occupy Wall St – David Feldman Show Air Date: 10-9-11
Song 9: The World Has Turned and Left Me Here – Weezer
Act 10: How staying peaceful means we will win – Citizen Radio Air Date: 10-11-11

#541 Unite like an Egyptian (Occupy Wall St Part 3)
Act 1: A Detailed Plan On How To Decrease Corporate Power – Lee Camp Air Date: 9-21-11
Song 1: What we’ve got (Live) – Emilyn Brodsky & Anthony da Costa
Act 2: News Coverage Numbers of the Occupy Protests vs Tea Party protests – On the Media
Song 2: Fake Plastic Trees – The Best of Radiohead
Act 3: Bill O’Reilly Rips Occupy Wall Street Protesters – Young Turks
Song 3: You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Glee Cast Version) – Glee: The Music, Vol. 2
Act 4: What the Occupy Wall St movement wants Part 1 – Planet Money
Song 4: Union strike song – Lisa Simpson
Act 5: What the Occupy Wall St movement wants Part 2 – Planet Money
Song 5: Rinse Me Down – Flaws
Act 6: President’s Approval Rating Soars After Punching Wall Street Banker in Face – The Onion
Song 6: Fighting Song (feat. Tom Morello) – Eyes On Fire – EP
Act 7: Chris Hedges speech at Occupy DC – Chris Hedges
Song 7: You’re The Best (Theme From The Karate Kid) [Originally Performed by Joe Esposito] – You’re The Best
Act 8: Are We The Modern Day Pompeii – Lee Camp Air Date: 10-02-11
Song 8: Golden Slumbers – I Am Sam (Music from and Inspired By the Motion Picture)
Act 9: Then Meets Now – Mark Fiore Air Date 10-19-11

#542 Greed is no longer good (Occupy Wall St Part 4)
Act 1: Occupy Wall Street Is A Thought Revolution – And It Won’t Be Minimized – Lee Camp Air Date: 10-10-11
Song 1: Bathroom Girl – Virgin Suicides (Original Motion Picture Score)
Act 2: The Occupation – Mumia Abu-Jamal Air Date: 10-10-11
Song 2: Late Afternoon (Live) – Theo Bard
Act 3: False reporting about Soros connection to Occupy Wall St – Counterspin
Song 3: Run Screaming (Live) – Stockdale and Shapiro
Act 4: Round-table discussion of Occupy Wall St. – Jimmy Dore Air Date: 10-13-11
Song 4: The Walls Are Coming Down – Reservoir
Act 5: Tom Hayden offers extraordinary insight into evolution of Occupy Wall Street movement – Countdown Air Date: 10-13-11
Song 5: Cat Faces – Sharpen Your Teeth
Act 6: The Numbers Behind Occupy Wall Street – Lee Camp Air Date 10-20-11
Song 6: Take Me Out – Franz Ferdinand
Act 7: This Is the Movement We’ve Been Waiting For – The Progressive Air Date: 10-14-11
Song 7: I Shall Not Be Moved – The Gospel Album
Act 8: Round up of Sunday morning news on Occupy Wall St – Counterspin Air Date: 10-13-11
Song 8: Serre-moi – Tryö
Act 9: Obama, Occupy Wall Street, 2012 Campaign – Young Turks Air Date: 10-17-11
Song 9: Never Again – Fourth Circle
Act 10: Knee jerks defend Wall Street – Jim Hightower Air Date: 10-17-11
Song 10: United We Stand – Sing the 70′s
Act 11: Tonight at Liberty Plaza ‘The American People Agree with Us’ – Michael Moore Air Date: 10-20-11
Song 11: Stand by me – Playing For Change
Act 12: Wall Street Is Dirtier Than Occupy Wall Street – Lee Camp Air Date: 10-17-11
Song 12: Clean Up – Clean Up EP
Act 13: OWS-Hating CBC Anchor Destroyed By Chris Hedges – Young Turks Air Date 10-17-11

#546 The whole world is, in fact, watching and taking part (Occupy Wall St Part 5)
Act 1: Thanks for Nothin’ – Mark Fiore Air Date 10-27-11
Song 1: I’m Looking Through You – I Am Sam (Music from and Inspired By the Motion Picture)
Act 2: Erroneous reporting on the Occupation – Counterspin Air Date: 10-27-11
Song 2: Down the Line – Down the Line – Single
Act 3: Prophetic article calling for the occupation Part 1 – Majority Report 10-25-11
Song 3: Generation – Emerson Hart
Act 4: Why Don’t The Occupy Protesters Stop Whining, Just Work Hard – Lee Camp Air Date: 10-28-11
Song 4: Have you had enough? – Rickie Lee Jones & The Squirrel Nut Zippers
Act 5: Prophetic article calling for the occupation Part 2 – Majority Report 10-25-11
Song 5: I Can Help – The Best of Billy Swan
Act 6: Comparing the Occupation to the Bonus Army encampment – Rachel Maddow Air Date: 10-26-11
Song 6: Down the Drain – Torrent, Vol. 1 & 2: Will Dailey
Act 7: Protest update and thoughts on tear gas – The Bugle Air Date: 11-3-11
Song 7: Touch of Grey – The Very Best of Grateful Dead
Act 8: Poll Americans Distrust Government – Young Turks Air Date: 10-26-11
Song 8: I didn’t fuck it up – Katie Goodman
Act 9: Missing Howard Zinn, Oracle of OWS – The Progressive Air Date: 10-31-11
Song 9: Back to Life – Keep On Movin’
Act 10: Shockupy Wall Street Fad – Colbert Report Air Date: 10-27-11
Song 10: Ave Maria (Pavarotti / O’Riordan) – To the Faithful Departed (The Complete Sessions 1996-1997)
Act 11: The world is, in fact, watching the Oakland Occupation – Matthew Filipowicz Air Date: 10-27-11

#547 Then they fight you (Occupy Wall St Part 6)
Act 1: The Top 1 percent Vs YOU – Young Turks Air Date 10-31-11
Song 1: Give a Damn – Greatest Hits
Act 2: Occupy Wall Street Says “Stop, Thief!” – The Progressive Air Date: 10-28-11
Song 2: Stop Thief – Fabian’s 16 Fabulous Hits
Act 3: What’s in a name at Occupy Wall St? – Jim Hightower Air Date: 10-31-11
Song 3: Liberty Square – Liberty Square
Act 4: NYPD Reportedly Sending Drunks Criminals to Occupy Wall Street – Majority Report Air Date: 11-2-11
Song 4: Out of My Mind – Back to Bedlam
Act 5: The general strike in Oakland – Rachel Maddow Air Date: 11-2-11
Song 5: If it weren’t for the union – Robin Roberts
Act 6: Occupy Wall Street and Amend the Constitution to Overturn Citizens United – The Progressive Air Date: 11-2-11
Song 6: Ride of the Valkyries – Classical For The New Age
Act 7: The dignity of the Occupation and the coverage of it – Matthew Filipowicz Air Date: 11-3-11
Song 7: Dignified and Old – The Modern Lovers
Act 8: Occupation teach-ins on environmental issues – Green News Report Air Date: 11-3-11
Song 8: Return to Sender – The Essential Elvis Presley (Remastered)
Act 9: Giant Protest Puppet Kills Dozens Of Peace Drummers – The Onion
Song 9: Night of the Dancing Flame – Ruby Blue
Act 10: Who Are The 1 Percent? – Young Turks Air Date: 11-9-11
Song 10: What Are Their Names – If I Could Only Remember My Name
Act 11: Economics inequality and journalism ethics called into question – Counterspin Air Date: 11-4-11
Song 11: The Sound of Silence – Sounds of Silence
Act 12: What Do They Want? – Mumia Abu-Jamal Air Date: 11-6-11
Song 12: Too Much Information – The Singles Box 1986-1995
Act 13: Occupy Oakland Protester Shot With Rubber Bullet – Young Turks Air Date: 11-9-11
Song 13: Still Fighting It – Rockin’ the Suburbs
Act 14: Adam Gabbatt on second U.S. veteran injured by Oakland police – Countdown Air Date: 11-8-11
Song 14: Sorrow – The Process of Belief
Act 15: Occupy Wall Street Has Proven We Don’t Have Free Speech – Lee Camp Air Date: 10-31-11

#551 The police are the 99 percent too (Occupy Wall St Part 7)
Act 1: Police Let Vehicular Assault Slide at Occupy Oakland General Strike –Majority Report Air Date: 11-4-11
Song 1: Go Your Own Way (Box Set Bonus Track) – The Treasure Box for Boys and Girls
Act 2: Who are the one percent – Robert Greenwald – Thom Hartmann Air Date: 11-3-11
Song 2: We are the many – Makana
Act 3: Don’t just salute veterans, rally with them – Jim Hightower Air Date: 11-14-11
Song 3: Veterans – The Clips
Act 4: Kim Kardashian, Occupy Wall Street, Credit Default Swaps – Lee Camp Air Date 11-14-11
Song 4: Clowns (Can You See Me Now?) – 200 KM/H in the Wrong Lane
Act 5: Police Need to Back Off on Occupy Wall Street – The Progressive Air Date: 11-14-11
Song 5: Stop the Madness – Versatile Roots
Act 6: Protesting at Berkley, past and present – Rachel Maddow Air Date: 11-15-11
Song 6: This fickle world – Theo Bard
Act 7: Shooting and clubbing veterans is not a solution – Jim Hightower Air Date: 11-15-11
Song 7: Shake It Out – Ceremonials (Deluxe Version)
Act 8: Workers Protest Over-Ventilation Of U.S. Factories – The Onion
Song 8: Seasons In the Sun – Have a Ball
Act 9: Occupy Wall Street Brings on a “Which Side Are You On” Moment – The Progressive Air Date: 11-15-11
Song 9: All You Fascists – Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II
Act 10: Keith’s Special Comment: Why OWS needs Michael Bloomberg – Countdown Air Date: 11-16-11
Song 10: So I Need You – The Better Life
Act 11: Occupy Wall St protest has been hosed – The Bugle Air Date: 11-17-11
Song 11: A Change Is Gonna Come – Learning to Bend
Act 12: Occupy Wall Street Media Blackout, Police State – Young Turks Air Date: 11-15-11

Uncle Apichatpong Who Ruminates on the Past, Present and Future: Acclaimed auteur opens up after screening of his Palme d’Or winner

Uncle Apichatpong Who Ruminates on the Past, Present and Future: Acclaimed auteur opens up after screening of his Palme d’Or winner
Asia Society

During the Q&A following the screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), part of Asia Society New York's Blissfully Thai film series (May 13 – June 17, 2011), filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul spoke on a wide range of topics, from the making of Uncle Boonmee, the inspiration behind it, the subjects of death, reincarnation, memories, Thai politics, to, curiously, an avocado farming life after filmmaking, in a conversation with series curator La Frances Hui and a live audience.

The feature film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won Cannes Film Festival's Palme d’Or in 2010, is part of a larger art project, Primitive, which surveys the memories of northeastern Thailand. It also includes an installation of video pieces and a book. Uncle Boonmee follows the final days of a man's life, when he is visited by his loved ones, including his deceased wife appearing as a ghost and his long-lost son who has taken on the form of a monkey ghost.

A book named A Man Who Recall Past Lives (1983) — written by Buddhist monk Phra Sripariyattiweti, from a monastery frequented by the filmmaker's father — inspired the making of the feature film. But while the story of Uncle Boonmee, a real person who could recall his past lives and passed away more than 20 years ago, fascinated the filmmaker, his film is not an adaptation of the book. Rather, the director took the inspiration and mixed it with his own memories; thus the film is as much about Uncle Apichatpong as it is about Uncle Boonmee, explained the filmmaker.

Nabua, a village at the core of the Primitive project, has a troubling history. Due to the proximity to Laos, it was Communism's entry point into Thailand. The military set up camp in the region in the '60s and embarked on a brutal crackdown on Communism. Many people were killed, and an unknown number disappeared into the jungle. A sense of fear permeated the region. Fast forward to contemporary time, and a country divided by political factionism and violence.

Apichatpong recalled one morning about five years ago, when he was awakened to a sense of Thailand's lack of freedom: "There are a lot of things we cannot say or do. And I started, like many people during that time, to educate ourselves… and realized the evil cycle that goes on. There's a sense of hopelessness living in Thailand," said Apichatpong. That realization sparked the filmmaker's interest in death and reincarnation.

A filmmaker who has shown keen interest in the past, Apichatpong has made several films drawing on personal, cultural, and political histories. In response to Hui's question about his gentle and peaceful treatment of memories, even tormenting ones, Apichatpong said, "Some brutal memories and negative ones just happened. Film is like therapy. It looks at [the past] in a nonjudgmental way… In Thailand, there’s a certain kind of ignorance in the air. You just accept… There's this sense of casualness in the film. But it also reflects something darker."

To Read the Rest of the Profile, to watch a Video and to listen to an audio of the Q & A Session with the Audience

Kong Rithdee: Filming Locally, Thinking Globally -- The Search for Roots in Contemporary Thai Cinema

Filming Locally, Thinking Globally: The Search for Roots in Contemporary Thai Cinema
by Kong Rithdee

It was an odyssey, a long, seafaring voyage through international oceans, islands of worries, local uncertainty, the lure of sirens, nostalgic soul-searching, Technicolored dreams, infernal nationalism, fists and elbows—through fears and doubts and hopes and optimism. In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, Thai cinema traveled the Earth in search of itself. It has found, in a sense, what it once lost, and yet, with the wobbly march of a rural ingénue set free in the global showground, the search blissfully continues.

When Apichatpong Weerasethakul defied the Croisette odds, thanked all the ghosts, and teased Tim Burton on that May night he rose like the darkest horse to win the Palme d’Or, the decade of insecurity seemed vindicated. The history of cinema now embraced Thailand. Welcome to the club, says the world, or at least the Western world. Fittingly, it was on the same stage, Cannes, nine years prior, at the dawn of the new millennium, that a barnyard Siamese cowboy, half-drunk on eighty-proof moonshine and manic possibilities, surged from obscurity to grab the world by its balls. In 2001, Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger) announced the arrival of contemporary Thai cinema and ambushed unsuspecting observers with its mad cocktail of nostalgia and anachronism. That film by Wisit Sasanatieng set up one half of the parentheses that was completed by Apichatpong’s Loong Boonmee Raluek Chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) in 2010. A lot happened between them, and then beyond.

On the surface, the two films hardly share a trait, let alone a cinematic ideology—one is a gleefully lurid pastiche, the other a metaphysical pondering in sober hues. On a closer look, however, both films are grounded in something shared by a number of Thai filmmakers of the past decade: a collective subconscious, which attempted to retrieve and redefine the identity of Siamese cinema through both the lenses of local film history and newfound influences of the globalized epoch, through the legacy of our hazy past and the pressing, tangible present. Shot to fame at an international arena like Cannes, both films were actually an attempt to find and bring Thai cinema home.

Take a recent exhibit. The film series “Blissfully Thai,”1 put together by the Asia Society in New York this past May-June, in which eight films made after 2000 were screened, including Uncle Boonmee and Tears of the Black Tiger, captured that spirit and hinted at the running threads shared by directors who are seemingly disparate in purpose and temperament. Also showing in that program were Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Monrak Transistor (2001) and Ploy (2007), Mingmongkol Sonakul’s Isan Special (2002), Yongyoot Thongkongtoon’s The Iron Ladies (2000), Aditya Assarat’s Hi-so (2010), and Apichatpong’s 2002 film Blissfully Yours. Not that these titles by mavericks and young auteurs represent the vast ovum of contemporary Thai cinema that has also spawned trashy horror flicks, arm-flapping transsexual curios, repetitive action sagas, and chest-thumping nationalist epics—we’ll get to them later. But for those eight films (and many more) that began traveling the world since the last year of the 1990s, they put forth the image of “Thai cinema” as international observers perceive us. In the process, they also represent the effort to locate Thai cinema as part of a shifting global esthetic, as part of Asian film culture, and, most importantly, as a fixture in the domestic consciousness that has been groomed to regard movies as mere amusement that merits no cultural scrutiny.


Before directing Tears of the Black Tiger, Wisit Sasanatieng wrote the scripts for two films that resuscitated the near flatline of his homegrown cinema. For his friend Nonzee Nimibutr, in 1997 Wisit wrote the retro-fitted Daeng Bireley and Young Gangsters, a hoodlum escapade set in 1956; then in 1999 he rerooted the oldest Thai ghost yarn from the mid-century and gave Nang Nak a nostalgic push that endeared contemporary viewers. It worked beyond their expectations—Daeng Bireley was a major hit, and Nang Nak shot to all-time-high box-office earnings (to be broken later) and spent years touring the festival circuit. The two films succeeded in reconnecting the audience—among them the new middle class who had for a while displayed a deep-seated mistrust for inane local productions—to the visual adaptation of familiar narratives and made cinema matter again among Thais.

But while Nonzee’s image of vintage Thailand is a straightforward re-creation of lulling canals, lovelorn banshees, and the elegantly lost past, Wisit’s own plan of rerooting went far beyond postcard realism and into metacinematic exploits. Channeling his fetishistic passion for old Technicolored films, he went prepop and posteverything in his directorial debut that rocked Cannes yet tanked disastrously at home. Tears of the Black Tiger reaches back into the treasure trove of Siamese-cinema antics and flaunts its artificiality like a badge of honor. It’s not an exhibition of nostalgia; it is a cosmology of Thai film history rebooted and retooled with a good mix of love, care, and lunacy. When that dementedly colorful film flopped at home yet thrilled (or bewildered) critics worldwide, earning selective releases in many territories—this was the early 2000s when Asian films were making an onslaught on the world stage—the long and giddy search for the identity, or identities, of contemporary Thai cinema, kick-started by the two Nonzee films Wisit previously wrote, became the silent discourse among upcoming Thai directors at the turn of the century.

Apichatpong made his Mysterious Object At Noon in 2000, followed by Blissfully Yours in 2002. Both movies, especially the first, drew on the reservoir of old-fashioned storytelling tradition unique to Thai melodrama—radio plays, rural performances, oral tales—as well as the formalism of Western experimental filmmaking. The filmmaker’s fusion of Third-World surrealism, Siamese candor, and sci-fi/spiritual contemplation would later launch an ongoing debate on the meaning of “Thainess” in the globalized period when those themes reincarnated in different forms in his subsequent Tropical Malady, Syndromes and a Century, and Uncle Boonmee. At around the same time, Pen-ek Ratanaruang surveyed the wreckage of Thai genre films left smoldering after the gloom of the 1990s, and cooked up the cheerfully cynical Fun Bar Karaoke (1997) and 6ixtynin9 (1999). But it was Monrak Transistor, which was screened at the Directors’ Fortnight in 2002 and partly inspired by an old Thai musical film from the 1960s, that contributed to the collective search for our lost Eden.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Media Roots: Wells Fargo Profits from Private Prisons

Wells Fargo Profits from Private Prisons
Media Roots

As big banks inject record amounts of cash into lobbying this year, largely aimed at access to financial regulators, Wells Fargo, in particular, stands out because of its added rapacious dimension of investments in for-profit prisons and immigrant detention centres. Certainly, legal wrangling over deportation policies is politicised. Yet, whereas pre-9/11, undocumented immigrants were summarily deported to their country of origin by border patrol agents along the border, post-9/11 for-profit detention centres are hugely profiting from the detention of scores of immigrants apprehended throughout the country, not just along the border at the point of entry.

Meanwhile, one of Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, the for-profit prison firm GEO Group, Inc., invests millions in lobbying for ever more draconian anti-immigrant legislation, as Eric Dolan (in the article below) and Hyun-Mi Kim (in the interview below) explain. Kim notes, the racist anti-immigrant SB 1070 Bill in Arizona was shaped in large part by the nation's top-two for-profit prison firms GEO Group, Inc. and Corrections Corporation of America. The two firms, says Kim, raked in a whopping $2.9 Billion in profits in 2010.

As regressive policies, such as NAFTA, create economic refugees forced to migrate from Latin America to the U.S. in search of employment, predatory anti-immigrant policies, shaped by for-profit prison firms, incentivise prolonged detentions, such as at the notorious T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas, as Davey D notes (below).

Kim correctly points out the complete betrayal by Obama to his campaign promises of compassion towards immigrant communities. Not only have record numbers of immigrants been imprisoned under Obama’s support for the regressive policies of I.C.E. and S-Comm, but Obama has even run defence on behalf of for-profit detention centres by exempting them from the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. As Frontline has reported, immigrants “held in U.S. immigration detention facilities filed more than 170 allegations of sexual abuse over the last four years, mostly against guards and other staff at the centers, according to government documents obtained by FRONTLINE and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).” Thus, not only must immigrants endure economic abuse, class-warfare, and arbitrary detention, but torture as well.

To Read the Rest of the Reports

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Identity, Place and Community

(Migrating from another site)

“The 20 Best North American Districts, Downtowns, and Neighborhoods.” and “Around the world in 20 places.” Project for Public Places (November 2004)

21st Century Neighborhoods (Derek Owens site set up for student essays about their neighborhoods and communities)

Alarcon, Daniel. “Grand Mall Seizure.” Alternet (December 20, 2004)

Anderberg, Kristen. “Too Angry For What?” Alternative Press Review (Dec 30, 2004)

Armstrong, Karen. “The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.” Book TV (August 21, 2004) (Program introduction: "Karen Armstong became a nun at the age of 17, but left the convent seven years later, in 1969. She went on to write several books on religious subjects, including "A History of God," "The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism," "Islam: A Short History," and "Buddha." "The Spiral Staircase" tells the story of her personal search for God and for her place in the world in the years after she left the convent.)

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

Berry, Wendell. “Compromise, Hell.” Orion November/December 2004 (Here is a true conservative who always challenges us to consider what it means to be an American and to consider the consequences of our actions for the future of our country, its citizens, and its places. Those who insist that progressives are only "liberal" are missing the point and perpetuating a dangerous myth.)

Brief Biographical Interjection

Clifford, James. “Taking Identity Politics Seriously.”

Delio, Michelle. “On the Road: Great River Road.” Wired (October/November 2004) (Website introduction: “Wired News correspondent Michelle Delio follows the Mississippi River along the Great River Road in search of the geekiest people and places she can find. Her stories document the trip from the headwaters in Itasca State Park, Minnesota to the delta in Venice, Louisiana.”)

Dow, Whitney and Marco Williams. "Two Towns of Jasper." and the PBS Site ("We have known each other for twenty-five years. We attended the same high school, shared holidays and weddings, and at times even lived in each other’s homes. Both of us went to similar northeastern colleges and ended up with similar careers as filmmakers in New York City. Our belief was that the bond of our shared histories trumped the fact that one of us is black and one of us is white. That all changed with the murder of James Byrd and began a five-year odyssey that has culminated with the film you are about to see. When the news broke that three men from a small southeastern Texas town had chained a black man to the back of a truck and dragged him three miles to his death, we called each other and spoke about the murder. What happened confounded twenty-five years of friendship and all of our commonalities—we saw the murder in startlingly different lights. One of us, who is white, was outraged at the murder and expressed shock and disbelief that such a crime had taken place at the dawn of the 21st century. The other, who is black, was outraged but felt no special shock or surprise at either how or why James Byrd was killed. This fundamental difference in our reactions led us to conclude that making a film about the crime would provide an illuminating window on how race is lived in America. In the three years it took us to complete Two Towns of Jasper, we did something that few friends or colleagues do: we interrogated race and race relations in America on a daily basis. In so doing, we discovered that despite our commonalities, we experience life in America in drastically different ways, solely due to our race.")

Elie Wiesel's Night ("Night by Elie Wiesel—a memoir that focuses on the final year of the Holocaust—a year the author spent at Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp. The Central Question: What is the relationship between our stories and our identity? To what extent are we all witnesses of history and messengers to humanity?")

Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Family Name ("Is something a secret and everybody knows it, but nobody talks about it? ... Family Name documents Macky Alston’s efforts to confront his family’s history and relate what he learned to his own identity.")

Farewell to Manzanar ("Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston—an account of a young girl’s experiences at an internment camp in the United States during World War II. It reveals how the time Jeanne Wakatsuki spent at Manzanar shaped her identity—her sense of who she is and what she might become. The Central Question: How do our confrontations with justice and injustice help shape our identity? How do those confrontations influence the things we say and do?")

"The Farmer's Wife." Frontline (PBS: September 1998; Updated June 2003) ["Acclaimed filmmaker David Sutherland takes us deep inside the passionate, yet troubled marriage of Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter, a young farm couple in rural Nebraska facing the loss of everything they hold dear. Part 1 of "The Farmer's Wife" recounts the moving story of Juanita and Darrel's romantic love affair and begins the journey to the core of their emotional struggles, which have pushed their marriage to the brink. Darrel and Juanita tell their own story, in their own words, without the intrusion of a narrator. It unfolds before our eyes, as it is happening."]

“Geography Education: 9-12 Grade.” National Geographic

“Geography Standards.” Xpeditions (National Geographic: 2001)

Gessner, David. “Sick of Nature: Today's nature writing is too often pious, safe, boring. Haven't these people re-read Thoreau lately?” The Boston Globe (August 1, 2004)

Ghetto Life 101 (The Text) and Ghetto Life 101 (The Audio Story) ("The idea for GHETTO LIFE 101 came from David Isay, a New York writer and producer. He was asked to make a documentary for a public radio station in Chicago as part of a series on issues of race and ethnicity in the city. Instead of interviewing scholars and other experts on urban life, Isay decided to ask young people who lived in urban neighborhoods to tell their own stories. He sent letters to social service agencies and high schools all over the city asking for help in finding two students interested in taking on the assignment. He received dozens of responses. From that list of applicants, he hired Jones and Newman as reporters, because “they were smart. They were funny. They were the ones.” LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman decided to speak frankly about themselves, their families, and their community. They chose to share not only the good things about their lives but also their sorrows, fears, and disappointments. To broaden their audience’s perspective, they interviewed relatives, teachers, classmates, and others in their neighborhood - the area around the Ida B. Wells, a housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Lloyd Newman and his family have an apartment there. LeAlan Jones lives in a house nearby. After a week of recording impressions, conversations, and interviews, LeAlan Jones signed off with these words: Me and my friend Lloyd Newman just did a description of our life for a week, and we want to give you kids in America a message: Don’t look at ghetto kids as different. You might not want to invite us to your parties, you might think we’ll rob you blind when you got your back turned. But don’t look at us like that. Don’t look at us like we’re an alien or an android or an animal or something. We have a hard life, but we’re sensitive. Ghetto kids are not a different breed - we’re human. Some people might say, “That boy don’t know what he’s talkin’ about!” But I know what I’m talking about. I’m dealing from the heart because I’ve been dealing with this for thirteen years. These are my final words, but you’ll be hearing from me again, ‘cause I’m an up-and-rising activist.
Peace out.")

Godvin, Tara. “Hawaii War Memorial Crumbling Into Ocean.”

“Great Public Spaces: Great Community Places.” Project for Public Spaces (Ongoing Project/Archive)

The Great Mirror (website description: “The Great Mirror is a collection of about 6,000 photographs taken over the last 30 years by Bret Wallach, a geography professor at the University of Oklahoma. The photos generally show cultural rather than physical landscapes and are intended to illuminate the peoples who have shaped the landscapes and whose values are reflected in them. Though often detailed, the captions are narrowly focused. For a comprehensive introduction to this subject, which is cultural geography, see Understanding the Cultural Landscape (Guilford Press 2004, ISBN 1593851197). Site additions in 2003 include Alpine Austria, Belgium (Bruges and Brussels), Italy (Venice and Florence), Thailand (Bangkok), Spain (Andalucia), and Germany (Heidelberg and Trier). Additions in 2004 include United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Oman (Muscat and Jebal Akhdar), Eastern U.S. (D.C.), Western U.S. (Glen Rose and Las Colinas), India (Calcutta, Hyderabad, and Sanchi), Sri Lanka (Anuradhapura), and expanded coverage of China. Latest additions: pictures of Uzbekistan and expanded coverage of London.)

“History of Chicano Park.”

Identity Paintings (Facing History and Ourselves website)

The Individual and Society

“Indivisible: Stories of American Community.” Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (Online Project: 2000)

Kelliher, Laurie. “Suburban Myth: Elizabeth Llorente's stories puncture our preconceptions of the suburbs. And she's getting others to take a closer look in their own backyards.” Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 2004)

“Kids in a Phishing Community: An Experiment in the Transcendence of Community.”

Lane, Lois. Me and My Big Fat Mouth Home Fires (Weblog: January 14, 2005) ["Earlier stories of my younger days and my wrongdoing have shown a less than angelic Lois Lane. Today will be no different. At the ripe old age of five, I displayed a stealth-like ability. Some children may have used this type of power on something less criminal, like sneaking cookies out of the cookie jar just before dinner time. Not me. I was much more big league than cookies."]

Lopez, Barry. “The American Geographies.” About This Life. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

---. “A Literature of Place.” Portland Magazine (Summer 1997: reposted at Envirolink)

Masco, Joseph. "Desert Modernism." Cabinet Magazine #13 (2004) ("Las Vegas is currently the fastest growing city in the United States, consuming water as if it were surrounded by ocean. It is also an island of public commercialism within a military-industrial crypto-state, that vast section of Nevada backcountry where secret military technologies are designed, atomic bombs detonated, and chemical weapons and nuclear waste stored. Nevertheless, the desert can still today take on the appearance of pristine possibility, unrolling toward the horizon as a rugged tabula rasa, a dreamspace for spectacular progress. This ability to reinscribe desert "purity" requires constant effort, as the pursuit of utopian potential is predicated on a continual emptying-out of dystopian realities— in this case, those of nuclear weapons, waste, and war. Thus, if the desert in the post-Cold War American imagination still signifies hope for an endlessly renewable frontier, such migration from self and nation remains fraught, as escapees to the western interior run headlong into an equally imaginative military-industrial economy that constructs the desert as a hyper-regulated "proving ground" for the super-secret, the deadly, and the toxic. To negotiate these conflicting approaches to the epic West, both citizens and officials have come to rely on tactical amnesias, temporal sutures enabling a precarious—if addictive—cosmology of progress, fueled by high-octane combinations of risk, silence, utopian expectation, and paranoid anxiety. It is this dual process of mythologizing and monumentalizing through cognitive erasure that I call "desert modernism.")

Memphis: Building Community ("Day in and day out, our morning newspapers and evening newscasts document the consequences of our failure to value one another. It is a failure of truly global proportions. Cultures United has grown from our separate and combined efforts to address those divisions in Memphis and build a community that nurtures and respects both the individual and the group. In thinking about what we could do to make a positive difference, we drew on our own experiences. Over the years, as we have worked together in a variety of settings to practice democracy, we have shared not only ideas, talents, and skills but also laughter, tears, and friendship. As a result, we have come to trust one another and see each other as potential partners in an important enterprise - creating a caring community. We formed Cultures United to encourage others to join with us in that enterprise. One of the best ways to break the barriers that separate us is through the kind of humor that helps us see the world through someone else's eyes. We invited Bill Cosby to perform at our first public event on March 23, 1996, because that is exactly what his stories do. Even as we laugh at his tales, they touch our hearts in ways that reveal that we have far more in common than we ever imagined. In one of those stories, Cosby tells of how he and his pals would stand under the Ninth Street Bridge in Philadelphia and yell so loudly that the echoes could be heard blocks away. Cosby’s comedic genius ensures that those echoes continue to be heard. It is a legacy that lives on in our shared laughter. Memphis: Building Community celebrates other legacies. It recalls the voices of a few courageous individuals who tried to promote democracy by shattering the barriers that divide the people of Memphis and the nation. These men and women struggled to create a sense of responsibility that goes beyond race, class, religious orientation, and culture. They worked to bridge differences by opening channels of communication. Their legacy lives on in our own faith and optimism. We, too, believe that by putting our heads and hands to work, each of us has the power to make a positive difference.")

Mental Mapping Project. Department of Geography, University of Oklahoma. (2000)

Mundy, Liza. “A World of Their Own.” Washington Post Magazine (March 31, 2002)

The New England Holocaust Memorial

Obama, Barack. “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.” Public Lives (C-SPAN2: December 4, 2004) (Website description: Illinois U.S. Senator - Elect Barack Obama discusses his memoir, titled "Dreams from My Father." It's his account of growing up in a racially mixed family, doing community work in Chicago, and a journey to Kenya where he met the African side of his family. Mr. Obama also talks about the challenges he expects to face once he takes his U.S. Senate seat in January 2005. Includes Q&A. Barack Obama represented the South Side of Chicago in the Illinois Senate before being elected to the U.S. Senate this past November. Former president of the Harvard Law Review, he lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago.”)

One World TV (Free site that allows everyday people to create and broadcast their stories. Over 5,000 entries so far. This is an amazing project that shows us the power of these new technologies to share stories from around the world. Media for and by the people.)

Place Theory Bibliography, Pt. 1

Professor B. “Do I Bitch About Students Too Much?” Bitch. Ph.D. (December 2, 2004)

Project for Public Spaces (An amazing organization dedicated to revitalizing public spaces around the world. A much needed effort for increasingly atomistic, technological lifestyles/societies. Huge archives of images, descriptions and suggestions/plans.)

Research on Space and Place (Bruce Janz’s amazing project to document and link all sources on “space and place”)

Self-Knowledge Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (February, 7, 2003)

We and They

Consensus Decision Making (Direct Democracy @ Occupy Wall Street)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Glenn Greenwald: OWS-inspired activism

OWS-inspired activism
by Glenn Greenwald

It was only a matter of time before a coordinated police crackdown was imposed to end the Occupy encampments. Law enforcement officials and policy-makers in America know full well that serious protests — and more — are inevitable given the economic tumult and suffering the U.S. has seen over the last three years (and will continue to see for the foreseeable future). A country cannot radically reduce quality-of-life expectations, devote itself to the interests of its super-rich, and all but eliminate its middle class without triggering sustained citizen fury.

The reason the U.S. has para-militarized its police forces is precisely to control this type of domestic unrest, and it’s simply impossible to imagine its not being deployed in full against a growing protest movement aimed at grossly and corruptly unequal resource distribution. As Madeleine Albright said when arguing for U.S. military intervention in the Balkans: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” That’s obviously how governors, big-city Mayors and Police Chiefs feel about the stockpiles of assault rifles, SWAT gear, hi-tech helicopters, and the coming-soon drone technology lavished on them in the wake of the post/9-11 Security State explosion, to say nothing of the enormous federal law enforcement apparatus that, more than anything else, resembles a standing army which is increasingly directed inward.

Most of this militarization has been justified by invoking Scary Foreign Threats — primarily the Terrorist — but its prime purpose is domestic. As civil libertarians endlessly point out, the primary reason to oppose new expansions of government power is because it always — always — vastly expands beyond its original realm. I remember quite vividly the war-zone-like police force deployed against protesters at the 2008 GOP Convention in Minneapolis, as well as the invocation of Terrorism statutes to arrest and punish them, with the active involvement of federal law enforcement. Along those lines, Alternet‘s Lynn Parramore asks all the key questions about the obviously coordinated law enforcement assault on peaceful protesters over the last week.

But the same factors that rendered this police crackdown inevitable will also ensure that this protest movement endures: the roots of the anger are real, profound and impassioned. Just as American bombs ostensibly aimed at reducing Terrorism have the exact opposite effect — by fueling the anti-American sentiments that cause Terrorism in the first place — so, too, will excessive police force further fuel the Occupy movement. Nothing highlights the validity of the movement’s core grievances more than watching a piggish billionaire Wall Street Mayor — who bought and clung to his political power using his personal fortune — deploy force against marginalized citizens peacefully and lawfully protesting joblessness, foreclosures and economic suffering. If Michael Bloomberg didn’t exist, the Occupy protesters would have to invent him.

* * * * *

After visiting numerous Occupy sites over the past few weeks, I’ve repeatedly said that the protests are among the most exciting, inspiring and important political developments over the last decade. That’s true for several reasons: its innovative, pioneering tactics, its refusal to be pigeonholed with partisan identity, its resistance to translating itself into establishment media language, its organic form, its appropriate contempt for the nation’s political and legal institutions, its singular ability to force discussions of wealth inequality into the discourse. But I think its most impressive attribute is that it has inspired a level of activism and a sense of possibility like few other things have. It’s worth highlighting a few representative examples.

Ever since the Occupy movement began, the blog FireDogLake, with very little attention or self-promotion, has overwhelmingly devoted itself not only to covering the protests but also to creating an amazing new template to help sustain it. Exclusively relying on reader donations, FDL has sent one of its youngest and most relentless activists, Kevin Gosztola, around the country for the last two months, visiting over 20 different encampments from every region in the nation. Gosztola has been able to provide first-hand, on-the-scene reporting from all of these sites, but more important, has built a network of representatives and liasons to enable coordination and communication among site organizers.

Over the past month, FDL — with the construction of this network — has done something truly amazing. In addition to police crackdowns, it has long been assumed that the greatest challenge to sustaining the Occupy movement would be the approaching harsh winter in Northern cities. The assumption — not unreasonable — was that few people would be willing to occupy outdoor spaces in zero-degree weather or below. FDL, with its “Occupy Supply” project, is all but ensuring the elimination of this problem.

Again using nothing more than reader donations, FDL designed and then purchased a full line of winter clothing for free distribution to the various Occupy sites around the nation: hats, sweaters, scarves, gloves, socks, blankets, jackets, thermal underwear, face masks, and more. Every penny FDL raises — 100% — goes exclusively toward the manufacture and free distribution of these products to Occupy protesters. They have thus far raised close to $90,000, and spent roughly $85,000 of it on the purchase of almost 7,000 items. They have also furnished heat generators, tents, and sleeping bags to numerous sites as well.

To Read the Rest and To Access Hyperlinked Resources

Love in Action: Occupy Spoken Word Piece with Drew Dellinger

Occupy! Gazette #2

N + 1 magazine's history of the second month of the Occupy Movement:

Occupy! Gazette #2

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sarah Jaffe and Joshua Holland: Which Bank Is the Worst for America? 5 Behemoths That Hold Our Political System Hostage

Which Bank Is the Worst for America? 5 Behemoths That Hold Our Political System Hostage
by Sarah Jaffe and Joshua Holland

We've ranked the banks based on how shamelessly they game the political process through lobbying, revolving door politics and campaign donations.

The economic crash led to the loss of 9 million jobs and the biggest drop in American home-ownership since the Great Depression. Long-term unemployment, poverty and hunger have increased dramatically. People are angry. The Occupy Wall Street movement, a stand against Wall Street's greed, excess and criminality, has captured the imagination and participation of millions across the nation and the globe.

The giant mortgage bubble and the irresponsible and corrupt practices that caused the catastrophic economic crash didn't emerge out of thin air. They were a consequence of decades of pay-to-play politics rife with conflicts of interest; a political system awash in cash and legal pay-offs, designed to undermine the checks and balances that could have prevented the meltdown.

Many of these checks and balances were implemented during the Great Depression. How they were eroded and eventually abandoned is the story of a small group of banks, financial companies and elites involved in major conflicts of interest, revolving-door politics and backroom deal-making -- all to protect the interests of the global elite at the expense of the American public.

Big Finance has a long history of working hard to deregulate the American economic system on behalf of global capitalism run amok. One of its biggest coups was the overturning of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that created a firewall between investment banking and the commercial banks that hold deposits and make loans.

The first victory in the quest to overturn this major protection came in 1986. Under intense pressure from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve reinterpreted a key section of Glass-Steagall, deciding that commercial banks could make up to 5 percent of their gross revenues from investment banking. After the board heard arguments from Citicorp, J.P. Morgan and Bankers Trust, it loosened the restrictions further: in 1989, the limit was raised to 10 percent of revenues, and in 1996, they hiked it up to 25 percent.

Then, according to a report by PBS' Frontline, “In the 1997-'98 election cycle, the finance, insurance, and real estate industries (known as the FIRE sector), spen[t] more than $200 million on lobbying and [made] more than $150 million in political donations” – most of which were “targeted to members of Congressional banking committees and other committees with direct jurisdiction over financial services legislation.”

The following year, after 12 unsuccessful attempts, Glass-Steagall, which would have made the crash of 2007-2009 impossible, was finally repealed. And it was only then that the explosion of shaky mortgage-backed securities began. “Subprime” loans, which made the mortgage system so vulnerable, made up 5 percent of all mortgages in the U.S. the year before repeal, but had skyrocketed to 30 percent of the total at the time of the crash.

The Glass-Steagall act was killed by financial interests seeking to maximize deregulation. The result was a casino-like environment that almost destroyed the U.S. and global economy. The giants of Wall Street enjoyed a massive bailout courtesy of American taxpayers, and they're still hard at work gaming the system, lobbying hard against new regulations that might avert the next bubble-led crash.

AlterNet, in partnership with the Media Consortium, looked at the five banks that exert the most influence on our democracy. Based on their size, the amount of money they spend on campaign donations and lobbying, and the number of employees who’ve gone through the revolving door into public service, or vice versa, we determined which banks have had the worst impact on the country. We’ll rank each one based on our research, and come up with the worst of the worst--the big bank that’s done the most damage to America's economy and society.

A word of caution is in order. This report is based only on what the banks are forced to disclose. It doesn't include lobbying by corporate front-groups like the Chamber of Commerce, and it doesn't include the “independent” campaign spending that has exploded in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which corporations are no longer required to disclose to the public. This is a classic story of American political corruption writ large.

Meet the Big Banks and Read the Rest