Monday, November 30, 2015

JERKY READS IT FOR YOU ~ HARPER'S JUNE 2015

Alright folks, I'm sure you all know the Jerky Reads It For You drill by now. If not, you can go back and check out a previous installment... like this one. If you're already all clued in, then all that's left for you to do is read, clip, save, and enjoy!



LETTERS

Sparks fly in this issue’s letters pages, as Citigroup’s Executive Vice President for Global Public Affairs Ed Skyler writes in to berate both Harper’s and Andrew Cockburn, author of April’s report “Saving the Whale Again”, about how mean and nasty and unfair their portrayal of Citibank/Ctigroup was. Cockburn responds witheringly. Not so effective is the doleful Rebecca Solnit, who’s April Easy Chair moan, titled “Abolish High School”, led to two replies calling her out for writing a “demeaning” and “pedestrian” essay. Her self-defense, in which she accuses one of her critics of spouting “the hallucinatory stuff of men’s-rights-movement rants”, was almost as lackluster.

EASY CHAIR

Oh boy... "Shooting Down Man the Hunter"? This one is by Solnit again, and again we get a shrill, sour, sanctimonious and intellectually crippled polemic from a writer who isn’t as smart as she thinks she is, scolding a readership that is far more mature, thoughtful and discriminating than she presumes. Oh, and she also manages to dig up “a perfect specimen of a men’s-rights ranter” from (ahem) “social media”. With her career at Harper’s so far marked by bitter whining, a love of straw man arguments, and a near total lack of wit, I suppose it should come as no surprise that she once again ends up embarrassing herself rather badly. The sooner Harper’s drops or demotes her, the better.

HARPER’S INDEX

Gee, I wonder whether Solnit had anything to do with these vital, righteous entries:
- Percentage of women’s college-sports teams that had female coaches in 1972: 90
- That do today: 43
- Amount by which the average annual salary of a male nurse exceeds that of a female nurse in the USA: $5,100.

READINGS

[Essay] Loitering With Intent
by William M. Arkin, from his upcoming book, “Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare”.

In this excerpt, Arkin describes the “exponential increase in the use of unmanned vehicles over the past decade” almost as if this was due to some kind of adoption of new policy, instead of the REAL reason, that being the fact that drone technology is a very recent innovation. Therefore, saying that Obama’s administration uses drones “100 times more” than the Bush administration is worse than saying nothing at all. It’s useless knowledge, akin to saying “more photographs were taken after the invention of photography than before”. It’s a virtual tautology. At one point, he writes: “Advances in information technology, nanotechnology, and even genetics, together with the continued miniaturization of nearly everything, are propelling an astonishing acceleration of drone capabilities.” Really? Genetics? He doesn’t elaborate, which leads me to believe that he wouldn’t be able to if he tried. He’s just jumbled some high-tech sounding words together.

Speaking of new words: “Before the military started using the buzzwords “persistent surveillance” and “perch and stare” to describe this mode of intelligence gathering, they used the word “loiter”, a word that said far more than it was supposed to let on.”

Arkin explains:
Loitering, according to John Brennan, the director of the CIA and architect of America’s drone wars, provides “a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings, including the presence of civilians.”
The problem, Arkin sees, is this tactic’s aimlessness, its propensity towards collecting pure, raw data sets. However, turning away from these technologies might have horrible consequences. Arkin describes the argument against the argument against thusly:
But to many military and intelligence officers, the public’s misgivings verge on the hypocritical. Sure, everyone wants less wait, but do they really want more risk? Do drone critics really desire less precision, or decisions made with inferior intelligence, or the greater destruction that would come if somehow the world returned to grinding industrial warfare of the 20th century? ... Talk of unmanned warfare ignores the hundreds of thousands of scientists and analysts and technicians who are involved in the process. We have extended the battlefield to every corner of the globe and expanded our target lists beyond the terrorists. Loitering facilitates and even encourages this expansion. ... Keyboard warfare suits the young people who joined the military after 9/11 and supplanted the brick-and-mortar warriors of the previous era. Almost every aspect of modern military recruitment and training--even the manner in which operations are carried out--caters to the expectations of these digitally addicted multitaskers. ... As the civilian melds with the military, naturally the number of civilians int he fight also increases. ... Warfare has not yet completely transformed into an endeavor in which everyone on the battlefield is there only to justify being on the battlefield, but the ratio of people actually fighting to those processing the information and operating the machines has reached a historical extreme. Ammunition makes up only 1.6 percent of the supplies shipped to combat areas; repair parts make up less than 1 percent. Fuel, on the other hand, constitutes 39 percent; water, food, clothing, and personal items make up another 55.4 percent.
And yet, the constant failures accrue, because the size of the Data Machine “reflects its immaturity more than its omniscience.” All of which leads to the distressing conclusion: “A government effort costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and comprising tens of thousands of sensors and hundreds of thousands of human operators and analysts, is barely able to keep up with the task of finding and monitoring a few thousand people.”

[Scholarship] Bot for Teacher

Excerpts from computer science papers published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and retracted after it was discovered that they were written by software that generates fake papers (proving that STEM fields aren’t as immune to trickery as they so arrogantly believed). Some of my favorite titles:
- “Flexible, Wearable Algorithms for Web Services Investigation on E-Commerce Based on Suffix Trees and Moore’s Law” 
- “The Effect of Pervasive Algorithms on Artificial Intelligence” 
- “The Synthesizing Write-Back Caches Based on Metamorphic Methodologies”
[Correspondence] Friends Like These

Excerpts from emails between every liberal’s favorite easy target, Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps (PBUH), and a group of honest-to-Godzilla Nazis who wanted to help Fred stage one of his notorious public anti-gay protests. Well, old Fred was having none of it. At one point, he sent those Nazis an email that reads as follows:
“We are not associated with the National Socialist Party in any way, shape, or form. We preach the gospel found in the scriptures--we do not add to or take away from it. Many of our members are attorneys by trade, and we spent many years protecting civil rights for minorities in the state of Kansas.”
Way to go, Fred! Whoa... Hold on a second...

[Inventory] Written Off

From a list of gifts rejected by organizations since 2010.
- Haitian farmers burned 60,000 sacks of seeds donated by Monsanto after the 2010 earthquake. 
- Pnina Tamano-Shata, a member of the Israeli Knesset, was not allowed to donate to a blood bank because she had a “special kind of Jewish-Ethiopian blood” banned by the Health Ministry.
[Propositions] Making Amends

John Edgar Wideman, a Harper’s contributing editor, wrote this odd bit of polemic in which he seems to take the position of God (or is it Death?), holding a press conference to explain his inaction in the face of all those unarmed Black people (and only Black people) being killed by police in the United States of America. Personally, I think it’s unfortunate that the very real and very serious problems of over-policing and police militarization have been all wrapped up with the race issue (thereby insuring there will NEVER be consensus on a course of action) but hey... That’s just me.

[Clarification] While You Were Sleeping

In which Brian Greene, a state representative for Utah, makes an ass of himself by asking if the legislature is certain that it wants to set the dangerous precedent (House bill 74) of making it illegal for the state’s husbands to make love to their wives while the latter are either asleep or unconscious because, hey, who doesn’t like a little knock-out nookie every once in a while, right? Fucking ridiculous.

[Copy] Product Placement

From a description of the “Vajankle”, a silicone foot produced by Sinthetics, an intimate doll manufacturer. “It has a usable vagina in the top of the ankle.” Hilarious.

[Fiction] Lip Service
By Wolfgang Hilbig, excerpted from his 1993 novel “I”. It’s about mouths and throats and a job or something. I didn’t much care for it.

[Poem] Lines
By Lukasz Jarosz, from The Nature of Things, a collection of poems soon to be published. As usual with the poems selected by Harper’s, I’m not a fan.

ESSAY // WHAT WENT WRONG, ASSESSING OBAMA’S LEGACY
By David Brommwich

I think the best part about this cover story--which itself is part of the long tradition of anti-Obama sentiment from insufferable, annoying super-Leftists--is how, seemingly within days of the issue hitting the newsstands, President Obama kicked off a months-long string of political home runs that might put Sammy Sosa to shame. One could almost imagine Brommwich sitting at home, suffering terribly as he watched the Supreme Court legitimize “Obamacare” (which itself has lead to the biggest drop in uninsured Americans in history) and recognized same sex marriage across the entire nation (which Obama had been pushing hard for), as he unfroze relations with Cuba, got the GOP to grant him fast track negotiating authority on the TPP, pushed his Iran deal through Congress, shepherded an ongoing economic rebound, etc. Hardly the stuff of a “lame duck” President. And yet there was June’s issue of Harper’s, sitting forlorn on the shelves, with a defeated looking Obama on the cover beneath the headline blaring: “WHAT WENT WRONG”. No question mark. Brommwich wasn’t asking. He was telling. And he begins his telling with an incredibly pompous epigram from Kierkegaard’s The Present Age:
“A political virtuoso... Might write a manifesto suggesting a general assembly at which people should decide upon a rebellion, and it would be so carefully worded that even the censor would let it pass. At the meeting itself he would be able to create the impression that his audience had rebelled, after which they would all go quietly home--having spent a very pleasant evening.”
Oh boy. Why not Yeats’ "Second Coming"? Too on the nose?

Anyway, let’s see what this Brommwich guy has to say about Obama’s “legacy”. The first paragraph bares repeating, I suppose, for context:
Any summing-up of the Obama presidency is sure to find a major obstacle in the elusiveness of the man. He has spoken more words, perhaps, than any other president; but to an unusual extent, his words and actions float free of each other. He talks with unnerving ease on both sides of an issue: about the desirability, for example, of continuing large-scale investment in fossil fuels. Anyone who voted twice for Obama and was baffled by what followed--there must be millions of us--will feel that this president deserves a kind of criticism he has seldom received. Yet we are held back by an admonitory intuition. His predecessor was worse, and his successor most likely will also be worse.
First of all, I find it kind of telling that he only brings up one, rather minor example for his reasons to label Obama as two-faced. If it is indeed true that Obama is two-faced--or at least more two-faced than any politician in the modern world needs to be in order to survive--than surely Brommwich should be able to find a more damning example than this silly nothingness about fossil fuel policy. And to say that Obama “campaigned better than he has governed”, that to me seems more damning to his political adversaries than it is to the President. At the end of the day, the president is not a dictator. Any politician campaigns not on promises, but on goals and ideals, informing the electorate of the direction in which he intends to shift the body politic. Wholesale remakings of the Republic of the nature that Brommwich and others seem to be calling for are neither possible, nor desirable.

Later in his essay, Brommwich discusses an interview in which Obama concedes that, in his efforts to close down Guantanamo Bay, the fight got so nasty and partisan that he decided that pushing the issue wasn’t worth the political fallout. About this, Brommwich writes:
In March 2015, in the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession. It is one thing to know about yourself that in the gravest matters you follow the path of least resistance. It is another thing to say so in public. Obama was affirming that for him there could not possibly be a question of following the path of courageous resistance. He might regret it six years later, but politics set in, and he had to eave Guantanamo open--a symbol of oppression that (by his own account) tarnished the fame of America in the eyes of the world.
To me, he seems to be faulting the president for being candid. I can’t help but wonder what Brommwich would have had Obama do. Does he think he is better equipped to decide what goals are worth what price than the president is? If so, I imagine he’s mistaken.

Later still, he seems to criticize Obama on what I would label style issues. He scorns Obama’s love of “words”, claiming the president sees them as “a substitute for action”, thus failing to understand that, when it comes to the presidency of the United States, words often do have the force of action. And when he offers Obama backhanded compliments about his employing “a correct and literate diction”, labeling him “a polite and careful talker” who is “uncomfortable and seldom better than competent in the absence of a script”, Brommwich seems to be echoing some of the uglier (and, from this observer’s point of view, erroneous) bleating of the racialist, retarded Right. And the kicker? Brommwich tries to insult Obama by saying that he “resembles Ronald Reagan”... the third most beloved president of the 20th century. Some insult!

Next up, Brommwich attempts to make the ridiculous argument that having to clean up the mess left after eight years of psychotic misrule by the Bush-Cheney administration actually made things easier for Obama. Could Brommwich really be ignorant of the fact that a large part of the Bush-Cheney cabal’s crimes included sinister tinkering with government structures and institutions in such a way as to cause them to be compromised, not only for the duration of their terms, but for as long as possible, up to and including until the ultimate collapse of the federal government? Come on, Brommwich! Wake up and smell the arson! Considering what came before, and considering what he stood against, that Obama has been as successful as he has is nothing short of a miracle.

Which brings us to Obama’s foreign policy, which of course Brommwich sees as filled with failure... And one of Obama’s biggest failures, according to Brommwich, was (hold on to your hats) the decision to kill Osama bin Laden! Yes, that’s right, “this operation was the president’s own decision, according to the available accounts, and it must be said that many things about the killing were dubious. It gambled a further erosion of trust with Pakistan, and looked to give a merely symbolic lift to the American mood, since bin Laden was no longer of much importance in the running of Al Qaeda.” Un-fucking-believable...

The rest of Brommwich’s article goes on pretty much in this fashion, blaming Obama for his political adversaries’ attacks, tactics and successes (of which they will inevitably have some). He blames Obama for the 2010 midterm election rout of Democrats, even though if Obama had pursued the kind of agenda Brommwich wishes for, that electoral backlash would almost certainly have been worse. He blames Obama for the creation of the Tea Party, and then for not campaigning harder against them (as if this wouldn’t have merely strengthened their resolve and movement). After offering weak acknowledgment that the Affordable Care Act was a great leap forward, he gets in his digs by blaming Obama for the existence of the legislation’s opposition! He blames Obama for Bush-Cheney creating a class of “unreleaseable” War on Terror prisoner, and continuing the long-in-the-making trend of the military employing mercenaries to keep much of the war off the public books. After once again offering weak praise for Obama making waterboarding and other forms of enhanced interrogation illegal (“this is an achievement to which no minus sign can be attached”) he goes on to attack Obama for ordering 456 drone attacks versus the Bush admin’s 52, as if that had nothing to do with the fact that drones (as previously noted in Readings, above) are a relatively new technology.

Which brings Brommwich to Obama’s Middle East policy, the area with which perhaps he and I will most agree. Brommwich points out that Obama’s two key Mideast policy goals were 1) ensuring that the USA didn’t appear to be at war with all of Islam and 2) securing a Palestinian homeland. Considering the current state of the leadership in Israel, #2 was just never gonna fly, and #1... Well, let’s just say that such a thing is easier said than done. 

Possibly the best line of Brommwich’s article is the following: “The scale of the Libyan disaster was already known when the same advisers and opinion makers knocked on Obama’s door for the intervention in Syria.” Thankfully, for the time being, it appears that Obama’s own instincts have finally kicked in, and overthrowing the Assad regime is no longer on the menu. But it sure took long enough for him to come to that realization.  Brommwich writes: 
In both Syria and Iraq, a necessary ally in the fight against Sunni fanatics (including the recent incorporation that calls itself the Islamic State) has been the Shiite regime in Iran. Yet Obama has been hampered from explaining this necessity by his extreme and programmatic reticence on the subject of Iran generally. About the time the last sentence was written, President Obama announced the framework of a nuclear deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran. If he can clear the treaty with Congress and end the state of all but military hostility that has prevailed for nearly four decades between the United States and Iran, the result will stand beside health care as a second major achievement.
I am happy to report, Mister Brommwich, that he did... And it does.

Which brings Brommwich (and us) to Russia, Putin and the Ukraine, about which he writes that “President Obama does not seem to control his foreign policy.” Remember assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland? She who boasted in December 2013 that the US had spent $5 billion since 1991 to peel the Ukraine away from its natural symbiotic relationship with Russia, including untold millions spent to denounce and defame Vladimir Putin in various media, both locally and around the world? Smooth move, that. So smooth, in fact, that it ultimately led to an actual, hot, bullets flying and bombs dropping civil fucking war. “Was he remotely aware of the implications of the crisis--a crisis that plunged Ukraine into a civil war and splintered US diplomacy with Russia in a way that nothing in Obama’s history could lead one to think he wished for? His subsequent statements on the matter have all been delivered in a sedative nudge-language that speaks of measures to change the behavior of a greedy rival power. As in Libya, the evasion of responsibility has been hard to explain. It almost looks as if a cell of the State Department assumed the management of Ukraine policy and the president was helpless to alter their design.”

And here’s where Brommwich’s essay becomes interesting. I excerpt at length:
Suppose something of this sort in fact occurred. How new a development would that be? Five months into Obama’s first term, a coup was effected in Honduras, with American approval. A lawyer for the businessmen who engineered the coup was the former Clinton special counsel Lanny Davis. Did Obama know about the Honduras coup and endorse it? The answer can only be that he should have known; and yet (as with Ukraine) it seems strange to imagine that he actually approved. It is possible that an echo of both Honduras and Ukraine may be discerned in a recent White House statement enforcing sanctions against certain citizens of Venezuela. The complaint, bizarre on the face of it, is that Venezuela has become an “unusual and extraordinary threat: to the national security of the United States. These latest sanctions look like a correction of the president’s independent success at rapprochement with Cuba--a correction administered by forces inside the government itself that are hostile to the White House’s change of course. Could it be that the coup in Ukraine, on the same pattern, served as a rebuke to Obama’s inaction in Syria? Any progress toward peaceful relations, and away from aggrandizement and hostilities, seems to be countered by a reverse movement, often in the same region, sometimes in the same country. Yet both movements are eventually backed by the president. The situation is obscure. Obama’s diffidence in the fact of actions by the State Department (of which he seems half-aware, or to learn of only after the fact) may suggest that we are seeing again the syndrome that led to the National Archives speech and the decision to escalate the Afghanistan war. Edward Snowden, in an interview published in The Nation in November 2014, seems to have identified the pattern. “The Obama Administration,” he said, “almost appears as though it is afraid of the intelligence community. They’re afraid of death by a thousand cuts ... Leaks and things like that.” ... However one reads the evidence, there can be no doubt that Obama’s stance toward the NSA, the CIA and the intelligence community at large has been the most feckless and unaccountable element of his presidency.”
Personally, I think Brommwich would have been better off writing an entire, fully researched and in-depth article about the above issues (State Department and intelligence agencies going rogue) than having such an important and potentially explosive topic be relegated to such a small part part in a wrong-headed essay about Obama’s “failed presidency”. But again... That’s just me.

In summation, then:
Nobody bent on mere manipulation would so often utter a wish for things he could not carry out. ... Much as one would like to admire a leader so good at showing that he means well, and so earnest in projecting the good intentions of his country as the equivalent of his own, it would be a false consolation to pretend that the years of the Obama presidency have not been a large lost chance.
Obviously, while agreeing with Brommwich in parts, I disagree with him on the whole. I hope I’ve made the reasons why at least somewhat clear in my exegesis of his text. Now let’s move on.

REPORT // THIRTY MILLION GALLONS UNDER THE SEA
Following the trail of BP’s oil in teh Gulf of Mexico
By Antonia Juhasz

In March of 2014, the author set out from Gulfport, Mississippi on a three week mission aboard the US Navy research ship, Atlantis, equipped with the federal government’s only manned research submarine, named Alvin. “Their goal was to determine how BP’s oil spill had affected the ocean’s ecosystem from the sea-bed up.” The author got to ride in the sub all the way down to the Macondo well-head, getting closer than anyone had gone since the blowout that spewed 134 million gallons of crude into the sea. The report’s title refers to the 30 million gallons that biogeochemist Samantha Joye estimates remains trapped on the ocean floor, sitting under the sediment, fouling the waters and ecology. “If you short circuit the bottom” she says, “you threaten the entire cycle. Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.” No shit. The whole article is a depressing trotting out of distressing statistics and facts: gallons and percentages and levels of threat and fragility (the Gulf’s vital coral reef environment is on a precipice now), loss of biodiversity (in one of the formerly most biodiverse places on the planet), loss of income for those depending on the Gulf’s previously generous waters. “By May 2011, BP’s oil had sickened or killed more than 100,000 Gulf animals: 28,500 sea turtles, 82,000 birds, and more than 26,000 marine mammals, including several sperm whales. Too small or too numerous to count were the vast numbers of dead fish, crustaceans, insects and plants that washed up on shore. Most of the other organisms initially killed by the spill died at sea and were never seen.”

Juhasz describes her dive to the bottom in exciting terms: “Our dive brought us within two nautical miles of the wellhead. Any nearer and we would have risked getting caught in the wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon.” Very Jules Verne! But it wasn’t all fun and games. The research Joye was involved in showed that the sea bottom hadn’t healed in the years since the spill. It’s also revealed that the use of Corexit, the chemical dispersant that was supposed to help stop oil from drifting ashore, only made things worse... Far worse. Google “Corexit” for some handy-dandy nightmare fuel. And guess what? Scientist Joe Montoya’s research on phytoplankton has “uncovered clear evidence that oil and gas carbon are moving through the food web. Ultimately, these contaminants, in potentially harmful concentrations, could reach things like big fish that people are commercially interested in.” He says: “When people say that the oil spill is over, they aren’t realizing that the full impacts are on a very long timescale of decades or more.”

LETTER FROM THAILAND // A POLITE COUP
Why one of Asia’s most open societies keeps turning to military rule
By Ian Buruma

Let me excerpt the first paragraphs:

As military coups go, Thailand’s putsch on May 22, 2014, was rather polite--no mass imprisonments, no stadiums full of students tortured and shot. The toppled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was detained for only three days. Before the coup, there had been months of street clashes between loyalist “red shirts” and opposition “yellow shirts”, and now General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s junta promised to “restore happiness to the people.” 
There have since been some public protests against martial law. Students were arrested in Bangkok for flashing a three-finger salute copied from The Hunger Games, the novel and attendant movie about a rebellion against a fictional dictatorship. Modest three-finger student demonstrations have also taken place in Khon Kaen, a city in the rural northeast that is considered the main red-shirt stronghold. The salute is now banned in Thailand, as is public reading of George Orwell’s 1984. But so far, opposition to the junta has not found a popular voice--no great demonstrations, no acts of violence. 
It is easy, under such relatively tranquil conditions, not to take Thailand and its coups entirely seriously. Military takeovers occur with some regularity there.
This is a somewhat intriguing article, especially if you know people from, or have an interest in, Thailand. There is also some great photography. Unfortunately, the article eventually comes around to discussing Thailand’s monarchy... which is something I have learned NEVER TO DISCUSS ONLINE, after a semi-terrifying incident when I was writing the Daily Dirt back in the day. If you’re curious as to what happened... Email me and I’ll fill you in.

Anyway, if you’re interested in this article, it’s offered for free on Harper’s website (unlike most of their content, which is subscribers-only).

ANNOTATION // THE MAGIC TOILET
Providing sanitation for the world’s poor
By Sallie Tisdale

This info-graphic is the exact type of article that makes me appreciate Harper’s so much. Its graphic layout is beautiful and elegantly simplistic, and it’s jam-packed with interesting factoids and ideas. In this particular article, you get so much information about the act of defecation that you can practically smell poop by the time you’re done reading it. By the way, did you know that more people in sub-Saharan Africa own cell phones than toilets? “One reason so many Africans have cell phones is that no infrastructure for land lines has ever been built--that technological step was skipped. Sanitation activists now hope that they can skip expensive, inefficient sewer systems as well.” The answer to this problem, not to mention the problems of overburdened sewer systems in the FIRST World, may just be the Blue Diversion Toilet, developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. “The Blue Division is a dry toilet that requires no piped water or wired-in electricity. It also has an additional benefit: it’s beautiful. Google “Blue Division toilet” for more information on this shitty modern marvel.

MEMOIR // SURVIVING A FAILED PREGNANCY
The medical ordeal no one wants to talk about
By Vanessa Gregory

You want depressing? Try reading this memoir of one woman’s painful, failed, ectopic pregnancy, her embryo caught in one of her Fallopian tubes. Learning about the procedure used to handle such a medical emergency had me cringing and wincing in empathetic reflex. And the worst part of it is? Approximately one in fifty pregnancies in the USA is ectopic, which can very easily be deadly for the mother. And, of course, some right-wing retards are trying to outlaw the medicine that terminates such pregnancies, even though they’re 100 percent non-viable, and even though carrying such pregnancies too far almost invariably leads to the death of the mother. Thanks again, Mississippi morons!

STORY // INTERESTING FACTS
By Adam Johnson

Interesting fact: This long-ass fictional story really kind of sucks the big one.

CRITICISM // LEGENTS OF THE LOST
The discreet charm of movies we cannot see
By David Thomson

Up front admission: I am no fan of David Thomson, mostly because he is no fan of my own favorite filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick. That alone shouldn’t be enough to make me dislike Thomson, of course... But it’s the ways in which he disses Kubrick that stick in my craw; his dunderheaded, blinkered contrariness and somewhat obvious “who does Mr Kubrick think he is” style petulant taking-down-a-peg nattering. THAT’s what I object to. Now, having said that, this short essay is somewhat interesting, if also a bit obvious. Of course we lovers of cinema are intrigued by “lost” films! But when he imagines a future symposium in which Seth Rogen and James Franco “rhapsodize over the chimerical Interview as if it were Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons”... I have to admit to giggling. As for the rest of this essay, it’s an absorbing and sometimes distressing account detailing the challenges facing those who wish to preserve our cinematic legacy, whether they be economic, temporal, or chemical, and the stories behind works by Hitchcock, von Stroheim, and, or course, Welles. After detailing recent developments in the possible completion and release of Welles’ infamous final project, The Other Side of the Wind, Thomson asks: “Could it be that the best way to preserve film culture is to make sure that at least a few great movies stay on the other side of the wind?” Maybe so, maybe no. Good essay, though.

REVIEWS // NEW BOOKS
By Joshua Cohen

What an odd, idiosyncratic review. In critiquing Richard Bradford’s Literary Rivals, Feuds and Antagonisms in the World of Books ($24.95), Cohen begins: “You never step in the same river twice, but a rival you step on constantly. Everything flows--including anger and resentment. According to Socrates, according to Plato, the original Greek of Heraclitus’ fragment was Panta Rhei, the verb of which streamed into the Latin rivus, meaning rivulet or brook. A derevied term (derivare: to draw off water) was rivalis, meaning a person with whom you share a river. And so we have rival: a person who fishes the same waters as you--a person who, if wishes were fishes, would drown.” Hey now. 

Stylistic gymnastics aside, Cohen lists a great many of the rivalries from Bradford’s book, amusingly writing: “Sinclair Lewis accused Theodore Dreiser of plagiarizing his wife; Dreiser responded that he’d done more than plagiarize her--though cuckolding Lewis was no compensation for missing out on the Nobel.” Yowza!

The second book reviewed by Cohen is I Greet You At the Beginning of a Great Career ($26.95, City Lights), collecting correspondence between Beat era superstars Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, often in the form of editorial advice from the latter to the former. Seems like a must-have for all Beat fans.

The third and final book reviewed by Cohen, here, is The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings ($30), by Philip and Carol Zaleski, which once again covers writers, this time in the form of J.R.R. Tolkien (Catholic), C.S. Lewis (Anglican), Owen Barfield (Anthroposophist) and Charles Williams (S&M enthusiast), who met weekly to read their works in progress. Seeing as so much is known of the first two, Cohen sees it as a virtue of this book that it goes into such great detail on the last two, who are quite interesting fellows in their own right. The authors also cover some of the Inklings’ less public members, many of whom were quite influential in their own fields, such as the Chaucer scholar Nevill Coghill, the Victorianist David Cecil, Shakespeare authority Henry “Hugo” Dyson, and the group’s founder, Edward Tangye Lean, who served as direct of external broadcasting for the BBC during WWII.

// NEW TELEVISION
By Rivka Galchen

Reviewed in this essay is Tina Fey’s Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, starring Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, one of four “mole girls” saved from an Apocalyptic cult leader’s basement. Apparently, it’s pretty good. I haven’t seen it, but Galchen digs it, writing effusively about it. So much so, in fact, that I think I’ll go download the first season and binge-watch it. I’ll let you know what I think, later.

// SHHH! SOCIALISM
Karl Taro Greenfeld and the novel of inequality
By Jonathan Dee

Discussed in this essay: The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfeld ($25.99). “It is hard for a fiction writer” this review begins “to know how to engage the present american moment head-on.” Indeed. Dee describes today’s America as a powder keg culture, more precarious--the state itself less legitimate--than it’s been since the Great Depression. I’m not quite sure why Dee starts off his review like this, considering Greenfeld’s book is a near future dystopian work of speculative fiction. And oh what a future he describes. It literally seems like Hell as imagined by liberals as imagined by conservatives (if you know what I mean). “The public defender’s office is operated by Uber Justice. ... The minimum wage has been abolished by the National Right to Work Act, teachers’ collective bargaining rights have been outlawed by the Right to Learn Act, and unemployment insurance, via the American Empowerment Act, has been reduced to a $250 voucher valid only at fast-food restaurants.” Cementing the impression that this novel is meant to be the masturbation fantasy of the average DemocraticUnderground or DailyKos reader, “a third, even more privileged character is known as Pastor Roger, an ultraconservative preacher whose megachurch is housed in the former Texas Stadium.” This is the kind of character that the author has interpreting the fact that whales beaching themselves on the east coast as a sign that “the government is overregulating the offshore drilling industry.” Again, as far as satire goes, this isn’t exactly subtle, nor is it particularly enlightening. And yet Dee goes on and on about it, comparing The Subprimes to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, at length. It’s clear from this review that Dee believes we are all, collectively, hovering at the edge of something big. He can feel it in his bones... and he’s itching to be a part of it... to take part in some kind of violent action in that big something’s behalf. The revolution is just around the corner. I hope that, when he’s let down, it won’t be from too high; otherwise he might hurt himself.

// WHAT A PIECE OF WORK
Mark Grief’s intellectual excavations
By William Deresiewicz

Discussed in this essay: The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, by Mark Grief ($29.95). The first hunk of this rather massive review (of a book about which I’ve heard nothing but raves from those in the know) is given over to praising the dickens out of the relatively new (since 2004) literary journal/website N+1 and its associated enterprises. Deresiewicz is obviously a fan, both of N+1 and of Grief (whose writing he describes at one point as “really fucking smart”). Basically, it looks like Mark Grief is to N+1 what Thomas Frank was to The Baffler, another “ideas journal” and “leader of” that so many contributors at Harper’s fell head over heels for not so long ago (remember when they let Frank replace the out-going and sadly missed Lewis Lapham?). In any case, Deresiewicz’ “review” ends up being a six page encomium (or is it merely the declaration of a literary crush?) that I’m relatively certain will make Grief cringe uncomfortably upon reading. Regardless, this review is the rave that has pushed me over the edge. I’ve gone ahead and added The Age of the Crisis of Man to my Amazon shopping cart. Expect my own review in a few months (or years, depending).

FINDINGS

Among the most amusing of this month’s findings is that birds may possess self-consciousness, recipients of the Earned Income Tax Credit spend only 11 percent on “treats”, and all ticks who afflict the nostrils of Malagasy diademed sifakas are male (whatever that means).

***

And that’s it for the June edition of Harper’s Magazine (I swear I’m trying to keep up, but I’ve had some illustration gigs to do, so...). Join us again soon for the July edition rundown, which hopefully will contain a little bit less Solnit per column inch than this one.  Cheers! 

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