21 February 2008

Theatre Roundup: Argonautika

A few days ago we hit the Shakespeare Theatre for their production of Argonautika, a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts that's lively and inventive. Like many modern productions that are serious but don't take themselves too seriously, the influence of Brecht is occasionally felt, both in the stage props that don't even try to pretend to be anything but props (the models of the Argo are like Spinal Tap's Stonehenge...) and in the direct address to the audience. A particular moment of levity mixed with theme comes through towards the end when Hera and Athena change Medea's dress: Hera comments that the dress has a zipper and is therefore not very historically accurate, after which Athena chastises her for being so literal, telling her that if you're too literal you "miss so much."

As a retelling of one of the classic tales of ancient mythology, you're dealing with an audience that knows most of the story, and playwright and director Mary Zimmerman picks and chooses the episodes she wishes to bring to life, and a good bit of the carnage is toned-down (Medea and Jason don't chop Medea's brother into bits and toss him overboard to dealy Aeetes, for instance).

Try to catch it if you can. You'll love the Argonauts' roll call (and no it's not like MST3K's "Robot Roll Call").

19 February 2008

The Shell Game.

Michelle Rhee has been criticized for doing things behind closed doors, but when the plans get leaked, the administrators trip over themselves in an effort to belittle the plans themselves, as if these were just brainstorming sessions that will have little bearing on the direction of education in the District of Columbia over the next two years before Rhee hands in her resignation.

If I were as clueless as she appears to be, I'd be trying to hide everything, too.

Rhee's latest trick is a variation on the old shell game, except instead of a ball under a shell, we've got the taxpayers' money being moved around to different lines, as the Examiner reports (as an aside, the generally right-wing Examiner does a great job covering DC education gaffes). Rhee proposes cutting the DCPS payroll from $505 million to $168 million. That's a significant chunk of change. I mean, she's proposing dropping $337 million dollars out of payroll. That's two-thirds of the payroll! Amazing.

Oh, wait. Actually, it's not so amazing, because she's also proposing increasing contracts from $170 million to $512 million. So she's adding $342 million to the contract budget. That's a net savings of...oh no...it's not a net savings...it's a net loss of $5 million for DC taxpayers.

But it's a net gain of $342 million for private contractors! Which incidentally is the pool Rhee came out of...and where she has many friends still.

Acting D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles argues that these plans are really nothing more than scrap paper, even though DC government only released them under threat of court order:
“It’s only a base budget. There’s a meeting every week with these guys in green eye shades and you talk about how much more you need,” Nickles said. “I’m not quite sure that the plaintiff parties understand that.”

Actually, Mr. Nickles should understand that the plaintiffs are quite aware of the budget process, since many of them have been intimately involved as watchdogs over the corruption of District government for decades. Relative amateurs like Fenty, Rhee, and Nickles -- with their ham-handed and clumsy efforts at subterfuge -- have consistently been outwitted by these trained noses. The budget may be unfinished, but it's not hard to see that Rhee has fairly drastic plans to transfer loads of money from the District's control to private contractors.

So here we go, with the District, as always, playing gameboard for right-wing and neo-liberal dreams of private contractor utopias, where we can privatize all services because someone in economics 101 talked about competition and free markets.

Unfortunately, those of us in the real world understand that world doesn't exist.

The limit as stupidity approaches infinity...

Fidel Castro officially stepped down this morning as President and Commander-in-chief of the military in Cuba. Castro came to power in 1959, overthrowing the brutal and corrupt (but U.S. friendly Batista regime) and installing a regime that, like most "communist" regimes so far, has failed to live up to its promise -- though to be fair, it took the United States a few hundred years before it decided to adhere (at least in law) to the promise that "all men are created equal."

U.S. foreign policy has been ridiculously pre-occupied with Cuba, with the United States maintaining a long-standing economic embargo in the (failed) hope of choking the people of Cuba to death. Meanwhile, countries like China and Chile (under Pinochet) that commit far greater human rights violations are rewarded with ample U.S. economic interaction...in fact, in the long view of history, you might be able to argue that China won the Cold War, mainly because the U.S. thought it was over when the Soviet Union collapsed...unlike the Soviets, the Chinese understood that to defeat Capitalism, you have to appeal to the Capitalists -- and what's more appealing than a country where the cost of labor (and therefore products) is driven down by slave and prison labor and a lack of pesky safety standards...

Although on a smaller scale than China, Cuba also jails political prisoners and spies on its own citizens, which we all know would never happen in the United States. Agents of our government would never infiltrate domestic organizations and report on the everyday activities of ordinary citizens, or create massive disinformation campaigns, nor would they go around compiling secret files on celebrities and eminent researchers and community activists.

But, anyway, before I get off on a tangent, the main point is that we've maintained an unhealthy obsession with a tiny island nation that seems to be handling itself just fine. Unlike U.S. citizens, EU and Canadians and most other countries can visit Cuba freely, and they do.

Castro steps down in preparation for Cuba's next elections, which like Florida in 2000, have historically been less than free and open. In all likelihood, Raul Castro will succeed his brother, and the U.S. will continue its embargo. In fact, the U.S. has already promised it will continue the embargo, because stupidity has no limits.

Speaking of stupidity having no limits, George Bush said, "The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty." I think he said the same thing about Iraq.

15 February 2008

Feeling the love Friday.

Today I was playing ball with a bunch of undergrads. They were all talking about their upcoming intramural fraternity league games and which fraternity was "a bunch of bitches" and famous people who were members of their fraternity, etc.

I was immediately transported back about twenty years.

I remember at Penn State, the intramural officials wisely separated the fraternity games from the rest of the league, mainly so the humans didn't have to interact with frat members.

14 February 2008


We are perhaps the laziest nation around.

I'm not talking about work ethic. Too many Americans are too caught up in the idea that their identity resides in their occupation, and that's a sad, sad thing. Marx would call it alienation, but you don't have to go to Marx for a critique of that position; you need merely go to Emerson's "The American Scholar":
Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state, these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, — a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Sure you can take issue with Emerson's assumption that there is an unmediated state (an "original unit") of human essence and purity, but his general point that the division of labor creates isolated experiences and "amputation from the trunk" of generalized human experience (even if it is mediated) should be well-taken. We aren't summed up by our occupations.

However, I really wasn't writing about our obsession with job status and the world of work (as witnessed by the eternal DC party question, "So what do you do?"), but about our laziness as a nation that is obsessed with eliminating any amount of physical exertion from our daily lives (yet simultaneously supports multiple physical fitness facilities, sometimes with steep price tags -- I think that involves a consumption thing actually).

Yes, I'm talking about my bĂȘte noir, the automatic door opener.

This clever device was invented to facilitate access for physically disabled individuals, and have a most useful purpose in society to that end. However, almost nothing pisses me off more than to see a non-disabled lazy-ass sloth push on those buttons that are almost always clearly marked with the person in a wheelchair symbol because they're just too damn precious to push the door handle.

12 February 2008

Untimely meditations.

I wonder about the future of literacy.

Democracy assumes both equal access to all and an informed electorate -- for instance, theoretically one should know about the candidates in a given race prior to voting, or be somewhat apprised of the issues of a referendum that might be on the ballot. Obviously, equal access is a bit easier to enforce than informed electorate.

For some strange reason, I feel that literacy is tied to an informed electorate. Maybe I'm being idealistic, but I'd like to think that being able to read Hegel or Emerson or Dewey should be a skill more wide-spread through our society. For one thing, it would knock morons like Thomas Friedman and George Will off the editorial pages, because a populace that could make sense of Emerson's "The American Scholar" (for instance) wouldn't stand for two minutes the sort of mushy thinking those two goons spout.

Literacy isn't simply the ability to read. Most first graders can read words on a page and figure out simple directives like "Employees must wash hands before returning to work." (and here again, literacy doesn't necessarily have anything to do with following those directives...) Literacy involves critical thinking skills because it requires us to make meaning of the words we've read -- an always imperfect task, but one which even Derrida argues is a necessary task.

I suppose much of my worrying is due to the reach of technology into our leisure time: just as recorded music more or less killed family musical recitals as a form of popular entertainment, so too will Guitar Hero, Nintendo DS, and Virtual Worlds kill what little time remains to our thoughts after cable television carved out its chunk.

Am I sounding too Frankfurt School?

Maybe I'm just getting old.

08 February 2008

Welcome to the New Freedom of the Security State!

The past couple of days I've come out of my front door and get this flashback to when I used to play Half-Life fairly regularly. As you made your way through that first-person shoot-em-up, there was the omnipresent sound of helicopters in the air, an ominous signal of the police-state you were fighting against in your little virtual world.

In Adams Morgan, the past two mornings have brought nothing but circling helicopters, and to tell you the truth they have been annoying me. I suppose it's all about the big Conservative ConFab this week at the Omni Shoreham, where President Bush spoke this morning. I suppose they need high security because wrapping yourself in the flag while shredding the Constitution is tricky business.

I took a quick look over the conference agenda, which reads like a who's who of disgraced politicians (Tom DeLay and George Bush) and questionable scholarship (David Horowitz and Dinesh D'Souza) sponsored by such dinosaur-like vestiges of racist ex-politicians as the "Helms School of Government." How proud those graduates must be to be carrying on the legacy of racist segregation.

But it's not all white (and D'Souza) at the CPAC...you've got sessions sponsored by the National Black Republican Association, and both members have promised to attend the conference. Also Niger Innis, of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), will be there. Early on, CORE was an integral part of the Civil Rights movement, working closely with SNCC and the more centrist NAACP, but all that changed when Roy Innis (Niger's father) took over in 1968 and turned CORE into a HUSK. CORE supported Nixon's 1968 election campaign and his 1972 re-election campaign. CORE, which used to have chapters nationwide, is an organization in name only, and it's that name that CPAC capitalizes on, hoping to stave off the obvious accusations that they turn a deaf ear to minority concerns. It's as if Sammy Hagar went on tour with a few family members and billed the show as "Van Halen."

I can only imagine how vile overheard conversations in Woodley Park's restaurants must be this week.

07 February 2008

One World Is Enough for All of Us...

"Virtual reality, the reality that might be said to be perfectly homogenized,
digitized and 'operationalized,' substitutes for the other [the "real" world]
because it is perfect, verifiable and non-contradictory. So, because it is more
'complete,' it is more real than what we have established as simulacrum."
[Baudrillard, Passwords 39]

It's important to understand that for Baudrillard there is no real world, no accessible, verifiable reality in the sense of concrete fact: it's all layered interpretations. But that's not really all that new, since Nietzsche argued similarly way back in the late nineteenth century. So what we've "established as simulacrum" is what most of us call the "real world." However, since it's so built on perception and interpretation, it leaves holes and inconsistencies, and that's where virtual reality comes in to save us -- it has rules programmed straight into it, and those rules don't change. Hence Cube's story of the Sims Reign of Terror.

It's important for the players to know that the game is fair, that the inequalities and indignations of their real lives can be leveled by the program running behind the GUI in their virtual worlds. My avatar can be the right height and weight, even if I'm not. It's like existentialism gone horribly wrong: instead of the despair I'm supposed to feel in being condemned to be free, I seize upon my freedom to remake myself in every aspect -- I'm a suave urbane ladies man with a nice car and well-appointed apartment. Why not?

Are we more like ourselves as we want to be when we're in our Second Life? We already know that the [relative, assumed, and imperfect] anonymity of the internet allows us to be nasty to perfect strangers, perhaps proof nearly a century later of Freud's major thesis in Civilization and Its Discontents that society's real problem is that it's built on a trade-off between freedom and safety that as human organisms we've never fully accepted.

Are we more free in the online world, or does that assumed freedom simply remind us of how constrained we are in our offline lives?

05 February 2008

From the annals of "achilles heels of democracy."

Remember, these are the idiots who foisted GWBush upon us.

Democracy is a good thing, but it is a clunky beast that rambles about a bit on its way toward the greater good, and it's always getting waylaid by ne'er-do-wells and snake oil salesmen, but I'm not exactly keen on the alternatives of monarchy, fascism, strongman dictatorship, or faux-communism as practiced by the former Soviet Union among others.

Still, in a democracy, you do have to put up with the fact that your fellow citizens may be slightly less than well-informed about the decisions they've been empowered to make, right down to trying to vote on the wrong day.

Hope everyone's having a super Tuesday.

04 February 2008

Filmgoing journal: Juno.

Holy crap, I saw a film in a theater. Last time this happened...I can't remember. It could have been Pan's Labyrinth a year ago. This time, we were up in Pennsylvania with my parents to watch the kids, and we had two choices: Juno and Atonement. As it was my birthday, I got to pick, so I flipped a coin, and it turned out Juno.

Without giving anything away to those of you who still want to see the movie, I say go see it. The cast is great, and the movie is refreshingly focused on the girl, Juno, rather than on some pathetic inept "gee isn't it funny when two morons get together" schtick, which is what I imagine Knocked Up to be like. Although, if I had more movie time, I might try to see Knocked Up and think of ways to put those two films (and maybe more...hey audience, how many young adult pregnancy films are out there?) for some sort of course on comedy.

The music is dead on, although for all of Juno's mentioning of Iggy and the Stooges, not a single song from them exists in the movie or on the soundtrack...maybe they had trouble paying as much as Carnival Cruise Lines for the song rights.

You might also be able to put the film into the same category as Grosse Pointe Blank as a latter-day send-up of a John Hughes film. In fact, my wife said as much as we were watching it, saying early on that it was like a "more complex version of a John Hughes film." What makes it very different from GPB, which was clearly a parody of the Hughes formula, is that Juno only nods in the direction of the Hughes plot -- the lead character is a bit of a social outcast, but then so is the object of her affections, and the "third wheel" (usually a pretty but selfish and snobbish type) is hardly that. Additionally, the dialogue is smartly written, with Ellen Page playing a cynical, knowing teenager who still isn't an adult in teen drag: she makes serious mistakes due to her inexperience and puts things in ways that are both earnest and naive.

A great role for Jason Bateman, by the way.