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Slavery: The Sorrow, the Pity, the Evasion — Thoughts on “Twelve Years a Slave”

Nov20

by: on November 20th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

(Credit: Creative Commons)

Recently I attended a preview of Twelve Years a Slave, a film graphically showcasing bondage in Dixie. In one scene I watched a white man in a sadomasochistic frenzy rape a young black woman -blood and semen seemed to drip in equal measure. I left the theater shocked and angry. This was the ultimate form of human degradation. I trembled. We seem to be under a continuing curse of psychotic racism spurred by a bloodlust so strong that even God Himself cannot cure it. Slavery is our own “Original Sin.”

It took some days to erase the searing images from the movie. As a historian I began to reflect. The actor who played the central character, Solomon Northrup, is Anglo-African Chiwetel Eijofor. When he mentioned that he is of Igbo descent and had heard of slavery in the West Indies, my antennae went up. Slavery in Igboland was a central fact of its nineteenth’s century economy. It seems that Eijofor wished to isolate a particular variety of slavery, one far removed from African realities.Americans do talk a lot about race and history, but are bound up in a highly stylized version of it —-The Dixie Narrative. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the paternalistic image of U.S. slavery summoned up in Gone with the Wind and other works on the “Gallant South” had been consigned to the junk heap of history for most of us. The turbulence and violence of the 1950s and 1960s meant that the nation would, thank God, never again embrace any benevolent view of slavery.

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Rejoice: Openly Socialist Candidate Wins Seattle City Council Seat

Nov18

by: on November 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

(Flyer for Sawant/ Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Natalie Woo)

It’s true. Seattle elected a socialist candidate to its City Council. Kshama Sawant, a 40-year-old community college instructor and immigrant, is the kind of socialist spiritual progressives can feel delighted about. She ran on an Occupy platform of raising the minimum wage a hefty $5 to $15/hour, instituting rent control, public ownership of utilities, expanding paid sick leave, increasing citizen oversight of police, and taxing millionaires. She even said, under prodding, that one could make a case for nationalizing Amazon and Boeing; it wouldn’t happen, and she wasn’t running on it, but one could make an argument. And she was still elected.

How did she do it?

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The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality)

Nov18

by: on November 18th, 2013 | 4 Comments »

[Editor's Note: November 22 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and virtually all major TV channels, magazines, and other media outlets are planning specials, documentaries, articles with historical analyses and personal retellings of where people were at the time of assassination. Also, Oliver Stone's 1991 Oscar-nominated film JFK challenging the conventional theory that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and suggesting that there may have been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy will be shown this month in over 250 theaters nationwide. To put the Kennedy assassination in a historical perspective that is both spiritual and political, we here reprint Peter Gabel's brilliant article on the subject, "The Spiritual Truth of JFK (As Movie and Reality)," originally published in Tikkun in March/April 1992 in response to the original release of Stone's film. Gabel's piece is an example of the kind of historical analysis we are trying to develop in Tikkun - locating the critical event of JFK's assassination in the context of the repression of our collective spiritual longings for a loving world that characterized the 1950s, and what he calls the "opening up of desire" represented by JFK. In defending Stone's film against its critics, Gabel also shows how the conflict between hope and fear, between the desire for an erotic, loving, and caring world and the forces seeking to deny and contain that desire, is central to understanding the meaning of historical events. His analysis also implicitly helps explain why this month there is such an outpouring of memory, pain, longing, and loss in recollecting the assassination fifty years later.]

(JFK, an Oliver Stone film/ CC-BY-NC-SA by www.impawards.com)

Oliver Stone’s JFK is a great movie, but not because it “proves” that John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Stone himself has acknowledged that the movie is a myth — a countermyth to the myth produced by the Warren Commission — but a myth that contains what Stone calls a spiritual truth. To understand that spiritual truth, we must look deeply into the psychological and social meaning of the assassination — its meaning for American society at the time that it occurred, and for understanding contemporary American politics and culture.

The spiritual problem that the movie speaks to is an underlying truth about life in American society — the truth that we all live in a social world characterized by feelings of alienation, isolation, and a chronic inability to connect with one another in a life-giving and powerful way. In our political and economic institutions, this alienation is lived out as a feeling of being “underneath” and at an infinite distance from an alien external world that seems to determine our lives from the outside. True democracy would require that we be actively engaged in ongoing processes of social interaction that strengthen our bonds of connectedness to one another, while at the same time allowing us to realize our need for a sense of social meaning and ethical purpose through the active remaking of the no-longer “external” world around us. But we do not yet live in such a world, and the isolation and distance from reality that envelops us is a cause of immense psychological and emotional pain, a social starvation that is in fact analogous to physical hunger and other forms of physical suffering.

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Stand with the LGBT Community: Boycott Ender’s Game

Nov5

by: Michael Hulshof-Schmidt on November 5th, 2013 | 12 Comments »

(Orson Scott Card/ CC-BY-NC-SA by Alex Erde)

Let’s be clear from the outset. Every ticket sold for the movie Ender’s Game enhances the wealth and status of a celebrity who has used his power to promote homophobia. Orson Scott Card has been an enormously successful science fiction and fantasy author and has used his wealth and fame to denigrate and oppose the LGBT community at every turn. Every outlet that promotes the film without acknowledging Card’s opinions and influence is colluding with his hateful efforts.

I write this article with a great sadness and heaviness upon my heart, given the first major promotional piece I saw for the film. I was watching the Graham Norton Show as Harrison Ford was promoting the movie. Shame on Graham Norton for even giving airtime to the nefarious Card and sustaining a heterosexist culture. How ironic that precious minutes of his show were so exceedingly harmful to the LGBT community, including Norton himself.

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Consumerism: Religion of the Masses?

Oct2

by: on October 2nd, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Is it no wonder we crave that which we don’t need? Every time I open a new web browser on my Mac computer I get a picture of the new iPhone in yet another pretty color – they even have it in gold now.

Is that like a gold card?

Do you get extra perks or priority seating if you book your airline tickets with your gold iPhone? Can you go through security ahead of everyone else?

Certainly, those who run the marketing department of Mac are no dummies! They know that if they show us enough pretty pictures of a new, clean, gleaming phone in your favorite color – soon enough you will be craving it. In fact, one of my dear friends, who is about to become a Zen priest, told me that she is craving a new iPhone and that the craving will not stop until she gets it. I suggested that perhaps she needed to sit on her cushion more and deal with her craving before she is ready to be ordained!

But this is the nature of capitalism and consumerism and the downside of it too. We live in a culture where buying and consuming the latest and greatest gadget – without any awareness of or concern for the impact of constantly creating new and better products so that we can buy things more quickly from our phone without being inconvenienced by having to wait an extra two minutes, or where we can speak into the phone so we don’t have to waste precious time typing – is the norm.

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Russell Brand Exposes the Anti-Semitic Hugo Boss

Sep26

by: Michael Hulshof-Schmidt on September 26th, 2013 | 37 Comments »

(Credit: Creative Commons)

I am the first to admit that I am not one that has been able to appreciate the work of Russell Brand. I’ll further admit that the only thing I have seen him in was the re-make of Arthur, which should never have been remade. When you have a cast like Dudley Moore, Liza Minnelli, the late Sir John Gielgud, and the late Geraldine Fitzgerald what are the hopes of doing better than that, even with my beloved Helen Mirren? As it turns out, Russell Brand is a rather impressive young man with a keen awareness of homophobia, class, distribution of wealth, and history. Bravo, Mr. Brand!

Brand was just recently the recipient of a British GQ Oracle award, which is sponsored by Hugo Boss. Upon receiving his award, Brand took the opportunity to remind the audience of the deep ties Hugo Boss had to the Nazi Party during WWII. Hugo Boss not only supported the Third Reich, but also made an enormous amount of money making the uniforms for the Nazi soldiers. The uniforms were often made by prisoners of war – a truly horrific irony. Despite Boss’ prohibition from operating the business after the war, he transferred power to a relative and the business continued on its ill-gotten gains. During the push for reparations in the 1990s, the company paid lip service to the effort but refused to publicize any findings regarding their activities and contributed what adjudicators called “a bare minimum” to the reparation fund. What an awful example of soulless corporate greed.

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Tiphares vs Elysium — Welcome to the Age of Appropriation

Aug22

by: Andrew Lam on August 22nd, 2013 | Comments Off

Credit: Creative Commons/Battle Angel Alita Wiki and Michele Ficara Manganelli

(Cross-posted from New America Media)

Many years ago, before the age of cyperspace, I found a Japanese manga series at a specialty bookstore in San Francisco. Created by Yukito Kishiro, Battle Angel Alita is the story of a post apocalyptic world where humans scavenge to survive, many using robotic technology to replace lost limbs. These semi-automated humans live in a ruinous metropolis called Scrapyard, which smolders beneath the fabled floating city of Tiphares.

Fast-forward two decades and Tiphares is renamed Elysium, one of this summer’s box office hits. The film stars Matt Damon as Max, a reluctant hero trying to knock down the doors of Elysium to gain access to life-saving technology. In the process, Max becomes the key to bringing Elysium and its privileged elite down to earth.

Elysium is the latest in a series of American productions that show how the Information Age has become the Age of Appropriation, one in which ideas and stories exist side by side for the borrowing, the taking, and ultimately, the mixing. What it also shows is that after almost a century of imitating the West, the tables are indeed turning and Hollywood is increasingly looking east.

At first it was a trickle. The 1954 film Seven Samurai, by legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, became the star studded Magnificent Seven, by John Sturges. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) turned into Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Then came the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 cult classic The Matrix, which defined a generation. Based on the Japanese manga series Ghost in a Shell and starring Keanu Reeves as the messianic Neo, the film initiated a torrent of cinematic influences originating from Asia.

The martial arts genre, especially, has long held sway here. Over the decades it has found great enthusiasts, more notably among them famed directors like Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction fame was “inspired” by Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s much earlier City on Fire, which became the 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. While he later claimed it was homage and not stealing, the reality is that in the Age of Appropriation, the line between the one and the other is fading.

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Making Broadcast News More Radically Decent

Aug19

by: on August 19th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

Radical Decency focuses on replacing the value system, predominant in our culture – compete and win, dominate and control – with a new set of values: Respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice. To succeed in this daunting task, we are challenged to apply these values in every relationship from the most intimate to the most public and political. Adopting this approach, things that are easy to overlook become more visible including, very importantly, the quality of more remote interactions that vitally affect our lives.

When this different values-based focus is directed toward the broadcast news media, it is just stunning to realize how dismal its “normal” ways of interacting are – if the goal, in Radical Decency terms, is to cultivate a meaningful and mutually respectful dialogue. Quite simply, listening and responding isn’t the goal. Instead, the participants are collecting ammunition so that, as soon as the other person stops talking – or sooner, since interruptions are chronic – they can fire back, reiterating why they are right and he or she is wrong.

Credit: Creative Commons.

Indeed, the typical “conversation” is so far gone that candidates eagerly seek coaching on how to dominate the agenda, ignoring questions and systematically returning to their pre-planned talking points. And, when it comes to “candidate debates,” an added goal is to interject carefully rehearsed zingers, designed to make the other candidate look like a loser. In other words, the self-conscious goal is to avoid any meaningful interaction at all.

It is easy to see why even the best-intentioned politicians would feel trapped within this system. Failing to play the game, the next election as well as their credibility as effective and reliable political operatives would be at great risk. So while I have deep misgivings about the choices our mainstream politicians make, I have some sympathy for the dilemma they would face if they sought to change the rules of the game.

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The Art of Revolution: Spoken Word, Video and Performance Art to Change the World: Taien Ng-Chan

Aug9

by: on August 9th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

Like many artists, Montreal writer and multidisciplinary artist, Taien Ng-Chan sees her work as an opportunity to interrogate the world around us, to reach the public, and to work towards a more progressive society. Although she questions whether or not art can actually make an impact in our collective cultural consciousness, or change anything politically, she’s willing to try. As she says, “looking back, historical art movements do seem to end up gaining traction in ways that seem important in hindsight, so we’d better keep doing it, just in case.”

Indeed, Ng-Chan was part of last year’s massive student uprising in Québec, a movement that saw thousands mobilize–first in response to the provincial government’s plan to raise tuition at post-secondary institutions, and then in response to the same government’s oppressive strategies to keep the protests under control. Ultimately what happened in what was called “le printemps érable,” or the “maple spring” (in keeping with the name the Arab Spring), resulted in a provincial election that brought down Québec’s Liberal government. At first it seemed like the incoming Parti Québécois would bring new hope; instead they wore the red square – symbol of the student movement – and at first cancelled the tuition hikes, but they also cut the province’s education budget, and then ended up imposing tuition hikes anyway. Ng-Chan comments that it’s easy to grow cynical when politicians can be so duplicitous; however, she also suggests that it’s important to keep building community to affect change in small ways, and art is just another way to accomplish this.

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The Neverending Morality Play of the Deficit Hawks

Jun21

by: on June 21st, 2013 | Comments Off

When I left the country back in April for an extended sojourn in Europe I made myself a promise and a prediction. I promised that I would not look at a newspaper or any news source — cold turkey, for a news junkie like me. It actually turned out to be easy, a pleasant vacation from the world’s troubles.

I predicted that when I got home and fell back into my old junkie ways, the news would be very much the same as when I left home. It’s a lot like a soap opera: You can skip the news for weeks at a time, and when you turn it back on you feel like you’re picking up right where you left off; you’ve haven’t missed anything important at all.

My prediction proved prescient enough, if I just looked at the leading news stories. Of course I assumed that new, important events had unfolded. They just didn’t make the headlines.

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