Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

Happy National Poetry Month! This year, I thought I'd go with an unconventional pick. Michael Collins, one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, died this week at the age of 90. In a short interview for the Smithsonian in 2016, he was asked about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), and put in a plug instead for STEAM, which adds the arts, and praised poetry in particular. Collins was a self-effacing guy with a good sense of humor, and the whole thing is worth watching, but the part I've transcribed starts around 3:16:

Interviewer Marty Kelsey: Tell me about the importance of STEM.

Michael Collins: Well, I am very much in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math, but I think that's a rather incomplete description of what should be STEAM. S-T-E-A-M, with the emphasis on English. Perhaps I've known too many inarticulate engineers in my time, but I think a firm background in English is important no matter what particular career field you're in. And I'd even push it one step beyond just English and just say poetry, for example. I mean, I like so much poetry – John Milton comes to mind. Paradise Lost, you know it? You know the plot?

Kelsey: Barely.

Collins: Okay, well, what the plot was in STEM language, it's: some guy fell off a cliff, and maybe God pushed him. In STEAM, it is – you know what it is in STEAM?

Kelsey: No.

Collins: Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal [Skie]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

So. See I like the second version better than the first version. But that's my story; that's my anecdote.


Collins substitutes "heights" for "skie," but I really enjoy his spirited rendition and that he memorized this. Interviews are sometimes rehearsed and somewhat planned, but if this was off the cuff, Collins' clever STEM plot summary of Paradise Lost, contrasting the power of Milton, is all the more impressive. I do like science and math, but favor a broad and deep liberal arts education (let's not forget history and the social sciences), and my strongest love is for the arts. I'm often frustrated that the arts are not only underappreciated in the United States, but often under attack. Americans tend to treat artists very well if they become famous and successful, but are less supportive of general arts funding, and conservatives since at least Ronald Reagan have threatened to defund the arts and sometime have. The miniscule budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities are a disgrace. Certainly during this pandemic many people have devoured films, TV shows, music, books, and other creative works at a greater rate than usual, and those did not magically spring up out of the aether without considerable labor. I appreciate that Collins, who carries gravitas in the STEM world, puts in such a great plug for the arts in this interview. I hope he got through to some people who might not have absorbed this wisdom otherwise.

You can read more of Milton's Paradise Lost here.

My past posts on poetry feature some more extensive pieces.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

2020 Film Roundup: The Oscars

This is the first year since I started watching the Oscars that I hadn't seen any of the nominees. (I probably started watching at five years old, not that I was allowed to stay up for the whole event.) Normally this post is also "The Year in Review," linking my reviews of all the films I've seen for the year in question. Because of the pandemic, I didn't see many films in theaters before everything closed in March 2020, and I didn't spring for specific streaming services or pay-per-view screenings. I did watch a ton of movies and TV shows on disc.

I thought some of the speeches were nice, although this year none of the winners were played off and some tended to go on too long. The most charming speech for me was from 73-year-old, South Korean Yuh-Jung Youn, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Minari. (This article gives some good background on her, but does give away a key plot point of the movie.)

Harrison Ford had a funny bit presenting the Oscar for Best Editing, reading negative feedback from screenings of Blade Runner. (He almost certainly skipped rehearsal, though, because he read from a crinkly paper and all that text could have been fed into the teleprompter instead.)

The montage of death (in memoriam segment) is normally very well done, and a moving highlight of the ceremony. This year, it was the most rushed I can remember – each person was shown for only one single second (I counted) until the montage finally slowed down a bit at the end. Perhaps, due to the pandemic, more people died and have to be included in this installment. Or because the audience was smaller than usual, the usual applause wasn't going to be audible, so the show producers opted for this approach. But I thought it was a shame.

I was particularly appalled that Best Actress and Best Actor were the last categories presented, after Best Picture. (I would also keep Best Directing as the penultimate award presented.) The leading theory is that the show producers thought that popular actor Chadwick Boseman, who died tragically last year, was going to win Best Actor and that would end the night on a high note. If so, that choice was full of hubris and stupidity; there's no sure thing, as Oscars nights of recent years have repeatedly shown. (Winner Anthony Hopkins didn't attend, making the night even more anticlimactic, but recorded a gracious thank you from Wales, including a nice mention of Boseman.)

Regardless of whether Boseman played a role in the producers changing the order of the categories, it remained a really dumb decision. Why highlight individual performances over the best films of the year? It reminded me of the 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards, which ran some self-congratulatory ads that boasted it was "The only award show where every award goes to an actor." Because who cares about the other, little people who make movies? Some actors are lovely people in real life, but as a group… they do deserve their reputation as the vainest, most self-absorbed people in the film business (even if some directors and producers come close). For the love of cinema, it's a horrible idea to encourage the mentality that actors are more important than the movie itself. Filmmaking is about more than who's on camera, and although a great performance can make a film and should be celebrated, that's rarely been a problem; actors already get more recognition than everyone else involved. The best films are team efforts. In this specific case, switching the order also stole attention from a pretty remarkable story: Nomadland won Best Picture, and its director, Chloé Zhao, became only the second woman to win an Oscar for Best Directing and the first woman of color. She was born in Beijing but was mostly educated in the U.S. and lives here now, and coverage of her and Nomadland has been partially censored by the Chinese government. That's quite interesting stuff. So it's possible that Steven Soderbergh and the other Oscar producers were trying to manufacture a big moment and undercut some good, organic ones instead. I had mixed feelings about the two sound awards being combined into one. On the one hand, sound editing and sound mixing are different jobs. On the other hand, Oscar voters repeatedly did not understand the difference between the categories and even entertainment reporters would explain them incorrectly. (Most simply, the editing is the sound effects, including ambience and Foley work, and the mixing creates the overall soundscape of elements, balancing dialogue, effects, and music.) I would also say the voters botched their choices repeatedly – the nominees, which are determined by a smaller group of sound people, have been consistently good, but the majority of Oscar voters are actors and would often give best mixing to the best editing job and vice versa, or give both awards to the same film, normally the one with the most conspicuous music or loudest noises, not necessarily the best job.

The problem is that most good sound jobs are unobtrusive and not meant to be noticed; nonprofessionals will notice the grandeur of the score and spectacular sound effects for a film like Star Wars, but typically not pick up on more subtle work. It's pretty rare that a film ever won a sound Oscar for a bad sound job – as my sound mentor explained, Jaws (1975) won despite not having great dialogue work, but the award at the time was "Best Sound" and was understood to be for best use of sound, and Jaws was highly memorable on that count. Likewise, for films in 2018, I wrote that "Bohemian Rhapsody [which won both awards] featured some great sound work (I've included links with my review), but I would have given Best Sound Editing to First Man for the tension-ratcheting sounds of its space program and Best Sound Mixing to Roma for its lovely (and occasionally disturbing) soundscapes." I think First Man and Roma did their jobs so well nonprofessionals didn't notice the quality of the work, but Bohemian Rhapsody was a worthy winner in both categories nonetheless.

In any case, the new category seems to have expanded the nominee limit; it seems to be five now, versus three before, so the key members of the sound team can share the win, as they did this year for Sound of Metal. This Hollywood Reporter article summarizes the sound community's reaction well, and I agree the category might be better named as Best Sound Design.

I thought all five Best Original Song nominees were pretty good, which is often not the case. The winner, "Fight for You" by H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas, was a solid pick. Leslie Odom Jr. did a lovely job singing on "Speak Now," which he cowrote; "Hear My Voice" has a neat vibe; "Io sì (Seen)" is a fairly typical Diane Warren ballad, albeit in Italian (and with too much reverb for my tastes), but it's nice enough; and Molly Sandén shows off some amazing pipes on "Husavik (My Home Town)."

Anyway, if nothing else the Oscars nominations and winners make a nice list of viewing recommendations. I'm planning to see Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Sound of Metal, Minari, Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Onward, Soul, Wolfwalkers, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the Borat sequel, and Mank.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Kurosawa's Birthday 2021

(On the set of Red Beard. From right to left, Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Reiko Dan, and Yoshio Tsuchiya.)

Akira Kurosawa's birthday was March 23rd. It would have been his eleventy-first, as Bilbo Baggins would put it. For the occasion, I decided to watch two Kurosawa films I hadn't seen yet over two nights, Drunken Angel (1948) and Red Beard (1965). They make an interesting pair because both have doctors as main characters, and they're Toshiro Mifune's first and last films with Kurosawa; they made 16 together.

The title character in Drunken Angel is played by Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, as a crotchety but civic-minded, unshaven, alcoholic doctor named Sanada working in a slum near swampy water. He yells at the neighborhood kids not to play near the water or they'll get typhus; they yell back at him but momentarily comply. He still follows up with one of them about a medical condition he treated and is gruff but dedicated to his other patients. His assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), tries to keep him out of trouble and he's likewise protective of her – she used to be the girlfriend of a possessive gangster, Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto), and wants to stay clear of him. One night, the gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) seeks medical treatment from Sanada. He claims he injured his hand in an accident, but Sanada fishes out a bullet. He also discovers Matsunaga has tuberculosis and urges him to get an X-ray of his lungs to confirm its severity. Matsunaga is dismissive and violent, but does eventually comply and return to Sanada for treatment. The two often fight, and although Matsunaga tries to follow Sanada's medical advice to help his lungs heal (no booze or sex, among other things), he's pulled astray by his sometime girlfriend and performer at the dance hall, Nanae (Michiyo Kogure). He also feels pressure to live it up in front of Okada, his old mentor, who's been released from prison and is eager to get his old turf back, as well as Miyo (not that he's sticking to one woman). Matsunaga likes to boast about how he's Yakuza and they have a code of honor, but as his health worsens, he discovers limits to the loyalty of his fellow gangsters.

(Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune.)

Shimura is good as always. In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains how he and cowriter Keinosuke Uekusa originally tried to write the story as a contrast between the doctor, a model citizen, and the gangster, who was anything but. But essentially the doctor character was too boring and they couldn't get the story to work. When they rewrote him as flawed, based on a real, grizzled, imperious and boozing doctor they met, everything flowed. That approach certainly gives Shimura more to play with – Sanada is a bit of a mess, and often intemperate, but devoted to the well-being of his patients nonetheless. It's particularly interesting to see Mifune, who was 28 when the film came out. As Matsunaga, he's mostly clean-shaven, sometimes dapper, sometimes bedraggled and ill, and looks significantly different from his appearances in other roles for Kurosawa, even though Rashomon came out just two years later. Regardless, Mifune's energy and charisma shine through. This was only his third film; in his first, Snow Trail (1947), he and Shimura play bank robbers on the run in snowy mountains. (Kurosawa did not direct it, but wrote the screenplay.) Shimura and Mifune became friends on that film, with Shimura, who was 15 years older, supposedly becoming something of a mentor to Mifune. The two definitely have good screen chemistry.

I wouldn't rank Drunken Angel with Kurosawa's best, but it's a solid film and well worth a look if you're a fan of Kurosawa, Mifune or Shimura. Miyo oddly disappears near the end of the film, although two other minor but significant female characters feature in the ending. As usual, Kurosawa's social commentary flows from his humanism and interest in the characters themselves and their situation. It's less visually flashy than some of his films, with a notable exception – the climatic confrontation centering on Matsunaga (Mifune) is a gripping, vertiginous, bravura piece of camerawork and filmmaking. In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains that Drunken Angel came about because Toho Studios had built a large street set for a film by Kurosawa's mentor, Yamamoto Kajiro, and wanted to get more use of it. (Kurosawa worked on over a dozen films for Yamamoto, mostly as an assistant director.) Given that genesis, it's a fairly interesting project.

A few pages later in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa describes seeing Toshiro Mifune for the first time:

On the day of the interviews and screen tests I was in the middle of the shooting of No Regrets for Our Youth, so I couldn't participate in the judging. But during lunch break I stepped off the set and was immediately accosted by actress Takamine Hideko, who had been the star of Yamamoto Kajiro's Horses when I was chief assistant director. "There's one who's really fantastic. But he's something of a redneck, so he just barely passed. Won't you come have a look?" I bolted my lunch and went to the studio where the tests were being given. I opened the door and stopped dead in amazement.

A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed. But it turned out that this young man was not really in a rage, but had drawn "anger" as the emotion he had to express for his screen test. He was acting. When he finished his performance, he regained his chair with an exhausted demeanor, flopped down and began to glare menacingly at the judges. Now, I knew very well that this kind of behavior was a cover for shyness, but the jury seemed to be interpreting it as disrespect.

I found this young man strangely attractive, and concern over the judges' decision began to distract me from my work. I returned to my set and wrapped up the shooting early. Then I proceeded to look in on the room where the jury was deliberating. Despite Yama-san's strong recommendation of the young man, the voting was against him. Suddenly I heard myself shouting, "Please wait a minute."

p. 160


Kurosawa and Yamamoto carry the day and Mifune joins the film company. Kurosawa continues:

After joining the company, Mifune appeared in Sen-chan's To the End of the Silver Mountains [also known as Snow Trail] as the roughest and most violent of the three bank robbers who were the villains of the story. He playing with amazing energy. Right after that he had the role of a gangster boss in Yama-san's New Age of Fools [also known as These Foolish Times and These Foolish Times II], and here he played with an opposite kind of cruel refinement. I became deeply fascinated by the acting abilities Mifune showed in these two films, and decided I wanted him to play the lead in Drunken Angel. I realize that many people think I discovered Mifune and taught him how to act. That is not the case. As can be seen from the sequence of events I just described, it was Yama-san who discovered the raw material that was Mifune Toshiro. From that raw material it was Sen-chan and Yama-san who fashioned the actor Mifune Toshiro. All I did was see what they had done, take Mifune's acting talent and show it off to its fullest in Drunken Angel.

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the spped with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression. Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet for all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.

I know it sounds as if I am overpraising Mifune, but everything I am saying is true. If pressed to find a defect in him as an actor, I could say his voice is a little rough, and when it's recorded through a microphone it has a tendency to become difficult to understand. Anyway, I'm a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune, I was completely overwhelmed.

p. 161


(In 35 mm film, 10 feet is a little under 7 seconds and 3 feet is 2 seconds.)

The one other problem with Mifune, according to Kurosawa, is that he was so strong a presence he could overpower his partners and unbalance a film. Kurosawa explains, "The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent, I had to feel a little sorry for him." Shimura is just fine, but Mifune has the flashier role and supposedly Drunken Angel made him a star. IMDb lists 185 acting credits for him.

Meanwhile, Red Beard (1965) is a superb film, even a masterpiece. As with Drunken Angel, the title character is a doctor who serves the poor, but this time, it's Mifune who plays the doctor. He was 45 at the time the film came out but is made to look older, helped by some makeup but also a full, bushy beard. It's the 19th century, and a young doctor, Noboru Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama), has studied with Dutch doctors in Japan. Through family connections, he believes he can become the personal doctor to the Shogun, really the flashiest medical position possible. Instead, he's assigned to a public clinic in the countryside serving poor patients. The head of the clinic is Kyojō Niide (Mifune), also known as "Red Beard." Yasumoto chafes at his position, refuses to wear the clinic robes and generally acts immaturely, but his experiences gradually and profoundly change him. He witnesses death up close. He assists with a bloody operation and faints. He confronts the limitations of his schooling and his many erroneous assumptions. He comes to care for the patients in a human and not just medical sense, most of all an abused young girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), an almost feral orphan adopted and mistreated by a brothel madam; Niide rescues Otoyo and puts her in Yasumoto's care (and vice versa, as you'll see). Red Beard is just over three hours, and in that time it convincingly shows us Yasumoto's growth, but also provides a number of engrossing side stories and vignettes. Some characters appear for only a scene or two, yet still are affecting and memorable. At the center of it all Niide/Red Beard, and Mifune radiates gravitas and wisdom throughout, another strong mentor character in a Kurosawa film.

(Dr. Noboru Yasumoto brooding, played by Yûzô Kayama.)

Visually, Red Beard isn't as kinetic with its camerawork as, say, Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. Kurosawa opts more for masterful compositions – you'll frequently see someone reclining on the floor, sometimes with another character standing, the vertical contrasting the horizontal. (If you want to see cool diagonal compositions, check out Kurosawa's version of The Lower Depths.) Kurosawa does employ some artful dolly work, not as intricate as in his film High and Low, but some really nice staging for the camera as we tour the clinic or Niide and Yasumoto walk and talk, crossing paths, turning, continuing, and forming new compositions. Most of this is subtly done, not drawing attention to itself. Surprisingly, Red Beard does have two fights, both with a funny side. Both had me howling with amazed enjoyment – the first has some intricate, lightning-fast stunt work and is beautifully staged, and the second is more about solidarity. (I don't want to spoil anything.) There's also a haunting, stunning scene where the calls of women echo as the camera plunges into a well. And of course Kurosawa includes shots of rain. He mostly opts for a restrained, stately style in Red Beard, but picks good moments for bravura flashes. It's an approach that serves him well for most of his later films, including Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, Ran and Dreams.

Kurosawa films tend to center on male characters, and although Red Beard has two male leads, it notably presents a number of female characters, some of whom only appear briefly but nonetheless leave a powerful impression. Okuni (Akemi Negishi) is the daughter of a patient who only really appears in one scene, but delivers a heart-wrenching story to Niide. Niide's compassionate response opens Yasumoto's eyes, and it's a fine, moving performance by Negishi. Kyôko Kagawa plays a character known as "The Mantis"; she's confined to a small house because she's supposedly dangerous, and tells an arresting tale of being abused by a series of men that pulls on our sympathies, although she proves to be a complex figure. We see Onaka (Miyuki Kuwano) in the flashback tale of a dying patient, who explains their complicated love story. Osugi (Reiko Dan) is a kind-hearted servant at the clinic who nurses a secret love for Doctor Handayû Mori (Yoshio Tsuchiya) – but not secret enough, because her female colleagues are fond of teasing her about it. The key female character, though, is the orphan Otoyo, and young actress Terumi Niki is captivating as she portrays Otoyo's transformation from a traumatized child who won't speak and lashes out into a conscientious, kind soul. Her scenes with Choji (Yoshitaka Zushi), a street urchin boy, are particularly memorable, and Kurosawa coaxes fine performances from his child actors as well as the rest of the cast. Although Kurosawa adapted Red Beard from a collection of short stories by Shūgorō Yamamoto, Kurosawa claimed his film was significantly different. The Otoyo storyline, for example, was inspired by a novel by one of Kurosawa's favorite authors, Dostoevsky, Humiliated and Insulted. Regardless, the final mix is highly effective.

(Terumi Niki at Otoyo and Yoshitaka Zushi as Chôji.)

Unfortunately, Red Beard caused Mifune and Kurosawa to have a serious falling out; reportedly, they eventually reconciled decades later. As film historian Donald Richie explains in a piece on Red Beard, it took nearly two years to film, in part because Kurosawa got sick twice and Mifune and Kayama both got sick once. I've read that Mifune became frustrated because the full, natural beard he grew meant he couldn't act in other films during the period. It's a shame, though, because the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration is one of the great ones in the history of cinema and yielded much of the best work either would do. And whatever pains it took to make, Red Beard is an excellent film, a fine accomplishment for Kurosawa, Mifune and everyone else involved. (It's also nice to see Takashi Shimura in a small role, essentially a cameo.)

While watching Red Beard, I enjoyed it so much I occasionally felt regret I hadn't seen it yet and wondered why, although I had heard of it of course, I hadn't seen it get the acclaim of other Kurosawa films. But not seeing it before wasn't entirely accidental. I had held off on watching Red Beard because I was waiting for Criterion to put out a Blu-ray and also because I sometimes put aside well-regarded movies I haven't seen yet for special occasions. There's also a special thrill in having artists you like and seeing something else from them for the first time, and a slight pang of loss at the prospect of such experiences ending. I received DVDs of High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well as birthday presents in separate years, and held off on watching them for a while because I wanted to savor the experience and my list of "Kurosawa films I haven't seen yet" was dwindling. Delaying is somewhat silly in that I enjoy rewatching movies, and good movies yield more with repeated viewings. But not knowing the outcome of scenes or the whole movie does change the viewing dynamics, and I do think there's much to be said for planning to give certain movies special and more focused attention.

Although I love many directors and actors, Kurosawa and Mifune are among my all-time favorites and hold a special place for me. I think I was nine years old when my dad took me and my siblings to see Yojimbo and Sanjuro in a double feature at the much-missed Biograph Theater in Washington, D.C. Over the next few years, I saw Yojimbo again, as well as Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai for the first times. I saw Ran when it was released in theaters in 1985; it definitely benefits from repeated viewings. One of the virtues of our current age is it's easier to find older movies on disc or streaming services, including foreign films.

In any case, I can recommend both Drunken Angel and Red Beard. At 185 minutes, Red Beard is more of a time commitment and yields more subtle rewards than some of Kurosawa's other films (think Ikiru more than Seven Samurai or Yojimbo), but it's a fine piece of work.

(My most extensive post on Kurosawa is this one from 2008.)

References
(other than the linked ones)

Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Vintage Books, New York, 1982.

(A still from Red Beard's haunting well shot.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Camp Auschwitz

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

During the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on 1/6/21, a man later identified as Robert Keith Packer was photographed wearing a "Camp Auschwitz" t-shirt. The front also said "Work brings freedom," one translation of the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" slogan atop the entrance to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. The back of the shirt said "Staff."

Packer, a resident of Newport News, VA, who apparently has a history of extremism, was arrested, but later released without criminal charges or paying any fines. He was merely ordered to stay away from D.C. unless summoned there. Other insurrectionists also expressed pro-Nazi, pro-Holocaust, anti-Semitic, white supremacist or bigoted views.

Several people, including Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger in a personal and moving statement, directly linked the hatred and violence of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass" of 1938, when German Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish stores and synagogues.

One of the most powerful responses came from Andrew Brandt, who was following the story of Robert "Camp Auschwitz" Packer and posted a thread about a family photo:



The entire thread is worth reading. This is real history; these are human stories. And not only did Brandt never get to meet most of the people in his family photo, even some of their names are lost, because they were murdered by the Nazis.

I wonder if people like Packer and the rest of the Nazi contigent at the U.S. Capitol have more than a childish understanding of the Holocaust. Presumably, they know some basic events, probably from a bigoted source, and they approve of the genocide. But there's a leering, smug immaturity to many right-wing authoritarians in addition to their seething hatred. They want to provoke, to offend, to transgress tenets of basic respect and dignity. They aggressively deny the humanity of their chosen scapegoats. They willfully blind themselves with rage to broad swaths of the human experience. They could look at Andrew Brandt's family photo, hear his story, and not see anything, somehow not be moved.

We've seen and will continue to see excuses for and downplaying of the insurrection, for the failed attempted coup. And not every right-wing authoritarian, white supremacist or bigot proudly identifies him or herself as a Nazi. But we can't pretend that right-wing extremism doesn't exist in the United States and isn't a dangerous force. Many conservatives who don't identify as bigots or white nationalists have nonetheless supported their more extreme kindred or even voted them into office. And they continue to be enabled by a group of dogmatic centrists addicted to blaming "both sides" equally. As Rebecca Solnit observed in "On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway":

Nevertheless, we get this hopelessly naïve version of centrism, of the idea that if we’re nicer to the other side there will be no other side, just one big happy family. This inanity is also applied to the questions of belief and fact and principle, with some muddled cocktail of moral relativism and therapists’ “everyone’s feelings are valid” applied to everything. But the truth is not some compromise halfway between the truth and the lie, the fact and the delusion, the scientists and the propagandists. And the ethical is not halfway between white supremacists and human rights activists, rapists and feminists, synagogue massacrists and Jews, xenophobes and immigrants, delusional transphobes and trans people. Who the hell wants unity with Nazis until and unless they stop being Nazis? . . .

In the past four years too many members of the right have been emboldened to carry out those values as violence. One of the t-shirts at the #millionMAGAmarch this weekend: “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” Except stage a coup, torture and disappear tens of thousands of Chileans, and violate laws and rights. A right-wing conspiracy to overthrow the Michigan government and kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer was recently uncovered, racists shot some Black Lives Matter protestors and plowed their cars into a lot of protests this summer. The El Paso anti-immigrant massacre was only a year ago; the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre two years ago, the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally in which Heather Heyer was killed three years ago (and of course there have been innumerable smaller incidents all along). Do we need to bridge the divide between Nazis and non-Nazis? Because part of the problem is that we have an appeasement economy, a system that is supposed to be greased by being nice to the other side.


It's crucial to call out right-wing authoritarians and to hold them accountable. It's also important to excoriate any knee-jerk "both siders" who, intentionally or not, work to deny that accountability, or habitually attack honesty and accuracy in the name of politeness and civility. Finally, it's essential to remember our own humanity and to recognize the same in others fighting against right-wing authoritarianism, and to remember and honor the very human victims of its violence. Andrew Brandt's family photo and story remind me of a poem I've cited before, from Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo:

Marie

Her father, her mother, her brothers and sisters were all gassed on arrival.
Her parents were too old, the children too young.
She says, "She was beautiful, my little sister.
You can't imagine how beautiful she was.
They mustn't have looked at her.
If they had, they would never have killed her.
They couldn't have."


Monday, January 18, 2021

MLK Day 2021

This year, for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it seems most appropriate to focus on voting rights. I've featured this passage before; "Bourbon interests" refers to white, Southern conservatives, mostly Democrats, who wanted to keep social and economic control. In an 1965 speech, titled "Our God is Marching On!" but often known as "How Long, Not Long," Martin Luther King, Jr., observed:

Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

I particularly like this passage because King sharply intertwines race with class, and links it to the right to vote. And voting rights have been a prominent issue the past few years in King's home state of Georgia. In 2018, Stacey Abrams, a black Democrat, ran for governor and narrowly lost to Brian Kemp, a white Republican. Kemp was Secretary of State at the time, meaning he controlled the voting rolls and was partially refereeing a contest he was competing in. Politifact states that there's no proof of voter suppression in the 2018 race, but as NPR reported in 2020:

In 2018, while Abrams was running for governor against then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, she showed up to her polling place and was told she couldn't cast a ballot, because, according to their records, she already had voted.

"I told them I would have recalled that," Abrams told NPR's Weekend Edition. "And we were luckily able to solve the problem, but I know I'm not the only person who faced that challenge."

Between 2016 and 2018, at least 17 million voters were purged from the voter rolls, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice. In just one month alone — July 2017 — more than half a million voters were removed from Georgia's voter rolls, many because they didn't vote in previous elections, according to an investigation from APM Reports, Reveal and NPR member station WABE.

"We have to understand that purging does not simply occur because someone has died or has moved out of the state," Abrams said, adding that then-Secretary of State Kemp purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls. "The use of this purging led to a disproportionate number of communities of color being disenfranchised. And many didn't know they were purged until they showed up to vote."

The specific race is less important than the ongoing trend of a significant faction of conservatives working to suppress the vote. As a November 2020 post revisited:

In 1980, Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the right-wing Heritage Foundation, the so-called Moral Majority and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), told his fellow conservatives, "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

The good news is that Stacey Abrams and other liberal-leaning political activists worked hard the past few years to register Georgia voters, particularly African-Americans. That work helped Joe Biden win Georgia in the presidential race, the first Democrat to do so since Bill Clinton in 1992. And Georgia wound up electing two Democratic senators in run-off elections, Jon Ossoff, who is "the first Jew since 1974 to win statewide national office in the South" and Raphael Warnock, Georgia's first black senator, only the second black Southern senator since reconstruction, and "the first Black Democratic senator from the South in the nation’s history." And in a neat connection, Warnock has been the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was co-pastor.

Ossoff and Warnock's wins represent significant social progress. Their opponents, Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, reeked of corruption, but still almost won. Although the Democratic Party has its issues, the Republican Party has been almost entirely plutocratic and corrupt for a long time now. Ossoff and Warnock both ran on helping their fellow Georgians, and were able break through some of the repressive and divisive dynamics King described back in 1965 and which were still partially at play in the recent Georgia elections. It would be a mistake not to keep working on voter registration and voting rights restoration for the 2022 midterms and for the longer term. But the elections in Georgia represent a significant victory and are worth celebrating on MLK Day.