Thursday, May 30, 2013

Enemies Can Be So Useful, Can't They?

By Dan Hagen
Once, we were supposed to give up all our civil liberties to fight the menace of communism.
When that "menace" collapsed under its own ossified weight, America's ruling class had a moment of near-panic.
Now, we are supposed to give up all our civil liberties to fight the menace of terrorism. Things are back to normal. America's ruling class is sanguine again.
The point has never been the much-trumpeted, corporate-media-ballyhooed, vague, largely phony menace, cut to fit the fashion of the year. The point has always been getting rid of those civil liberties. Rulers find them immensely irritating.

Yellow Star and Pink Triangle

Fighting homophobia in the 1980s, Gore Vidal cited author Christopher Isherwood’s encounter with a young Jewish Hollywood producer. “After all, Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals,” Isherwood argued. Unimpressed, the producer snapped, “But Hitler killed six million Jews.”
“What are you?” replied Isherwood. “In real estate?”
Vidal’s editor Barbara Epstein told him, “The Jewish situation is in no way analogous to that of homosexuals.” Vidal replied, “Well, Hitler felt otherwise.”
Vidal’s point was that gays, Jews and blacks all suffered precisely the same kind of unprovoked persecution. “I would suggest that the three despised minorities join forces in order not to be destroyed,” Vidal said.
—   Source: “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Gods Are Lonely

These digital art pieces by the French artist Cosmosnail are a wonderful subversion of and amplification of the superhero myth. Subversion in the sense that superheroes are giants here seen as small; amplification in that loneliness is somewhere close to the heart of every superhero story.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Journalism and Education

Journalism is to propaganda as education is to indoctrination. In both cases, the contrast is between informing someone for their own good and manipulating that person for someone else’s purposes. Confusion arises because the propagandists always call themselves "journalists" and the indoctrinators always call themselves "educators."

Sex and the Single Author

Author Gore Vidal
“In Rome, as in Bangkok, sexual opportunism was simply an ordinary way of life for innumerable people, as Gore (Vidal) constantly observed in regard to himself and others. On occasion it ran parallel with interests of the heart. More often it expressed physical desire and turns of individual personality. For Vidal the subject was interesting, the practice ordinary and hardly worth, on the personal level, describing or commenting on.”
Commenting on the “homoerotic” in Shakespeare’s sonnets, Vidal wrote, “Who thought up that word has saved the pride of thousands of hetero school teachers who cannot imagine a great writer not liking Miriam, the two children and a split-level ranch house.”
Whatever the merit of his views, Vidal lived at the crossroads of sex and literature. After all, he wrote “The City and the Pillar” and “Myra Breckenridge” and slept with both Anaïs Nin and Jack Kerouac.
—   Source: “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan

The Dumbing Down of America, Walmart Style

A cake from Walmart's bakery

This Walmart cake has an inadvertent message for America
Useful for offering congratulations to a cretin, I suppose. Do you want hard evidence of the dumbing down of this nation? There's also this from the Chicago Sun-Times on the Drew Peterson trial: "Earlier Thursday, the seven-man, five-woman jury asked the judge in a note:What does unanimous mean?"

CNN: Where the News Takes a Back Seat to Shallow, Condescending Pandering

Sunday, May 26, 2013

And Nothing Has Changed

“Gore was himself angry, and very disappointed in what human beings had done and were doing to our planet. His country was among the most powerfully predatory destroyers. Its puritan tradition devoured people’s natural instincts and chances for happiness by rigid, self-serving moralism. Its expansive and self-deluding greed was making dollar materialism more triumphant than ever. In Vietnam we were destroying a semi-helpless people, wasting our own substance, coarsening our national life, dividing America with an intensity that threatened national chaos. And literature seemed to be fading away into either an artifact from the past or the preserve of an elite few.”
Those were Gore Vidal’s reflections in 1965, and none of that has changed, except that we’ve added a couple of more Vietnams and moved closer to national chaos. The people on the tracks who can see the approaching lights of a train are called "pessimists" by those facing in the wrong direction.
—   Source: “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Vidal and Capote: Those Catty Literary Lions

They were both famous authors and professional celebrities, vain and gay, catty literary lions who concealed a claw behind every purr and competed for attention on several levels at once. Having so much in common wasn’t entirely a good thing for Gore Vidal and Truman Capote.
In the late 1940s, Vidal was visiting composer/author Paul Bowles in Morocco, and his frenemy Capote was coming but didn't know Vidal was already there. Vidal, delighted at the idea, insisted on going to the ship with Bowles to surprise Capote. There was Capote on deck, waving in his Dr. Who scarf, right up to the moment when he saw Vidal. Then his face fell like Daffy Duck's and he literally sank beneath the railing.
“When he assumed a standing position again, he was no longer grinning and waving,” Bowles recalled.
They crossed paths at a party in New York, where Vidal recounted that, not wearing his glasses, he sat down "on what I thought was a stool and it was Capote."
"Of course, I'm always sad about Gore," Capote told David Susskind. "Very sad that he has to breathe every day." Vidal later called Capote's death a "good career move."
Vidal dryly observed that Capote had "raised lying into an art — a minor art" and that he "belongs less to the history of literature than the history of public relations."
"I find on TV I am often supposed to talk about fashions and famous society ladies," Vidal said. "I then remind the host that I am the one who talks about politics and Capote is the one who tells naughty stories about the rich and Mailer is the messiah."
As for Norman Mailer, he famously threw the contents of a drink and an ineffectual punch into Vidal's face at a glitterati gala thrown in honor of Princess Margaret (who had sent her regrets, perhaps wisely). The incident prompted Russell Baker to write a column about the beatings that the "bloodthirsty" Henry James had delivered to his literary rivals. "James finally retired from pugilism after Edith Wharton knocked him out for 35 minutes with her famous powder-puff uppercut during a chance meeting at Alice Roosevelt's coming-out party," Baker wrote.
In 1965, Capote showed up in Rome, where Vidal was living. “We had a pleasant drunken evening recalling who said what about whom, and I must say my blood pressure began to rise, but then all ended well,” Vidal recalled. “He has apparently finished that book (‘In Cold Blood’), though the last two times I saw him he had just finished the book on each of those occasions.”
“I can’t get over how his appearance has changed (I can hear him on the subject of me), but he is an interesting brackish color now, rather lined, with a jaw worthy of Somerset Maugham. For the first time in 20 years I suspect that he is intelligent.”
“I found him positively affectionate, which is sinister,” Vidal said. “What can he be up to?”
Vidal found he became even more popular once he acquired that apartment in Rome with Howard Austen. "Dear Maureen O'Hara," he once wrote. "Yes, you .... will be welcome (to come stay) ... You had better have a lot of gossip and better than your meagre letter suggests. Meanwhile I remain, as always, a Great American." 
Vidal was a godfather to the children of Joanne Woodward, Kathleen Tynan, Claire Bloom and Susan Sarandon. "Always a godfather, never a god," he said.
— Source: “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan

Thursday, May 23, 2013

'Mad Men:' Feminism Fresh as a Wound

'Mad Men' by Urban Barbarian

By Dan Hagen
The arguments for feminism remain valid but sound tired, except on “Mad Men,” where they’re as fresh as a wound.
I suddenly realized that for some time, the “Mad Men” story line that has most interested me is that of Joan Holloway Harris (Christina Hendricks), the office manager at whatever the name of that newly merged firm of free-falling alcoholics and inventive narcissists will turn out to be.
Joan is the most competent character, surpassing even the agency’s dynamic creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm). After all, when drunken staffers cut off a visitor’s foot with a lawn mower, it’s Joan, not Don or anyone else, who can handle the emergency.
Note that she was absent during the episode “The Crash,” when Dr. Feelgood’s speedy ministrations turned the men in the agency into delusional and/or dangerous loons. Joan had to be offstage at the time, because she’d never have permitted that bullshit.
Although she literally keeps the agency functioning, no-nonsense Joan has to put up with plenty of nonsense, or believes she must. The series underlines the double-edged nature of her statuesque body, which gets her some things easily, and puts other things unfairly out of her reach.
One of the series’ most moving moments was the look on her face when Joan — finally by accident doing some challenging creative work in reviewing television scripts — had the job brusquely snatched away from her by a far less competent man. You can see her contain her aching disappointment, without complaint, as she silently returns to making secretarial assignments.
Joan’s competence provided her an unspoken, reliable bond with Don, who has never tried to sleep with her and respects few others in his profession. But lately, when Don’s high-handedness cost Joan perhaps a million dollars and her chance at real independence, even her patience with him snapped.
From the beginning, her looks and gender have caused the men at the agency to treat Joan with a backhanded indifference bordering on contempt. She was ill used by her backstreet lover Roger Sterling (John Slattery), then by her husband (Samuel Page). Roger thinks he’s paying her the ultimate compliment when he calls her the best piece of ass he’d ever had. Even a damn freelancer feels free to call her a “Shanghai madam” to her face.
The drama makes it clear that here we have a character who feels she must hide the depression and unhappiness that result not from a lack of love, but from a lack of respect.
The situation got worse when the men persuaded Joan to literally prostitute herself to land a client, at the price of a partnership.
You want to slap her pimp partners and ask them what they’re sniggering at. Every one of them is, after all, a whore. In fact, the series makes it pretty clear that the men’s contempt for Joan is laced with self-loathing.
But as a result of that messy business, Joan’s now a partner in the firm, although she hasn’t yet begun to act like one. When and if she does, when and if she discovers and flexes her newfound power, that will indeed be something to see.
Joan is the disrespected central support of a 1960s advertising agency
There, I’ve written 555 words on this topic — more than the 250 words that is the most Don Draper has ever written about anything, as he once ruefully observed.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Woman and Phone, 2013

I caught her coming and going, the young woman walking on 4th Street for exercise, talking without pause into her cell phone. More than an hour later, back she came, still talking loudly into her phone.
“My friend — well she isn’t anymore — has three jobs, takes fasting pills, never sleeps…

Goodbye to a Lady

In the gray rain at Hyde Park on Nov. 10, 1962, Gore Vidal attended the funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt. “This was one of the rare occasions on which he wanted to pay his last respects in the traditional way…”
“As he drove through the heavy traffic, the crowds were almost impenetrable. The rain kept falling. For him it was a dismal, funereal day filled with thoughts about the death of a great American who had been a friend to both his father and to him. He ‘stood alongside the thirty-third, the thirty-fourth, the thirty-fifth and the thirty-sixth presidents of the United States, not to mention all the remaining figures of the Roosevelt era who had assembled for the funeral… She was like no one else in her usefulness. As the box containing her went by me, I thought, well, that’s it. We’re really on our own now.’”
— “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan

Monday, May 20, 2013

Analystic Journalism on Parade

Here's a example of what Jim Jenkins calls "Analystic Journalism," Jay Rosen's notion that there should be a term for "when media reporting of politics gets so circular it disappears up its own ass."

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Mystery of the Menacing Mirror Men

“The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself.”
— George Bernard Shaw

        By Dan Hagen
A riddle worthy of the Batman.
From childhood on, I understood with a boy’s instincts why superheroes had to have colorful costumes, dual identities, spectacular powers, formidable foes, fast and fabulous vehicles, even Fortresses of Solitude and Bottled Cities of Kandor (think tree houses and ant farms writ large).
Only two conventions persistently puzzled me — why these perfectly self-contained superheroes bothered with girlfriends, and why they seemed to be constantly confronted by their doubles.
The girlfriend thing eventuall­­­­y resolved itself, but the seemingly weird obsession with doubles continued to puzzle me.
The theme of doubling was especially prevalent in the comics. The double was built right into the concept of most superheroes in the form of the secret identity or “alter ego.” Superman and Clark Kent, Batman and Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and Spider-Man, always the two who were one.
And then there were the arch-enemies, who always turned out to be, in one way or another, funhouse mirror dark doubles of the hero.
Thus, Lex Luthor is an evil intellectual superman opposed by a heroic physical Superman. The Joker is a cackling costumed sociopath opposed by a grim costumed crime fighter. Dr. Octopus is a mature, many-limbed creature-themed villain opposed by a teenaged hero whose costume suggests a creature with many limbs.
The Thing battles the Thing.
The heroic magician Dr. Strange saves us from the evil magician Baron Mordo, and both were students of the Ancient One. The heroic Norse god Thor shields us from the evil Norse god Loki, and so forth.
Not only the heroes’ enemies but also their allies often mirrored them. Early on, Batman acquired a Robin and Captain Marvel was assisted by Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, various Lieutenants Marvel and whatnot. Superman was echoed in Superboy (literally his younger self) and then in Krypto the Superdog and Supergirl, while Batman met Ace the Bathound, Batwoman, Bat-Girl and Batgirl (two different girls, don’t ask). Hawkgirl, Spider-Woman, the She-Hulk, the Bionic Woman, the Greatest American Heroine, the list is inexhaustible.
The mirror-nature of the archenemies and the alter ego and the sidekicks is obvious, but the comic books didn’t leave the double theme there. They underlined it repeatedly and directly with robot doubles, mirror creatures, clones and various other dopplegangers.
Thus Superman faced any number of literal duplicates, the most prominent of whom was Bizarro. Batman, with his Batmobile and Batplane and Bat Signal, fought Killer Moth, with his Mothmobile and Mothplane and Moth Signal.
Wonder Woman battles the villainous Super Woman
The Incredible Hulk battled his equally incredible duplicate gamma-ray monster the Abomination. Spider-Man fought the evil spider guy Venom, who in turn spawned the evil spider guy Carnage. Green Lantern stood against the renegade Green Lantern Corps member Sinestro. The Flash raced against Reverse Flash. The armored capitalist Iron Man dueled the armored communists Crimson Dynamo and Titanium Man.
So why were all these doubles redoubled? The answer has deep roots, I think.
Critic Mark Schorer noted that the Gothic tradition, or what Nathaniel Hawthorne would have called the romance tradition, refers to “...stories that are set in a world where we continually move without transition or warning from the actual into the dream, from the real into the surreal, from the natural into the supernatural.”
That’s a description that neatly fits the comic book superhero stories, which shift constantly from mundane and recognizable urban reality to nightmarish mythological battle zones and back again.
“They are stories whose central concern is with the theme of the Doppleganger, the alter ego, and the supernatural is, in fact, symbolic of the world in which that other self, which we cannot ever confront in the busy social world, exists.
“These are stories generally about lonely, loveless people — or, at any rate, they seem to be lonely because they are loveless — who encounter strange, often offensive creatures with whom they are, in one way or another, trapped and whom they cannot and usually do not wish to escape, for these creatures are their selves, their fate, whom they are helpless to shun." 
Deepak and Gotham Chopra, in their book “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes,” note that the doubling theme can explore the Jungian Shadow or dark side of the personality.
“At one point a dark symbiote latches onto the heroic Spider-Man. The shadow being brings out Spider-Man’s darker impulses, making him arrogant, vengeful and selfish. His iconic red and blue suit even turns black as he literally takes on a shadowy persona. But eventually Spider-Man, through his own awareness, is able to resist these shadow qualities and sheds the symbiote. It then occupies another being and becomes one of Spider-Man's archenemies, known as Venom, forever stalking him and reminding the great superhero of what he could become if he were to give in to his own shadow self.”
So it’s all a metaphor, unconscious but existentially valid. As we journey though life, those of us who are paying attention can’t help but notice that the greatest constraints are invariably those we place on ourselves.
We wonderful creatures, so noble and daring in our dreams, are self-shackled, self-disappointing. Our most persistent recurring foe, the archenemy of our splendid ideals and aspirations, is always the self.
"A man may conquer a million men in battle, but one who conquers himself is, indeed, the greatest of conquerors."
— The Dhammapada

Sources: Introduction to “Selected Writing of Truman Capote,” Modern Library.

This collage by Hugh Fox.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's a Fascist Day in the Neighborhood

By Dan Hagen
Fox News is a fierce and relentless advocate for all 14 elements common to fascist regimes. Those are nationalism; disdain for human rights; using scapegoats to direct hatred; avid, bootlicking militarism; rampant sexism; a controlled, dishonest mass media; panicked obsession with national security; religiosity used for political manipulation; corporate power worshipped; labor power suppressed; contempt for intellectuals, education and the arts; obsession with crime and punishment; rampant cronyism and corruption and fraudulent elections.
Tune in to Fox News at any given moment and the odds are extremely high that one or more those propaganda points is being peddled -- whether it’s Hooters Girls being interviewed about their economic views on deregulation, Wonder Woman and Superman being attacked as “un-American,” Fox’s political desk falsely calling the 2000 election for Bush in Florida, a Fox pundit “joking” that Obama or Pelosi should be assassinated or a “news panel” sagely discussing whether Barack Obama and his wife engaged in a “terrorist fist bump.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Power of the Word

Print by United Emporium of Kyle Louis Fletcher

By Dan Hagen
Eager to learn to read, I learned early because I wanted to read comic books for myself.
The contemporary equivalent of that literary siren song was even more effective, I believe. I don’t think we are in danger of overestimating the number of children who wanted to become proficient readers in order to share the adventures of Harry Potter.
That lure was redoubled in the texts themselves. J.K. Rowling created a Bildungsroman for Harry Potter showcasing magical power that is education-based and word-based, reinforcing the value of literacy.
So fundamentalist Christians entirely miss the point of the Harry Potter novels, but then point-missing is the single skill they have truly mastered.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The One Who Can Attend

In the world of the digitally distracted, the attentive person rules — and enjoys the considerable added advantage of not stepping out in front of cars.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How Reactionaries React

By Dan Hagen
Let’s say I propose a solution to some problem, and you tell me:
A ) that trying to solve the problem will make it worse;
B ) that the proposed solution will accomplish nothing whatsoever and/or;
Congratulations, sir. You’re a reactionary.
In the 1980s, observing the rise of the new American right, the late philosopher Albert Hirschman identified a rigidity in their thinking characterized by these three standard jerks of the conservative knee. He branded them, in order, “perversity,” “futility” and “jeopardy.”
“Hirschman shows that these objections are stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic and often wrong,” wrote Cass Sunstein in the May 23, 2013, New York Review of Books.
“The current debate over gun control is a case study in ‘the rhetoric of reaction,’” Sunstein said. “Those who object to legal restrictions urge that far from decreasing the risk of violence, such restrictions will actually increase it. For Hirschman, this objection would be an example of ‘perversity.’ Opponents also contend that if we want to save lives, gun control will have absolutely no effect — the argument from futility. We can find precisely the same rhetorical gambits in countless other debates, including those over Obamacare, increases in the minimum wage, affirmative action and same-sex marriage.”
In the 1980s, Sunstein noted, “Hirschman was struck by the routine, stylized, even mechanical character of much of conservative thinking.”
Hirschman died late in 2012, but had he lived longer, he might have added a fourth standard response to his reactionary trio: “fantasy,” the claim that the problem itself, however glaring and obvious, does not in fact exist.
For example, right wingers routinely deny the existence of the American health care crisis with an angry, dismissive claim that access to an emergency room and — presuming one survives that experience long enough to receive the subsequent staggering medical bills — access to the bankruptcy courts is more than enough “health care” for ordinary Americans. It’s more than Daniel Boone had, you whiny weaklings.
Meanwhile, the congressional Republicans who make these claims receive free outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center, and a generous variety of other comfortably subsidized health care services.
See? No problem at all.
Sources: The article An Original Thinker of Our Time by Cass R. Sunstein, based on the book Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

The Avengers Motion Comics — In 1966

I was invited by college students
to lecture on super heroes and ethics
at a fun evening event.
This cartoon series is often criticized for its limited animation, but I have have always loved it for its use of the original Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck art and Stan Lee's dialogue. You can watch the Hulk here, Thor here, Iron Man here, Captain America here, the Sub-Mariner here and the Avengers together here. Today, these would be called "motion comics." The excellently cast voice of Tony Stark is the movie actor John Vernon. By the way, in the Subby cartoon you will see the first appearance of the X-Men on television. Don't blink.

But They Aren't. Hence the State of the Nation