Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Don't drink the Obama Kool-Aid

With the February 5 Democratic primary election less than one week away, the city is caught in the grip of Barack Obama fever. Just going about one’s daily business shows that this phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions. Obama signs adorn the windows of homes and businesses in every borough, from the most palatial brownstones to the dingiest corner mom-and-pop stores. I have even seen earnest young musicians playing songs in the subway for money to donate to the Obama campaign. It’s clear that after eight years of conservative misrule under George W. Bush, New Yorkers (and most Americans for that matter) are desperate for a leader that promises to change the direction our country is heading in and address our foremost concerns – making the economy fairer, ending the war in Iraq, providing affordable healthcare to every American. And as the media endlessly intones, Barack Obama has forcefully laid claim to this mantle of “change,” no matter how nebulously defined.

In his often moving speeches and writings, Obama stresses that his personal history and his mixed-race heritage uniquely position him as the presidential candidate most capable of moving the country in a more progressive direction. There is some merit in this claim. As he likes to remind us, he did spend time as a community organizer in Chicago after graduating college, and in the Illinois state senate he sponsored or helped shepherd along important pieces of progressive legislation on a range of issues. During the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002 he spoke out forcefully against the Bush administration’s imperial misadventure. This is all to his credit.

But upon further examination, Obama clearly is not the unabashedly progressive champion that he and his supporters make him out to be. In an important piece published in 2006 before he launched his presidential campaign, Harper’s Magazine investigative journalist Ken Silverstein shows that even before Obama burst onto the national scene with his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, his transformation from a progressive outsider to a Washington hack all too willing to lend support to the causes nearest and dearest to the heart of corporate America. In 2005, he voted against an amendment that would have ended loan guarantees for an Illinois-based nuclear power company that has contributed handsomely to his campaigns. He also voted for a Republican “tort reform” bill that placed additional restrictions on class action lawsuits, and since he acquired a national profile he has steadily moved away from his formerly strong position in opposing the Iraq war. While he has called for the removal of all “combat troops,” he favors keeping a “quick strike force” in place to protect American interests and fight against “terrorists,” real and imagined. This is not an argument for withdrawal, but rather an endorsement of the indefinite continuation of the occupation of Iraq. And his healthcare plan does not involve universal coverage of any kind and does nothing to confront the entrenched power of the medical and pharmaceutical lobbies.

What’s happening is that many people who want to dig America out of the hole Bush has put us into over the past eight years have turned Obama into a kind of political Rorschach test. Desperate for a glimmer of hope after eight dark years under Bush, we have projected all of our hopes for a better country onto him and worked ourselves into a state of irrational exuberance at the prospect of an Obama presidency, as if he can single-handedly make the “change we can believe in” (as if he actually believes in the kind of change that many of his supporters want to see) happen. You can see it in the language used by Caroline and Teddy Kennedy in their endorsements of him. In their eyes, he’s the living reincarnation of the hopes and dreams of the 1960s generation, whose deepest aspirations died in the killing fields of Vietnam and the burning streets of America’s ghettos. If Obama is indeed elected president this fall, he will inevitably disappoint everyone who has invested him or herself emotionally in his campaign by showing that contrary to his rhetoric, he’s really just another establishment politician. I’m afraid that the resulting disillusionment could demobilize the progressive forces who have rallied to his campaign and do even more to damage our chances for effecting bold and far-reaching change in the years ahead.

Now that my top two candidates John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich are both out of the race, I will likely cast a vote for Obama in Tuesday’s primary as an anti-Hillary gesture because she’s even worse than he is. I would encourage others on the democratic left to do the same, but let’s be mindful of what our role this election season should be. If Obama indeed becomes the Democratic nominee, let’s support his candidacy but do our best to encourage others to put down the Kool-Aid and lower their expectations. Ultimately it’s the social movements doing the tedious, unglamorous work of organizing that will determine just how responsive to the needs of ordinary people he or any other politician will be.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Santana. On the Mets. Oh my god.

Right: Mets GM Minaya gets aggressive at the plate.

A Venezuelan has brightened my spirits in the depths of winter, but I'm not talking about those awesome Citgo-sponsored free heating oil commercials with Joe Kennedy in them. I'm talking about Johan Santana, probably the best pitcher in the world, being traded to the Mets today for relative peanuts. I'm still not fully over the shock of last season's epic September collapse, but this at least gives me a reason to care about baseball this year. Our chances of losing in the World Series to the Red Sox, Yankees or Tigers have increased dramatically.

I hope he wears #3 so everyone can bust out their vintage Rafael Santana unis.

Uke 'Til You Puke

After a three-hour long public transportation odyssey in the cold winter night, I am finally in possession of a ukulele. Apparently my musical ability is inborn, because after only 30 minutes of messing around I can bring it with killer renditions of Frere Jacques, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Ode To Joy. I'll be at that Lollapalooza thing in Vineland this summer playing the full Minor Threat discography in the tent.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Rambo's Burmese Days

For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to see the new Rambo movie last night. After seeing some commercials, I had high hopes that it would take cinematic self-parody to new heights. I was disappointed. It was so bad that it couldn't even find a way to make fun of itself. But at least that gives me the opportunity to make fun of it here.

Since we last saw him fighting on the side of forces that would later go on to become the Taliban in Rambo III, our man has retreated to a small riverside village in Thailand to scowl at everyone, make barely audible grunting sounds and wrangle deadly poisonous snakes for a living. This all changes when a small group of sanctimonious Christian do-gooders shows up and ruins everything. They want to get into Burma to bring aid to the Karen ethno-religious minority, which has been brutally repressed by the Burmese government for the past 60 years, and Rambo is apparently the only one who has both the boat and the know-how to get them up-river into that bloody warzone. After refusing initial entreaties by the group's leader, the only female member of the group eventually manages to convince Rambo to help them. Once they get into Burma, all hell breaks loose. Seemingly minutes after they arrive in a Karen village, Burmese troops lay waste to the village, kill lots of people and take the activists hostage. The church group's pastor finds out about this turn of events and pays Rambo and a bunch of mercenaries to rescue them. And that's when the sparks really begin to fly.

The basic message underlying the plot is the argument that the only thing that changes anything in this world is the application of large amounts of gratuitous violence. Call it the Rambo Doctrine. When the God Squadders approach Rambo for assistance at the beginning of the movie, he asks them if they are bringing weapons into Burma with them. Of course they're not, and in response, Rambo grunts "you're not changin' anything." After Rambo singlehandedly dispatches a group of Burmese pirates on the way into country, the group's annoying leader tells Rambo "I know you think what you did is right, but killing people is never right." At this moment you know that in about an hour, Mr. Christian Pacifist will have blood on his hands. Indeed, after one of his crew is killed in an attack, he bashes some guy's head in with a rock. Rambo grunts in approval. This is the movie that should have been called There Will Be Blood, not the latest P.T. Anderson flick.

Indeed, this is likely the most violent movie I've ever seen in the theater. Long, highly stylized massacre sequences dominate the movie, in which entire heads get blown off, guts are ripped out of bellies with enormous serrated knives and at one point Rambo even rips out a guy's throat with his bare hands. All of this gore is shocking at first, but then it becomes curiously boring because this is what the entire movie basically consists of when the characters aren't engaging in poorly written and stilted dialogue that isn't even unintentionally funny. It's just plain horrible. However, high comic relief is provided when Rambo somehow manages to take out an entire Burmese army unit with a single Claymore anti-personnel mine, creating a small mushroom cloud and destroying a huge swath of rainforest! And who can forget about the scene where he forges a machete out of a single piece of rebar? Hands down these were the two best parts of the movie.

Stallone's directing is also unbelievably terrible at times. When Rambo and his men sneak into the Burmese army base to rescue the missionaries, you can't really tell who is doing what at any given time. Is that Rambo sliding under the hut to free the hot hippie chick from being raped incessantly by the screaming one-dimensional Asian stereotypes? No, I think it was the mildly retarded Southern guy. Wait, it could have been the snarky British dude or perhaps even the cute and cuddly British dude. All you need to know is that they somehow manage to go undetected, escape and the next day Rambo kills the entire unit by standing on the back of a jeep with a huge machine gun. Problem solved. Rambo then apparently walks home to his family's ranch in Arizona and the movie ends. You don't even get to see him reunite with his family because that would require, you know, writing some dialogue and acting it out.

I guess I have to give Sly props for brazenly tying the legitimately horrendous plight of the Karen people to his paean to violent military intervention. I thought that since the overwhelming majority of Americans have come to reject the Bush administration's murderous and criminal intervention in Iraq, it would be a while before anyone tried to bring something like this to the theaters. Perhaps the utter stupidity of this movie will remind some moviegoers of the utter stupidity of trying to bring change to other people's countries through the use of force. But that's probably asking too much of this movie. Just try to enjoy the part where he blows up the jungle with the mine.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Pull the plug on Facebook

The massively popular social networking site Facebook has been in the news a lot lately. The site, which currently boasts about 60 million users, found itself at the center of a major controversy surrounding an application called Beacon, which showed Facebook users which products their friends were buying online. This enormously invasive form of marketing was too much for many of the site's users, who organized a massive protest that forced Facebook to drop the application.

But apparently, this episode was indicative of just one aspect of Facebook's particular awfulness. This morning, I received an email from LabourStart, an excellent online resource for union movement news and a center for online union activism, detailing how Facebook banned a prominent Canadian union organizer from its site because he was using it to organize workers. As the email puts it:

"Derek got a note from the good book, telling him he was trying to add too
many friends, and should calm down a bit, or else. Now as a union organiser,
he’s quite likely to want to add lots of friends - it’s kind of what he does. So
he waits a bit and tries again, and is told he can’t add any more at the moment
and to wait and try later. Fair enough. He waits a bit more and tries again,
same message. By now, he’s probably frothing at the mouth and muttering "must
organise, must organise," so he has another go to see if the coast is clear, and
promptly gets himself a ban. That being a ban from Facebook itself - no more
profile, no access to the stuff he’s built up, no appeal."

Why would Facebook's administrators care whether or not someone was using their site to organize workers? Well, it turns out that the company's top executives and investors are right-wing libertarian fantasists. According to a recent piece by Tom Hodgkinson in the Guardian, Peter Thiel, the man responsible for putting up the money necessary to get Facebook off the ground, is an uber-libertarian venture capitalist whose ultimate goal is to use the Internet to free capital from any and all restrictions. "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu," says Thiel. Ugh.

The piece also details the various ways in which Facebook is an eager handmaiden of the American military-industrial complex and a supporter of a domestic surveillance state. Thus, I am canceling my Facebook account and I call on everyone else to do the same.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I have started a blog. You're welcome.

In my vanity, I have decided to create a blog. Perhaps mine can rise above the din of the millions of other half-assed vanity projects floating around on the web to help me organize my thoughts and say something worthwhile about such topics as politics, culture, libraries and whatever else interests me at any given moment. It is named "autodidact" because I think of the blog as an aspect of my ongoing self-education after leaving the warm but sometimes smothering embrace of academia.

In this and other projects, I draw inspiration from the words of Kurt Vonnegut, who said that "Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous award. You will have created something."

While I certainly wouldn't argue that blogging of any kind can be considered art, at least I'll be getting something out of my system. And even if it winds up sucking, you can make fun of me in the comments section.