Thursday, September 6, 2012

Socrates Jesus Denisovich

The role of individuals in determining the course and effectiveness of social movements is, I believe, enormously overstated.  It’s convenient to conflate those who come to be identified as the leaders of group action with the group or the action themselves, but for every August Spies, Rebecca Edelsohn, or Big Bill Haywood in the history of American dissidence, there were countless others, faceless workers and sufferers, who not only shaped movements but, if they were to have any lasting effect, created a living organism that could not be simply steered by those at the front of the throng.  The phenomenon extends to what I’d call the anti-social movements:  e.g., Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan et al. should be thought of not as initiators or creators of what flowed from their positions of power but as of mere expressions of the narrow, largely similar, corporate and institutional interests that they served and were served by.  All that said, sometimes specific persons do do something of overwhelming significance.  Julian Assange will likely go down in the history books – not the ones that the victors write, of course – as the most important political figure of his generation.

I am not going to bother making the case for why Assange and WikiLeaks are astonishingly meaningful – if you don’t understand why the most comprehensive global effort to reveal what our elected and unelected governments are doing is valuable, then 1) I pity you; 2) I kind of envy you in the way that I envy the simplicity of purpose in a dog or junkie; and 3) fuck you.  No, what I am going to suggest is that the fate of Julian Assange is pretty much sealed and has been for some time:  He will ultimately rot away in a US prison for the rest of his life, and he has lived his last free day on this Earth.

I’ll caveat that by noting that what will happen with Assange, like any other US policy decision waiting to be carried out, is not necessarily a foregone conclusion in that it is somewhat dependent on the actions of, mainly, the American public.  While the US certainly isn’t a democracy – which explains the irrelevance of the public’s views on a host of important domestic and international issues being far to the left of both political parties, which are more accurately described as factions of the same, business party – there is at least some democratic quality to our servitude, and if the public is able to make the costs of state action outweigh the gains of such action yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah… Assange is going to die in a US prison.

Those beautifully, tragically optimistic souls who think it’ll be any day or even any year that Assange gets on a plane bound for Quito to a waiting gaggle of human rights/government transparency groupies may like to point out that, of course, Assange has committed no crime.  Well, yea.  As if the failure to commit a crime is a defense to indefinite detainment and torture in the US.  But what Assange has done is far worse in the eyes of the Behemoth, for it strikes at the heart of the empire; it reveals the currency of US diplomacy:  contempt for democracy, annoyance with the rule of law, and the use of force to achieve its aims.  It is true that no legitimate secrets came out of the WikiLeaks disclosures, and while none of the revelations were particularly surprising, a wide swath of important information has nonetheless been released.  For only one of many examples, we now unequivocally know, rather than just sensibly assuming, that before the Obama administration effectively supported the military coup in Honduras that kicked out the democratic government and put in what amounts to a military-backed government, the US embassy in Honduras had presented a detailed analysis concluding the coup was unconstitutional and illegal.  What angers the US so much about the release of such information is that it lays bare the mafia-style violence and intimidation employed to advance its interests; it illuminates the shadowy proclaimed support of democracy as little more than a diaphanous shawl to keep the obedient client states all fuzzy and warm; it confirms to the poor citizens of the world that it really is us versus them in the often unspoken scheme by the few to appropriate the resources of the many.  Ultimately, the disclosures have struck a major blow on behalf of democracy and government accountability while discrediting the US and making it just a bit more difficult to carry on the ruthless grift.  And for that, Assange will pay the ultimate price.

The seriousness with which the powers that be view acts of defiance can be understood from their response to them.  Glenn Greenwald, one of the few brave American journalists writing honestly about WikiLeaks, has detailed  Obama’s fanatical attack on whistleblowers, and WikiLeaks, as the mother of all whistleblowers, has generated a particularly viscous response.  WikiLeaks supporters have been targeted with invasive harassment, the twitter accounts of WikiLeaks associates have been subpoenaed, and despite never being charged with a single crime, WikiLeaks itself has had its financial accounts frozen across the globe, and credit card companies and payment processing sites have blocked essentially all means of donating to them, largely crippling the financial abilities of the organization.  It is far easier to donate to the KKK than WikiLeaks.  Focusing on whether the instructions from the US to these financial institutions were explicit or merely implicit would seem to ignore the specter of US ire hanging above it all. 

But the real venom has been reserved for Assange, and it is his head that will be the prized trophy on the mantle of US tyranny.  A congressman has called for his assassination, but indefinite detainment with maybe a bit of torture mixed in will serve US goals, which include a stark warning to other dissidents out there (see, e.g., the lessons being learned by potential whistleblowers), just as well while limiting the impact of his martyrdom.  Sweden, which had initially dropped the sexual assault case against him – he was not ever and still has not ever been charged with a crime in Sweden or anywhere else in the world – reinstated it after the intervention of a Swedish politician close to American diplomats.  Swedish prosecutors, who could easily travel to Britain to interrogate Assange, and who would certainly do just that if, hypothetically, Assange had instead leaked Russian documents revealing important information that Moscow wanted to conceal from the public, have nevertheless demanded his return to Sweden.  In the hypothetical, Sweden would be praised for its principled stand, and Assange would be praised for performing a public service.  However, Sweden, reminiscent of its cooperation with the Nazis during World War II, is fairly obviously taking its cues from the world hegemon and, whether there is a Swedish cultural affinity for service to power or just a pragmatic desire for stability and comfort, Sweden has clearly determined on which side its interests lie.  Similarly, the UK made a quite conscious and explicit decision following World War II, facing the prospects of disappearing global influence, to become what is euphemistically called in planning documents as a “junior partner” to the US, but what can be more accurately described as a lapdog.  It explains their tail-wagging forays behind the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a host of other actions, including but not limited to its perverse and highly illegal refusal to not allow Assange passage to Ecuador, where he has appropriately been granted asylum. 

The US has not gone to these lengths, and exerted this much diplomatic capital and whatever else it uses to get relatively more democratic nations to do its bidding, for just no reason.  It is not going to pack up and go home just because Rafael Correa has courageously entered the fray.  The vast reach and power of the US over supposedly sovereign states to support if not prompt illegal conduct has been made clear not only by the very documents published by WikiLeaks, but also in the machinations of the global banking community as well as the diplomatic/legal gymnastics of Sweden and the UK.  While the US builds its “case” against Assange, it orchestrates the actions of Sweden and the UK, and it patiently awaits his shipment to Sweden followed by a quick extradition to the US.  Ecuador has thrown a monkey wrench in the plans, but it’s of little consequence.  If Assange chooses to live out the rest of his life in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, then, perhaps, so be it.  But there’s really only one end to this story.

Addendum:  Greenwald has already made a pretty convincing case as to why Assange should fear extradition to Sweden, and why Assange's parents shouldn't expect him home anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Girl At Whom He Curiously Stared

It wasn’t the kind that covered the entire face.  He had until recently only seen those on television, but after spending the last few days in what he could only describe as a smattering of oversized shopping malls and indulgent luxury hotels hastily scattered across unending desert, he was surprisingly no longer taken aback at, if still bemused by, those hanging cloaks of draperied observance, which somehow provided only as much anonymity as conspicuity, and from which light could neither enter nor escape except for merciful slits enabling if not requiring the eyes to peer out ominously, watchfully, giving them an inevitably beady quality, he thought but felt bad about thinking.  That wasn’t what she was wearing, though.  This was merely a scarf that delicately, purposefully wrapped around her head like a portrait’s border, cradling her hair tightly so not even the remote possibility of a single strand dreaming of escaping existed, and framing her strong-featured, rounded face, as if not only not obstructing the arguably divinely placed structures within but actually accentuating the soft, russet skin, full, flush lips, jet-black, wide eyes, and perfectly manicured eyebrows whose shape and form had obviously been labored over.  It was not exactly clear if the scarf seamlessly blended into her body’s similarly textured and colored covering, or if they were one and the same.

He could barely hear her soft whispering to the hyper-friendly and -attentive stewardess with the motherly disposition, a disposition he believed was in no small part absolutely genuine but which was also, he had to assume, a dutifully if not strictly enforced job requirement.[1]  Something about some sort of seat change that would promptly be looked into, but what really struck him was not the genteelness of the seemingly unnecessary request – with separate little pods constituting the business class seats, each fitted with foot rest, shoe cubby, private entertainment viewing system, seat that reclined all the way back, as in to a 180-degrees position as in parallel to the plane’s floor, and a kind of encapsulating barrier around the non-aisle adjacent area that created a sort of basic perimeter for the pod, not to mention her seemingly travelling by herself, he couldn’t understand how any of the seats/pods were in any way distinguishable from another, though since he had never before travelled with this level of excess he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t missing some important detail – but the exquisiteness of how she spoke English, lightly touched with a vaguely stirring combination of Arabic and British accents, the type of vocalization and articulation likely obtained in the finest of international private schools where the daughters of oil-fueled sheiks and less-than-democratically-instituted heads of state mix freely with the correspondingly privileged children of European archdukes and lords to variously, if not vicariously, cement and subvert their families’ statuses. Her such status was particularly confirmed by an array of extremely pricey and equally fashionable accessories:  black leather stilettos with over-sized, golden bow, black leather hand-bag of unidentifiable, to him at least, but obviously expensive, designer brand, large, incongruously unhip pearl earrings, flashy gold watch on one wrist, and on the other a beautifully understated, thin bracelet featuring a simple design of what appeared to be a dolphin jumping through a wave.  There were no rings on any of her fingers.

His growing mesmerization by the girl at whom he curiously stared left him fully unaware that the plane had by this point left the ground.  The subtly increasing force with which his body was pushed into the seat did ultimately alert him to the ascent, which he noted was accompanied by familiar passenger adjustments, readjustments, and general, personal and possessory retrofitting in anticipation of the barrel of the long ride they all stared down.  He was not particularly interested in them all, however.  She stretched her legs out into the space across from her seat and onto the foot-rest doubling as the top of the shoe cubby, which remained unused, not only exposing her blue jeans, which though he had no independent basis to confirm he could only assume were an expensive, designer brand, but even surprisingly, as if in an impossibly abstruse act of coquetry, exposing a few precious inches of ankle, which he thought appeared thin but not otherwise especially remarkable.[2]  She next took to the task of wrapping the airline-provided yet nevertheless outrageously soft blanket around her legs and waist, making sure to tightly tuck the corners in between her hips and the seat’s arm rests so as to affix herself in this makeshift bower while retaining sufficient upper body mobility.  These preparations aimed at maximizing relaxation and squeezing whatever relative pleasures could be had in such an inherently unpleasurable environment no matter how many relative frills could be provided took on an air of businesslike stolidity.  The methodical placement of her large, decidedly unhip pearl earrings inside her black leather hand-bag of unknown but surely designer origin was succeeded by an equally prim, proper, and effective tactile verification that her head-scarf, or -covering or -what-have-you, never revealed more than just a suggestion of her neck as she carefully placed the specialized in-flight headphones in her ears.  She eased the seat back to an angle upright enough to look straight ahead while reclined enough to simulate comfort, and with a no-nonsense fluff of the pillow and its reflexive placement in the small of her back, she plunged into the clunky morass of divertissements that is the Etihad Airways in-flight entertainment viewing system.

Having had a few if not carefree then at least unobsessed moments to himself before she entered the frame, he was already familiar with the bloated, spoiling cornucopia of multimedia audio-visual hydrogenation harbored by the small screen across his seat, providing the kind of ocular gorging and auditory filling useful if not necessary to completely shutt oneself off from one’s surroundings, allowing the time to destination to pass less than unbearably painfully, from classical Carnatic kritis to the Euro Club dance mix; broad and terrible American television comedies to hyper and bizarre (and probably terrible) Chinese serials; whimsical and sentimental British films to lavishly stereotypical Bollywood musicals; a documentary on Moscow’s choking traffic disaster to an infomercial on the different services offered in the Etihad  airport lounges, etc.  It was a world of blinking lights and pulsing diodes existing largely to remove us from the crushing burdens of absolute boredom.  Also available was an audio recording of prayers from the Quran.  As she scrolled through these various options and many, many more, he knew he couldn't even begin to guess where her roulette wheel of distraction-as-amusement would stop but felt her selection would reveal something telling about her, a mostly shrouded enigma he couldn't yet hope to crack, something important, perhaps even something epic.  His bated breath fluttered tentatively as she clicked past movie after movie with a metronomic rhythm that finally began to slow and ultimately stopped entirely.  Time inside flight EY055 stood still for a brief, conversely unending moment as she pressed the “SELECT” button and a title screen slowly came into focus to his spying, bleary eyes:  The Twilight Saga:  Breaking Dawn – Part 1. 

As the timeless story of vampire love began to play, he wondered if he was really going watch her watch this whole movie while continuing to read into every single twitch and tic for larger meaning or mere justification for further study, to find new ways to avoid dealing with the personal questions that had hounded him since long before the desert:  why was he here, where was he going, what the hell happened back there, and whatever other existential folderol he didn’t want to bother with yet couldn’t seem to shake.  Why can't I seem to figure out what to do, and when is it too late?  Suddenly, she abruptly paused the film, removed the in-flight headphones from her ears, and turned around.  She looked directly at him and appeared to say something.  He was stunned.  He could not make out the words she seemed to only be mouthing.

“Excuse me, what’s that?”

“I said, do you mind not speaking so loudly?”

[1] The friendliness and attentiveness themselves being, without any doubt and requiring no beliefs nor assumptions nor anything else that could be considered as less than total certainty, jointly and severally genuine as well as professionally enforced.

[2] But absent some kind of horrific swelling or, even more impossibly surreal, a tattoo of a butterfly or something, how could they be, he thought.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Same Old Garbage

Alexander Semin has been the Capitals' best forward this season. You won't hear many other analysts or fans say it, but it's true. Despite being criminally underutilized (e.g., reduced minutes at even strength and the power play, playing with inferior linemates, not being used on the penalty kill) and having to play in a mind numbingly conservative, defense-first-second-and-third system installed by Dale Hunter, Semin has managed to essentially lead the team in even strength scoring rate (Perrault actually leads but largely because of Semin), Corsi, and Scoring Chance ratio (SC% as determined by Neil Greenberg). Ovechkin, Laich, and recently Jay Beagle are being given the lion's share of ice time, but it's really Semin who's being effective.

To wit, compare Ovechkin and Semin's numbers at even strength (I did not include Laich's only because he was given checking line matchups for a good portion of the year and I thought it would be unfair to compare apples and oranges, but know that Laich's numbers are fairly dismal, harder matchups notwithstanding):

There may be a basis upon which Ovechkin receives more than 10% more even strength ice time, but it is certainly not performance. The misuse of Semin is at the top of a long list of curious coaching decisions by Hunter.

On a team that has been mostly terrible all year, Semin has been remarkably effective. Everyone talks about how great Backstrom was playing before he got hurt, but Semin has a higher Scoring Chance %, a higher scoring rate, and a higher Corsi, and he did it all while having to carry around the anchor that is Jason Chimera on his line. For a guy who gets nothing but criticism from the mainstream hockey media, it's been a very good season for Alex Semin. Fans of absurd Pierre McGuire histrionics that lead directly to him being made to look the fool on national TV were given a special gift last night when McGuire harangued Semin for not "bearing down" and being "too casual" in putting a chance off the post after calmly deking Dwayne Roloson out of position. McGuire was literally screaming at Semin, who has the 11th highest goals per game average since the lockout, for not converting the chance after great work by Ovechkin earlier in the shift. The echoes of Mcguire's bloated bloviations, which included calling Semin the definition of, wait for it, an "enigma," had barely quieted when Semin absolutely ripped a one-timer through Roloson for the first goal of the game. What was that about bearing down?

Last night was perhaps the apotheosis of the misuse of Semin under the Hunter regime. In a game where a victory would have all but assured the Capitals of the playoffs, and kept them in the hunt for the division, Semin played a total of 14:11. Through two periods, in what was for the most part a scoreless game, he had played 8:10. When Jason Chimera went off for fighting in the 2nd period, Hunter, rather than change his lines or replace the winger to get Perrault and Semin (the Capitals' two most effective even strength scorers) on the ice, the coach simply chose to not play them until Chimera's penalty time had ended. It's been a stunning misallocation of resources, as was the case under the old guy, and it should not come as a surprise that the team is fighting to make the playoffs. Semin finished with 2 points in his 14 minutes, Ovechkin with none in over 22.

Semin is 53rd in the league in EVP/60 (min 50 GP). Of all the players ahead of him, only 11 have played less (Marchand, Purcell, Peverly, Bergeron, Foligno, Perrault, Voracek, Stalberg, Hudler, Pominville, Stafford). Bos, Ott, Phi, Chi, and Det all score substantially more goals than the goal-starved Capitals, and all have deeper groups of scoring forwards to apportion time, however. Semin was apparently not too happy with his ice time last night, and that makes perfect sense, but it's unclear why George McPhee doesn't feel the same way.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Bloom

Resolving round and clacking inside, coming to terms without
a bloom too helpless and sheepishly blithe to ever be more.
Sealed with but an airy, drawn-out whimper, it felt like a scream,
and what remains of the unseemly, drab slag slowly washes far away.

A bloom too helpless and sheepishly blithe to ever be more,
meandering curls gave way past pain to sharing nervously forgiving spills.
But what fun was had, reckless and rambling nights upon drinks and stars.

Sealed with but an airy, drawn-out whimper, it felt like a scream
from bells I once enjoyed in the frayed expanse. Time rang and labored to
abrupt, sad certainty in full. Search party’s not coming back.

And what remains of the unseemly, drab slag slowly washes far away.
Unslumbered by a pleasantly surprising “hi,” from shaking to revelry
to pining and longing for those innocent, plain moments now forever lost.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Turin Horse: A March Through Life's Pain, Struggle, and Futility

“The Turin Horse,” a slow and solemn black-and-white film set in a 19th-century wilderness and inspired by an anecdote involving Friedrich Nietzsche, displays Mr. Tarr’s uncompromising, atavistic commitment to darkness, difficulty and lapidary pictorial sublimity. The movie may also dispel any skepticism about the finality of his decision to abandon his vocation, since it is hard to imagine a more thorough and systematic statement of intellectual despair. Bela Tarr may be the happiest man in the universe, but the universe as he depicts it is a harsh and cruel place, indifferent if not actively hostile to the striving of human beings and other dumb animals.

I'm not going to bother reviewing Bela Tarr's masterpiece The Turin Horse since A.O. Scott does so nearly perfectly. But I will just add a few brief thoughts.

One of the stylistic hallmarks of the film, and of Tarr's work generally, is the long take. FN1 I am, to put it mildly, a fan of the long take. Two recent American works, Meek's Cutoff, which received a fair amount of critical press and was featured on many year-end best-of lists, and The Lonliest Planet, FN2 which is being released theatrically this spring, concern travelings across long distances and use long, wide shots to depict the beauty of the landscapes and the difficulty of the journeys. I liked both films, but their use of long takes merely scratches the tip of the precipice of the surface of Turin, which being composed of roughly 30 different shots over 2-and-a-half hours, is accordingly made up of shots that vary in length between long and interminable. What sets apart Turin's long takes, however, is not length or quantity, nor is it that they are mostly shot in tight as the actors move purposefully, albeit glacially, within the cramped house in which nearly all the "action" occurs, but rather it's the cumulative effect of showing the monotony, rituality, and resulting realism of the pain and struggle of being alive.

Meek's, and to a much lesser extent Lonliest, uses its long takes to elaborate on and stylize a very specific segment of the experience; e.g. long, drawn-out traveling shots cut to a set-up campsite with people milling about in unspoken despair over the precariousness of their situation. The actual work that goes into the camp set-up is completely ignored. La Ritual de lo habitual no existen. The film's emotion is created largely by the uncertainty in the story, will they make it to water or won't they, and the characters' responses to it. Tarr, far less sexily and through sheer force of will, creates feeling through the mundane drudgery of the routine but painstaking actions needed to simply stay alive: the daughter systematically undressing and dressing her father, the cooking and eating of boiled potatoes, the retrieving of water each morning, the shots of palinka to start the day. FN3 All of it is done without speech, emotion, or much consideration by the actors, but not only is each absolutely necessary for survival, they are inescapably, as the human condition is wont to be, brimming with a panoply of tenderness, bitterness, numbness, and acceptance. Everything but joy. The simple acts that Tarr shoots even more simply yet so convincingly (and repeatedly) convey more about the characters and their lives than any Sorkinian soliloquy about self-awareness, -hatred, or -congratulation ever could.

It is a painful, brutal film. Everyone should see it.

FN1 - I'm using "long" to mean "temporally long," and not in some fancy, technical photographical way.

FN2 - See The Lonliest Planet if you can; it is good. My friends claim I missed the whole point of the film. I claim it was all a set up by internal affairs. And that Gael Garcia Bernal is dreamy.

FN3 - My one real complaint is that there are no scenes depicting the characters relieving themselves. They get up in the morning and go straight to their tasks (she: dress, get water from well, dress dad, palinka, stable; he: look confused, get dressed by daughter, palinka, stable). You see them do basically everything it is that they do, but never once do you see them piss or shit. I know they were hard, but no one's that hard.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Less Sauced, Less Swoll

My vanity project cloaked as data accumulation-cum-self-improvement has continued unabated. The results of 2011, not to be thought of as distinct from the experience of 2011, were disappointing.

You may recall my goals of 21 and 4.75 drinks and work-outs per week, respectively. Well, I got halfway there on the boozing front, making it down from 30 to just over 25. Though I didn't do any in-year tabulations, I sort of knew I was going to miss that mark while in the midst of a largely, generally crappy annum, but alas, not only did I not hit the exercising target, and not only did I go backwards by about 5%, but I was blissfully unaware of and completely surprised by it. I guess alcohol does give you an inflated sense of self. And a distorted view of the present.

The main wrinkle I added for 2011 was classifying each drink as being In - in the apartment alone or, e.g., at The Pub at lunch alone - or Out - socially, with other people drinking. For whatever little elucidation it's worth, I was at 34% In and 66% Out for the season. I have no idea what to take from that, but there you go.

2012 Goals - 20.5 and 5.0. And the end of US hegemony.