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Monday, May 20, 2013

someone's got to die

Yeah, spoilers.

Last night's Mad Men (season six, episode eight: 'The Crash') depicts what has to be the most despicable conduct seen so far on the series. After Frank Gleason's funeral, his CGC partner Jim Cutler brings Frank's teenaged daughter Wendy to the agency's offices where she gets fucked by a drug-addled adult male predator in the person of Stan Rizzo while Cutler watches through an open door. Although we may not meet Wendy again, I think it's safe to imagine that her combination of bright-eyed mysticism, hippie-seer vision, and misplaced trust in the men around her will probably not lead anywhere good.

There's a creepy symmetry to the episode in that we see not one but two vulnerable, fatherless teenagers get fucked by adults, the other one being someone we know doesn't turn out well: Dick Whitman, in flashback at the whorehouse where he lived with his step-mother. In one of the many lines reverberating between the 1960s and the 1930s, Don ends the episode barking to Ted and Jim: 'Everytime we get a car this place turns into a whorehouse.' In the visual echo across the decades we learn what Sylvia Rosen and Aimée have in common: an identical mole on the cheek. Young Dick's first encounter yields a savage wooden-spoon beating from his step-mother and her even more brutal verbal assault: 'You're trash! You know that you are!' While perhaps too obviously a developmentally-damaging first sex experience, the scene resonates with several others we've seen recently of children in peril.

The two most recurrent themes in season six have been death and abandoned children. In the season premiere we met Sandy whose parent (I thought it was her father, but Wikipedia says her mother and the AMC website doesn't say) has recently died and who vanishes without a trace after selling her violin to the lost boys of Saint Marks Place, who defiantly tell Betty they are the trash of a society that has abandoned them. The Draper children—Sally, Bobby, and Eugene—faced a more immediate peril this week in being abandoned by the adults at their father's Park Avenue flat on a night when a thief visits. (Here we must pause to note that the most lines ever by a black person on Mad Men were spoken by an actress playing a criminal. After the show reduced Martin Luther King's murder to a night of white fears of black riots, I no longer find it possible to defend the show against accusations of racism.)

Where is all of this leading? It may lead nowhere. One thing Matthew Weiner learned from his apprenticeship on The Sopranos is the lesson of open-endedness and non-closure. I could be wildly wrong—time will tell between now and the June 23 season finale—but I feel like we are waiting for another death, one that will rattle Don Draper. All the death this season—vomitting at a funeral notwithstanding—has left him untouched: Roger's mother, Giorgio the shoeshine guy, MLK, RFK, Frank Gleason.

Don hates death like no character on television since Nate Fisher of Six Feet Under. All season long I've been seeing, or perhaps imagining, connections between Don and Nate. Nate told us who he was in the pilot: a thirty-five-year-old who'd never had a relationship and who fled his family because he was haunted by death. He was an asshole, but Peter Krause, the actor who played him, often made us forget that and made us love him instead. As the series progressed, it became harder to overlook his selfishness, his narcissism, and the pain he inflicted on those around him. The same could be said of Don Draper: he's no worse now than he was in 1960, but the show's audience is definitely starting to turn against him. If you've seen all of Six Feet Under, you know how Nate treated his pregnant wife at the end. (And you'd also know that both characters had fortieth-birthday parties that went eerily wrong.) With Mad Men's season-premiere miscarriage—an event that occurs in SFU's final season premiere, too—and the unequivocal indication that Don's crucifix-clad mistress Sylvia opposes abortion, I thought we might see Don pull a Nate Fisher and do some version of what he did.

I had also started to imagine we might see something that has almost never happened on a television series—the death of the leading man, a dream shared by Matt Zoller Seitz on Twitter before last night's episode:
Someone else has to die this season; the question is who. The safe money is on Private Dinkins, whose lighter followed Don from Hawaii and later levitated out of the trash. News of his demise in Vietnam might hit Don hard, however briefly. I can imagine him watching Dinkins's wedding slides again on his Kodak Carousel. My money is on someone whose death would hit Don way harder: one of his kids, probably Sally. If she were to die right now, her last words to him would be: 'And then I realized I don't know anything about you.' In their telephone chat the morning after the crime, he neglected to say, 'I love you,' despite his recent observation in the MLK episode that he was surprised to find he loved his kids.

Aside from The Ice Storm, another tale of self-absorbed, negligent parents, children usually don't die in fiction. It's too painful. Yet the one event that would unite this season's two main themes—not that they have to be united per se—would be for Don to lose a kid, particularly if her death were brought on by his own actions. The season began with a miscarriage for Megan and Don. Perhaps it ends with the death of a child. Then we may finally get to see fulfilled the prophecy of the opening credits: Don in freefall out his office window past images of happy families.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Akin and Assad: separated at birth?

Representative Todd Akin, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate for Missouri, and Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator of Syria, have a lot in common, not least of which is an obsession with rape. Akin has gained worldwide fame for his recent remarks that rape cannot lead to pregnancy, the underlying belief being that some pregnant women falsely claim to have been raped in order to get around restrictions on abortion. (On a related note, here is video of Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan claiming that a health-of-the-mother exception to abortion bans would be 'a loophole wide enough to drive a Mack truck through it'. Perhaps 'legitimate' health crises don't happen to pregnant women.) Hafez al-Assad, on the other hand, ruled Syria for thirty years under a state of emergency rampant with rape, torture, and murder by the government.

But famously obsessing over rape isn't all that Akin and Assad have in common. Look at this side-by-side comparison of their Wikipedia headshots: big foreheads, prominent combovers. Could they have been separated at birth? Legitimate photographic comparisons suggest an intriguing possibility.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

the end

If anyone had any doubt that petroleum, coal, and gas interests control the Republican Party (and much of the Democratic Party), it's time to put that doubt to rest. The New York Times is now reporting that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has announced a plan to end federal regulation of drilling and mining for petroleum, coal, and natural gas on federal lands and replace it with oversight by the state governments instead. As I have argued elsewhere, the state governments lack the capacity to regulate the drilling and mining operations already underway in their jurisdictions. This is land owned by the federal government. How much land? According to the Times:
The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. But as of March 2012, only about 37 million acres were under lease for oil and gas operations, of which about 16.3 million acres have active oil and gas production or exploration, according to the Interior Department.
Romney claims that the Obama administration's policy on dirty fuel sources is 'to get those things so expensive and so rare that wind and solar become highly cost-effective and efficient'. And there we have it: the acknowledgement by the Republican nominee that he and his petro-baron backers will do anything they can—including turning over federal lands to weak state governments—to prevent solar and other non-polluting alternatives from ever becoming market-viable. And somehow they call themselves capitalists.

Meanwhile, New York State awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo's (D?-NY) decision as to whether he will allow fracking in the state. This is not going to end well, for New York, for the West, or for the planet.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

how to abolish the electoral college

My most recent article for 3 Quarks Daily is the first of a two-part series on the electoral college. In part one, I use arithmetic to overturn the main practical obstacle to abolishing it. Do feel encouraged to read it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

summer and taxes

The Ministry of Information is getting set to resume business soon. Check this space next month. In the meanwhile, do feel encouraged to read my article on tax justice for 3 Quarks Daily. You can also follow the Information at my Twitter account.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

abstract classicism

Cy Twombly continued to produce extraordinary work right up until his death last week. Although his paintings often included text, they challenge one to find the words to describe them. I have tried to do that in my latest contribution to 3 Quarks Daily, which I submit for your reading pleasure.

Meanwhile, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London is exhibiting works by Twombly and Poussin side by side. I will head down there this weekend to see what comes of pairing two such devoted classicists of such different eras and styles.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

frack that

My latest contribution to 3 Quarks Daily is now available for your reading pleasure. The subject is hydraulic fracturing, 'fracking' for short. Do feel encouraged to read it. Meanwhile, enjoy a nice, tall glass of cool, refreshing water.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

'I think art is difficult'

A very fine artist whose work you should see has just forwarded me a link to Charlie Rose's interview of Richard Serra, broadcast April 21, 2011. Serra speaks only in beautifully complete, hyper-articulate sentences. Whether you have seen the exhibition of his drawings at the Met or not, I am sure you will be moved by listening to Serra talk about his art and questions of making in general. People who teach should especially watch this interview, for Serra's habits of mind are exactly what we need to inculcate in our students.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Man in Panama

Earlier today, President Obama released his 'long-form birth certificate' on the premise that doing so would enable American political discourse to move on to more important matters. Here is his explanation from the official White House transcript:
We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend that facts are not facts. We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.
Before we put the 'birther' issue to rest forever, I would like to offer my thoughts on how this rubbish started during the 2008 campaign. You see, one of the two major-party candidates for president had the problem of being born outside the United States. I am speaking, of course, of John McCain, native of Panama.

What's that you say? You did not know that John McCain was born in Panama? I wonder why. Every reference source agrees. According to Wikipedia, for instance, John McCain was born on August 29, 1936 at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, Panama Canal Zone, where his father, John Sidney McCain Jr., was stationed. I should point out, for what it's worth, that McCain has always refused to release his birth certificate. [Update: McCain did provide his birth certificate in 2008 to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Hampshire in the case of Hollander v. McCain (2008), which challenged his eligibility to serve.]

Although Panama is obviously not part of the U.S., are U.S. military installations abroad in any way, under any statute or provision, 'part' of the U.S.? Is someone born at a U.S. military installation abroad somehow 'in' the U.S.? In a word, no. Let's take a look at the United States Foreign Affairs Manual, Volume 7, §1113, entitled 'NOT INCLUDED IN THE MEANING OF "IN THE UNITED STATES"'. According to paragraph (c)(1),
Despite widespread popular belief, U.S. military installations abroad and U.S. diplomatic or consular facilities abroad are not part of the United States within the meaning of the 14th Amendment. A child born on the premises of such a facility is not born in the United States and does not acquire U.S. citizenship by reason of birth.
Why is it such a problem for a presidential candidate to have been born outside the U.S.? According to Article II of the U.S. Constitution:
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
The truth is, no one knows for sure what this clause means. No court has ever ruled on it regarding presidential elections, and legal experts are divided. (See summaries of facts and opinions here and here.) In the absence of clear constitutional or jurisprudential guidance, a president born outside the U.S. could be subject to suspicions of constitutional illegitimacy.

Aside from the obviously racist intent, the point of accusing Obama of being foreign-born in 2008 was to draw attention away from McCain's foreign birth. And it seems to have worked. Far more people have heard the lies about Obama's birthplace than the truth about McCain's. Once Obama won the election, the lie took on a life of its own.

I doubt that Obama's statement and document release today will be the final chapter in the history of the 'birther' conspiracy. But I do believe that the need to draw attention away from McCain's 'birther' problem was the first chapter.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Richard Serra at the Met

Last week I contributed an article on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of Richard Serra's drawing to 3 Quarks Daily. Do feel encouraged to read it.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Egypt etc.

My latest contribution to 3 Quarks Daily provides fresh thoughts on the nascent Arab revolutions. Do feel encouraged to read it.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

more for us

More evidence of Republican zealotry/insanity, as if more were needed: Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas wants to eliminate the state arts commission by spinning it off into a private entity. This would make Kansas the only state in the Union without a state entity to promote the arts. Even [fill in the state you like least] has a state arts commission. The state's annual budget for the arts: $574,000. The Kansas Arts Commission, which is not taking the governor's plan lying down, reports that the state would consequently lose
•$778,300 in direct funding from the National Endowment for the Arts

•$437,767 in indirect grants and services from Mid-America Arts Alliance, the Kansas Arts Commission's regional partner[.]
My math says that would be a net loss to the state of $642,067. Add the $200,000 that the state expects the spinoff to cost, and the total rises to $842,067. That's before taking into account lost jobs, lost taxes on those jobs, and so on, not to mention the impoverishment of Kansan society as creative professionals flee the state. I could, if I were inclined, supply copious, convincing data demonstrating the revenue boost that the arts supply to cities and states across the country, but that's not really the point today.

I am more interested in seeing this as an example of ideological opportunism by the Republicans. We don't need any more data to know that Brownback's costly plan forms no part of a genuine budget-cutting effort. He is simply using the state's economic downturn to carry on the Republican culture wars. (Let me also take this opportunity to remind readers that, as a U.S. Senator, Brownback supported a far-right Israeli plan to annex the West Bank and Gaza deport all Palestinians therefrom.)

In the past, I might have written letters to whomever in Kansas in defense of the arts commission. In college, I organized a postcard-writing campaign to support the National Endowment of the Arts. We generated over a thousand postcards to students' individual members of Congress, and this was during a summer term. And now? 63% of the Kansas electorate voted for Brownback last year. After his fourteen years in the U.S. Senate, they surely knew what they were getting. Making matters worse, the comments from local readers at the Topeka Capital-Journal's website mostly support Brownback's plan and sneer at the arts.

I feel for the good people of Kansas who may now lose the Topeka Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1946, and other cultural riches. But my sympathy is fairly limited, for this is exactly what the people of Kansas chose in their elections. This is democracy at work. If the people of Kansas want to be governed by anti-arts, anti-math maniacs, that is their right. The one note of solace that we can take from this sorry episode: there may be more arts funding for the rest of us, who support the arts not just in the comfort of our seats at the symphony but at the ballot box as well.

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