Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Silver Rider"

I like both Low's original...

...and this cover by Robert Plant and the Band of Joy.

Eclectic Jukebox

Monday, June 27, 2011

Reflecting on Netroots Nation 2011

I went to Netroots Nation in Minneapolis last weekend (July 16th-19th). It was the first one I've attended. If you're interested, you can go to the Netroots site for the schedule of speakers and panels. The site's blog features videos, as does their YouTube channel.

Going in, I thought the convention would probably be a good morale booster for many of the attendees, particularly those who live in conservative-dominated states. (In Los Angeles, where I currently live, it's not as hard to find some liberal meet-up groups.) However, I wondered if the convention would amount to preaching to the converted. Perhaps that was the case to a small degree, but I was struck by the amount of regional caucuses and activist group meetings, which I found encouraging. I also appreciated the heavy union representation among main stage speakers. For many attendees, going to Netroots Nation wasn't for an ego-boost, it was for gettin' stuff done. A few panels focused on the fight against far-right measures from state legislators and governors (in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida...). Special emphasis was given to the populist challenges to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who's extremely plutocratic, Koch-backed, and has engaged in radical overreach that he did not disclose to voters during his campaign for office. Because Wisconsin's right next to Minnesota, many Wisconsinites made the trek. Meanwhile, conference goers were able to attend a few jobs rallies in Minneapolis.

What with airfare, lodging and registration itself, going to Netroots Nation can be a bit expensive for working stiffs. At least one speaker noted that the average Netroots attendee tends to be well-educated, middle-class, and white. Netroots seemed to be making efforts to increase diversity, though, and was definitely far more diverse than conservative conferences such as CPAC and Right Online. Meanwhile, the group Democracy for America has been offering scholarships to help people attend the past couple of years. (This year, they offered fifty scholarships, including one to Blue Gal.) Downtown Minneapolis is also extremely walkable. Netroots Nation also hosted a "day of service" event on Sunday, in addition to the other rallies, so while there were plenty of parties, there were plenty of opportunities for social responsibility besides the socializing.

All the panels I attended were good, some excellent. I went to ones on messaging, reckless Republicans in state legislatures, combating corporate power after Citizens United, corporate courts, our progressive history, saving public education, countering hate speech against workers, challenging media narratives on right-wing extremism, and comedy, video and activism. Typically, there were at least one or two other panels I would have also liked to attend in the same slot. Most panels were taped, so I hope those are eventually posted. (Currently, it seems the only videos posted are panel highlights, and the keynote speeches.) I was generally familiar with the facts and the stories behind the panels' discussions, but several speakers made extremely sharp points about "framing" various issues. The quality of Q&A time varied. Some people asked great questions, some made comments instead (but they were good comments), and a few would launch into long, repetitive speeches, monopolizing the time.

As for the speakers for the main hall speaker events, all the union folks were great. A few international bloggers were featured. Understandably, there was a strong Midwestern presence, and frequent mentions of the much missed Paul Wellstone. Most of the speakers focused on jobs, the middle class, and making the American Dream achievable for the majority of Americans again. Many also spoke about not depending on Obama for progress, and continuing to pressure him and Congress to enact good policies. Russ Feingold was good, and spoke on campaign finance reform. I liked the content of Al Franken's speech on the good that government can do, but he was surprisingly low energy. (Early morning? Jet lag?) Debbie Wasserman Schultz had a natural manner. Howard Dean and Van Jones seemed a bit more generic to me. Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison gave a rousing speech, which you can see here.

Daily Kos' Angry Mouse (Kaili Joy Gray) interviewed White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer on the main stage. It was a pretty frustrating affair, and sometimes seemed pointless, since as an official flack, Pfeiffer just wouldn't give straight answers to some questions, and she pressed him hard. Pfeiffer would have had an easier time, of course, if Washington politics weren't so screwed up, with common sense measures denounced as radical, far-left socialism. However, the netroots' discontent with Obama and the Dem leadership is less about a lack of success than the lack of effort on some issues. It's about poor negotiation and often accepting right-wing framing. (Why not emphasize jobs versus the deficit, for example?) Political realities are one thing, but they can be reshaped somewhat, and Obama's reticence makes less sense when good policy happens to coincide with good politics (which isn't uncommon). In any case, I appreciated that the Pfeiffer interview was often adversarial, and not a suck-up job. I wasn't as crazy about Angry Mouse's frequent, audible sighing and her saying that she and we were all sick of hearing about the Lilly Ledbetter Act – rather than saying, okay, the Lilly Ledbetter Act was great, but what's your next move? However, Angry Mouse has explained her perspective more fully in this piece, and she did catch and press Pfeiffer on Obama's equivocation on gay marriage. As Dave Weigel wrote, "[Pfeiffer's] main goal was to take some hits without generating new, bad storylines for the White House or an impression that it was bowing to liberals. He succeed." Alas that hippie-punching is still the reigning dynamic inside the Beltway, and kudos to Angry Mouse for giving it a go.

Netroots Nation has been stalked from city to city the past few years by Right Online, a copycat conservative conference, well funded by the Koch brothers through their Americans for Prosperity Foundation. That funding made registration for Right Online much cheaper than Netroots Nation, but they still had a smaller turnout (apparently about 1,500 compared to Netroots' 2,500+). It's unsurprising that a Koch-funded conference would also devote time to backing a Koch-backed politician, Scott Walker. Apparently, working class conservatives hate unions so much, they'll fight against their own interests with just a little goading from the latest plutocratic shill. It's a perfect example of a joke that circulated (with some variations) a couple of months back:

A unionized public employee, a member of the Tea Party and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table there is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies, then looks at the tea partier and says, "Look out for that union guy – he wants your cookie."

(I think that joke captures the bulk of the left and right blogospheres, and forty years of movement conservatism, but more on that in another post, perhaps.)

Supposedly, Netroots included a non-compete clause when bidding for their new location (Providence, Rhode Island for 2012), so if that holds, Right Online will have to try to steal attention from Netroots in a different city.

There wasn't much coverage of Netroots Nation in the media, which is really inexcusable, since it's arguably the major liberal/progressive event of the year (certainly one of them, this being another), and comparative right-wing gatherings get coverage even by non-Fox outlets. David Neiwert wrote a piece about this for Crooks and Liars, and noted that the Twin Cities' paper, the Star Tribune (admittedly a generally lousy paper) wrote two fairly positive pieces on Right Online, but only devoted one paragraph to Netroots Nation. (Dave Weigel of Slate did write some pieces on both conferences, which start here – you can then scroll through the "next" tab.) Andrew Breitbart tried to crash Netroots Nation, which is apparently an annual occurrence, and was chased off. Naturally, this was videotaped. This incident was much discussed at Netroots, particularly at the excellent Media, Comedy and Activism panel. While Breitbart is a liar, provocateur and an immense asshole, I agreed with the panelists that shouting at him was the wrong way to handle the situation, and just looked bad to people who didn't know Breitbart. (It's that old saying, "Never argue with a fool, because people might not be able to tell the difference.") An angry reaction was exactly what Breitbart wanted. Being polite, or being comedic (Lizz Winstead had some good ideas), would have been far more effective.

As for other events, the Laughing Liberally comedy show was pretty good. Elon James White (of the fun Blacking It Up podcast, and This Week in Blackness) had the most off-color material but the best delivery. He was also a friendly guy. I missed the karaoke and the political quiz events.

The booths at the conference offered plenty of buttons and stickers. I also got a book autographed by Tom Tomorrow. I've cited pieces by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Center for Media and Democracy/PR Watch in the past, and both had booths, staffed by very friendly people who were happy to hear their material was being used. The Fair Tax folks were there, too, trying to hoodwink liberals into backing their atrocious, plutocratic plan. I did take their literature, because I always like to see how people are selling their bullshit, but passed on an extensive discussion. Teachers, manufacturing and unions were well represented.

My badge just showed my first name, not my pseudonym/nom de blog, although I would mention that to people as appropriate. If I ever attend another Netroots, I might go with the pseudonym. I'm a part-time blogger and have had to blog even less than usual this year, so I figured I was fairly under the radar, known in some circles, but very far from "blog famous" – which is itself several grades lower than actual fame. In any case, I was largely anonymous at Netroots. I found most people were very friendly, but some were surprisingly standoffish, even after receiving a compliment like, "good panel." I'm sure bloggers suffer from social awkwardness more than ordinary mortals, some activists can be single-minded, but some people gave the vibe, "if you're not famous, I'm not interested." This is familiar to anyone living in Hollywood-land (and you can find it anywhere, to some degree). However, most people were nice.

One of my excuses to go to Netroots Nation was the number of college friends I have in Minnesota that I hadn't seen in person for years. I flew out a day early and stayed fairly late on Sunday to catch up with a few of them. (I also visited the Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden.) There was a sizable California contingent at Netroots, so I saw some familiar faces, especially the prolific and amiable David Dayen. I'm sorry I missed the Balloon Juice meet-up, but there wasn't much advance notice. However, it was lovely to meet Blue Gal and Driftglass, and a number of other bloggers in person for the first time. Blue Gal and Driftglass' podcast reflecting on Netroots Nation is here, and they also did three short pieces while at Netroots itself. But surely most readers of this blog are already regular listeners of BG/DG's Professional Left podcast. In any case, seeing friends old and new was the best part of my trip.

That's it for now. Peace, art, activism, and happy blogging.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Peter Falk (1927–2011)

Peter Falk has died at the age of 83. It was hard not to like Peter Falk on screen. As the "rumpled detective" Lieutenant Columbo, he was understated, humble and sly. This was a conscious decision by Falk, who suggested that when he'd arrive at a crime scene, rather than all the other cops making way for the great detective, they'd basically ignore this nondescript guy. Similarly, Columbo managed to slowly worm out information from his suspects by making them underestimate him. PBS did a nice little remembrance of Falk, and it's striking and amusing to see the contrast between Falk's style and Shatner hamming it up:

As my dad used to say, if the villains had just shut up, they'd be fine, but Columbo always got them talking.

Falk was a good serious actor (check him out in John Cassavetes' film Husbands), but he really excelled in roles where he could exercise his deanpan sense of humor and sly sense of fun ("Just one more thing..."). Columbo was perfect for this, with the character taking subtle delight every time he was underestimated. Falk was also great in the uneven but occasionally hilarious comedies Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective. Meanwhile, there's his small but key role in Wings of Desire, and his perfectly cast, iconic performance in that wonderful movie, The Princess Bride:

(The clip inexplicably cuts out Falk's next line.)

The Grandson: A book?

Grandpa: That's right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I'm gonna read it to you.

The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?

Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...

The Grandson: Doesn't sound too bad. I'll try to stay awake.

Grandpa: Oh, well, thank you very much, very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.

Here's the obituaries from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Guardian.

While there are many great Falk performances, this brief, self-mocking cameo is one of my favorites. As a kid seeing the movie in the theater, I didn't know who the hell he was or why the adults were laughing; the scene seemed pretty pointless to me. When I got older and got to know Falk's work, I thought this bit was slyly hilarious. Unfortunately, the scene is cut across two clips. Start at 7:00 in the first one:

Rest in peace, Peter Falk.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Emptywheel Fundraiser 2011

I'm late in posting this, but last month, Emptywheel (Marcy Wheeler) asked readers to "Please Help Support My Next 525 Posts on Torture":

Just over two years ago, right around the time I reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a month, many of you chipped into the “Marcy Wheeler fund” to support my work; that generosity paid my way until a short time ago. Here’s what that support made possible.

Between May 1, 2009 and yesterday, by my rough count, I wrote 525 posts on torture. I unpacked the torture memos, the CIA IG Report, the OPR Report, and thousands of documents released through FOIA. I showed the bureaucratic games they used to set up our torture program, early efforts to place limits on things like mock execution, followed by more bureaucratic and legal means to get away with violating even those limits. I showed how they hid documents and altered tapes to hide evidence of their torture. I showed how, after CIA and parts of DOJ tried to put limits on torture in 2004, they again used bureaucratic tricks and ridiculous legal documents to reauthorize it. I’ve tracked DOJ’s kabuki claims to investigate torture (though bmaz gets credit for forcing DOJ to admit John Durham’s torture tape investigation had run out the clock on Statutes of Limitation). And I’ve tracked the Obama Administration’s successful efforts to suppress all evidence of torture. And all the while, I’ve relentlessly pushed back against the torture apologists’ lies.

Of course, while writing about torture is a major part mapping out the decline of the rule of law, it’s not the only part. Since May 2009, I’ve written almost 200 posts on wiretapping, almost as many on our Gitmo show trials, posts about state secrets, drones, fusion centers, the forever war metastisizing around the world. I’ve written about Wikileaks and Bradley Manning’s treatment and the banksters and the auto companies.

Emptywheel's blog is part of the Firedoglake network. FDL is asking for memberships, but there's also a page for one-time donations. Personally, I don't agree with some of the FDL diarists, but Emptywheel, David Dayen and TBogg do excellent work. (One of TBogg's beloved basset hounds, Fenway, is currently sick but slowly recovering.) When it comes to covering the Bush torture regime and its aftermath, Emptywheel has been absolutely invaluable. Personally, since I care about the subject passionately, but have limited time to write and sometimes even to read, I'm very grateful that Marcy Wheeler is on the case.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Portrait of the Fascist as a Young Captain

(Sergi López as Captain Vidal.)

Kia at Gall and Gumption has written an excellent piece on Guillermo del Toro's 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth (Labyrinth of the Faun/ El Laberinto del fauno). The bulk of it is an in-depth psychological profile of the brutal Captain Vidal, the wicked stepfather of the film's young heroine, Ofelia. Here's a taste:

To the Captain and to the numberless others who rule like him every personal affront or grievance undergoes a transmutation, it’s framed as something that happens not to them personally, as individuals, but to the cause. This is of course convenient if you have any power at all – the power to rat someone out to the police, the power to go rummaging in their secrets and a public platform for exposing them, the power to withhold a job or a ration card or a promotion or a signature. The exercise of malice and envy and contempt becomes a necessity of virtue. This transformation of the personal into the political is convenient in another way: it keeps up the supply of enemies (and the system depends on the steady supply of enemies) by creating new pretexts for identifying them, and it offers opportunities for the display of righteous zeal.

To destroy your own guilt is nearly impossible; it requires a return of the rejected self that people demonstrate again and again that they cannot do. It is easier to destroy innocence, to destroy the idea of innocence first, which enables the destruction of actual innocents. For this result, contempt is necessary, and there is always a lot of that floating around in search of a worthy object. Once you have overcome your guilt at the suffering of others from poverty, deprivation, and injustice, contempt for them comes naturally: they have imposed on your good nature, and they will do it again at the least opportunity. So it becomes necessary to distinguish between the deserving poor and the undeserving, and for the latter more deprivation, more hardship, is the best remedy. When it comes to that, even the deserving poor had best be kept strictly in line and taught not to expect too much. This is why, in Jane Eyre, Mr. Brockehurst and his well-fed, well-dressed daughters could visit Lowood School and looking upon its ranks of half-starved, beaten-down, dispirited orphans and daughters of impoverished clergymen, see nothing but their own goodness.

They are also, of course, destroying witnesses and evidence against the day when it all collapses. On that day, forced at the point of a gun to admit that crimes were committed, the guilty retreat into a sort of twilight of willful amnesia about their part in the crime: they didn’t know what was going on, that they had no choice, and they always acted with the best of intentions and never had any other kind. Their exact relation to the machinery of crime will be hard to define, although it will always somehow be clear to them that they were victims, too, and that they are now doubly victims because they find that the world does not think as well of them as they wish to think of themselves.

There's far more, and do read the rest. Needless to say, the profile applies to many an authoritarian, and not solely the character of Captain Vidal.

I counted Pan's Labyrinth as one of the top four films of 2006. It's the second film reviewed here. I'm overdue for watching it again.