Wednesday, March 16, 2016

20/20 Hindsight on Trump

  • He has carefully studied the art form of Reality TV, especially the winners of Big Brother or Survivor. An early alliance with the least likely prospect (Cruz), helped him avoid serious attacks while encouraging other candidates to attack one another. In later rounds, people had voted off any other plausible victor.
  • As the only candidate who uses Twitter (another art form neglected by  politicians), he honed his message using the Twitter feedback loop.
  • The transformation of media has gutted the budgets of newspapers -- the advertising budgets that comprise the profits of Google and Facebook used to pay the salaries of investigative journalists -- and many reporters simply spend time on Twitter to report what is happening on the Twittersphere.  No other major politician personally uses Twitter, only five percent of American use twitter, but 95% of journalists do.
  • Like many bullies, he is a gifted clown, lacking humor.
  • The real-estate rich are just poor people with money.  Those who would exclude them from country clubs sometimes forget that country clubs are, in fact, real estate -- and can be bought.
  • He is very smart, and has all the best words.
  • The educated establishment dit not challenge his rise, hoping he would destroy the Republican party, imaging that he would be an easy opponent in November.  This sort of too-clever-by-half strategy has backfired before.
  • A hacked electoral system -- and maybe a hacked electoral college -- shows the need for constitutional reform, if we are going to survive as a democratic republic.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hugh Thompson

Last night's premiere performance of Jonathan Berger's mis-titled "My Lai" -- by the Kronos Quartet at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park -- holds some of the most breathtakingly beautiful music of recent times (though the fractured reimagining of Elgar's elegy owes some power to Oliver Stone's use of the same music in "Plattoon").  As the applause died down, my friend complained that it was inappropriate to construct a work of uncanny beauty around acts of senseless violence -- what's next? an opera about a rape? -- but the person in the adjacent seat explained that a war requiem transmutes senselessness into beauty, as a gift to the wronged.  You honor the dead by wrapping them in beauty and wishing them peace.  Repulsive works that document repulsive deeds do not help either the living or the dead.

"My Lai" features the aging Hugh Thompson reliving the moments before and after his helicopter came upon the massacre in progress and he ordered his gunners to target their weapons on the United States soldiers who were committing war crimes.  Thompson suffered for his decision -- he was the one who talked with Seymour Hirsch, was vilified by both the military and the right-wing establishment -- and is a true American hero.

This was a premiere and not a preview, so is too late for notes, but my only quibble is that naming a piece after a place invites the audience to draw metonymical conclusions that make the protagonist's actions and responses  metaphorically representative (for example, John Dos Passos' America, WCW's Patterson, and even Hugh Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn).  The context of the My Lai massacre -- the foolish idiocy of a numbers-driven approach towards warfare -- MacNamara's appalling mismanagement --situates My Lai very rapidly in a historical context that encapsulates both Hamburger Hill and Rumsfeld's equally incompetent misuse of power.  When a complex event is a reduced to a humanist response to inhumanity, it exonerates the social context of responsibility for the inhumanity.

As a piece, a reach towards universality would have diminished the profound contemplation of Hugh Thompson's heroism.  But since the piece was written to honor Hugh Thompson, his name should have been in the title. A better name for the piece would be "Hugh Thompson remembers the events of March 16th, 1968".


Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sing a song for unsung heroes!

There is a generous impulse behind most artists, but that impulse is coupled with a desire to bask in social adulation and attract attention.  Movies, recordings and books allow us to appreciate artistry and accept their gifts without the emotional complexity of dealing directly with artists.

People who run film societies have absence of drama in the purity of their generosity -- like librarians, they eagerly to match patrons with enjoyable experiences.  The projectionist's patient attention maintains the audience -- the projectionist becomes a locus for gratitude, and  -- as the officiant in the sacrament -- richly deserves the applause at the end of the movie.

A digitally projected sequences of pixels is not a "Motion Picture" -- there is no picture being replaced by another picture -- I only see a bunch of dots shifting their locations.  It is moving Pixels rather than moving pictures -- and it is as etymologically appropriate to call it a "Film" as it is a dial a number on your cell-phone.






Friday, January 22, 2016

The Paradox of the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach

People of intelligence and goodwill run the world, but their intelligence convinces them that their self-interest is in the general interest.  The possibility of power -- the biochemical alteration of the human brain in the exercise and pursuit of power -- makes it almost impossible for power to serve justice. Thus, the central paradox of history: having tasted the possibility of power,  understanding subtly changes, and politicians cannot reliably interpret the world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Seven steps to improve Chicago

Chicago's political system is a tangled, undemocratic mess.  Is there any hope?  While the city charter is set by the state legislature (with Chicago having less than ten per cent representation),  there is a rising possibility they will deign to modify the city charter and allow a recall election:  the legislature should also consider other improvements.
  • A clear mechanism to impeach or recall the Mayor.  Put it in the charter, don't make it a single-shot event.
  • Mayoral term limits.  Let Mayors go out at their peak, clearly defining different epochs of urban history.
  • Aldermanic term limits.
  • Elected School Board 
  • Zoning decisions made by an elected Zoning board. Aldermen stay in office to make millions for their friends through zoning -- if we got rid of the corrupt backscratch tangle whereby the City council tends to accept the zoning suggestions of individual alderman in exchange for tacit support of the ready-wrapped consensus on the city council, we might attract the Aldermen who are genuine legislators, who contemplate the laws the pass.
  • Police Superintendent as an elected office.  Is it enough that the Chicago Police Department covered up a murder committed by Mayor Daley's nephew? Structurally, the Police Superintendent shields the Mayor from responsibility rather than taking personal responsibility: free the police from Mayoral politics and let them have their own politics.
  • Five Super-district presidents. It is unchallenging for a strong mayor to divide and conquer the fifty member city council, while it is too difficult for a viable challenger to come up through the system -- aldermen have too small a power-base.  Our flawed city charter necessitates abrasive and tough mayors, and creating multi-ward elected offices would create a countervailing force to an autocratic mayor, making the post more suited to a conciliatory leader rather than a dominant autocrat.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Support the Northwest Chicago Film Society

Relics are conducive to spirituality.  Physical artefacts from a different time and place provide intimations of a world beyond this one -- the possibility of the uncanny -- and this sense of the magical becomes a portal to religious or mystical understanding.  Important events imbue objects with a glow and a history -- nails from the true cross, a polyester scarf given by Mongolian monks, a sock worn by a saint,  a cardboard image blessed by the Pope -- that transcends their status as molecular and chemical compounds.

Religion and art lift us out of the ordinary into a world of possibility -- into an appreciation of the shimmering glorious tentativity of our fragile and beautiful lives. The best art, like the best religion, opens us up rather than shuts us down -- taking us from particularity to universality -- and bad art, just like bad religion, has the opposite effect. Handling a religious relic gives a believer "goosebumps" -- Otto's numinous experience of the Holy -- and goosebumps are equally implicated in aesthetic experiences.

Musicologically and narratologically, the establishment of an expectation, coupled with the introduction of a detail thwarting and fulfilling that expectation, reenacts the experience of the shimmering presence of the divine rising out of the muck of sublunary existence -- an abbreviated simulation of the psychological mechanism of a religious experience.  Paradoxically, with surprisingly few exceptions, religious art rarely has the compelling vitality that produces a religious experience.

A: When I go to the Orchestra, and hear the Greatest Symphony in the world, play the Greatest Music ever written, conducted by one of the Greatest musicians alive, sometimes -- for a few seconds -- I feel close to God.
B: Do you know what I do when I want to feel close to God?  I feel close to God.

Music, painting and theater may provide sustenance, but some of the most profound moments in my life happened at the movies, watching film run through a projector, with the 24 click-a-second whir being a constant mechanical reminder of the fabricated nature of the experience itself. The waves of the Orinoco River in Aguirre, windshield wipers accompanied by Bach in a Godard movie, the flashback of a boy walking down in the hall in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the nap during the Turin Horse, the swirling fog at the dock in Red Desert, all have given me goosebumps and taken me to a place where I literally left myself behind, could almost feel myself transported from my body, basking for days in the memory of being filled with wonder and awe and love for the universe and everything in it.

A mystical experience begs for a mystical explanation.  What if the celluloid negative -- a physical object exposed to the physical presence of the physical actions it memorializes -- is imbued with magical, extradimensional traces of that action, passed on to the master print via physical contact with the negative?  What if this umbroken chain of physical contact -- Jimmy Stewart running up the real stairs in a real set recorded by a real camera on real film, becoming a real print that is then really projected onto a real screen -- is what makes projected movies so powerful?  And what if the digitization of motion picture images have drained them of their magical power?

Even without an elaborate quasi-mysterical interpretive framework, projected movies look better than digital ones.  And even if they look identical, they feel better. There is a uniqueness to projected cinema -- old color movies, whose colors vary greatly depending on the film stock and the lab, and which then age in unpredictable ways: a mechanically reproduced object becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Psychological studies show that the anticipation of enjoyment is more beneficial than the enjoyment itself -- an appointment to see a movie at a particular time transforms something as ubiquitous as moving images into an eagerly awaited rarity. And, finally, do not understimate the joy in surrendering your evening to the idiosyncratic programming tastes of a team of intelligent and careful curators.

In short: The Northwest Chicago Film Society is a civic treasure. Even if you don't go there for a religious experience, you will probably enjoy their movies.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Super-PACs will micro-target negative ads to your exact psychological vulnerabilities

Facebook is being used to harvest psychological data that will
subvert the United States electoral process.  When emotional manipulation becomes a statistically analysable process -- with experimental feedback loops -- the most cynical and corrupt candidates are the most likely to win. 


No wonder Facebook is worth so much!

Pecunianity


The Old Testament God tells us "To worship no God before him". God accepts that we are tempted to worship other Gods, and he doesn't have a huge problem if people accept Gods of secondary status.  It becomes a real problem is when people make God the second-class deity.

The primary religion of our time is Pecunianity -- the belief that all human activity can be valued in terms of money.  The punishments that await a person who refuses to accept Pecunianity's tenets are severe and swift, a type of excommunication.  They are completely shed.  Pecunianity has no problem with your secondary worship (for example, Jesus), just as long as you accept the primacy of financial and economic reasoning as a means of navigating reality.

The federal reserves efforts to teach "financial literacy" is fundamentally religious proselytization. Parents worrying about their kids finances, it is not different from elders in previous generations worrying about the immortal souls of their children. People seeing the harsh treatment of non-believers as confirmation of their view is reminiscent of theocratic legitimation, where the absence of divine intervention to rescue heretics substantiates the faith in the system itself.

unforeseen consequences.

Lead paint, Freakanomic abortions, and Oprah Winfrey aside, will a wave of violent crime follow the establishment of a sane national drug policy?  In the drug culture, violence is a business tool, and a necessary means for a financial reward (as it is in the case of armed robbery).  When victimless crimes are decriminalized, will criminals will be driven to more heinous crimes?

Overheard on the El, #28

A: "Take it for granted that you cannot put food on the table without serving the devil in some way.  If you are eating and staying alive, your conscience should not be clear -- the devil is paying you, and you are earning your wages.

With that said, when you look at how hard it is for me to get and keep a job - how dim my prospects for employment are - you can safely say that I have not been a particularly effective servant of the devil.

And that's some consolation."