Let's take a break from politics, economics, and the daily grind and watch the beautiful video one Colin Rich made with limited means, unlimited imagination, a balloon, two cameras, and a parachute. Earth is a lovely place and his video reminds us of that.
Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill were barred from
visiting the Bejing Independent Film Festival this week.The Chinese government denied the pair
visas to travel to the festival, where they hoped to speak with audiences of
their HBO documentary, “China's Unnatural Disaster:
The Tears of Sichuan Province.”Their film follows the struggles of parents whose children were killed
during the earthquake in the central Chinese province last May.These children were among thousands who
perished when approximately 7,000 substandard classrooms collapsed during the
The scandal that erupted over
the deaths of the children has sparked a controversy that continues to
rage. The term "tofu-dregs
schoolhouses" has now become a derisive Chinese name for the shoddy and
corruption-ridden construction process behind the structures that suffered mass
casualties of schoolchildren during the disaster. See today’s NY Times article
and the film’s site
for more information.
Robert McNamara’s death this week at age 93 brings up a host of emotions that haunt most Americans of a certain age. His role as the primary architect of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict during the 1960’s will be, despite all his other work, McNamara’s historical legacy. Reflecting on that role also appears to have been the ethical shadow that preoccupied the latter half of McNamara’s life.
The decision to send half a million American boys to Vietnam in 1965 to fight a major Cold War conflict over a continuing civil war had consequences far beyond that country’s borders over the intervening decades. The fierce resistance of the Vietnamese, a growing American domestic disillusionment with our involvement, and an increased press scrutiny of the escalation led to a decision by Lyndon Johnson not to stand for re-election in 1968, to the rise of an American political insurgency, to a questioning of an Imperial Presidency, and to the fall of many another American icon.
The continued war effort after McNamara and Johnson, fought over years of drawn-out peace negotiations by President Nixon and his Vietnam guru, Henry Kissinger, brought forth myriad additional moral questions. Their ‘larger’ goal— to put an American defeat at a ‘decent interval’ from a drawdown of U.S. troops—finally ended with 58,000 American and two million Vietnamese dead by time the war was over in 1975. Many of those casualties were taken for peace terms that were already on the table in negotiations begun in 1968.
But despite the compounding crimes of the Nixon years, the Vietnam experience is forever stamped with the brilliant, but calculating mind of Robert McNamara, a young business leader with a background in military strategy and targeting during World War II. McNamara was a rational numbers man—and everything about America in Vietnam was done by the numbers: casualty counts, troop strengths measured, tons of armaments dropped, dollars spent, lives diverted. The problem was that the war wasn’t about numbers for the Vietnamese. For them, it was about fighting for their country.
No amount of rational calculation would have helped McNamara arrive at the simple conclusion he finally saw by the time history had been written about the conflict: that no war can be understood solely as a mathematical and ideological enterprise. The Americans had only been the last great power to realize that the Vietnamese would not stop fighting for their independence until they had won; Ho Chi Minh’s troops weren’t mainly a faction of a global ideological movement, but primarily a nationalist movement with an ideological and strategic connection to our global opponents.
McNamara’s War, as it became known, was unwinnable by a foreign power and to make matters worse, America’s chosen Vietnamese allies were the most corrupt and least connected to the people of all the forces at play there. No amount of propping up the likes of Diem, Ky, and Thieu was going to change their distance from Vietnam’s peasants, who were doing most of the dying out in the rice paddies of the country. But to McNamara, the war was seen as part of a global war against Communism, a beachhead in a greater battle for freedom. His frame of reference was almost totally at odds with the reality of the situation on the ground in Southeast Asia.
There is evidence that even McNamara had private doubts about the whole adventure. He claimed to have expressed them to President Johnson in a prelude to the escalation decision in 1965, asking the President to think twice about committing American troops to a jungle war a world away. But in the end, McNamara fell prey to professional loyalty to the Presidency and the to the institutional belief that he could make a flawed policy work with overwhelming force. In so doing, he became another of the many American leaders who put their Vietnam qualms aside to achieve a “larger goal.”
The two most important lessons to be learned from the McNamara experience in Vietnam are that war is to be waged only when it is forced upon us, not when it is optional, and that rational calculation is a sad second to a moral compass where matters of life, death, and country are concerned. Anyone forgetting these lessons is likely bound to repeat the mistakes McNamara made in thinking that Vietnam could be won with numbers and that the Vietnamese would see their best interests in rational compliance with the wishes of a superior force.
Errol Morris, the documentarian whose important film on McNamara, “The Fog of War,” should be required viewing for foreign policy and government students, quoted a 1966 speech McNamara gave in Montreal in his obituary blog on the former Defense Secretary. The way that McNamara chose to honor rationality and yet to implicitly acknowledge the massive failure men make when placing their larger aims ahead of the means used to achieve them is sadly evident in Morris’ chosen McNamara quotation:
“… All the evidence of history suggests that man is indeed a rational animal but with a near infinite capacity for folly. His history seems largely a halting, but persistent, effort to raise his reason above his animality. He draws blueprints for utopia, but never quite gets it built. In the end he plugs away obstinately with the only building material really ever at hand: his own part-comic, part-tragic, part-cussed, but part-glorious nature.”
These are heady times for political bloggers and
journalists.The President is
daily breaking new ground, yesterday a bankruptcy restructuring of Chrysler,
today a possible Supreme Court opening, tomorrow, who knows?The changes wrought by the economic meltdown
and by a more progressive approach to dealing with it are extraordinary and are
rippling throughout the country. There’s so much to write about, some that’s
exciting and much that’s quite disturbing— from the staggering unemployment and
residential dislocation across the country to the potential for disaster in
developing nations now facing an unprecedented falloff in capitalfrom abroad.
The problem, both for journalists and for bloggers, is
that we’re all being hit hard by the economic meltdown ourselves, making the
act of writing into a financial drain on those we support.For my own part, I’m responsible for
salaries and for keeping up on overhead for office and equipment at my
documentary production company.For many journalists, their means of plying their trade, the newspapers
of America, are failing at a record rate.The bailouts of financial companies and the restructuring of automakers,
while tremendous fodder for discussion, are not replicated in our world of the
art and media of political and social subjects.
During the Great Depression, the US government hired many
of the best writers, filmmakers, and photographers of the era to document the
impact of the economic slide on the people of the country.The memorable and publicly owned photographs
of Walker Evans and Gordon Parks and the prose of the Federal Writer’s Project
were but a bit of the product of these programs Franklin Roosevelt’s
administration promulgated to keep not just America’s blue collar workers on
the job, but also America’s most prized intellects and artists.
Might it not now be another moment in American history for
the government to infuse the art and trade of comment and image with a bit of
public investment?The addition of
some money for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment
for the Humanities— even some small bit of capital to disburse to the thousands
of journalists, media makers, writers, and artists whose contribution to
memorializing our nation’s response to crisis will help guide the way into the
future.Perhaps we should think of
it as a stimulus for those who always look to find a way to contribute their
insights and visions, but who need just a small bit of support to leverage our
talents with the nonprofit community and to wrest further support from
individuals.The imprimatur of the
national endowments was once an important gateway for other funders to look
towards when supporting projects and artists.
Over the last few decades of conservative, market-oriented
politics, the once proud seed investments the US made in our public endowments
for art and the humanities have barely survived.Filmmakers and artists, writers, and media makers have
endured, but have only done so by utilizing the increasingly inexpensive means
of producing work: small and affordable cameras, the internet to publish on,
and other innovative technological means.The courage of American artists and the innovations that make American
writers available to us are not a limitless panecea, however.Some financial support is necessary in
order to make this work available to the American people— and by doing so, to
help rejuvenate the public discussion that comes of a lively American scene of
art and comment.
haven’t got much more to say on this at the moment.I need to go put some more CDs for sale on eBay and
advertise my edit suite online.But think about it.Maybe
we should write to our Congresspeople and insist that they remember us, too,
when they address the flotsam and jetsam of the meltdown.
1) I guess Judd Gregg looks
pretty lame now, having accepted the Commerce Department Cabinet position after
playing Hamlet —and
then realizing that he would forever be shunned by the Right Wingers who now
call themselves the Republican Party if he went through with it. The not
voting on the Stimulus bill really didn’t help him either. Not a guy New
Hampshire voters will now run to for a courageous stand in the future…like
during next year's re-election battle.
2) I hope Obama finds
Senator from a state with a Democratic Governor to
nominate. It’s clear now that the Republicans intend to employ a scorched
Earth policy towards the country. If they can’t have power here, they’ll
just hope the nation is decimated by their ability to stymie real change and
run against failure in four years. It seems a lock that the only way to
bypass this is to find a 60th vote in the Senate, assuming that the Minnesota
Senate trial ends with Franken still the winner there.
Melissa Leo has my vote for Best Actress.
See Frozen River if you have a
chance. It’s one great little movie for any film lover. She’s
wonderful in it, as usual, and the fallout of our economy and our immigration
policies are evident in the landscape of the film for those filmgoers who are
I’ve been too busy, and frankly, a little too worried, to pen much
political prose lately.It hasn’t
been because there’s no need.God
knows we need more political ideas now, not less.It’s just that as a small business owner, I’ve been more
focused on keeping my business and its two employees on track to survive the
current hard times.
We’re documentary makers and we also produce a variety of
corporate, news, multicamera, and live event projects for media.It’s a rough time for our clients and our funders, and hence, a challenging time for us too.But we’re making a go of it.It’s just taking more of my time than usual, so I hope readers
who wonder why the posts are fewer lately will understand.
But this morning I want to take a couple of minutes to
recall a little about the stories my father told me about his
childhood during the Great Depression.There were always
lots of anecdotes about helping his family and about having little. They made everything, cooked everything from scratch. He would talk about how many people in
his old neighborhood had lost their jobs, and what it did to their
families.I recall only a few of the
specific tales, taking away a more general picture of those distant hard
times, which I didn’t then relate to.You know, the stories about long paper delivery routes and a
child getting up before dawn to pedal his bike around town ... it was stuff my sisters
and I exaggerated for effect, having been well provided for and needing only
to get up in time to catch the bus to school, with lunch in hand.
My dad has never forgotten them, however.I recall how much it affected him when
his own children would waste the resources we had.He was not up against it by the time we were growing up,
having gotten a good education on the GI Bill.He was able to become an accountant after coming home from Japan and the
post-WWII occupation there.He was the first in his family to move up into the middle class.But he remembered what it was like as a
child to need everything his family had to get by. He also took into adulthood a belief in political service to his community, a legacy of growing up under FDR.
My dad is older now and not in as good health as he used
to be before a heart attack robbed him of his short-term memory a few years back.But he still remembers what the
Depression was like and he still believes in being frugal with what he’s
got.It’s a trait I hope I gleaned
enough of from him to help me in the coming year—or years— of these times
Documentary production has always been an endeavor delivering
not much of a paycheck, but now I think its also become work that’s more
critical to do.We need to tell the stories
of those who otherwise wouldn’t make it onto our big and little screens, so I’m
digging in and we’re going to keep at it.We’ll be making a lot of other kinds of media as well, I’m
sure, but that’s a good thing … as long as it helps us to grow creatively and
allows us the means to focus on our main mission.
Like my father was as a younger man, I’ll also be grateful
for a government that helps make it possible for us to survive these
times.I hope we’ll do it with decent
healthcare for all and public jobs that build up our infrastructure, our
educational system, and our conversion to a greener economy.More importantly, I hope our politics
brings us together to realize that our fates are intertwined, that what makes my neighbor stronger also makes it possible for me to get by a little more easily.
Journalist A.C. Thompson has uncovered troubling evidence
of militia killings in New Orleans’ overwhelmingly white Algiers Point
neighborhood during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as a three-year
stonewall of official silence since then, during which no investigations were undertaken
into eleven shootings there.The message Thompson found was clear: the New Orleans Police Department wasn't—and isn’t— prepared to hold residents of
that community responsible for violence during the period, because it views
all actions taken to “protect” their neighborhood to have been presumptively
Even members of the armed band of 15-30 Algiers Point
residents who shot African American men for daring to walk from the flooded
areas of the city into their neighborhood are surprised that only journalist Thompson has
been asking questions about the killings. One of the militia group expected more scrutiny himself by police, telling Thompson, "Aside from you, no
one's come around asking questions about this." "I'm
surprised," he continued, "If that was my son, I'd want to know who shot him."
Thompson’s lengthy piece, Katrina's Hidden Race War, appears in the December 17 issue
of the Nation Magazine.It should
be followed up on by the incoming Justice Department’s
Civil Rights Division.If there will be no official local investigation of these apparent homicides, many of which seem to have been committed without the slightest provocation, except for the appearance of a
black face in a frightened white community, it is the obligation of federal
officials to step in.
more information on the Algiers Point killings, see Thompson’s Nationarticle,
journalist Rebecca Solnit’s blog post at TomDispatch.com, anaudio interview
with Solnit at TomDispatch’s media site, Amy Goodman’s 2005interview with
resident Malik Rahim, the documentary, “Welcome to New Orleans,” and an
interview with militia shooting victim Donnell Herrington in Sam Pollard and
Spike Lee’s, HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke.”)
Algiers Point militia, Algiers Point murders, Algiers Point vigilantes , Amy Goodman, Amy Goodman Katrina, Democracy Now, Donnell Herrington, Malik Rahim, Nation Magazine, Rebecca Solnit, Tom Englehardt, TomDispatch, TomDispatch.com, Tomgram, Welcome to New Orleans, When the Levees Broke
I’m back to the blog, after a refreshing post-election break.
American Radio Works is running an interesting program by Chris Farrell and Laurie Stern called, After the Projects. It’s a look at the movement in Chicago (and other cities across the country) away from isolated public housing developments in high-poverty areas and towards mixed-income housing and Section 8 vouchers as ways to house poor residents. The program takes listeners into a new mixed-income development and addresses the uncertain progress it’s making to improve the lives of residents of former high-rise projects on Chicago’s South and West Sides.
Listening to After the Projects, it’s clear that more support and innnovation is needed to create opportunities for public housing residents. There are many combinations of issues to address around finding employment, getting job training, and education. Many market rate residents resent assisted tenants and outreach between the groups is not apparently strong. There may be architectural issues that need to be refined. More experiments combining housing programs and social services, employing different strategies for success and choices for residents between programs will be necessary. The radio program doesn’t have the answers, but it does raise worthwhile questions.
I’ll be heading out to the University of Chicago this Wednesday, November for a Brick by Brick documentary screening and discussion sponsored by Campus Progress and the Organization of Black Students, focused on housing issues. I’ll be joined by Bernie Kleina, executive director of the HOPE Fair Housing Center. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Chicago’s public housing since the Gautreaux case, which started a national movement to replace high-rises through the experience of court-ordered program that moved families out of large developments to low-poverty areas around the city’s metropolitan housing market. Mr. Kleina will doubtless have a wealth of experience to share on fair housing generally.
Since funding for housing assistance has dwindled under the present administration, progress made in addressing poverty and highly segregated housing patterns has also slowed dramatically. Adding to the problem, enforcement of existing fair housing laws has languished on a federal level. Hopefully, more attention and enforcement will be forthcoming under the leadership of the next President.
After the Projects, Brick by Brick, Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, Campus Progress, Center for American Progress, Chris Farrell and Laurie Stern, civil rights Obama, documentary, documentary, Gautreaux, Organization of Black Students, Organization of Black Students, public housing, radio, Section 8, social issue documentary, University of Chicago
“Boogie Man,” playing in New York and Washington and opening
this month in theaters around the country, is a documentary well timed to
satisfy political junkies this election season. The film profiles the
progenitor of contemporary Republican attack politics, Lee Atwater.Director Stefan Forbes tells an
entertaining tale of the campaigner’s life that mixes back-stories, personal
grudges, Shakespearean tragedy, and pop commentary with a breezy biography of
Atwater’s short, pithy, con-job of a career.
The film is a bit light on Atwater’s personal life, but
drills deep into his career.While
it covers the campaigns and conflicts of the consultant’s rise to power, it’s
somewhat less satisfying for not answering the psychological why’s of Atwater’s
life.The haunting inner questions
about a political operator whose main contribution to American life was
perfecting the media smear are left hanging.
The film does take us towards an early household tragedy as
a possible explanation for Atwater’s killer instinct, but then veers away from
his family life altogether.Perhaps the kind of access to responsibly answer such questions wasn’t
available, or perhaps we don’t always know what makes for the kind of
insecurity that leaves a man willing to do anything to please and win for his
Portraying the outward Atwater as a tough and successful
campaign manager, the film takes viewers into the blood sport of South Carolina
politics where he started out, long before becoming George H. W. Bush’s
campaign manager, the ‘creator’ of the infamous criminal, Willie Horton, or
mentor and sidekick to a young George W. Bush.As a high school kid, Atwater apparently first discovered
the joy of manipulating politics from behind the scenes by managing the
successful campaign of a fictional school candidate.The rest, it seems, would only change in scale, not in
In an ironic twist, Forbes also points out that Atwater’s
second great passion, playing blues guitar, might have taken him in a radically
different direction in life.The
protagonist himself tells a journalist in one clip, wryly, “Yeah, I could have
been playing clubs, making, what, $60 a night?” Interestingly, Atwater’s
musical pals appear to have found him far more congenial and loyal than his
political colleagues ever did, never taking their friend’s day job as seriously
as he himself was driven to.This
musical genre and theme makes for a pleasant score to the film as well.The documentary’s track is almost
“Boogie Man” has to contend with the necessity of
retrospective interviews as its spine, having been made well after the
subject’s death, but Forbes peppers them with news clips, culled from political
campaigns, as well as little-known speeches and behind-the-scenes finds.One fascinating archival clip pairs a
young, callow George W. Bush, introducing Atwater, sounding like a combination
of best friend and class superior, an eerie foreshadowing of today’s
Most of the subjects interviewed comment on Atwater’s
ruthlessness.One exception to the
wary friends and enemies is Mary Matalin, who admired the late strategist as
“an intellectual” (albeit in the same breath she bestows that moniker on our
current President as well).The
rest of his colleagues point mainly to Lee’s manic work ethic, his deft
political sleight of hand, and his to willingness to climb over a dead
corpse—or to create one—in order to win the next battle.
Atwater’s political victims play major roles in Forbes’
film, including his first opponent and his most famous target, as well as his
mentor, Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins. Rollins is an able and frequent
source, having been both employer and road kill for the star pupil who usurped
him.Others, such as Former South
Carolina Representative Tom Turnipseed and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee
Michael Dukakis, tell their Atwater tales with the reserve of men who still
carry the scars of their undoing. Turnipseed manages a laugh about being
described as having been “hooked up to jumper cables” by Atwater, who
publicized Turnipseed’s college bouts with depression and shock therapy during
a brutal congressional campaign.His expression, however, reinforces his caveat that it wasn’t always
funny to have been the subject of derision and public humiliation.
There seems a sort of psychotic distance between the smearing and destroying Atwater did for his clients and the lighthearted man his boyhood mates and musical buddies portray. The film doesn’t really resolve this dichotomy, but leaves the audience to wonder about the public deeds and a private life unreconciled.
Perhaps the most important service “Boogie Man” provides is its insight into the genesis of contemporary Republican attack politics. Setting up Atwater as the original puppeteer, who trained Karl Rove and brought up young George Bush, before succumbing himself to a brain tumor at 40, Forbes lays out the way his subject successfully stripped away previous boundaries: the personal lives of candidates, racial prejudice as a rapier, and the use of unwitting media to spread untruths through repetition. The film hits at the core of an all-too-current brand of wedge-and-smear politics by unpacking the career of its unchallenged creator from the inside out. It’s worth the price of admission for that lesson alone.
Paul Newman has died after a long struggle with cancer. The Vice-Chairman of the Newman's Own Foundation issued this statement:
"Paul Newman's craft was acting. His passion was racing. His love was his family and friends. And his heart and soul were dedicated to helping make the world a better place for all.
"Paul had an abiding belief in the role that luck plays in one's life, and its randomness. He was quick to acknowledge the good fortune he had in his own life, beginning with being born in America, and was acutely aware of how unlucky so many others were. True to his character, he quietly devoted himself to helping offset this imbalance.
"An exceptional example is the legacy of Newman's Own. What started as something of a joke in the basement of his home, turned into a highly-respected, multi-million dollar a year food company. And true to form, he shared this good fortune by donating all the profits and royalties he earned to thousands of charities around the world, a total which now exceeds $250 million.
"While his philanthropic interests and donations were wide-ranging, he was especially committed to the thousands of children with life-threatening conditions served by the Hole in the Wall Camps, which he helped start over 20 years ago. He saw the Camps as places where kids could escape the fear, pain and isolation of their conditions, kick back, and raise a little hell. Today, there are 11 Camps around the world, with additional programs in Africa and Vietnam. Through the Camps, well over 135,000 children have had the chance to experience what childhood was meant to be.
"In Paul's words: "I wanted to acknowledge luck; the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others, who might not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it."
"Paul took advantage of what life offered him, and while personally reluctant to acknowledge that he was doing anything special, he forever changed the lives of many with his generosity, humor, and humanness. His legacy lives on in the charities he supported and the Hole in the Wall Camps, for which he cared so much.
"We will miss our friend Paul Newman, but are lucky ourselves to have known such a remarkable person."