and I quote

october 2011

click for permalink October 30, 2011

So it's still going on... and it's spreading. Amazing, isn't it?

Occupy VancouverA friend and I were talking about the Occupy Vancouver encampment the other day. He had been down to the Art Gallery over the weekend and pronounced it "a muddy tent camp populated by eco-warriors and V for Vendetta wannabes," concluding, "It's hardly the battle for Seattle." (As an aside, the one thing I find a bit half-assed about Vancouver's protests so far is that camping out on the Art Gallery lawn — the city's de facto, pre-approved free assembly zone — hardly seems to qualify as an "occupation." They've blocked no streets, seized no buildings, made no real statements or demands... but anyway.) My friend feels the problem with the whole movement is that "their message is diluted through too many demands, sub-groups, etc." He sympathizes with their desire for a more equitable distribution of wealth, but believes the way to attain that is through voting, not camping.

How quickly they forget. It was not so long ago — as recently as the good ol' days of autumn 2008 — when most people would have agreed. Two generations have grown to adulthood since the 1960s and the older of the two was famously characterized as apathetic and cynical by the Baby Boomers of the new Establishment, largely for their failure to take to the streets in the mass movements which, in their eyes, were the default means of expressing discontent. Instead, generations X and Y were mobilized by a repackaged promise of Democracy, to vote for things like Hope and Change and all the other lies. I'll bet most of the protesters who were old enough voted in the last election, for all the good it did them. They bought the whole package and would have signed up for a lifetime subscription had it been offered. They (or maybe we) fell for the biggest bait and switch in history.

Pay vs. Productivity

Are we now supposed to just wait and see who comes forward in 2016 to lead the Party of Lesser Evil? I wonder if there exists a human being capable of summoning up the reserves of charisma required to make everyone forget about the last 8 or 16 or 60 years, someone so inspiring that when he appears as if from nowhere and says all the right things — swearing if not in so many words that he is our prophesied savior/Philosopher King, for real this time — convincingly enough that we drop the pretense of wanting autonomy and beg him to lead us out of the darkness.

I don't want to believe people are that stupid... but of course we sort of are. We can't help it. We're primates and we've all seen those documentaries of gorillas in the wild, organized in closely-knit tribal family groups. There's always one giant male whose leadership qualities are evident even without narration. He simply possesses an innate, irrefutable superiority, genetically encoded and comprehensible to all around him. He might have to defend his territory once in a while, beating his chest and baring his teeth to frighten some lesser male back to his Beta post — a lower tree branch as the case may be — but most of the time the others just know. And we're not much different. You can see human evolution in action watching people react to a magnetically-charged Alpha male. I'm reminded of one particular media circus from my childhood, when the nightly news was abuzz with excitement over the gripping testimony of one Oliver North before the joint Congressional committee investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Recently, there was this — I enjoyed this video quite a lot.

Of course I'm not alone. Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas' confrontation with 2-3 dozen NYPD officers after witnessing their treatment of the Occupy Wall Street protesters is an undeniably compelling spectacle. By the end of the video, a crowd of people trails behind him like lost children in the wake of the Pied Piper. Even the police, although clearly at a loss and extremely nervous, appear at times to be mesmerized by the towering charisma of the man.

Marine Sgt. Shamar ThomasIt's a fascinating study in group psychology that's been captured on camera. Watching the faces of the participants as the encounter unfolds, you can see all these conflicting emotions — fear, shame, anxiety, frustration — and the pull of obligation against basic, primitive instinct as the officers try to figure out the best way to handle this novel and potentially volatile situation. Within days of the video appearing on YouTube, Keith Olbermann invited the Marine Sgt. on Current TV for an interview, but wisely reined in the urge to ask if he planned on running for office.

As inspiring as this is, it also hints at that pesky human foible the Republicasters keep predicting (or outright accusing) the protesters of falling prey to, that powerful urge to cede authority to a capable, commanding Alpha leader. That they will be co-opted or worse by some charismatic Nobody who will step forward and speak for them in a deep, commanding voice, who will lead the charge against their enemies, absolving them of the obligation to remain vigilant and politically engaged, their hearts swelling with pride that he deemed them worthy of his leadership. Whew! He's in charge now... We can go back to our lives, secure in the knowledge that someone who is obviously made for this — a natural leader — has finally taken control. He can handle all this messy fighting and governing — we're sure as hell not cut out for it. (What could possibly go wrong?)

Governor Rick PerryWho better to recognize such urges than the Republicans, who recent American Idol-style search for the right candidate to wrest control of their failing state from the reigning Democrat-in-name-only? Witness their recent pursuit of, and rejection by, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — a big, tough-talking Silverback gorilla of a man if we ever saw one — and recall the media's endless infatuation with the man known as "Joe the Plumber," a perfect Republican prototype of the "working class hero," complete with shaved head, square jaw, imposing height and broad shoulders, who stepped into the national spotlight to confront candidate Obama on a proposed tax plan and never left. Don't even get me started on their pathetic fetish for swaggering Texans whose rugged, Marlboro Man affectations give them a direct connection to some dark reward center deep in the Red State reptilian brain.

Lest you think I'm denigrating the movement and those brave souls camped out in the rain and mud and tear gas, I couldn't empathize more — even with that incongruous human desire to be led — it's deeply engrained in our primate DNA. If you don't feel it, either you're lying to yourself — or there's a very small chance you're one of them. Why do you think we can't get enough of movies about high school football teams with the coach who leads them to victory through a combination of experience, wisdom, empathy and sheer Alpha-dog determination (aka tough love)? And why, in spite of our lives having absolutely no connection to real wars or revolutions, do we feel a rush of misplaced, out-of-time patriotic adrenaline when we watch a climactic speech delivered by a convincing Alpha in a movie like Braveheart or Patton or (sigh) Independence Day?

Here's an interesting thing, though. It doesn't take an Alpha to produce the same reaction — the words alone are enough — and the implications of this might be as revolutionary as artificial insemination. Listen and tell me if this doesn't inspire you every bit as much — if not more — than a drunk anti-Semite in blue face... (Okay, settle down... I probably loved Braveheart more than you did.)

And then there's the message from Anonymous to Scott Olson, the Iraq war veteran who was shot at the Occupy Oakland protests last week, which is also beautifully written and deeply moving. I found it on the OccupyMarines web site, along with the Marines' open letter to the Mayor of Oakland demanding her resignation, and their statements of policy for acting honorably towards police in the face of potential suppression and towards their fellow protesters in spite of potential ideological conflicts. All of which is as chilling as it is admirable... it will make for interesting dynamics to watch. I'm reminded of how the Egypt protests began to turn around when the army took the side of the students, which ultimately led to an alliance that granted unprecedented powers to the military when the government fell... and we still don't know how that's going to work out for them.

The Last Psychiatrist, with whom I actually disagree on this issue, nonetheless had some interesting points:

Occupy Wall StreetThe reason it will fail is that you don't want it to succeed. You are still holding on to the mercantilist, zero-sum economic delusion that tariffs and gold standards and less money for Wall Street means more money for you, and then you can go back to living like it's 1999 again. You can't. It's over.

Of course Wall Street has excessive profits, but just as your life has been an inflated delusion of easy credit, so has theirs; yes, they have received an obscene share of that fake money, and ten-twenty years ago maybe you could have redistributed that fake money, but that ship has sailed. Now, the moment you take it away from them it ceases to exist, poof, it's gone. It's fine if you want to do it to punish them, I get it, it's the right thing to do and Glass-Steagall and all that, but it won't help your situation one bit."

Yes we campSo, what of the Occupation's demands? My pragmatic side (I am an ISTP after all) craves a concrete plan and examples of past societies that have successfully paved the way for a just, thriving, enlightened group structure. In the absence of that, I want to know that we're rooting for something more than the total collapse of everything we've ever known into violence, chaos and barbarism. Noble savages we are not.

OccupyMy cautiously optimistic side hopes that at the very least we can come out of this movement with a universal sense among the citizens of the world that we are indeed in this together — we can connect effortlessly, empathize instantaneously, react exponentially — and, regardless of any concrete gains that may or may not be made; no matter what concessions might be won, this newly forged morphogenic field should be a powerful positive force for the future.

Occupy VancouverThe question is whether a society can function without strong, centralized leadership; similarly, can we invent a viable, fair economic system that doesn't suppress or subjugate any segment of the population but at the same time, doesn't do violence to the needs of individuals, including the need to strive to be better than equal.

Will the unifying forces of technology, equality and universal connectivity, boosted by Google's miraculous tricorder — er, translator — help us transcend our natural urge to bare our throats to the sociopaths among us — who, after all, come by their desire to lead just as naturally? It will be interesting to see if we can speed up evolution when we really need to, before it all comes crashing down and we're left with another high-water mark to remind us of the moment in time when we were unified under the banner of the 99%.


click for permalink October 19, 2011

At my tiny alternative high school in the part of Virginia where everything was designed by Thomas Jefferson, my friend Janice was the lone capitalist amongst the hippies, anarcho-communists and a small but vocal group of adherents to what one might call Roddenberrian socialism (although these days, it's probably called "high-functioning on the Asbergers spectrum"). Janice's "senior page" in our yearbook was taken up by one long, autobiographical passage from The Fountainhead, and all the way up until graduation she insisted that she was going to be a stock broker. I don't know if this declaration would have made her an instant pariah at a normal school, but I suspect if she had wanted to duplicate the effect anywhere else, she would have had to claim that she wanted to be an oil baron.

Janice would initiate the most heated arguments in class; it would start out with her challenging someone on a point of view she found faulty, then another person would jump in to defend them, imagining they could do a better job. Before long, it was Janice against the entire room, often including a teacher who should have known better but couldn't stay impartial. Inevitably the debate would eat up an entire period, a handful of students would slip out of the room unnoticed while the rest hunkered down in their chairs looking shell-shocked and waiting for the bell to ring. In the end, the hardcore debaters would continue to yell and point fingers while packing their books and relocating to the next class, where the argument would occasionally continue unabated if the next teacher wasn't especially assertive.

You might think that even the most self-righteous of high school contrarians would grow weary of being on the "wrong" side of every argument, or of always being on the receiving end of the outraged, offended, uncomprehending glares of a roomful of teenagers, but not Janice. She was fearless. By the time I met her at age 16, she had broken her nose no fewer than three times, and each injury was a result of some reckless act of physicality involving an immovable object larger than herself (e.g. horse/stepladder/sailboat/etcetera). We were close friends but I can recall few conversations with her that didn't take the form of point-counterpoint exchanges that grew increasingly impassioned until one or both of us gave up in exhaustion.

One night we stayed up arguing about politics on a school night; it was well past 3 o'clock when I finally managed to "win" by forcing her to admit that her stance against any form of "welfare" was based purely on emotion, not reason. Anyone whose motives were purely rational would have to admit that starving the bottom 20% of society leaves them with nothing to lose — and if your answer to crimes of poverty is to throw everyone in prison, you might as well reinstate slavery. A disenfranchised underclass with no stake in your monopoly game is a recipe for disaster, to say nothing of shortsighted and self-destructive on the part of those in power. A little bit of wealth redistribution on behalf of the poor isn't so much charity as an investment in your own peace of mind. And on the streets. In the end, she still refused to concede the point, but she did tell me that I had a great mind, which — to her — meant a lot more.

Naturally since the Occupy Wall Street protests began, I've wondered what Janice would think about all this. If she would count herself among the 1% — or a sympathetic aspirant anyway — unwilling to consider the possibility that the impartial mathematics she admired in the game are just an illusion, or that the starving 20% aren't collateral damage in a rigged lottery, they're the main course. Unfortunately, I'll never know. The problem with being fearless is that sometimes fear is the only thing stopping us from doing things like taking too many sleeping pills.

But what I remember most was five years before that, one day towards the end of our senior year, when the school took a field trip to this lake and everyone spent the day swimming, playing volleyball and that sort of thing. I made a beeline for the end of the longest pier, spread out a blanket and a towel, and assumed the traditional pose of human sacrifice to the sun god, the music on my walkman (most likely The Pixies' or some interminable Depeche Mode CD single) happily drowning out the din of frolicking students. I may have even been enjoying the silence (heh) at the very moment when the calm at the end of the pier was broken by a thundering of bare feet on the unfinished boards. I looked up, startled to see Janice sprinting towards me, closing the distance between the beach and me in apparent preparation to pile drive me into the water, blankets, walkman and all.

I honestly can't remember what happened next, but if our relationship as a whole was any indication of that particular moment, we probably negotiated a tentative compromise, whereupon I promised to get in the water at some point and she promised that the few entertainments which made a day outdoors bearable for me wouldn't end up submerged in the process. Thus calmed, she sat down cross-legged on the pier and we talked intermittently, I with my eyes closed, and she squinting into the sun, taking in the scene around her.


Since I was already lying down, I jumped up instead, certain that I had allowed Janice to cleverly lull me into complacency when compromise was clearly the last thing on her mind. I looked around until I spotted her leaning out over the water, one hand wrapped around the wooden post holding up the end of the pier — I don't even think she had seen me flinch — as she was now completely fixated on something in the water. "Duck!" She called out again — not at me at all this time, but to a large male duck swimming close to the pier... but not close enough, and soon out of reach. The excitement appeared to be over, so I returned to my blanket but not before remarking that I had never seen a developmentally abled person get so worked up over waterfowl before. I reminded Janice that, even though it was technically a picnic, if she intended to barbecue poor Daffy, our peace-loving hippie classmates would definitely string her up by the neck.

She cackled at my suggestion, but it wasn't exactly out of line — she was after all the one who brought a package of chicken necks on our field trip to the Virginia Coast (from the grocery store but still) and spent hours in the pouring rain baiting lobster traps. Amused by the memory, she patiently explained that she used to catch ducks all the time at her grandparents' lake. If you flip a duck onto its back, she told me, it becomes completely docile. If I seemed skeptical, it wasn't because I thought her random, unsubstantiated bird trivia lacked credibility (this was a decade before Google, after all — nobody questioned your unprovable assertions about wildlife. Turkeys drown when it rains because they're too stupid to turn their heads? Sure, whatever you say!). It was just that I couldn't imagine Janice having the magical touch to turn any wild, self-preserving creature docile. In fact, just hearing her say the word docile was putting me into fits of hysterics. "Alright, prove it," I said.

She didn't need any more encouragement than that, and the very next duck that drifted close to her side of the pier found itself plucked from the water by its neck and flipped onto its back before I could flail myself off the other side in a bird-out-of-water-induced panic. I barely had time to gasp before the frantic flurrying part was over and Janice was seated on the pier with a large duck across her lap like some Mark Twain-inspired tomboy pietà. I would have called her the Duck Whisperer but we were ten years away from even having that joke. So I just sat there and watched her hypnotize the creature into submission, petting its stomach feathers and saying, "you're a good duck," as it lay there with its webbed feet in the air, docile as a carved decoy.

the 1%The one time I saw Janice after college, I asked if she was still planning on becoming a stock broker. I'm pretty sure she told me she had decided to become a farmer. I'd go out on a limb and say she would have made a damn good one. She could have started the first free-range, grass-fed, organic cattle-whisperer ranch in Virginia, using her much-maligned capitalist cut-throat skills to turn it into a multi-million dollar enterprise. I can just see her on the cover of Fortune magazine with a feature story about how she held out against the mega-factory farms when they were crowding out all the little guys. Just the kind of odds she always liked — one of her against all of them.


click for permalink October 1, 2011

Morgan "Supersize me" Spurlock recently hosted 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die on Current TV (which is also home to Keith Olbermann's reincarnated Countdown — sense a theme?). A panel of judges rigorously selected 100 most influential documentaries of the last 25 years, negotiated it down to 50 and aired the countdown over the course of 50 episodes (I would love to see their bottom 50, but can't find that list anywhere).

I was actually surprised to find that I haven't seen 16 of the 50 (I had bet Mr. Pink there would be less than 10). Of the 16, there are two I have no desire to see (one of which I'm still not convinced is a documentary because it looks like a regular crap movie) and two more that I was certain I had seen until I saw the clips on Current TV and realized I hadn't. Here's the complete 50 — the titles in bold are the ones I've seen and the ones in italics are the ones I'm currently trying to either reserve at the library or locate online as we speak...

50. Spellbound (2002)
49. Truth or Dare (1991)
48. The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
One Day in September47. One Day in September (1999)
46. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998)
45. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
44. Burma VJ (2008)
43. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
42. Catfish (2010)
41. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
40. When We Were Kings (1996)
39. Biggie & Tupac (2002)
38. March of the Penguins (2005)
37. Inside Job (2010)
36. Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)
35. Paragraph 175 (2000)
34. Brother's Keeper (1992)
33. Tongues Untied (1989)
32. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Jesus Camp (2006)
30. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Man on Wire29. Man on Wire (2008)
28. Gasland (2010)
27. Tarnation (2003)
26. Murderball (2005)
25. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
24. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
23. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
22. Shut Up & Sing (2006)
21. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
20. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
19. Touching the Void (2003)
18. Food, Inc.(2008)
17. Street Fight (2005)
16. Bus 174 (2002)
15. Crumb (1994)
Dark Days14. Dark Days (2000)
13. The Fog of War (2003)
12. Bowling for Columbine (2002)
11. Paris Is Burning (1991)
10. Grizzly Man (2005)
9. Trouble the Water (2008)
8. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
7. The Celluloid Closet (1995)
6. The War Room (1993)
5. Supersize Me (2004)
4. Waltz With Bashir (2008)
3. Roger & Me (1989)
2. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)

Born into BrothelsWhile I don't really feel like bitching about what didn't make the list, one omission is so glaring it would be criminal not to mention it, and that is Born into Brothels which, incidentally, won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2005. Funny story... I just double-checked that on IMDB and by some crazy coincidence, 2005 was also the year Supersize Me (ahem, number five) was nominated. But Morgan Spurlock insists he was just the host of "50 Docs" and had nothing to do with the selection process, and I'm sure that's true.

A better and much more comprehensive list that spans the entire history of the genre, not just the last quarter-century that coincided with it entering the mainstream, was published last year by Time Out New York. There are enough overlaps between the two lists to give them both credibility, but this one is a much better basis for a checklist, which is how I use any list of films but especially documentaries.

The only thing that gives me pause in this otherwise well-rounded countdown is the inclusion of Lake of Fire (when selecting from an entire century, exclusions can be chalked up to taste or politics). If you haven't seen it, it's a grotesque, unenlightened and unenlightening examination of the abortion debate (if we define "examination" loosely enough to encompass rounding up the most astonishingly inelequent, ignorant, inbred Americans who were willing to speak on either side of the issue, then letting them rant, quote scripture, make confessions and generally embarrass themselves on camera for two hours. All this is presented in crisp, faux artsy black and white, ostensibly to convey the seriousness of the subject matter — in case the intercut footage of actual abortions every 2-3 scenes isn't enough to clue you in).

I probably shouldn't count this since it's not a countdown, but one of the best lists of documentaries I've found is True Films. They're sorted by topic and by name with a nice write-up and a handful of pictures to go with each film ( and it helps that the guy's taste in movies is similar to mine).

Speaking of which, I recently brought home this silly book called Cinescopes which I found at my local thrift store and couldn't pass up for two dollars. If you can manage to list your top ten favorite movies of all time without getting hopelessly bogged down in the pointless yet challenging nature of the task, this book will tell you which of 16 personality types you have. It throws in all kinds of oddities like your preferred mode of transportation, favorite foods and which of the other film types you're most compatible with. I only mention it because, in my case, it actually gave a surprisingly accurate description. Of course there's an online version (and a Facebook app which, hopefully needless to say, I haven't checked out).