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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Huckabee wins West Virginia

It's no small thing that the Clintons have beaten Barack Obama by a big margin, 67% to 26%, in yesterday's West Virginia primary, but if losing West Virginia means danger in the general election, John McCain has at least as much to worry about as Obama.

West Virginia is one of those quirky states where the Democrats and Republicans follow different procedures for choosing their party's presidential nominee. As the New York Times website shows, West Virginia held a Republican caucus on February 5 and a Republican primary yesterday. The results deserve our attention.

In yesterday's Republican primary, which determined nine pledged delegates, McCain won 76% of the vote. That means that in a completely uncompetitive primary, 24% of Republican primary voters showed up just to vote against their party's presumptive nominee. (I noted the same trend last week in Indiana and North Carolina.)

But in the February 5 Republican caucus, when McCain faced active competition with eighteen delegates at stake, the results were staggering. These are the vote totals of the delegates at the state convention, as shown by the New York Times:

Mike Huckabee56751.5%
Mitt Romney52147.4%
John McCain121.1%

Some readers may say that it is a cheap parlor trick to compare Obama's 26% in the West Virginia primary to McCain's 1.1% in the same state's caucus. And maybe it is. The better comparison may be to the Republican primary in Utah, a reliably Republican state where one candidate, Mitt Romney, was favored by voters from the start. In Utah's February 5 primary, McCain got 5.4% of the vote to Romney's 89.5%. Does this mean that, having lost Utah so dramatically, McCain cannot hope to carry it in November? Certainly not. And neither does the Clintons' lopsided victory in West Virginia rule it out for Obama. Keep these facts in mind when you hear all the silly talk about Obama's 'electability'.

So that's what Obama's big defeat in West Virginia doesn't mean. As for what it does mean, your guess is as good as mine.


Monday, May 12, 2008

still true

Longtime readers of my blog may recall that I have in the past requested, of no one in particular, that Sounds from True Stories, David Byrne's only album never released on cd, be reissued. (This is the motion picture score, as opposed to Talking Heads' True Stories album.) Last night I asked the man himself.

The occasion was a screening of True Stories (1986) as part of a film series at BAM called 'The Cinematography of Ed Lachman'. Lachman and Byrne appeared in person and spoke with the audience for about forty minutes. They said quite a lot that will be of interest to fans of the film.

Byrne brought several books of photography with him and held up some of the images for the audience to see. The photographers whose work he identified as the film's visual sources were William Eggleston (whose photos appear in the True Stories book), Chauncey Hare, Stephen Shore (Uncommon Places), Joel Sternfeld, Lewis Baltz, and Larry Fink. As in Byrne's own photographs of corporate signs and office settings, what fascinated him were the images of mundane places and suburban developments, not to mock them but to marvel at them.

He also said that the film originally ended with the death and funeral of the Cute Woman but that this proved to be a downer of an ending. It sounds to me like a special edition dvd is in order.

Screenplay-wise, seeing the film for the first time since its original release, I found myself recalling another 80's film which, while probably not an influence on Byrne at the time, was constructed from similar written sources: Pedro Almodóvar's Laberinto de pasiones (1982). Like True Stories, Almodóvar's screenplay, with its tales of artificial insemination, nymphomania, and the former royal family of Iran, was constructed in large part from the tabloid press.

Lachman talked a lot about the framing of the film and how he tried to photograph it the way an amateur or a resident of the town of Virgil, Texas would. Before the screening and before Byrne's arrival, Lachman also said, rightly I think, that Byrne was way ahead of the curve in articulating how the shopping mall had replaced the village green as the gathering place for the social life of many towns.

Hearing the songs, I was struck by another early insight of Byrne's. Last year, while blogging about the Carnegie Hall performance of his song cycle about Imelda Marcos, I praised his new song about martial law in the Philippines, 'Order 1081'. It takes a person of great sympathetic imagination to be able to depict in song people's welcoming of martial law (unless, of course, one is a fascist, but that would be a different kind of song altogether). When John Goodman sang 'People Like Us' in the movie, I was struck, not necessarily by a new revelation about the song, but by a connection between the Marcos-themed song about martial law and the lyrics of 'People Like Us':
'We don't want freedom.
We don't want justice.
We just want someone to love,
Someone to love.'
As early as 'People Like Us' in 1986, Byrne had written a song that tried to reckon with people's apparent preference for emotional security over abstractions like rights and freedoms. This is a valuable insight for those of us who care about human rights and wonder why we often seem so few in number.

Getting back to what I asked during the Q&A, I posed two questions. The first was why he had not made more fictional films. He replied that he had pitched other ideas but that Hollywood had shrugged at them and asked him instead for True Stories 2. My second question was about the missing album. His answer: that the album is tied up at Warner and would require all kinds of permissions to be obtained and whatnot. Someone in the audience (not me) shouted, 'Start a petition!' but Byrne did not seem too interested in the prospect of reissuing the album.

That's too bad. I have the album on cassette, and parts of it are as clear an intellectual and æsthetic statement, in musical form, of Byrne's ideas in the mid-80's as anything else he did at the time. Hopefully this will not be the last word on Sounds from True Stories.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

imaginary presidential art

It may be an idle thought of no interest to anyone but me, but I sometimes try to imagine what Jean-Michel Basquiat would have made of Barack Obama. Being a great admirer of both, I naturally imagine that Basquiat would have been inspired to add Obama to his pantheon of crowned heads, which included Joe Louis, Cassius Clay, and Charlie Parker. (Yes, that's an actual Basquiat crown that I added to Obama's image at the left.)

Although the similarities may be broad, the more I think about it, the more the two seem to have in common. Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960, just 225 days before Obama on August 4, 1961. Both rose like rocketships to dominate their fields, painting and politics, with a youthful vigor more desperately needed than we had thitherto realized. And both confounded the usual American racial categories by having black parents from outside the U.S. (in Basquiat's case, from Haiti and Puerto Rico), which may have something to do with a worldliness of vision uncommon to Americans of any color.

For what it's worth, I don't think for a second that Basquiat would have produced campaign-suitable propaganda, like Shepard Fairey's Obama posters, but I'm sure he would have painted something striking. That's the problem, among others, with people who die young: they stop making new work.

In lieu of producing anymore fake Basquiats for the campaign, I have a question for my readers: what artists do you imagine depicting the 2008 presidential candidates? Here are mine.
Barack Obama: Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Hillary Clinton: Lucian Freud.
John McCain: Goya.
Post your presidential artists in the comments.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

typing fingers crossed

A few weeks ago I applied to cover the Democratic National Convention as a blogger. If accepted, I would have press credentials and I would blog directly from the Convention in Denver. Today, I received a followup message from the Democratic National Convention Committee asking me for more information because they are considering my application.

I know that I don't have the eyeball counts of the big blogs like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, but perhaps there is room for my, for now, modest little blog. I'd like to think that I provide keen analysis that is well-written and that one will not find elsewhere. I don't repeat what everyone else is writing and blogging about unless I think I have something particularly insightful to add to it. Like the big blogs, I do original research into Congressional hearings, judicial decisions, and United States law, not to mention my many blog entries drawing on my knowledge of Islam (and hip hop).

I've long thought that a big problem with news and political commentary in this country is the narrow range of expertise that it draws on. Turn on any news or chat show and, ten times out of ten, you will see journalists interviewing other journalists or party apparatchiks. Turn on the equivalent program anywhere else in the world and you will often see—hold on to your hats—historians, political scientists, and regional experts offering their own insight and analysis. What is interesting about watching one journalist talk to another about the election when both of them have the same knowledge, come from the same professional background, and share the same paradigms and assumptions?

I want this opportunity not just because it would be a blast to probe the convention for the angles and insights less covered elsewhere, but also because, at a time when one of our candidates is under attack for having an elite mind, I would like to show American news readers the difference that serious, rigorous analysis can make, particularly when it is written in highly readable prose with healthy dollops of wit. There is a market for what I am doing, and going to the convention can help me find it.

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Friday, May 2, 2008

torturers need not apply

According to news reports yesterday, Nelson Mandela and other members of the African National Congress appear on U.S. terrorist watch lists. What makes the situation even more ridiculous is that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apparently has no idea of how to get them off the list:
'"This is a country with which we now have excellent relations, South Africa, but it's frankly a rather embarrassing matter that I still have to waive in my own counterpart, the foreign minister of South Africa, not to mention the great leader Nelson Mandela," Rice said.'

With the executive branch mired in such incompetence, Representative Howard Berman (D-CA) has proposed legislation, currently in the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees, to remove them from the list. The bill is H.R. 5690, 'To exempt the African National Congress from treatment as a terrorist organization for certain acts or events, provide relief for certain members of the African National Congress regarding admissibility, and for other purposes.'

My original intention in starting this blog entry was to revisit Dick Cheney's pro-apartheid votes in the U.S. House in 1986. He did indeed vote against a resolution calling for Mandela's release and against economic sanctions, but I was unable to corroborate a recollection I had from the 80's about something he may have said about Mandela in particular.

Instead, I found something more interesting in the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1182), the law which Berman's bill would amend. Here it is:

'§ 1182. Inadmissible aliens
(a) Classes of aliens ineligible for visas or admission. Except as otherwise provided in this Act, aliens who are inadmissible under the following paragraphs are ineligible to receive visas and ineligible to be admitted to the United States:[...]

(3) Security and related grounds.[...]

(E) Participants in Nazi persecution, genocide, or the commission of any act of torture or extrajudicial killing.[...]

(iii) Commission of acts of torture or extrajudicial killings. Any alien who, outside the United States, has committed, ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the commission of—
(I) any act of torture, as defined in section 2340 of title 18, United States Code; or
(II) under color of law of any foreign nation, any extrajudicial killing, as defined in section 3(a) of the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (28 U.S.C. 1350 note), is inadmissible.'

How about that? Aliens who have committed, ordered, or even incited torture are not allowed to enter the U.S. I guess certain privileges are reserved for citizens.

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