Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dorfman On Pinter

When Pinter died, I couldn't find anything cogent to say. I enjoyed some of his plays, and others were frankly not that boring--granted, I haven't seen any of them staged (except scenes from Betrayal), but the only one which on the page really sparked my interest was The Birthday Party. Still, my personal interest nonwithstanding, I wouldn't say he's overrated or that he doesn't deserve his position in the Anglo-Saxon canon... just that he's not my cup of tea.

That didn't seem like much worth remarking at the time, but now I mention it because there's a much more fitting eulogy of him that you should read, (via The Playgoer) by Ariel Dorfman who wrote Death And The Maiden:

...all of these lessons in dramatic craftsmanship pale next to what he taught me about human existence and about -- dare I say the word? -- politics.

From that very first play, I felt that Harold Pinter was unfolding a world that was deeply political. Not in the overt sense (as would happen later, beginning in the early '80s, in several of his dramas) that his creatures were affected by who governed them, whether this or that man controlled the army or gave orders to the police. No, these figments of Pinter's psyche, at least back in the '60s, did not care to dispute the public arena, were uninterested in changing the world for better or for worse. They were, on the contrary, sad citizens of intimacy, obsessed only with their own survival.

And yet, by trapping us inside the lives of those men and women, Pinter was revealing the many gradations and degradations of power with a starkness I had not noticed before in other authors who were supposedly dedicated to examining or denouncing contingent politics. All power, all domination and liberation started there, he seemed to be saying, in those claustrophobic rooms where each word counts, each slight utterance needs to be accounted for, is paid for in some secret currency of hope or suffering. You want to free the world, humanity, from oppression? Look inside, look sideways, look at the hidden violence of language. Never forget that it is in language where the other parallel violence, the cruelty exercised on the body, originates.

Two men waiting in a basement to kill somebody [The Dumbwaiter]. An old tramp laying claim to a derelict room [The Caretaker]. A birthday celebration interrupted by intruders [The Birthday Party]. A woman afraid of being evicted [The Room]. A son who comes home to his dysfunctional family accompanied by an enigmatic wife [The Homecoming]. Primal scenes of betrayal that could be transpiring anywhere on our planet, embodiments of a vast and disquieting landscape of dread, the precarious condition inhabited by most of contemporary humanity, the neglected narrative of the 20th century.

What Dorfman (who knows a thing or two about politics, oppression, etc.) is putting his finger on is what I like about The Birthday Party and am less enamored of in his other plays: this incredible sense of necessity in each line. It is very easy to speak; it is difficult to make each word count. Of late, I continually discover the quality of babbling in some of my plays--in many plays--and my most successful playwriting experiences have been when I attempt to write a play with no words (I always fail, but that attempt and failure is what creates only the words which are necessary).

What I went to the Czech Republic to try and find was a theater where every word said and every thought examined was desperate and necessary, because in a country which suffers censorship and oppression, nobody would dare say the words that aren't necessary unless they have the political sanction. So whereas the politically sanctioned theater is babble with nothing in its core, the illegal theater is stripped of everything pointless, and becomes a sharply defined play. It becomes minimalist--not as a thought experiment, but from the necessity of minimalism. Since minimalism is a favorite form of mine to explore, I wanted to see its wellsprings: why someone must be minimalist, and what that world was like.

Unfortunately, the Czech Republic failed to preserve such a state--if such an idyllic minimalist world ever truly existed--and I never worked up the courage to risk a journey into Belarus (the only place in Europe where such a state of oppression can still be found).

The necessary oppression can be found in some of the great minimal works, though. If you read Beckett, you find them in that state of minimalizing oppression: not an oppression due to tyrant (arguably, one might posit Godot in that position, but his absence makes that weak), but an oppression due to circumstance. They are oppressed by Waiting itself. So too are Ham and Clov oppressed by their circumstances in Endgame; and that oppression is in all of Pinter's plays. I'm currently working on expanding my project (at the time titled "The End") for the Experimental Theater Wing, and that was my experiment: the create the oppressive scenario that should stifle all language.

What Pinter discovered, and Dorfman discovered, and Beckett and I discover too is that no matter what the oppression, some spark of life fights that oppressive death until the last moment possible--and that spark of life is what is important, what we're trying to explore, and delve into.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Inspired By Andrew Sullivan: Awards!

I'm a big fan of Andrew Sullivan's blog, so in the coming year, I'm going to hold my own little miniature awards ceremony over the course of the year. So, after thinking for a bit, I'm coining these following awards to be looking for in the near future. A lot of these are hyphenated because I couldn't choose between two people to name the award after. Obviously, this year's winners are the people who gave the name to the award--retroactively honoring people from years past, as well as for this year.

JEFFERSON-CUNNINGHAM AWARD--The award for the grossest example of sheer greed and corruption. It needs to be something cartoonishly corrupt, and just lacking in any artifice. If you laundered the money, it doesn't count. It needs to be a yacht or just money stuffed in your freezer.

BLAGOJEVICH-SPITZER AWARD--This is not just an award for gross corruption; this is an award for brazen, Greco-tragic hubris, with a touch of dramatic irony. Kudos points to being convicted on your birthday, to have your downfall be exactly what you fought so hard to prevent, or wonderful soundbites like "Go ahead, tap my phones," or "It sucks. I used to be Governor of New York." Try to quote Kipling while protesting your innocence, or--please--get your wife to stand next to you while you apologize to the public for cheating on your wife.

CRAMER AWARD--Not just the clumsiness of Kramer, the hapless neighbor from Seinfeld: this is when you are in a position where people are relying on you to predict the future, and you fail. Not like, a little bit. I'm talking "epic fail." Like telling people who want to pull out of Bear Stearns that they're stupid, only to have Bear Sterns collapse six days later.

CHENEY-BURESS AWARD--Did you just say that? Did that just happen? The Vice President simply could not have shot an old man in the face. What? The old man apologized? Wait, did you just shoot yourself in the leg with a gun? It was tucked into your sweat pants, you say? I simply refuse to believe that these events happened. Also: there's a pair of shoes that bear this award well.

RUMSFELD-BUSH AWARD--For astounding lack of empathy. Did you tell the people of New Orleans that you're going to rebuild Trent Lott's house? Is Iraq not on fire if you fly over it? "Stuff happens" sound familiar to you? Then you might be in line for a Rumsfeld-Bush Award!

CHAMBLISS AWARD--When I told my roommate that there was a politician who accused his opponent for being soft on crimes against children, when that opponent had championed tougher laws against crimes against children because his child had been kidnapped, and that the same politician had accused another opponent of being unpatriotic when that opponent had left limbs behind in Vietnam... my roommate said, "Well, I'll say one thing about this guy. He doesn't want to make things easy for himself. He really like to fight those uphill battles." So the Chambliss Award is intended for those who demonstrate fantastically self-destructive (and ironic) tactics, whether it's putting Joe The Plumber on the campaign trail, or letting Joe The Biden open his mouth.

FINLEY AWARD--Sometimes Free Speech means that someone is going to do something stupid or derogatory and call it art. They'll use "anything can be art" as a free pass to say "everything is art." They'll say that form is unimportant, education is unimportant (while drawing salary as a teacher). They'll mock people who don't agree with them as stupid. These people are what gives theater a bad name.

And now for the positive awards:

SHINSEKI-FISHBACK AWARD--It's really depressing that sometimes the greatest heroism is telling the truth. Ian Fishback was concerned that Donald Rumsfeld's statements to the public about torture misrepresented the actions that were occuring to people in custody. When the chain of command failed him, he wrote a letter to John McCain that laid forth his moral objections. Shinseki, at the opposite end of the food chain, was called before Congress in the run-up to the Iraq War. When asked how many troops we'd need, he said several hundred thousand. He was promptly fired. Years later, General Abizaid said, "Upon reflecting, General Shinseki was probably right." Oops. At least we have these people to tell us what's what.

FITZGERALD AWARD--For stunning, non-partisan service. It's very hard to treat both sides of the debate equally because, well, they're not. But if within a few years you take down a high profile Republican and a high profile Democrat, it's clear that you're of the rare breed that sees both sides of the aisle equally. You're there to do your job. Politics be damned.

FEINGOLD AWARD--Opposition to the PATRIOT Act is something that most Congressmen from the left espouse, so much so that you might forget that they all voted for it. Except one man: Russ Feingold. Read his last speech, faced with 96 US Senators who were about to vote the other way. Sometimes it's not easy to be the only guy facing the other way. But history has proven that Feingold's concerns about the PATRIOT Act were not unfounded.

DAISEY-EUSTIS AWARD-- Theater is a broken system in America. It has a lot of problems, whether we're talking about poor pay and job stability for actors or the growing tendency to remount old productions rather than looking for new work. Whether you're a dissident like Mike Daisey asking the hard questions about Theater's future, or an insightful champion of the new generation of talent like Oskar Eustis, it takes gumption to set out there to change the world of theater.

RUSSERT-SULLIVAN AWARD-- It's easy for a news story to fall through the cracks, and unless you've got Lewis Black to catch them for his own segment called "Back In Black," these things can fall away in the ephemeral world of modern news. Whether its torture, or Palin's baby, Andrew Sullivan has a memory like an elephant, and doesn't let things get away. Russert was the same way: he kept his eye on the issues, and (though polite) asked the hard, smart questions. What they share (usually) is a sense of perspective, and a dogged determination to uncover the truth.

Those are the twelve awards. Next year, who'll be on that list? We'll see.

Christmas Eve Thoughts About Theater

Merry Christmas to anyone reading this blog who celebrates. Also, Happy Hannukah to my fellow Jews who are now four days into latkes, driedels, and other arcane artifacts of Judaica.

Just wanted to throw out there that my friend and I have been talking along lines that were started by me and my father about the future of theater. My dad's view (from the perspective of a computer programmer and the founder of a tiny internet startup) is that the problem with theater right now is its inability to scale--there are high costs getting in and an artificially limited return (a 99 seat theater can only make Ticket Sale x 99 x however many nights--and Showcase Code might add further limitations, etc. etc.). His solution, as an internet guy, is to follow the logic that created Theater on the TV and create Theater on the Internet. Richard Foreman tried something like that this month, live-streaming rehearsals of his upcoming play.

There's something to that, and there's something not to that. After all, the one thing the theater has going for it is liveness--which is why I'm objecting to fourth-wall twentieth-century isolated creations (by the way--my own productions so far have failed to do that to a certain extent, although Orchestration was one such experiment--I kicked the audience out of the theater at the end. It made more sense in context). Broadcasting over TV or over the Internet kills that in the same way that the fourth wall does: it crystallizes it, and kills the danger of doing something dangerous.

Of course, Saturday Night Live, Whose Line Is It Anyways, Mock The Week, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report still manage to capture something of that. They have live audiences, and they're responding to their live audiences to allow a bit of chaos.

So that's one route to go, in terms of scaling.

But another place to look is the music industry. Music has two prongs: one is the music itself which, like film, is a recorded product easily distributed; the other is the live performance, the concert. In music both of those scale. Why? Because we in America have a concert-going culture. So local concert halls, if they have a good enough reputation, can count on being full on a Friday night. And they can bring bands on tour.

Why does this system work?

1) Bands are easy to tour: a decent concert hall will have most of the equipment they need, so they just need to bring themselves, their support team, and their instruments.
2) Most bands are not tech heavy or visual heavy--so long as the acoustics are in, the rest of the show is purely their musical talent.
3) Concert halls are simply fun places for young people to be: they can do whatever they like while the music is going on, and they can drink copious amounts of alcohol if they so choose. It's a social event as much as it is a music event.

So if theater ensemble wanted to tour the way bands did, they'd have to do a few things:

1) They'd have to strip away all of the complicated technical elements so as to have the simplest set-up possible.
2) They'd have to have a flexible set-up that doesn't require a formalized system of etiquette.
3) They should be comfortable with an open bar.
4) They'd have to be in conversation with the audience.

Who does this? Improv groups. Jazz ensembles. Rock bands. Stand-up comics. All viable forms of performance. A stand-up comedian does not rely on internet or television broadcasting to survive (although once he becomes successful, this is a viable way of becoming a huge figure). An improv group doesn't need lights and sets to make their comedy funny. And rock bands don't mind trashed audiences. Any theater ensemble that can shed the dead weight of tradition enough will find itself light enough to travel, and light enough to be viable.

Of course, there needs to evolve a system to handle this sort of touring. Small music halls or Improv performance spaces can accommodate other forms of performance, so long as we assure them that it is worth their while.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Global Government.

Matthew Yglesias has a post about Will Marshall's idea for a Global NATO.

I think that, eventually, there will be something like a Global NATO. But not for a long, long, time. You see, history (from my perspective) is the slow unification of small, atomized societies (even as the individuals within those societies seem more atomized because of how large the society they live in is--does that make sense? The whole gets larger but the individual gets more diluted? Eventually, I think, we're going to have a very, very loose global government with a more effective system than the current Global Government (the UN).

But what do we do in the meantime? Well, NATO and the EU are ahead of the game: they've unified Europe. But how did it happen? Well, by the end of the 20th Century, the member states of NATO and the EU had two things in common: very similar forms of government (comparatively; whatever differences in government there are between, say, Poland and Ireland, it pales in comparison to the difference between Communist China and England), and very aligned interests. At the end of the day, all of the states of NATO and the EU stand together or fall together.

Will Marshall seems to believe that we should take all of the countries that have interests aligned with the US/Europe, and put them into a Super-NATO. But the obvious interests we have aligned can't paper over the interests we don't have aligned. That isn't to mean that there are specific issues that Japan and the US butt heads on (no more or less than between France and Germany); it's that certain interests that are very important to Japan and South Korea are considered unimportant to countries like Poland and Italy. To a certain extent, it would be like California weighing in on certain issues that really only matter to New England.

A regionalized system, although imperfect (and in certain areas, doomed to failure) is the beginnings. It is part of the reason that the UN doesn't work.

Suppose NATO and the EU were to create a model for North America. The United States would start to take a greater interest in the way that drug gangs have caused chaos in Mexico; the resources of the NAFTA nations would be greater applied to create peace an stability. Then, say that the OAS bridges the gaps between Latin and South American countries. Suppose the AU slowly develops (over many, many years) into becoming an actual supra-government for Africa, bridging their interests, decreasing wars, increasing train. The Arab League creates a supra-government for the Arab member-states, bridging divisions between Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc. Maybe SEATO would, in a meaningful way, bring the nations of the South East Asia together.

Then we get six or seven region-blocs. Where they cooperate, they could work jointly. And whatever interests they share together, that would be the groundwork for a greater global government; rather than corralling the 192 countries into a global government (or letting five countries decide the fate of the world). The individual countries could also be represented (see: House of Representatives versus Senate).

That's my dream, but I'm warning you I don't see it happening in this half-century. The groundwork might be laid by the end of the century--Turkey and Israel joining the EU, the AU starting to come into its own, China somehow coming to a better relationship with its regional neighbors, NAFTA becoming a more genial organization.

But what I don't think will work is creating axises of opposing interests; some greater NATO linked only by their belief in Democratic Capitalism, and some hodge-podge of Chinese, Iranian, and Russian ally states (mostly rogue states and unstable states whose backers are the Chinese, the Iranians, or the Russians), and then a handful of completely isolated nations.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Question Of American Guilt

I was watching Charlie Rose's conversation with Frank Langella and Ron Howard about the upcoming Frost/Nixon. The general flow of the conversation seemed to be about remembering Richard Nixon the human being, the almost Grecian-tragedy figure, steeped in hubris and ambition, who catastrophically fell from grace. And multiple times, Frank Langella (who has the fascinating task of becoming Richard Nixon) says that while he cannot pardon what Nixon did, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are quick to judge and harsh; that we forget the living flesh human being behind the crimes.

Now, I agree with that. But that does not mean we should let our anger and condemnation of public officials go. Public officials should be treated with little tolerance for their crimes.

I saw a quotation in Time Magazine today that was attributed to Eliot Spitzer. A reporter asked him how he was liking being a contributing writer for, and he responded:

"It sucks. I was Governor of New York."

There's a world of pain, and a world of arrogance, contained in those two sentences. But at the same time, what he did is unpardonable. He cannot be rehabilitated into our public office. He broke a public trust, and for that, he suffers the consequence. But we should do well to notice the human being behind the mask.

The question is, what's the point? What's the point in Stone's W. or Frost/Nixon or a billion soul-searching journalist pieces about the life and times of Spitzer, Edwards, Blagojevich, Stevens, Foley, Craig, Abramoff, DeLay, Gonzalez, Cheney, Yoo, Rumsfeld, Kissinger, McNamara, etc. etc. etc.?

If one looks at it once, the message might be, as Frank Langella says, to remember that we judge too harshly. But I disagree with that message. In truth, the message is that we should not forget that people become guilty without looking or acting like the criminals we are used to: the caricaturish images of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Idi Amin is not the only face of criminality.

People who commit crimes always believe that what they were doing is right. And some people manage to convince others that what they are doing is right. They slide by on the subjectivity of less clear crimes--crimes of a smaller scale, crimes in the pursuit of good.

And they involve themselves less directly in crime: they fail to speak out; they defend the crimes using statements which, if not untrue, may be dishonest.

At the end of World War Two, Karl Jaspers gave a lecture which came to be published as The Question Of Guilt. In English, you will find this book titled The Question Of German Guilt, but in truth, it is not that. Although in his context (in 1945, addressing a class of Heidelberg students who all served, in various capacities, in the Nazi Military) it bore specific resonance to the fabric of German society, it is true for every society at every moment in history.

For me, I would merely quibble a little with Jaspers on one point: he uses the word "guilt." I would use the word "responsibility." To say that each of us is guilty, to lesser and greater extents, for the war crimes, the corruption, the poverty, etc. is true, but it plays into a tendency to over-criminalize. Guilt is about condemnation; about destruction of character. The guilty are to be cast out.

Some of the people involved in each of these moments of history are guilty. But everyone is responsible. Once you are responsible beyond a certain degree, you are guilty.

Colin Powell is not guilty of war crimes. He did not order nor carry out war crimes. But as an influential and respected member of the Bush Administration, his failure to discover or intervene or warn about war crimes (as well as his complicity in creating an atmosphere where it was possible, inasmuch as he touted the Iraq War) means that he is responsible. He is not as responsible as Donald Rumsfeld, whose signature on the memo detailing what methods of torture are acceptable shows he bears not only responsibility, but guilt.

As the years pass forward from the Bush Administration, we will need to investigate who is responsible, and who is guilty. We will need to look every public figure in the eye and say, "Where were you, and what were you doing? What could you have done?" But in order to do that properly, we need to understand. We need to investigate what the context was, both human and political. They will not absolve of guilt (as Frost/Nixon clearly does not absolve Nixon of Guilt) or of responsibility (which nothing can absolve one of). But they will allow us to judge what we could have done.

I disagree with Karl Jaspers' selection of the word "Guilt" for the title of the lecture, and I disagree with the translator's insistence on the word "German" as a terrible addition. But there is one word in the title which fits like a glove: "Question." Because the point is that this is not an answer: we will not know for certain exactly to what degree President Bush was evil, misled, or apathetic; to what degree it was Cheney or Rumsfeld or whomever that originally conceived of the idea of torture. Responsibility (and guilt) lies both at the top and the bottom of the food chain; it lies both in the Executive and Legislative branches; it lies in the American People who, in 2004, re-elected the President who made it all possible.

It's a question we're going to have to have a mature dialogue about. But that mature dialogue requires the facts, and those facts require the justice system. And those, I believe, require Patrick Fitzgerald appointed to Special Prosecutor.

Friday, December 19, 2008

War Crimes! War Crimes! Read All About It

Nine days ago (apologies for the late post--finished my semester and came back to the United States), the Senate released a bipartisan report from the Judicial Committee (the Levin-McCain Report) alleging that President Bush opened the door to torture and abuse by signing a memorandum that said that the Geneva Conventions did not apply in the fight against al Qaeda. The military, under direction of Donald Rumsfeld, put men unqualified in interrogations in charge of training new interrogators. Rumsfeld then signed a list of torture methods (including waterboarding, which was an executable offense in World War Two). White House Counsel John Yoo wrote a memo creating the legal grounds for ignoring the Geneva Conventions, as did White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (who called the Geneva Conventions "quaint").

Now what.

It's been eight days since the report. I've heard the blogosphere chattering, but a disgraceful lack of anything official on the subject. After all, the consensus is that the incoming Congress and the incoming Senate are going to have to deal with this subject. I have no clue on how Barack Obama is going to stand. On the one hand, he believes that returning the image of America as a just society, ending America's role in torture and indefinite detention (for instance, his determination to have Guantanamo Bay's prison camp closed within two years--a timeline that I wish was quicker, but I'll survive with). On the other hand, when it comes to political figures, he has shown a taste for reconciliation rather than recrimination (Lieberman comes to mind). Of course, when he has been reconciling, it has been over politics rather than war crimes.

I want to believe that Barack Obama will do the right thing. And the right thing for him to do is this: he should direct AG Holder, upon assuming office, to appoint Patrick Fitzgerald (who has taken down a high profile Republican and a high profile Democrat) Special Prosecutor to investigate war crimes.

I mean, it's pretty straightforward. It's on everyone's mind.

The only thing I'm worried about is the President's absolute power of pardon. I did my bit, and sent some letters to try and convince my Senators to back up Congressman Nadler's bill that would suggest that the President not use his pardon to pardon members of his own administration, and I got the following response from Senator Feinstein:

Thank you for your letter concerning President Bush's executive authority to issue pardons. I appreciate hearing from you.

On November 20, 2008 Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced H. Res.1531, which expressed the sense of the House of Representatives that the President of the United States should not issue pardons to senior members of his Administration during his final 90 days in office. H.Res.1531 has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.

Please know that I have read and understand your concern about the potential abuse of presidential pardons by President Bush. Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the President "power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." A reprieve reduces the severity of a punishment without removing the guilt of the person reprieved. A pardon removes both punishment and guilt.

Most judicial scholars interpret the President's power to grant reprieves and pardons as absolute. Individual reprieves and pardons cannot be blocked by Congress or the courts. The Framers of the Constitution envisioned the pardon power as having a narrow purpose. It is my hope that President Bush will use his Constitutional authority wisely.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to write me. I hope you will continue to keep in touch with me on issues of importance to you. If you have any questions or comments, please call my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

I do have to say, one of the biggest reasons that Congress is not a sufficient counter-weight against the President is simply their refusal to fight the President in the court system sometimes. Executive Privilege and the pardon powers have grown too much, and the idea that Senator Feinstein is willing to bet the concept of Justice in America on President Bush using his Constitutional authority wisely... it is absurd.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Recommendation: Shostakovich's Quality of Sadness

Every Sunday, from now on, I'll recommend you some work of art. This weekend: Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet Number 8 in C Minor. I won't recap who he is, or what the song is, since I'm going to link you to much better explanations. Here's the music:

And the second two movements:

My impressions: well, I was brought to thinking about this piece, which is one of my favorite pieces of all time, because of a friend who linked me to the Moonlight Sonata, and to Chopin's Nocturne Op.9 No.2.

Those two songs are very sad. And I love them too (I hadn't heard Chopin's Nocturne before, but I'm glad I did). The difference is in the quality of emotion, the nuance of scale--which is good, because if we were just going to perfection of emotion, the Moonlight Sonata might have ended sad music for the rest of history. You just can't beat the Moonlight Sonata at its game.

But of course, sadness comes in many flavors and varieties--bet you can't have just one--and Chopin and Beethoven are looking at a specific, classical kind of sadness. The classical image of sadness that I get from those pieces are the sadness that surrounds itself in beauty for comfort; the idea being, "if I suffer, I might as well suffer poetically--that way my suffering won't have been for naught, because in the pangs of birth will come something beautiful." That's what harmony means for me emotionally--no matter what the content is (here, sadness), it lies in a supreme order--that order gives it its meaning, that meaning gives it its comfort.

Shostakovich is not striving for that kind of sadness, or that kind of beauty--even though what he brings up is just as beautiful. Shostakovich is investigating a sadness that reacts in anger, in fury at the chaos around it. The rhythms in the third movement (my favorite, and I suspect many peoples' favorite) are lurching; the second and fourth movements explode out of the natural endings of the first and third; at times a dissonant squeal simply sits above the music. Dissonance is the chaos that the anger is rebelling against.

Interestingly, my familiarity with the song comes from tracks I purchased of (without being sourced). When I went to find clips on YouTube, almost all of the renditions I found were much faster and more manic than mine; it seems as though whomever conducted the version I'm listening to as I'm typing this (the one I bought from eMusic) is more familiar with the former (Beethoven/Chopin) sadness than the latter (Shostakovich) sadness. I was shocked when I heard the renditions on YouTube--the recording age makes you very reliant on certain renditions of your favorite song--but pleasantly so.

Listen to it. Enjoy the Russian sensibility (and irritability).

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Quick Note About Patrick Fitzgerald

I saw somewhere today (don't remember where) the idea of Patrick Fitzgerald being appointed to Deputy Attorney General. I don't really like that, because I'm in favor of the ol' PF being made a special prosecutor to investigate war crimes under the Bush Administration (which a bipartisan Senate commission has laid the groundworks of accusing Donald Rumsfeld of). Although I understand the need to return an aura of non-partisanship to the Department of Justice, remember that the leadership of the Department of Justice is still, to some extent, a partisan position--even if less so than Gonzales.

The point is, obviously, we appoint people who represent the philosophy of the President to lead departments; we want someone honest and with a nonpartisan record to run the DoJ just like we want them to run each department, but Patrick Fitzgerald is beyond that--Fitzgerald is someone who should be left in a position where he can continue doing what he does best; prosecuting regardless of party, regardless of politics. As Deputy AG he'd be in a position of writing legal opinions etc. on behalf of the Obama Administration; the closer he gets to the top, the harder it'll be for him to maintain his utterly non-partisan reputation.

Leave Patrick Fitzgerald in the field; and get him on the case of what horrible crimes happened under the Bush Administration.

Meritocracy and Capitalism

In my last class with Czech dissident/journalist Jan Urban (whose lack of a Wikipedia page is a travesty), he asked the question, is our current democratic system the only possible form? He then threw out some ideas, including a meritocracy.

My mind wandered, and I tried to imagine a meritocracy. I wondered what would happen if we had a council of folks who were empirically designated as the "best" of society--obviously a silly, impossible goal. Then I wondered about a possible way of empirically designating "the best."

Instantly, in our capitalist culture, I imagined a "board of directors" assembled from the highest paid CEO's in this country. And I laughed. Because the highest paid CEO's are the last people I'd want running this country. If our country was run by the CEO's of Merryl Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and a board of hedge fund managers, or the CEO's of the big three. Did you know that the CEO of Lehman Brothers is one of the top 10 paid CEO's of 2008?

Looking at the 2008 list, my utter disgust at the resulting board was a little unfair--many of the CEO's on that list run large successful companies well and without drama--like Howard Schultz at Starbucks. But is Larry Ellison at Oracle really a better CEO than Steve Jobs at Apple? Is he a better CEO than anyone else in the country?

It's just another way of looking at the whole "what does compensation mean in America" thing. If we chose our political leaders--or our economic leaders--from the top of this chart, I think we'd be fairly badly off.

Colin Powell And The GOP's Future

A response to KevDog at Beautiful Futility:

I wasn’t one of those who cracked on the man for the U.N. speech. I think he was more deceived than duplicitous. The Frontline special Bush’s War makes a good case for exactly how pissed Powell was by what happened.

More recently, I think that he has been one of the leading voices of reason (sorry, Andrew) on the ills of the GOP. As a Democrat, I hope they don’t take his advice. There does need to be an opposition party, but the Republican party as it is currently formed needs to go the way of the Whigs.

A) As to Powell: I am simply disappointed that at no point he voiced his anger. I can’t remember where exactly it was sourced (The Daily Show poked fun at it), but when he received the first draft of the UN Speech, he apparently threw it up in the air and shouted, “This is bullsh**.”

Furthermore, if you look at the Powell Doctrine of the use of force, it actually seems to me that even if you believe what the Bush Administration was putting forward during the lead-up to war, the war doesn’t qualify under his own guidelines. I have a huge respect for the Powell Doctrine, and it hurts that he didn’t stand up for it when it was tested.

He should have known that. He should have investigated the plans for a post-war Iraq, and as the Secretary of State he should have realized that there was no plan. As the head of the diplomatic corps, he should have understood that there would be a more complex situation in a post-war Iraq than “being greeted as liberators;” he should have mentioned the words “shi’ite and sunni.”

Maybe he didn’t know everything. But I remember Albert Speer, in his memoirs about his time as a Nazi, saying that although he didn’t know anything about the concentration camps, he was always ten minutes away from knowing, if he really wanted to know.

Contrast Colin Powell to General Eric Shinseki. Shinseki still didn’t go as far as I’d have liked in terms of vocalizing his belief in the misguided lead-up for war. But Shinseki did not back off on his statement that we would need more troops. Powell went out there and defended the planning for the war, for the post-war; he defended Bush as going to war “only as last resort.”

I think he was neither deceived nor duplicitous. I think he abdicated responsibility. And the responsibility was his. He should know the responsibility to soldiers that the Presidential Administration has.

B) You’re right that the Republican Party as it is currently composed should go the way of the Whigs. But Democrats will be worse off if the Republican Party doesn’t take Powell’s advice. As Obama understands, if you have a smart, organized opposition that its actually in conversation with you, your ideas will get /better/. The ideas that lose out are the ideas that should lose out. If we’re actually debating on the issues in a smart and informed way from two different perspectives, Democrats may not get what they want, but their progressive positions will be better served.

The same goes for the Republican Party. Conservativism will be better served when they understand how to communicate with liberal groups and find common ground. There was an article recently somewhere about the pro-life argument for Planned Parenthood–if only they would understand that PP seeks to reduce abortions, the way that the conservatives say they want, then they should support it. There will always be fringe liberals and fringe conservatives whose ideas won’t have a place, but the mainstream of conservative and liberal thinking should come together to constructively criticize each other and create better policies.

I like Democrats, but recently I saw an ad with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sitting on a couch, and Nancy Pelosi was telling the viewer to “Contact their Congressmen and tell them to support legislation against climate change.” And my first instinct was: “What the hell are YOU doing? Aren’t you the head of the House? Isn’t that your job? who exactly is running this boat?” Democrats have a lot of sins that I think a strong, sane Republican party can help wash out of them.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obaminet: FEMA As Stand-alone

Briefly: Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has endorsed the concept of pulling FEMA out from the Department of Homeland Security. I personally disagree from a philosophical standpoint--the idea is to integrate all of the services that might be involved in any sort of an emergency, be they law enforcement or humanitarian--but as its a bureaucratic decision, I think that's best decided by the people in the federal bureaucracy.

Basically, it comes down to this: is the greater synergy of a larger more centralized department necessary, or can they streamline communications better as separate departments, each of which are able to tackle their own objectives more effectively? I can't answer that because I don't work there, and I don't think pundits should either. If the answer is the latter, than the Deparment of Homeland Security should probably be dissolved entirely. I think at the moment there's a clutter of folks with conflicting portfolios. Who is the person most tasked with national security--the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the National Security Advisor? But if DHS really does maximize synergy in a way that department separation restricts, then it should be preserved. Again: that's a bureaucracy call. We should just measure it by results. After all, FEMA's failure during Hurricane Katrina had less to do with the bureaucratic shape of things than simply the choices made by the management.

One more point, from a purely political (and therefore, hopefully, irrelevant from a decision-making standpoint) observation: Governor Napolitano's experience that supposedly prepares her to run the DHS is twofold: one is her efforts securing the border, and the other is her state's response to flash floods and fires. The latter half of her experience goes to waste if FEMA is taken away, and then Napolitano becomes a very ICE-based governor.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jesse Jackson Junior Reacts

Congressman Jesse Jackson Junior reacts to rumors of his implication in the Illinois Governor's scandal. A fascinating video to watch; I don't have anything to say politically, but in terms of theatrical performance, his tone of betrayed anger is right on the money. This is the first time I've ever seen him or heard from him, so I can't evaluate the underlying truth, but the theatrical nature of the performance is spot on.

Speaking of spot on performances, did you catch Mike Huckabee debating gay marriage with Jon Stewart? It's one of the reasons that, despite my anger at all of Huckabee's social and governmental positions, I still respect the man himself.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Riffing About Riffing

Riffing in jazz and rock is the chance of the musician to break out of the melodic and rhythmic structure of the song. Nowadays, jazz and rock tracks are limited by their structure; a single melody and rhythm. Because there is a single melody, a single prevailing rhythm--I'm talking most popular jazz and rock tracks, not avant-garde jazz and prog-rock, etc.--it is difficult to spend more than three or four minutes on the same idea. The lyrics, the build in emotions, the complexity of that single melody/rhythm can prolong it, but basically: one idea is limited in length.

I'm a theater person, so I like to ape what I see and apply it to theater. And theater, really, is the same way as music. Aristotle came in with what he called unities: unity of action, unity of time, unity of space. What Aristotle didn't demand is unity of tone/theme, or unity of character. Of course, in his splitting Tragedy from Comedy, he created the implication of a unity of theme/tone.

I don't know when exactly the concept of unity in character arose--perhaps it was always there, perhaps the psychological rise of naturalism created it--but to a certain extent, that became limiting. I know this because I think unity of character is what hobbles Shakespeare productions. It is not so much that the plot hits monotony--it's that with a unified character, it becomes difficult to hit all the different marks that Shakespeare leaves. A dour, depressed Hamlet (who is defined by dourness) simply cannot get the gravedigger scene, or the relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the scene where the play is presented to King Claudius. Nor would a comic Hamlet (I don't think anyone's ever tried to play Hamlet completely for laughs)

That carries into unity of tone. A dour Hamlet doesn't want to break the "mood" of the To Be Or Not To Be moment. If I were designing the play, I'd try to make it really funny right before "to be or not to be," if possible. I remember a production of Romeo and Juliet that I was once in whose major success was grasping the fact that the first half of Romeo and Juliet is a comedy. At the point it was written, Shakespeare had not written any tragedies. And nobody at the time knew how Romeo and Juliet ends. So straight up until Mercutio dies--even past the point where he is stabbed and is bleeding--the classic Shakespearean comedic devices are employed. I mean, for crying out loud, what does Mercutio say after being stabbed? "Call for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man!" Mercutio literally doesn't notice that things have become "dramatic." Suddenly he collapses, and there--then the tragedy starts, and the audience (and characters) realize the impact of what they've been doing.

If you play a Shakespeare play with a unity of tone, or a unity of character, you have to abridge. It will be too long. People will "get it." Especially since they know the ending. You might protest that there are many layers of language to explore--but if you're following a unified tone, or a unified character, you're not really exploring the language. Even in the same speeches, Hamlet goes from ecstacy to tragedy, from mania to depression, to absolute cool calm. This is not the place for a unified psychology, a logical progression of thoughts. If anything, Brecht understood this point best when he angrily denounced this unity of character in his Alienation Effect In Chinese Acting. Man is contradictory.

A sidenote: this is something that I first saw as a huge flaw in the otherwise well crafted, gripping, (and sometimes one-tone) Battlestar Galactica, a show that I highly recommend. No I have not seen the original yet, but I will eventually.

I liked this disunity of tone and of character best when I saw Patrick Stewart's Macbeth, and the now-infamous sandwich-eating scene (for those of you who haven't seen it... well, go and see it). The scene is such an odd deviation of tone and of character for Macbeth (without straining reality--because reality deviates in tones and of characters, as my day today has proven to me).

So why am I talking about this with riffing? Well, because... you should riff. If you've got a show that's got one tone going on, or one character, you need to find a place to riff. A place to drop whatever structure of the play is going on, and put in something that doesn't fit the play. David Herskovitz, for instance, would throw in places where the play falls apart--actors forgetting lines, etc. etc. If something breaks the mold of the play, steps right outside for a bit to play with new tones, new ideas, etc., then you won't have to worry about time; it might take up more time, but it will prolong the audience's interest.

Even in an "established" text like Shakespeare is open to riffing. There's plenty of riffing to go in between or around the lines. But if you've written your own work, are working on something new--leave room for riffing! Please. You wouldn't do it on the recorded track (i.e. the script) but you'd better do it when it comes to concert time (the performance).

New Islam

Via The Daily Dish, a post from Irshad Manji:

Here’s news of a superstar Iranian scholar — and devout Muslim — who’s shaking the core of Islam as we know it. Abdulkarim Soroush argues that the Qur’an could have been authored by the Prophet Muhammad, not by God.

Like the Muslim Summit which signals a shift in our relations with the Muslim World, I again warn against taking this a little too enthusiastically for two reasons.

1) This is going to create a sectarian split. I'm not saying that because of anything against Muslims--this is the sort of theological split that caused divisions in Europe, and which continues to split churches (see: Episcopalian/Anglicans and homosexuals or Southern Baptists). People will decide for themselves: do I agree with this view, or do I not? There are plenty of people all over the world who already believe that the Qu'ran is a human document, but in terms of Muslim institutions, I think it's fairly rare. Suppose in Iraq, certain mosques and groups form around this idea of a humanist Islam (one in which the truth is not absolutely known, and must be sought out and discovered). And others believe that this is heresy. In a country like Turkey that might not cause violence; in a country like Iraq where people routinely kill each other over beliefs, it might foment more violence before it creates more peace.

2) The United States will want to support this line of thinking, because it is a distinctly anti-extremist strain. It gives moderate Muslims one rhetorical strategy to fight extremism. And the United States' goal is to fight extremism. But if these sects square off, it would be dangerous to side too closely with anyone, at risk of alienating others. After all, some Muslims may believe that the Qu'ran is the revealed word of God and because of that are moderate--I remember reading the injunction to respect all of the people's of the book, be they Christian, Jew, or Sabian. I'm fully aware that the Qu'ran also cuts the other way on the issue.

I'm not saying don't hope. I'm just saying we need to have two eyes: one for the opportunities and the other for the traps along the way. We need to be careful how we take advantage of this sort of strain in Muslim thinking to minimize the blowback.

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Quick Note On Caroline Kennedy, Jeb Bush, Beau Biden

In a word: No.

Ms. Kennedy is a recent inductee in the world of politics; she has not held a legislative branch position. Mr. Bush is a little more understandable; he was the (strangely) popular Governor of Florida--I wouldn't vote for him, but he at least is sort of qualified. But it's an executive branch position. Same goes for Mr. Biden, who was an Attorney General and is currently serving in Iraq.

None of these people have served in the legislative branch. The Senate is not just "a legislative position"; it's the highest office of legislature in the country. Now, I don't think that's necessarily required. But. Would we be considering these people if they weren't in a wealthy family? I think this goes especially for Caroline Kennedy, but the same reservations exist in my mind for Biden and Bush. Kennedy is a third generation political name; Biden and Bush are second generations.

Stop with this madness, before Jenna Bush or Chelsea Clinton run for office.

A Note On Economic Recovery And Theater

Isaac Butler (Parabasis) notes the role that the Federal Theater Project played in Federal Project Number One, the arts initiative.

The justification at the time, as I've mentioned before, is that when artists can be gainfully employed as artists, they don't take the jobs of unskilled laborers, and thus jobs are created.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Actor's Equity

File this post under "Guy is frustrated at the bull that theater world shovels constantly."

I was talking with a friend of mine from the Neo-Classical Ensemble about the upcoming remount of Twelfth Night (which y'all should see, if you're in New York).

I asked about whether NCE had reached the first major breakthrough in the life of a downtown theater company: whether she and her co-workers were being paid for their time. She said no, that wasn't on the cards yet, although if their remount goes well it might be on the horizon. Basically, the only people being paid are the designers from outside the company, or if they're a member of AEA.

She also said that the upcoming remount is going to be $1300 more expensive because, as a remounted showcase, anyone they re-hire has to be Equity, and there has to be an Equity SM. Basically, it forces more Equity into a non-equity company.

Is this good for Equity actors? I guess it is. It creates more work, and while they're working, they're making a basic wage. But it is harder for the company as a whole to work towards sustainability because of the limit of the run, and becomes a problem for the industry.

The problem seems to me to have a similar problem that intellectual property, and maybe organizations like the Auto Industry/Auto Unions. We created a system to protect things that were good. But the system also protected itself--so that the people who were against the system (union-busters) wouldn't be able to dismantle it or ignore it. But now this new system is preserving itself to the exclusion of new systems, new organization, new strains of thought. A new theater company that wants to get on its feet finds their purpose blocked by the AEA.

That's the cycle, I guess, the reason every generation rises and winds up making sweeping changes to the systems around them. Time to be on the lookout for those systems. The League of Independent Theaters looks promising, but I have no clue what they're doing and how it'll work.


VARA is an odd intellectual property law that I only recently came to find out about. It applies to visual art only (hence my only recent discovery of it), and it is the only law in American intellectual property that asserts so-called "moral rights".

Via the Art Law Blog, a case out of Los Angeles about the rights of the mural painter to guarantee that the city will not simply paint over his mural if it becomes vandalized. The quote from the Contra Coast Times:

"According to the complaint, Frank Romero's automobile-themed 'Going to the Olympics,' a mural which had adorned the Alameda Street underpass of the Hollywood (101) Freeway since 1984, was destroyed by [the California Department of Transportation] in June 2007. ... When the agency found that Romero's 2,040-square-foot mural had been vandalized by graffiti, Caltrans workers 'simply obliterated the mural by painting over it,' said Timothy B. Sottile, Romero's attorney."

The Art Law Blog post also notes the precedent to this going back to 1991, which was A) not long after VARA's passage (1990) and B) about the time of the Los Angeles Riots, and in general a period of instability in the city of Los Angeles.

I don't have anything particularly cogent to say, except that this is the sort of awkwardness that "moral rights" presents; on the one hand, emotionally, I believe that the mural has a right to be protected. On the other hand, from a legal standpoint, the city commissioned the artwork, and they have the right to be boorish art-haters if they want to. As someone who has been recently on the side of users in defense of original creators of late, I feel like I should be championing the latter, but really I lean more towards the former.

But I've read other cases (can't think of any right now) that made VARA seem more abusive, and I have not been in favor of "moral rights" in IP Law at all. I don't know. I'm conflicted

The Obaminet: Veterans Affairs

This, by the way, is an appointment I'm personally interested in, because this semester, my class put together a proposal as to how to overhaul the Veterans system so that returning combat veterans will be better reintegrated into civilian society. I won't take up your time or eyespace with reprinting our proposal here, but it has been submitted through channels that will take it to the Obama Administration--or so I have been assured.

The Veterans Affairs Administration will be led by General Eric Shinseki; he was the Army Chief of Staff under Clinton. But the reason I have faith in his integrity is because of his service under the Bush Administration. He's being called a "Rumsfeld Critic" by AFP, which makes me upset. What he was was the only member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who held representing the best interests of his men over loyalty to the President.

When we started looking at entering Iraq, he upheld his duty to protect his men by insisting that it would take more than 150,000 troops to occupy Iraq. He held that we needed "several hundred thousand", and he held to that number in Congressional Hearings. As Tom Brokaw pointed out on Meet the Press, he lost his job for that. And as Barack Obama replied, he was right. Even General Abizaid, who is not most well-known for his capacity for regret, admitted that Shinseki had been right with hindsight.

If we had listened to the counsel of General Eric Shinseki, it's not a guarantee that things would have necessarily happened differently. But Shinseki was the only one brave enough to tell the President that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were wrong, and he made his dissent public. It was nothing personal; General Shinseki simply upheld his duty to support the troops.

When he left, he warned us to beware of arrogance in leadership; he told us to beware a "12-division strategy for a 10-division army." History proved that Shinseki was absolutely correct; what's more, his fellow officers in the Joint Chiefs should have known and should have stood by his side.

I want to hit this point again: Shinseki stood up for the men under his command to the point of losing his job. And that's why he needs to lead the VA. When the Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal broke, it became clear that army brass and the Bush Administration had little to no regard for the health and safety of the men they command. The Veterans' Affairs Administration has become a broken system, causing as much harm as it helps. The very first step to fixing that is putting someone who cares about the troops--supports the troops--at the top of the totem pole.

Also, there's a historic symbolism in Shinseki's appointment; he's a Japanese-American who was born in Hawaii. There is no record that I can find about whether his family was put into an internment camps; in 1942 in Hawaii, I find it difficult to believe that it wasn't at least a fear. But a generation later, their son (who served honorably in Vietnam, losing part of his foot to a land mine; and later in the command of the military) will remain in the highest ranks of government, even after his distinguished service.

It plays to my sense of justice.

Speaking of Race...

Indicted Congressman William Jefferson was defeated by a little-known Republican lawyer. Good news, although it irritates me when the incumbent is such an easy mark that the opponent doesn't even appear to try hard--and therefore isn't properly vetted. I don't want this to be like Mark Foley's seat being replaced by another inethical Congressperson.

Something bothers me a little about the Times coverage:

The upset victory by the lawyer, Anh Cao, was thought by analysts to be the result of a strong turnout by white voters angered over federal corruption charges against Mr. Jefferson, a black Democrat who was counting on a loyal base to return him to Congress for a 10th term.

A majority of the district’s voters are African-American, and analysts said lower turnout in the majority black precincts on Saturday meant victory for the Republican.

There's something under the surface of the way this is written that bothers me. It seems a little like the implication is that Jefferson expected black voters to forgive corruption, and white voters came out because a black man had cheated them out of money. Isn't it possible that black voters were equally upset by the indictment, but didn't want to vote for Anh Cao? I know many black voters who simply will not ever vote Republican; but can't vote for a man like William Jefferson.

The implication here seems to be that everyone was voting based on race. I mean, the article does say that the "White voters" were "angered over federal corruption charges", but was it really just white voters? I mean, Anh Cao is a Vietnamese name. The article ignores Asians, as it does Hispanics and other demographics. If they had dropped that word 'white,' it would have greatly improved the race relations in this paragraph.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

On The Subject Of Fear

Watch this video. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Beutler spend a fantastic hour using Brian Beutler's experience being shot to talk about fear.

The fear they speak of is in multiple veins: the fear of a community outsider (whether racially outside or economically outside) as well as the fear of a member of a broken community. I can't possibly recap the conversation, but the bottom line is that we talk about the fear of the outsider, and at the same time, that same fear is hidden within that community, under the surface.

And as it pertains to gangs, it is fascinating to talk about the fear up until the age of about 15 that Coates describes, of young folks who don't know yet know how to integrate into their community. Up until high school, we have the chance to offer them a different way, and that fear is what we have to address. That's the core of the issue. The fear of those who live in a broken community.

And of course, on that drum I will continue to beat, I think this is a fantastic example of the conversation we need to be having in this country; a Charlie-Rose style conversation, where the goal is to understand and not to convince. This is also the conversation that President Barack Hussein Obama called for, way back when we were upset about Reverend Wright.

UPDATE: The moment after I hit that "publish" button I finished rereading my last post about this "conversation" and saw the words:

"More, America. We need more discussion."

I'd just like to say that in this important discussion about race, it needs to be held together. One man banging off a post about race and then another person banging off another post about race is not what we need. We need two (or more) people in a room, confronting themselves with each other.

Economic Plan

Key points:

1) It is CC Licensed. That's not part of his plan, but it is hugely important to me... not just because it means I can drop it into my blog. It is important because it means he's taking open government as part of an approach to a free culture.

2) He begins by linking the statistics to the actual social impact of statistics. Thats exactly the sort of empathy and good priority I've always seen in him.

Now the actual plan:

3) Investing in Federal Infrastructure: This stuck out to me as being a little odd for being thrown into the "key points of my economic plan" speech... it saves money, and makes jobs, and I don't doubt its a good and necessary step, but he makes it sound like a priority.

4) Investing in Transportation Infrastructure: This is also clearly necessary, but I'm a little disappointed by the means. Handing money to the states/communities with a "use it/lose it" dictum is a good way to promote use of the money--but it also promotes short-term planning and waste. The National Highway System was a big investment, but it was already centrally planned. Why not a National High-Speed Rail System, like Joe Biden is probably for?

5) Investing in Educational Infrastructure: Well, when I'm coming up with these headlines, these bullet points make a lot more sense than the first time I heard the speech. Anyways, fixing school buildings is great, necessary, and I particularly like the shout-out to the broadband initiative. This, like point 1, means that he's listening to his old friend Lawrence Lessig in all the right ways.

6) Investing in Health Care Infrastructure: This is not part of the overall health care reform, but it is part of it. He's clearly in favor of a single electronic health file that can follow patients wherever they go. And in this moment, he's going to finally piss off civil libertarians who knew he wouldn't be their favorite President, but wanted him more than the wire-tapping/no-Habeas-Corpus Republicans. Privacy, privacy, privacy. I'm also confused as to how Obama will make this practice standardized amongst a whole bunch of independent bodies.

Still, I like what I hear. He is starting on the long process of distilling the word "Change" into a bunch of concrete, actionable reforms. Best of luck to him.

Coming Out: A Gay Rights Tool

Via The Daily Dish (Sullivan is on break).

"Newsweek's new poll shows what we already know, support for gays civil rights is growing:"

One reason that tolerance for gay marriage and civil unions may be on the rise is that a growing number of Americans say they know someone who's gay. While in 1994, a NEWSWEEK Poll found that only 53 percent of those questioned knew a gay or lesbian person, that figure today is 78 percent. Drilling down a bit more, 38 percent of adults work with someone gay, 33 percent have a gay family member and 66 percent have a gay friend or acquaintance.

This proves one of the core ideas of this blog: that change can be affected through conversation; bringing opposing ideas into contact moderates extremes and makes for more nuanced understanding.

This statistic shows that more intolerant communities (in the wake of Prop 8, it would be the Californian African-American community, and the Mormon Church) are probably prolonging their own gay intolerance--the more intolerant they are to gays, the less gays come out in their community, therefore the less gays those communities think they know.

If the Mormon community believes that they are good, and then they perceive that there are less gay Mormons than in other communities, it A) reinforces to them that homosexuality is a choice, and B) reinforces to them that the Mormon community can "overcome" homosexuality.

Therefore, if gays want to start prompting change in these communities, more of them are going to have to be brave and come out of the closet, and we're going to have to work hard to keep them safe when they do.

A personal anecdote: a gay ex-Mormon I knew at college was actually a devout Mormon, despite the fact that he was told constantly that God hated his kind and wanted to punish his kind. When he finally came out, his community attempted to persuade him to subject himself to "sexuality rehabilitation" or whatever they call it. He was lucky that he wasn't one of those who had electrodes attached to his testicles for the more extreme sorts of aversion therapy. Eventually, he fled the community for New York.

I don't blame him, of course, because the community isolation and pressure is more than anything one person should face alone. I'm just noting how incredibly difficult it must be to come out in such communities. Somehow, we need to protect them more so that those who can't publicly announce who they are will be able to, and still live with their friends and family, to show their friends and family that aside from a different sexual preference, nothing has changed about their lives.

That's how we turn the corner. If we get to live in equality, people will see us as being equal. To the extent that it is possible to create other equalities before the social equality, social equality will follow.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Muslim Summit In Jakarta?

According to the

SPEAKING of Barack Obama's upbringing: eleven months ago, the then-presidential candidate told Paris Match that he wanted to convene a summit in the Muslim world to "have an honest discussion about ways to bridge the gap that grows every day between Muslims and the West." Mr Obama is sticking to the promise, and the location of the summit is being debated among his staff. The Politico found the beginnings of the plan from an early donor to Mr Obama, who heard the candidate speak at a February 2007 event.

Mr Obama told the 20 or so of us at breakfast that 'his first trip as President would be to Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim country. He then said when he got off [Air Force One], he would say "xxxxxxxx"- which we, of course, didn't understand. He said that it was Indonesian (which he speaks) for, "I am back, dudes."

Well, this sounds like a great idea. Amazing. and I'd love to see it come to fruition.

A bit of a reality check, though: who will be coming? Representatives from... Mubarak? Assad? The House of Saud? Many of the governments involved have as much trouble bridging to the Muslim world as the West. Will Ahmadinejad's goverment be represented? I guess that's a very early test of Obama's desire to reach out to Iran.

Of course, it's very possible that the summit proposed is not one of governmental origin; it could be a lot of NGOs. But many sticky wickets will be raised. Some groups which purport to represent the Muslim world will be difficult to bring to the table. Obama wants to increase ties to Iran, but Iran may be unhappy about some of the people we bring to the table. Ditto for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.

I'm still optimistic, but not to the degree that I could be. It's a good start, we're gonna get things rolling, and at least we're thinking about a crucial step. This is something that has to happen.

I just am warning that I can see a lot of blowback from various choices that Obama's going to have to make. Tough calls. There aren't going to be easy answers even at the point of announcing the guest list, let alone once the conversation starts. Obama's going to be hearing things that he's going to be asked to denounce; public pressure is going to try and push him one way and the other.

The man has serious balls, though.

Health Care Kerfufle II

Ezra Klein continues:

In concert with Andrew's thesis, Britain does indeed have a high rate of amenable deaths. Just not higher than ours. in 2002-2003, Britain suffered 102.81 amenable deaths per 100,000, citizens. America suffered 109.65. This doesn't totally eviscerate Andrew's assertion of cultural difference. It may be that Brits believe they should endure that many preventable deaths while Americans don't believe that but have such a bad health care system that they nevertheless beat out the Brits. But either way, the difference between the American and British health care systems is not that we are enjoying timely and lifesaving interventions while they are forgoing them.

Emphasis mine; the statistics are the most important thing.

In fact, it proves Sullivan's hypothesis that the British are willing to put up with bad healthcare more than Americans. But clearly, Americans would only revolt against the British Healthcare system at a slightly less urgent rate than they're revolting against the current system.

But if Andrew Sullivan praises our right to demand better healthcare, then he shouldn't be surprised that we want to radically change our system. After all, the countries with bigger declines in the amenable death rate are countries like Japan, France, and Australia. If our choice--i.e. the free market--were really improving our healthcare system, then why wouldn't our health rate be continuing to fall?

Second point, from The Reaction:

Consider the following from the MinnPost:

UnitedHealth to sell insurance policies that insure individuals against becoming uninsurable

This links to the following at The New York Times:

UnitedHealth to Insure the Right to Insurance

Basically, health insurance has proven so reliable at falling through for those who need it, that Americans are lining up to insure themselves from insurers.

Health Care Kerfuffle

An interesting thread of conversation came up between Ezra Klein, Andrew Sullivan, and Gershom Gorenberg about the merits and drawbacks of socialized healthcare.

One of the commenters in Ezra Klein's blog referred to the Andrew Sullivan post I linked to above and said that Andrew Sullivan was comparing "the US healthcare system as experienced by Andrew Sullivan to the UK healthcare system as experienced by Andrew Sullivan." To a certain extent, both Andrew Sullivan and Gershom Gorenberg are speaking about their own personal experiences, and how it has affected their opinions toward socialization of healthcare; Sullivan is responding to the UK, and Gorenberg is responding to Israel.

But in Sullivan's other post on the subject, he does point out that Ezra Klein's opinion polls aren't necessarily a better indicator of whether British-style healthcare is better for us than US-style medical industry (I refuse to call it "healthcare" but it is a medical industry). He's right that different countries respond to different systems differently.

But I disagree that Americans living under the NHS would have a revolution instantly. Certainly, I know many Americans who would be extremely frustrated with the healthcare system; that is because I know many people who can afford healthcare under the current system. But for those people who I know who can't afford the healthcare system, the choice between a nationalized healthcare system and no health care at all can't even really be called a choice. It was summed up for me when John McCain said, when asked about his skin cancer, that like most Americans he consulted with his oncologist about the issue. There are many Americans (I don't know if it's a majority or not) don't even have their own GP--they get a doctor when it is direly important, because they can't afford anything else.

But I do agree with you that the NHS is not what we should be looking for. In Ezra's post "The Canada/England Fallacy" he lays out a pretty good argument for not pursuing the British Model: because we shouldn't have a system that disallows those who can seek better health-care to do so. You, Andrew, probably have enough money to get better healthcare for your family than that which the NHS provided you. And so you should. But those who can't afford any healthcare at all--and whose privatized healthcare, if they could afford it, would probably treat them equally as poorly--should have something.

The state of postage in the United States (and other nations in the world) is similar. A government-run entity (USPS) is good for non-urgent mail, and can send registered mail and packages if you want it to. But other private companies (UPS and FedEx) compete with the government-run entity. If the USPS completely failed to provide any worthwhile service, it would eventually collapse--but I use the USPS all the time for letters, and for packages I tend to use UPS.

I'm aware of the pitfalls of socialized medicine. I was born in Israel, where my parents had lived for many years, and it has its own socialized medicine. My parents are ambivalent about socialized medicine; when they were young and poor, they got healthcare that they might not have gotten without its existence. But my oldest brother was born while my mother was not anaesthetized, because the nursing staff at the hospital attempted to give her the run-around because the anaesthesiologist had taken the day off. My grandfather had many troubles with his heart, and spending time waiting for cardiologists to have the time to address him was difficult.

Still, at the end of the day, this issue should be decided on economic models, on a more scientific approach to addressing what methods are most effective for the most amount of people. We want people with a lot of resources to have the best healthcare possible, and people with no resources to have the most healthcare possible. The top should be unfettered; the bottom should be supported.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two Interesting Elections

Back to politics, I guess.

The theme of this installation is "The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of constant revolution." Not bloody revolution anymore, but electoral revolution--parliaments in turmoil.

Canada: After the liberal parties finally got their act together and declared they were ready to form a coalition government and got ready to pass a vote of no confidence, PM Stephen Harper met with Governor-General Michaelle Jean, and asked for permission to shut down parliament.

This is a shockingly autocratic move--especially in light of the below 40% backing of his party. Also, it's a surprising reappearance of Canadian Colonialism; although we think of Canada as independent, this action means that for the first time in God knows how long, the representative of the Queen (Governor-General Jean) played a directly active role in the political structure of Canada.

This may be what it takes to get Canadians to throw off that last vestige of British Imperialism. But perhaps it may just wind up being paid with revenge against PM Harper and GG Jean. I don't know nearly enough about Canadian governmental structure to understand what the next step is--what happens when Parliament is shut down? Will it go to another election? If so, Harper's probably going to get a huge slap in the face. Is the Conservative Party going to back Harper on this ballsy move?

Imagine if President Bush could get permission to suspend Congress. I shudder to think what would happen.

Israel: A land I have direct experience with. The Labor Party, according to current polls, is set up to take about 10 seats in the 120 Knesset, meaning that they would officially be a fringe party (with less sway than any of the groups of extremist rabbis, for instance), meaning that with a brief interruption, Israel has returned to a basically two-party system, of centrists and right-wingers. Since Kadima is not very left at all, and Likud is pretty right wing, that means that the left has basically lost its voice in Israel.

This is bad news for the short term. Livni, who refused to buy Shas' support (a disproportionally important block of orthodox minsiters), will probably not be the next Prime Minister, and the rise of Netenyahu will almost certainly cancel out any new hopes in the region that Obama's election might bring.

A Post About Naturalism

I haven't done a theater post in a while, but, this seemed important.

(From American Theater, via TheatreForte)

We have to be very clear when we talk about naturalism in the theatre. It's a stylistic choice, and it's a deadly one for the theatre. Naturalism is a style that developed in the '40, '50, and 60's, that supposedly comes from the Stanislavski approach - but that is to misunderstand Stanislavksi. Naturalism is not suited to the theatre because theatre is about communication with the audience. In the end the only question in the theatre is: How does the play become alive? In fact, theatre only exists in the mind of the audience - it does not exist on stage, or in a play. It only exists because the audience brings it alive.

I've been thinking about this recently, and I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say that all natural theater is deadly theater. But I will point out the key phrase: "Theatre is about communication with the audience." The actors have to remain in conversation with the audience.

What naturalism, and current "naturalist" methods of acting do, is they try to immerse the actor in the "world" of the play. But in order for that world to be "real" (in the everyday sense of reality), the naturalist actor has to shut out the audience. And if the actor shuts out the audience, the actor is no longer in conversation with the audience--and then it becomes awkward when the actors is forced to notice the audience (pausing for a laugh, for instance).

I have a problem that happens to me sometimes when I'm acting, which is that I laugh at things which look funny on stage. Not things that look funny to me; one director said that my laughing problem is that I always have an eye, watching the stage from the audience's perspective, and therefore, when I see something that would be funny to me in the audience, I laugh. Of course, this would destroy any "realism" in the situation.

On The Daily Show, of course, sometimes Jon laughs; sometimes Stephen Colbert used to crack up. This was acceptable--partly because it was comedy, and partly because it wasn't realism. There was no pretense at them not being themselves. Because they are being more honest to themselves, they are permitted to laugh, or to cry (see Jon Stewart on 9/11).

This is part of not shutting the audience out; they have the flexibility to respond to the audience. Barack Obama understands it; that's why sometimes when someone calls out "We love you Obama!" he responds, "Love you too." The freedom to be able to break the moment and acknowledge the audience requires you to be allowed to percieve the audience; naturalism fights that.

The quotation continues:

I saw kabuki theatre in Japan, where, in a given scene, weeping takes place on stage in an extraordinarily stylized form. I was transfixed, looking along the row of faces alongside of me and watching how everyone in the audience was weeping, too. The emotion at that moment on stage was real, in the same way as when Don Giovanni is led down to hell and he sings his last act of defiance. The emotion of that moment is also real--it's heightened, it's extreme, but it's completely real. Reality in the theatre is created by actors, and it occurs only in that moment--which is why you will find actors saying "we had a good night" or "oh, tonight wasn't so good." What actors really mean is that they have found that point of communication, so you can have a great production and you can go and see it and it won't mean anything to you at all if this moment of connection between actors and audience doesn't happen. Equally, I have seen pieces of theatre that are rough and appallingly overacted or rude--and yet I've been deeply moved by them. Sometimes, even with terrible performances, actors find a way to communicate with an audience. That's why theatre can't work on video. It's an imaginative act on the part of the audience. And that is theatre's appeal, that's why it continues.

Perfect, perfect diagnosis of why theater doesn't work on video, and returns to the same point. I just say that heightened and extreme emotion is not the only way of reaching that genuine emotion; minimalism shoots for a gesture at genuine emotion (and therefore is minimized, distilled emotion), and sometimes realism hits emotion on the right level. But I agree.

Everyone thought theatre would die with the appearance of cinema, just as everyone thought painting would die with the appearance of photography. But all photography did was to liberate painting to be itself. Without photography, we would not have Picasso or Rothko. Painting would still be trying to do what photography can do much better. We need painting to do what happened on the walls of caves eons ago - to record what we deeply feel, and the complexity of what we feel and imagine. In the same way, film has liberated theatre to be itself. Without film, we wouldn't have Jacques Copeau, who gave rise to Antonin Artoud. We wouldn't have the plays of Beckett or Pinter. So in the theatre, what you do is to create the language to communicate with the audience on that night in that moment.

This is a fascinating theory, and I love it. It goes back to Plato's criticism of art in The Republic as being three removes from truth (there's the ideal of the object, then there's its "imitation" as it exists in reality, then the "imitation of imitation" of artists). The role of reproducing images, is what landscape or portrait painting was about; photography took that over, and painting got at something else. The role of reproducing narratives is film; theater gets at that something else.

Now, what that "something else" is remains up for grabs. Is it delving into the emotion of it (as this author puts forward)? Is it the relationship to the audience (as this author always puts forward)? Is it a ritual? An artifact? Those questions remain. But this is the starting point.

Congressional Black Caucus And Prop 8

I've been reading in the blogs about African-Americans and their effect on Prop 8's passage. This is not a surprising way to view the election, not in our age of demographic-ized election cycles. The difference between their voting blocks and other voting blocks is important to notice.

But it's also important to notice that African-Americans are not one homogenized group. There's a distinctly different history in Los Angeles, and other Western African-American communities than, say, their southern counterparts. And one key point is interesting to note.

In the above video, you'll notice that the Californian representing Los Angeles, Diane Watson, is less than sympathetic. But the two gentlemen from Georgia are passionate that you cannot separate civil rights. And at least one of them cites the anti-miscegenation laws, which I have heard constantly cited in reasons why it's supposedly ironic that A-A's in California came out against gays' rights.

I'd just like to point out one thing. The Georgian who mentions anti-miscegenation laws notes that it was in his lifetime. Not long ago. In California, the anti-miscegenation law was struck down in 1948. As in, not in most people's lifetimes.

I think that's important to note.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Note About Gates

Robert Gates says he's going to focus on closing Git-mo and accelerating our withdrawal from Iraq.

You know what's an odd upshot of naming Gates as the new SecDef? He gets to say what he wants now, even though he still works for Bush. It's as though Obama freed Gates to start pushing for Obama's defense policy under President Bush. Maybe that's part of the SOFA breakthrough? I hesitate to speculate, because I've never been in a Defense Department or a State Department, or in Iraq. But there's something about Gates' new dual role of being both Bush's Sec Def and Obama's Sec Def that gives Bush more leeway than, for instance, General Shinsekei.

The Different Doctrines Of War

Required reading from Ezra Klein.

The question:

David Brooks is right to understand Barack Obama's national security team as the maturation of thinking that began in Iraq and Afghanistan and focuses more on building civic capacity than destroying military capabilities. This is the post-Iraq consensus between liberals and realists, and it will hold as long as the question is Iraq. But what if the topic changes? If China triggers a confrontation over Taiwan or a threatening genocide cries out for a swift intervention? Where does Gates, or Jones, stand then?

There are many different standards by which America goes to war.

Self-DefenseThere's clearly a united consensus that if the United States suffers a direct attack, we will respond in some fashion.

Powell Doctrine:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
7. Is the action supported by the American people?
8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

Unfortunately, Powell did not stand up for the Powell doctrine on Iraq (all of them except possibly 7 turned out to be wrong; 4 + 8 we knew wasn't there at the time without UN support; the intelligence community disputes most of the rest). But it is still a solid standard of going in to war, even if its architect let it fall apart.

Where do the members of the incoming Administration stand? This is a question that I would ask them if I got them in a serious interview. I think this is a standard that most of the Administration can agree upon, except with regards to the next standard.

Clinton Doctrine

"Genocide is in and of itself a national interest where we should act" and "we can say to the people of the world, whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it."

Although I think in President Clinton's mind, this is part of the Powell Doctrine (an extension of the term "national interest"), that's a fairly controversial stance--it is difficult, but not impossible, to allege that mass genocide in Sudan will lead to American deaths, or even American national interests being defeated.

Of course, I happen to agree with President Clinton about genocide being "just cause", but I don't think that's what the Powell Doctrine means. My personal belief is that the "national interest" in point one of the Powell Doctrine should be replaced, or abutted, with "Are many innocent lives at stake?" I think that should apply equally to US Citizens, French or Indian citizens, or Sudanese.

But, of course, we have to remember the rest of the Powell Doctrine. Somalia was a failure because we didn't understand what was going on; we didn't have the plans, the necessary force, etc.

The Clinton Doctrine, I think, will be most strongly represented by Susan Rice, and possibly by Hillary Clinton. No idea about anyone else.

Bush Doctrine: according to wikipedia:

1) Unilateral action, if required
2) Terrorist-sponsor nations
3) Preventative strikes
4) Democratic regime change

The foremost, I think, is not supported by almost any of Obama's incoming Administration, nor the second one. The third has been explicitly endorsed by Barack Obama (cross-border raids into Pakistan count). I think where Obama parts ways with Bush is whether full scale war is appropriate for the preventative strike, or whether surgical strike action is better. That one may become contentious in a future situation.

The last, I think, will only gain currency if it's attached to something else; humanitarian + regime change, or imminent threat + regime change.

Candy Land

Some people see reflections of our culture everywhere they look. Even in Candy Land.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"High-Value Professions"

Required reading from Ezra Klein:

Money Quote:
If you're in a high-value profession, hard work can do you a lot of good. If you're not, it may not do you any good at all. And though anyone can work hard, we're mostly able to admit that not everyone has the specific constellation of opportunities that lets you go to law school, or spend your time goofing off in amateur political punditry.

My response below (in his comments section)

Thank you! I've been struggling recently with my own chosen profession--theater--and getting increasingly angry at the fact that people who graduated, say, in the field of investment banking, will make money hand over fist.

I recently saw a statistic (it was quoted as being from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) that said that the median wage for actors in Actor's Equity Association (which not everyone can get into) is roughly $6,000.

$6,000. It's not as though we in the theater are doing something selfish--we raise property values, supplement education (not to mention the esoteric upside of things like cultural value). But we rarely turn a profit.

From a capitalistic point of view, our profession is a waste of time. The "entertainment" and "culture" slots are filled much more effectively by the internet, by the film industry, etc.

When I apply for a job outside of the theater (which obviously I have to, since I don't make anything from my theater yet), they don't look at my theater experience as being ANYTHING at all.

I've fulfilled the role of "stage MANAGER" but I could never be considered for a managerial role; I've led a team of artists on an independent project, raised funds, and controlled a budget. But what is the best job I can land in the quote unquote "real world"? I sold popcorn for Regal Entertainment.

So the question I'm saying that your question raises is, WHAT ARE THE HIGH VALUE PROFESSIONS. And why? Is a teacher not a high profile profession? Is Bill Kristol worth more to the news business than the arts reviewers, who are getting shed like flies? Are hedge-fund managers worth more to us than the much maligned "community organizers"?

A little context: Ezra Klein is a lucky guy, and also a talented guy. He's a political pundit. He's one of the few that I follow regularly, and I've very much enjoyed his status; I don't think it's ill deserved. And he has always used his powers for good--unlike Bill Kristol, who I took a shot at in the comment.

As you can tell, I've been a little irritated by this for a while, and it's kind of building. Because it's the assumption we all work under: only the true, true geniuses will break even--because someone wealthy will back us up.

I'm not bitter at Ezra, or at people who are successful in their fields. But when actors come to politicians for support, we get brushed off, as though we're some sort of luxury. I mean, theater is associated with wealth (because of the cost of high-end theater), but we in the theater business tend to be the poorest of poor. If you go to a Congressman and say, "will you help our small business?" or "Will you help our farmers?" they will at least pretend like they care. But theater? So far from their priority.

We are workers. We fight because we think this is a worthwhile industry; we benefit our communities. Why are we low value?