Presidential Movies

The remaining major candidates for the presidency of the United States all have campaigns that borrow from the themes and titles of movies that were nominated in the Best Picture category of the Academy Awards. John McCain’s militaristic persona fairly shouts out that There Will Be Blood (or in his words, “there will be other wars.”) Running on a platform of change and youthful energy, Barack Obama could argue that America is No Country for Old Men. And the evangelical Mike Huckabee surely believes in Atonement. As for Hillary Clinton, she can be described as a stately woman in the mold of the goddess Juno, married to the Jupiter-like Bill Clinton, a quick-tempered ruler with a roving eye.

Christopher Hitchens Converts to Islam

Christopher Hitchens, perhaps cleaning himself for a trip to Mecca. Photo from Vanity Fair.

Despite  his long history of unpredictable political and personal turns, Christopher Hitchens has completely shocked me with his recent decision to accept Mohammed as a prophet, a totally unexpected development coming so soon after his anti-theist polemic God Is Not Great.

The swaggering pundit made his devoutness evident in a very subtle fashion in an essay for Slate  that touched on the controversy about Danish cartoons that mocked Mohammed. Hitchens wrote: “Not very long ago, [Kurt Westergaard] joined with other cartoonists in an open society in drawing some caricatures of the alleged ‘prophet’ Mohammed.”

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William F. Buckley: the Gift of Friendship


William F. Buckley. 

The death of a man at age 82, after a productive, successful, event-filled life enriched by an unusually close-knit family and an enormous circle of friends and admirers, should hardly be the cause of sadness. I do have to say though that the passing of William F. Buckley, whose death has just been announced, makes me feel wistful and at a loss. Like countless other readers, I read Buckley not for his ideas but for his voice, that languid self-assured upper-crust tone that was saved from being offensively twee by a certain tart wit and generous capacity to engage with other points of view. No less a radical than Noam Chomsky once observed that Buckley treated his interlocutors with a courtesy that other mainstream debaters, whether liberals or conservatives, lacked. [Note: see POST SCRIPT below]. Buckley was simply a part of my mental furniture; it’s difficult to imagine a world without him, a world where that unique voice is silent.

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A Gay Old Kat

The Krazy Kat club, 1921.

Via The Comics Reporter, the website Shorpy has a  great collection of photos from the 1920s of the Krazy Kat club, a Washington DC hangout/speakeasy that appears to have been quite a hub of bohemian activity. The police busted it more than once. The clientele included college kids, flappers and gays. A diary by a gay man kept in 1920 refers to the Krazy Kat club as a “Bohemian joint in an old stable up near Thomas Circle … (where) artists, musicians, atheists, professors” congregated.  

The gay angle is worth pondering because of the club was named after the comic strip Krazy Kat (who can be seen on the door sign in the photo above). Krazy was the first androgynous hero(ine) of the comics: sometimes Krazy was a he, sometimes a she. As creator George Herriman stated, Krazy was willing to be either.

 Is it possible that Krazy’s shifting gender identity made him/her an icon for gays? 

Or it could be that the owners just liked comics. The building that housed the Krazy Kat club remained a gay hangout for decades to come and also held on to its connection to comics: it was later renamed The Green Lantern.

It’s also the case that Krazy Kat attracted outsiders of all sorts, not just gays. In the 1930s in Chicago, there was a Krazy Kat club organized by teenage African-Americans, also interesting in the light of the fact that Herriman had some black ancestry and used African-American themes and motifs in his strip.

When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians

Ronald Reagan awarding James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983.

War propaganda often rests on the myth of eternal enmity: the current enemy must be portrayed as perennially and irredeemably vile. George Orwell aptly limned this mindset in his novel 1984: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.” During the two world wars, Anglo-American historians wrote many a book arguing that Germans have always been stinkers from the Gothic barbarians and autocratic Frederick the Great to the amoral Bismarck and psychotic Hitler. This whole literature of eternal Teutonic villainy was conveniently forgotten when West Germany became a pillar of NATO.

Reading the conservative press now you would think that Arabs and Muslims have always and everywhere been the enemies of Western civilization. We’re invited to imagine that the current troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent manifestation of a clash of civilizations that goes back to Mohammed, the Crusades, and the conquest of Constantinople.

Yet within the lifetime of our parents, conservatives were surprisingly pro-Arab. This was particularly true of the most salient issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugee problem. As surprising as this may sound, the mainstream consensus view of American conservatives from the late 1940s until well into the late 1960s was that the Palestinians had been deeply wronged by Israel and deserved restorative justice.

Consider Regnery Publishing. Founded  in 1947 by Henry Regnery, it was the premier publishing house of the postwar conservative renaissance, issuing classic books by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham and many other writers. During this period it also published a steady stream of books championing Arab culture and sympathetically describing the plight of the Palestinians. These books included Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel (1953), Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), Per-Olow Anderson’s They are Human Too (1957), and Ethel Mannin’s Road to Beersheeba (England: 1963; America: 1964). Anderson’s book was a collection of photographs taken at Palestinian refugee camps, Mannin’s volume a novel about Palestinian refugees. Utley’s book uttered a sentiment typical for these books: “freedom and justice for Israel depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs.”

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Middle Eastern Superheroes

Malaak, Lebanese superheroine.

Superhero comics almost invariably have a political subtext, often involving nationalism and war. In his fledgling incarnation in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Superman stood for America, a nation weakened by the great depression (hence looking like the nebbish Clark Kent) but ready to spring forth and assume its world historical destiny. Similar nationalist allegories flowed through stories about Captain America, Wonder Woman and other early crime fighters. The heroes of the 1960s – the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-men – enacted Cold War fears, often these characters were children of radiation and the atom haphazardly and uneasily using science to grapple with a changing world.

It’s not surprising the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is producing as a side-effect many local superhero comics. The best of the lot is Joumana Medlej’s Malaak, Angel of Peace, a Lebanese superheroine who protects her ancestral city from demons bent on inciting civil strife.  Medlej has a pleasingly cartoony style, half-way between manga and the Belgian clear-line tradition. The introductory storyline nicely juggles young adult soap opera (like Spider-Man, Malaak has to balance her studies, her romantic life and her heroics) with a fantasy storyline rooted in Lebanon’s recent history of civil war. The ambiance and architecture of Lebanon is very well evoked. The spirit of the “Cedar Revolution” infuses the comic, with its suggestion that Lebanon’s turmoil is being fostered by outside forces. Interestingly, Malaak’s religious identity is deliberately obscure (it’s not even clear if she’s a Christian or a Muslim); indeed her origin has a vaguely pagan feel, sprouting as she does from the cedars that guard the city just as if she were a Greek or Roman goddess.

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An American Foreign Legion?

Hollywood does the French Foreign Legion, 1939.

Mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military is suffering from recruiting problems as fewer and fewer citizens are willing to put their lives on the line. A host of stopgap measures have been tried, including accepting recruits with lower education standards and giving waivers to convicted felons who sign up. According to a new poll of American officers (highlighted by Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly), many in the American military are willing to accept a radical solution to this problem. 78% of those polled thought the military should recruit from outside the United States, offering citizenship to foreigners in exchange for service. This idea is twice as popular as restoring the draft, with only 38% of officers supporting a return to conscription.

The idea of an army made up of wannabe-citizens is not new. When Rome was a Republic, only citizens could serve but during its decadence the Roman Empire was defended largely by soldiers from the hinterland, erstwhile barbarians who sometimes rose to the rank of Emperor. The French Foreign Legion operated on a similar model. And in Iraq, the United States is already using a species of alien mercenaries: many of the military contractors in Iraq are from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And it is worth noting that one of the first soldiers in the American army who died in Iraq was Jose Gutierrez, an orphan from Guatemala came to the United States as an illegal alien at age 14. Gutierrez became a resident alien when he was 18 but was only won citizenship as a posthumous reward. No exact numbers are available but there does seem to be a sizeable number of resident aliens in the American army, immigrants halfway on the road to citizenship with the army as a waystation.

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Comparing apples and oranges


We’re not supposed to compare apples and oranges – or so the saying goes. But as H.P. Glenn, erudite author of Legal Traditions of the World points out, we can compare apples and oranges: “[t]here are obvious criteria of roundness, acidity, colour, sweetness, price and so on. “ As Glenn goes on to ask, “Why do people say you cannot compare things, that they are incommensurable, when they are so obviously comparable or commensurable?”

A bit of etymology may be in order: ‘incommensurable’ is the negation of the Latin ‘com’ and ‘mensurabilis,’ indicating, as Glenn says, “a degree of common measure.” Incommensurable, in other words, is a fancy way of saying that things are incomparable. The term derives from debates in ancient Greek mathematics: there was an issue at the time of whether everything mathematical could be expressed in integers, and the Pythagoreans demonstrated that some aspects of geometry could not be so expressed.

I mention all this not out of sheer pedantic interest, but because some friends have been urging the notion of incommensurability on me recently in the context of energy policy debates. Oddly enough, the abstruse idea of incommensurability has implications for our energy choices. Continue reading

Valentines Day, Maoist Style


Via the wide-ranging curiosity of Scott McLemee, here are some romantic February 14th reflections from the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a Maoist group:

Toilers And Oppressed People Of Every Nation:

Let The Dauntless Spirit Of Comrade Valentine Illuminate The Bright Red Path Of Revolutionary Romanticism!

Love And Desire Are The Birthright Of The Working Masses And Must Be Defended Against Rapacious Capital’s Drive To Reduce Them To Shoddy Commodities!

Never Waver In The Battle To Smash Reactionary Feudal And Bourgeois Worldviews Which Deny Agency To Women And LGBTQ People!