Right to Life

An essay I recently submitted for a scholarship:

Life. Wonderful, unpredictable, priceless. Yet what if a life has become little more than the difficult passing of air in and out of lungs, with no hope for recovery, for a future, or for playing with grandchildren in the yard? What then? Call it what you will, but I believe that a human being has every right to decide that his or her life is no longer worth living, and then to make every attempt to end it. Yet simply because each and every one of us has the right to make himself blissfully dead, does not mean that those who continue living are compelled to assist their efforts, or even to stand idly by. Where is it written that we must respect the wishes of those who believe their time has come? The problem with the right to die movement, then, is not with the wishes of the patient but with the presumed complicity of caregivers and loved ones.

In Jonathan Moreno’s Arguing Euthanasia, the well-reasoned arguments of several reputable American doctors and experts provide the reader with arguments for, but mostly against, the right of an individual to take his own life. The majority finds recent doctor-assisted suicides abhorrent, but the debate is rendered most elegantly by University of Chicago’s Dr. Leon Kass, who is concerned about the growing societal push for a right to die. What originally stemmed from our inalienable right to happiness in the landmark Oregon decision of November 1994, which first legalized assisted suicide, has become something more pervasive, even insidious. “From my right to die will follow your duty to assist me in dying,” the received wisdom goes, and Kass is rightly appalled.

Indeed, the progression is antithetical to humanity as we know it, which is based on the survival instinct, not only for ourselves but also for others. Speaking as both a doctor a human being, Kass acknowledges “the public duty to protect life against those who would threaten it... [and] a duty to prolong life whenever possible, regardless of the conditions of that life or the wishes of its bearer.” Every human being with a conscience can understand and appreciate such duties.

I believe that this life is all we are granted, that with my last breath I will experience my last moment of consciousness. Then nothing, darkness, the end. Thus, even if my mother, wife, or child begged me to pull the plug on their flickering humanity, I would hesitate to oblige. Many may disagree with my decision, but considering the vast chasm between here and there, between life and death, there must be room for hope. Speaking from experience, convicted murderer Doris Ann Foster said, “death row is a state of mind.” If Foster is right, perhaps the minds of those who have condemned themselves to the gallows can still be swayed. Indeed, a gesture of hope from the living might be the spark that re-ignites the flame of life in the heart, and mind, of the dying.


U.S. and China

Speaking in Kyoto, Japan, on the first stop of his November swing through Asia, President George W. Bush was hopeful about democracy in the world’s emerging superpower. “As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed.” Don’t be so sure, Mr. President.

The news from the People’s Republic is that the ruling Communist Party has of late been stifling its citizenry with vigorous repression. In March, the party asserted its authority over rural elections after locals’ attempts to replace the director of a village committee led to a police raid in which farmers were blasted with water hoses. Dissidents are being hounded like never before: Ding Zilin, a retired university professor who has fought for a government apology as one of the Tiananmen Mothers, said, “I can’t even go and get groceries without them following me and harassing me. Neither Deng Xiaoping nor Jiang Zemin treated me as badly;” closer monitoring of online news and commentary postings has led to the imprisonment of over 60 Chinese nationals and recently prodded Reporters Without Borders to dub China “The World Champion” of Internet censorship. And when Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing in November, Hu had resolved none of the twenty-five human rights cases on a list Bush had given him two months prior.

Bush’s tiptoeing around the white elephant of greater democratic reform at the Beijing summit—while Hu quarantined dissidents and gave lip service to concerns over intellectual property rights and currency revaluation—was indicative of the changing tenor of Sino-American relations. Combine China’s economic juggernaut with its recent crackdown on free speech and democratic freedoms, and the U.S. has reason for concern. Yet the problems don’t end there. Consider this rebuff from the opening lines of China’s first white paper on democracy, released in October:

“Democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilization of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world. Democracy of a country is generated internally, not imposed by external forces.”

And then stir in the findings of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs, who in the September/October Foreign Affairs smartly detail how “economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes.” Finally, add Hu’s integrationist stance—he recently said that China’s rise “will only do good to peace, stability, and prosperity in the world”—and it is clear that the Bush administration faces a new policy paradigm in regards to the Big Red One.

The U.S. is partially to blame for China’s rapid maturity, with its long-explicit support of China’s integration into global markets and the World Trade Organization and an annual Chinese trade deficit approaching $200 billion. As continuing difficulties in Iraq and sinking domestic confidence whittle the pedestal of American diplomacy to a stump, the U.S. should rein in hope for a democratic China. In the short term, Bush would be wise to keep his freedom rhetoric buttoned up, curb his neo-conservative tendencies, and attend to putting his own democratic house in order.


Good Night, Gallant Knight

Speaking at an awards ceremony in 1958, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow commented on the state of television by imagining historians one hundred years hence poring over primetime programming from his day: “They will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live…and only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. This process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants.”

The cultural critic Neil Postman not only echoed and furthered Murrow’s concerns in his landmark 1985 jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, but also commented on them precisely if indirectly. “The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public’s indifference,” Postman wrote. “There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much, or cares.” All of which is the disheartening subtext of George Clooney’s sharp second feature, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

On the surface we have a sleek and inspiring tale of one brave reporter and his news show standing up to the political tidal wave that was Joseph McCarthy’s communist purge. Clooney’s father toiled as an itinerant Midwestern anchorman for decades, and there is little doubt that the director has great affection for his subject. Shot lovingly in black and white, the film evokes a more innocent era—the smooth jazz and bittersweet gospel, the dark suits and wide ties, the ubiquitous cigarettes—the better to foster an aura of Soviet paranoia, abetted by the ghoulish visage of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, human shorthand for overwrought witch hunts.

We first see him in 1953 newsreel footage, red-faced and punching his hands through the air in front of him as a curl of inky hair waves from his pasty forehead. The specter of Communism is on the march, McCarthy warns, or something to that affect, and one notes how the intervening years have lent the junior senator from Wisconsin both a quixotic hopelessness and, perversely, a power he never wielded in life. He is a repellent figure, an opportunist and jowly bulldog, yet also a man who defined a time and an aura of paranoia that struck at the very roots of our civilization. A Trojan horse of sorts, McCarthy rolled into the anxious post-WWII political moment as a likable, straight-shooting country boy and war hero, then mined political gold with a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, in which he famously claimed to have in his possession a list of some 57 known communists working in the U.S. State Department. The American public pricked up its ears, McCarthy remade himself as the grand accusator, and politicians and the media soon embraced the fear he engendered.

Then Murrow stepped into the breach. Heroic in his own right as a result of brave reporting from the firebombing of London, Murrow, with an appealing face and dulcet tones, was by 1953 a bonified TV star. With cigarette in hand and hair pomaded just so, Murrow made the country feel intelligent and cultured with “See It Now” and kowtowed to more basic instincts discussing trivialities with celebrities on the more popular “Person to Person.” He and producer pal Fred Friendly attacked McCarthyism in a late 1953 “See It Now” story about Airman Milo Radulovich, a reserve weatherman dishonorably discharged after the Air Force painted his immigrant father as a Communist. In the film, two U.S. Armed Forces officials visited Friendly just before the Radulovich episode aired. “These are dangerous waters you are attempting to navigate,” Colonel Jenkins warned the producer.

Indeed, the story, which initiated a backlash against McCarthy, angled the “See It Now” boat towards not only the shark-infested waters of the U.S. political machine but the craggy shoals of serious television as well. After a March 1954 episode solely dedicated to deconstructing the bearish and dubious actions and words of McCarthy—a half-hour chunk of television journalism many consider the finest ever—Murrow and Friendly were called into the office of CBS’ president William Paley. Because of poor ratings and frightened sponsors, Paley moved “See It Now” to the netherworld of Sunday afternoon, where it could offend as it liked because no one would notice. The fluff of “Person to Person” had always won better ratings, and now it took pride of place. In 1955, “See It Now,” a landmark news show and four-time Emmy winner, lost its regular weekly spot.

Appearing on “See It Now” to defend himself in April 1954, McCarthy slung dubious accusations and lurid insults at Murrow: “he is a symbol, a leader of the jackal pack, a communist supporter since 1934,” ad infinitum. The appearance did him little good. By the end of the film McCarthy is indicted and his reign of terror ended—at one point we see attorney Joseph Welch posing the immortal questions to McCarthy regarding his decency and shame, at long last—and Murrow and Friendly are rightly lauded.

Yet the obvious lesson is that television brooks no dissent, not of its own M.O., at least; what goes on the tube must be Aldous Huxley’s soma, mindless and soothing, or face banishment. To see the indignity of Murrow distractedly quizzing Liberace about the singer’s marital plans is to witness the destructive power of television, effortlessly muzzling the reporting drive of such a determined and headstrong man. Murrow appeared bowed if unbroken at the Radio-Television News Directors Assocation ceremony, which bookends Clooney’s film, when he damned the entire television industry, himself included. “We shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced.”

One of the first conservatives to speak out against McCarthy in the 1950’s was the historian and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Peter Vierick, who spoke recently of man’s responsibility in the world. “I can think of nothing more gallant, even though again and again we fail, than attempting to get at the facts; attempting to tell things as they really are.” Clooney’s film presents Murrow as a truth seeker and an impressively gallant figure. He uses television to unmask and defeat McCarthy, a great American fraud; he is journalist as knight. But television brings him low in the end, and when finally the story prods us to look around for gallantry today, we are left wanting.


Fear Trumps Freedom

There is no room for freedom at Ground Zero. Or at least that’s the message from Governor George Pataki’s September 30 eviction of the International Freedom Center from the World Trade Center memorial museum.

Prodded by controversy incited by the families of 9/11 victims, who felt that the center would denigrate the sanctity of the memorial space, Pataki caved under political pressure and pulled the plug on a cultural institution that just one year earlier he envisioned providing “vibrant content…on the inalienable rights of humanity.” Back then, the idea of a bold forum for freedom of expression was widely embraced as representative of the mission of the various organizations working to rebuild the site, including the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the WTC Memorial Foundation, which includes prominent cultural figures, financiers, and some 9/11 kin, and even the 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America.

Until, that is, WTC Memorial Foundation board member Debra Burlingame responded to a proposed exhibition of the Freedom Center, an historical tour of the struggle for freedom that would include the Third Reich’s Final Solution and pictures of the torture of Iraqi soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. In a June Wall Street Journal editorial, Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, died piloting the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, politicized the proceedings by presenting a list of left-leaning IFC patrons, calling the center “a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world,” and claiming that “Ground Zero has been stolen, right from under our noses.” A firestorm erupted, with the 9/11 families rallying for eviction and more sober voices calling for discussion. Barbara Walters resigned from the WTC Memorial Foundation directors’ board in the tempest. Editorials cried foul along party lines. Finally Pataki, speaking mere hours before a scheduled public forum on the IFC crisis, ended all speculation with a late September eviction.

It is not so much the eviction that vexes, regardless of one’s opinion on the appropriateness of the site, it was the pre-emptive directive delivered as from on high. If the International Freedom Center, which, let’s admit it, was likely to encounter controversy in the future, had been 86’d after lengthy and well-reasoned discussion, then so be it. But this was practically despotic.

Days later the LMDC board of directors held a press conference to vent their frustration to Pataki, saying they had no power to make decisions, that the pre-emptive eviction was “fundamentally wrong,” and that the “LMDC has been deeply wounded here.” Fed up with their sudden impotence, not to mention the rabble-rousing Burlingame, Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA, and Henry Kravits, investment banker and arts patron, resigned from the WTC Memorial Foundation board soon after.

There is no question that the decision-making process has been impeded and that freedom, which should be fundamental to Ground Zero institutions, is losing ground. The LMDC website displays a WTC memorial mission statement that, after pleas to appropriately honor and remember the heroes and victims, calls for a memorial that will “reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.” (The mission statement can be read here: http://www.renewnyc.com/Memorial/memmission.asp.) Yet with a McCarthyesque accusation of anti-Americanism the political ground beneath Ground Zero shifted, hatred reared its ugly head, and freedom lost out to intolerance.

Somebody should stand up to the politically unstoppable families of 9/11 victims, if only to lend balance to the battle. Sure, these mourners deserve to grieve and to be respected with a memorial that appropriately honors their lost loved ones, but they certainly have not earned final approval for the entire 6.5 acre memorial quadrant. And pulling out the trump card of political bias in a country at war—Burlingame’s editorial began with Marines returned from Iraq paying a visit to Ground Zero—is in very poor taste. [Perhaps it will be Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who last week committed to a bigger role in the rebuilding, who will halt their advance. He is nominally Republican, so is likely to be accepted as one of their own, and during this mayoral campaign would undoubtedly want to be seen as a mayor who gets things done. But Bloomberg will never be seriously threatened by his opponent, Fernando Ferrero, and is therefore unlikely to take a risky stance against the 9/11 kin.] New York Press called this bereaved faction “our own, homegrown mullahs,” and indeed their constant politicizing of anything to do with Ground Zero and September 11 brings to mind the closed-mindedness of religious fundamentalists.

Think back to September, 2001, when the Bush administration turned its attention to Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban as the most obvious culprit of the attacks on New York and Washington, primarily for their hiding of Osama bin Laden and direct support for Al Qaeda. U.S. forces quickly attacked and ousted the Taliban, but not before they made their mark by blowing the world’s two largest Buddha statues, in Bamiyan, to kingdom come earlier that year. UNESCO-designated heritage sites, the statues were cultural landmarks, and their destruction was widely mourned.

With the eviction of the Freedom Center, Pataki, Burlingame, and others have now displayed a similar state-sanctioned intolerance. Both sites were meant to represent defining qualities of our respective cultures and identities, and both lost out to prevailing political winds. Four years after 9/11 it is disheartening to find the anti-freedom ethos of our attackers and their patrons taking root where it struck, here on American soil.


Cronenburg Finds His Groove

A brilliant, visceral exhibition of potential and kinetic aggression, David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” alternatively creeps and explodes across the screen. In finally realizing his vast filmmaking promise, the idiosyncratic director employs the most common locations—a nondescript small town, a diner, a front yard, an office, a staircase—to create a Western of exurbia that presents American brutality as horrible, gory, sexy, fearsome, and unforgettable.

As the story opens, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has the perfect life: He makes a good living running the local diner; dotes on a teenage son, Jack (Eliot Holmes) and a young daughter, Sarah (Heidi Hayees); and is doted on by his gorgeous wife (Maria Bello). Their serenity is broken when two killers on the run attempt to rob Stall’s diner, prodding him into an instinctive and brutal response that serves as the film’s inciting incident.

The wraithlife form of Dan Fogarty, a Philadelphia mob boss played with creepy understatement by Ed Harris, blows into Stall’s restaurant the following day, bringing with him two goons and an aura of trouble past and yet to come. Fogarty believes Stall is Joey Cusack, a long-disappeared Philly hood who disfigured Fogarty’s face years prior, and he intends to shake the everyman proprietor into remembering, and perhaps suffering vengeance for, Cusack’s violent history. Thus the film builds towards the inevitable breaking point, as Stall’s immovable object dances around a date with Fogarty’s unstoppable force.

Cronenburg manipulates the tone and pacing to create unpredictable and dangerous surf. Flipping between well-wrought scenes of terse dialogue, which predominate the film and generate great psychological and physical tension, and several lightning-quick sequences of disturbing violence, the director establishes a routine in which the anxiety crests almost imperceptibly toward a bursting whitecap. When the explosive releases finally do hit, they wash over in the blink of an eye, leaving the audience wet but unsatisfied. Yet these incidents, brutal and gruesome candy-coated entertainments, seem both frighteningly real and laughably cartoonish at the same time. Cronenburg knows exactly what the audience wants, yet knows to make us wait for it, and wait some more, and then, finally, deliver all the cinematic mayhem we could ever dream of in a flash, before yanking it away to start the cycle anew.

The cast is uniformly impressive, with Mortensen pitch-perfect as a watchful guard dog one would happily take home to mom. Ed Harris and William Hurt, who appears late in the film in a small, voluble role, chew the scenery without going overboard. But it is Maria Bello, playing a woman coming apart at the seams as she comes to terms with the husband she never knew, who grounds the film with a strong emotional center. Edie is that rare and wondrous beast, a strong second-fiddle wife in a film focused squarely on machismo. She asserts her own marital aggression early on in a cheerleader sex fantasy, and during an intensely passionate and violent coupling on hard wooden stairs, Bello meets her man halfway, even as her post-coital disgust reveals a vast inner pride. A final acquiescence dims neither the strength of her character nor the force of her performance.

Based on a comic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke, Josh Olson’s screenplay does an excellent job of getting out of the way of the characters and the story. An unmistakable allegory of America, “A History of Violence” could very easily have slipped into philosophical rhapsodizing or bathos laden self-importance, but Olson steers clear of grand pronouncements, presenting a single, well-drawn, and not so unique family that happens to be caught in a vice.

The movie does not end as much as draw a curtain on the Stall clan, who are undoubtedly headed toward more choppy seas. Cronenburg, after stretching our concept of reality throughout, returns in closing to life’s two constants: hope and fear. They mingle in the characters’ eyes, linger over the closing credits, and settle in the hearts of viewers contemplating their own survival.


Zombie Diplomacy

“Are they slow-moving, chief?” a reporter asks the local sheriff early in George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, “Night of the Living Dead.” “Yeah, they’re dead,” the sheriff responds. “They’re all messed up.”

Although both the United Nations and prominent Bush administration officials may be somewhat despoiled and prone to strained lumbering, the two diverge from Romero’s zombies in regards to two key characteristics. They are not literally dead, and, if you are poor and in trouble, they may not be coming for you either.

Two weeks after the disastrously sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, the President again put one in mind of the undead last week as he spoke before an unprecedented gathering of world leaders at the United Nations in New York. Secretary General Kofi Annan convened the Millennial Summit 2005 not only to revive commitment to the millennium development goals, the most prominent of which is halving world poverty by 2015, but also to propel UN reform. A UN report released just prior to the gathering urged world leaders to aggressive action, warning of “a heavily sign-posted and easily avoidable development failure.” Instead, the most powerful man in the world instructed the assembled 153 heads of state in the finer points of non-committal, UN-style rhetoric.

"We are committed to the Millennium Development Goals,” Bush claimed at one point, perhaps forgetting that his hand-picked UN ambassador, John Bolton, had attempted to expunge any explicit mention of these objectives from a revised UN declaration Bolton had submitted just two weeks prior. As an introduction to his Secretariat colleagues the new ambassador made some 750 changes and amendments to the document UN delegates and administrators had been hammering out since 2000.

“As if he had been sleeping for five years,” said University of South Carolina international relations professor Roger Coate, co-author of The United Nations and Changing World Politics, “Mr. Bolton injected a high-level of politicization into the entire consensual process.” A Times editorial extended these sentiments, arguing that the US “bears a disproportionate share” of the failure of the summit meeting .

“There can be no safety in looking away or seeking the quiet life by ignoring the hardship and oppression of others,” the President argued, not in reference to Katrina or to the world’s poor, but to terrorist threats. Yet this is precisely why the UN has pushed so hard for these millennium goals: out of concern for the world’s 2.5 billion still living on $2 day or less, vulnerable not only to biblical floods ala Katrina, but to the ravages of famine, war, and neglect.

Try as it might, however, the listing UN could never single-handedly eradicate poverty in one fell swoop, especially considering its wobbly state. In the last year alone it has suffered through the respectability-draining oil-for-food scandal and failed attempts to streamline its bloated bureaucracy and institute a merit-based approach to hiring and promotion. In recent Times editorials, James Traub and Nader Mousavizadeh both saw the UN as outdated and argued, like Bolton before them, that the Secretariat should be blown up, essentially. Sure, the UN has its faults—from cronyism to corruption to Kafkaesque bureaucracy—but it’s not yet time to put it out of its misery. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: the United Nations is the worst form of international organization, except for all the others.

To wit, the UN assays its central mandate, moving the world towards international peace and security, in two ways. The first is via direct intervention and peace maintenance, which represent after-the-fact band-aid solutions and can often be bumbled (see Rwanda). The other involves hacking at the underlying social and economic roots of extremism and armed conflict via its various stand-alone agencies, which include the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, and the UN Development Program. These are the very agencies that receive and manage the millennial development monies and have consistently been the organization’s most successful post-Cold War appendages.

Last week’s summit, then, represented both a great diplomatic and a great humanitarian opportunity for the Bush administration. With the majority of world leaders gathered to make progress on poverty and reform, the General Assembly should have been an international relations candy store for the US, especially considering its standing as the primary contributor to the UN’s operating budget. Yet Bush employed zombie diplomacy, ignoring the recommendations of what, for better or worse, is the world’s foremost international body, thus enfeebling both.

Yes, the UN is in need of reform, and at this summit meeting it failed on that count. But Kofi Annan and forward-thinking delegates will continue to push for these vital improvements in the months and years to come. More fundamental to the future of both the United Nations and the world’s poor, however, is the simple decision facing the world’s most powerful nation. The Bush administration can either commit itself to achieving the millennium development goals, thus reasserting UN utility, or continue to sleepwalk as humanity smacks into another avoidable catastrophe.


The Long and Winding Road

Undoubtedly the most ambitious musical project undertaken since Harry Smith endeavored to record the history of American folk music fifty years ago, folksinger-instrumentalist Sufjan Stevens’ grand plan to lay down an album for each of the 50 states reaches full flower with his second in the series, the lush, vibrant, and uncategorizable “Come on Feel the Illinoise.”

His fifth album since going solo in 1999, “Illinois” follows up last year’s quiet “Seven Swans,” which was a departure from the states series that began in 2000 with “Michigan,” about Stevens’ home state. Like that album, the 21 tracks of “Illinois” evoke their eponymous state with literate lyrics, but ratchet up the meandering soundscapes. Stevens has again practiced his travel writer’s lyrical craft on a worthy locale, but with this release drifts further from his folk rock roots. The album credits include a string quartet, the Illinoisemaker Choire, various friends singing back-up and blasting horns, and Stevens playing over 15 instruments, including an oboe, a glockenspiel, and “Laura’s rickety accordion,” and it shows.

The tracks, some with titles as long and twisted as a Dylan song, alternate between long and winding tales of historical people and places and short, lush instrumental numbers that break up what might become monotonous in lesser hands. The tale of serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” is detailed and disturbing (“He took off all their clothes for them/He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands/quiet kiss on the mouth.”), while “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd,” honors the first lady who went insane after her husband, Abraham Lincoln, was shot dead next to her at the theatre. “THE BLACK WAR…” serves as the barker’s call to the fantastical festivities, with a slow building of voices and strings and wind instruments that climaxes in triumphant horns and drums; “Welcome to Illinois,” the song practically screams, “the greatest show on Earth.” Stevens steps on the gas with the twirling, swirling “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” which lifts from piano scales to a jazz hands-eliciting bounce of horns and percussion in taking us back to Chicago’s dazzling White City, built for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. “Chicago, the New Age, but what would Frank Lloyd Wright say?”

One shudders to think, but surely even Mr. Wright would blanch at the nightwalkers in “They are Night Zombies!!” The long intro has gotten short shrift in alternative music of late, yet in that track, as well as others, Stevens uses a simple layering technique to brilliant effect: Start with slow, long piano keys, add bass guitar riff, cymbals, and drum beats, top it off with excited strings and a women chanting in fright, and you’ve got yourself a perfect mazelike sound. Stop! For just a second. Now drop some breathy, nervous lyrics and start ratcheting it up again. Repeat. Rinse. Not bad! Now change instruments, lyrics, and performers. Do it again. In “Chicago,” Stevens reaches orgiastic heights employing a similar scheme, with sleigh bells, shakers, and a clarion trumpet call that perfectly compliments the harmonies of the choir.

Some may call Stevens’ lyrics twee or his singing voice precious. A reasonable complaint, but with grandiloquent musical statements like these, the closeness of his voice and the sentimentality of his writing personalize the wild goings-on more than they drift into emo.

Illinois” is an unqualified triumph, with echoes of Beck, Iron & Wine, the Shins, and the psychedelic pop of Athens, Georgia’s Of Montreal, not to mention many artists long gone. Stevens has created an album that is as broad, expansive, and unpredictable as the nation he is only beginning to document. Whether the 27-year-old will live to finish his musical road trip is impossible to know, but this work makes clear that he should certainly make all efforts to do so. Like a road trip in an amorphous roadster with an encyclopedic and musically gifted uncle, “Illinois” takes the time to point out the sites in style.


The Shuttle

I'm all for adventuring into the unknown, and reaching beyond the stars, and terraforming Mars and all, but I'm having a hard time rousing the requisite emotions for this most recent Shuttle outing. I don't mean to say that I do not care for the astronauts or Americans in peril in space, but about the entire trip itself. Since the journey is pricey and obviously very risky -- every day we hear about a new potentially disastrous problem -- why are we doing something we've done before? There's no major breakthrough to be had with this trip, only the reassertion of the Shuttle program's usefulness, which will always be dubious to me, considering the expense involved.

By tomorrow, or the next day, or the next (or the next), the Shuttle and its crew will touch down somewhere in the Mojave Desert, they will emerge from their ship shaken but unstirred, and they will soon be trumpeted as heroes. But for the life of me, I can't figure out what they will have accomplished.

The days of flying into space to prove we can are long gone. Why don't we just skip it, keep our aims more earthly, and accomplish something great. Like alleviating poverty or feeding the hungry.


A Three Game Series

First it was all Spurs for two games, all Ginobili and Duncan, all Tony Parker into the lane -- all the basketball pundits could talk about was the glory of the Spurs. Now, after game 4, they say the Pistons are the toughest team around, an unstoppable force that can pick itself up, dust itself off and proceed to methodically, intelligently, and efficiently whip your ass. But both perspectives go too far.

In truth, it's been all about home court. Games 3 and 4 were just games 1 and 2 reversed; the final score is almost irrelevant. Both games 1 and 3 were tight until late third/early fourth quarter, and then the losing team went into the next game just thinking they had to execute down the stretch, not appreciating what they were in for and basically got rocked in the first half and the game was over -- Spurs led by 17 at the half in game 2, Pistons by 16 last night.

Now we simply have a new series. A 3 game series for all the marbles. And don't forget that the Spurs, whose confidence is unlikely to be shaken even after a 30-point drubbing -- not with timmy and manu and tony -- still have home court. I think game 5 will be something novel and new in this series -- a tight game. We will find out whether the adjustments of Brown have made the big difference, or simply the creature comforts of home. Everybody knows what's at stake, and what to bring. And remember that the pistons play a whole lot better when the pressure's on -- but there's not so much pressure at 2-2. The Pistons MAY come out with the W, but Spurs will definitely go home knowing what they need to do. And they'll get it done.

It says here that the Spurs will still win the series, maybe even in six.

Note: I must admit that my loyalties have been severely twisted around and tested throughout this series. The basketball purist in me leans towards the Pistons, but my emotions are with sleek internationalists on the other side. As the tale unfolds, I find myself switching loyalties every game, every quarter, every big play!

I love both these teams, tell the truth. The great up-and-down-and-passed-around story of Billups. The will power, atheticism, and competitive fire of the greatest white boy since larry, ginobili. The determination and perfection of rip's too-skinny-man's game. The simple joy of watching the incomparable and preternaturally cool Horry go about his business. The wonderful and amazing comeback of McDyess. The glory that is Big Ben. And on and on. But my appreciation for the skinny kid from the Virgin Islands, driven from the pool to the court by Hurricane Hugo 16 yrs ago only to become the self-effacing, stoic, fundamentally seamless Tim Duncan we know today as the best player in the world, ultimately wins out.


Donny's Dodge

My friends and I have been vehemently discussing the whole imbroglio over Amnesty International's dubbing Guantanamo "the gulag of our time," and, whether you're with the right and you find the analogy ludicrously overblown and downright insulting to the 3-6 million dead Soviets or with the left and consider the metaphor perhaps a bit exaggerated but useful for its purposes, either way, we all agree, at least in my small coterie, that something should be done about the damned place. Charge the last 5oo-odd detainees. Free them. Kill them even. OK, not that, but something. For Christ's sake, we sighed, do something Rumsfeld.

And so finally Donald trudged up to a microphone in front of a gaggle of media hounds on Tuesday with what one hoped might be some insightful, efficient, and meaningful plan for the place and its infamous inhabitants. But no, our Secretary of Defense sidestepped any legitimate and pressing concerns, saying simply, "I don't know any place where we have infrastructure that's appropriate for that sizable group of people."

Umm, that's nice, Don. But that doesn't answer the question. What about the detainees? What have they done, exactly? Have they been charged? Will they be tried? Is their treatment being better monitored? Secretary Rumsfeld held his tongue.

At least Republican Senate Chairman Arlen Specter pushed more important issues to the fore during the press conference, citing the "crazy quilt" of the detainee legal code that was confusing the processes.

But Rumsfeld, the one ostensible in charge of the camp, essentially sits on his hands and stays mum on the fate of the prisoners. With bipartisan Washington politicians pushing him to take some action, Donnie lets the clock tick and our foreign image grow ever more questionable, even menacing. Why do we keep this man in office? What has he done for us, at all?


Fried Friedman

As just about anybody who reads knows, columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has a new book out, "The World is Flat," another bestseller, this one about how globalization is "flattening" the world, and a recent review by Matt Taibi in NY Press perfectly summed up the reaction of much of my generation to the latest Friedman screed and its clunky metaphors.

I want to make two things clear before I get into this. First off, if you want to learn about globalization, read something by Jagdish Bhagwati or Paul Krugman or, hell, even Friedman's earlier "Lexus and the Olive Tree." These works have a great deal of insight, relevance, and originality. Secondly, Friedman can often be an excellent and insightful analyst of international affairs, and he is undoubtedly one of the world's most important, impactful columnists, so I don't want to seem to think the man a total fool.

Having said that, "The World is Flat," which argues that new technologies, increased international trade and the proliferation of democracy and open markets have led to a world that is more interconnected and, essentially, smaller. Somehow Friedman, in his endless dunderheadedness, is inspired by an Indian CEO, who tells him how the playing field is levelling, to equate this progression with a flattening. Now, as Taibbi's review mentions and my friends and I have endlessly pointed out, the metaphor is wrong from the get-go. Not only is a flatter world less interconnected and create greater distances between nations and businesses than a round one, but the concept, the image of a flatter world is, in one's mind, so antiquated and outdated as to clank against the pomo concept of advanced globalization and super-duper technologies. It's not only inaccurate, I mean to say, but completely inappropriate. And so those of us who have read Friedman almost religiously over the past decade or so -- and enjoyed and agreed with the majority of his work -- are now embracing the shaudenfriede wholeheartedly.

In the future, my guess is that old Tom with lose the "flat" metaphor toute de suite, and soon thereafter begin to speak of globalism and its effects with considerable insight.


I Dream of Death

Thoroughly enjoyed Frank Rich's Times Op-Ed today on Pope John Paul II and Terri Shiavo media coverage and the developing American Culture of Death. Got me thinking about how I experienced the pontiff's slow demise as it was happening. Full disclosure, I was raised Catholic and I'm a journalist, but I have to admit that by day 3 or 4 of the Pope watch I didn't give a shit. (This slightly undermined my efforts to get the goods when on a related assignment.) The important thing to me became not when the pope died -- because it was certain to happen, and soon, even though Fox's Shepherd Smith has now gotten into some trouble for reporting "the fact" about 24 hours early -- but who he was and what he meant. After he died, the majority of stories (as you well know), addressed not the legacy but the event. "Millions wait in line; some are turned back! Rome copes. Presidents and dignitaries arrive! The media is really blowing this out of proportion," some outlets reported. "The conclave, the conclave -- it's totally secret!" (OK, I admit I kind of like the conclave. It's excellent Broadway musical material.) Anyway, the point is that after wading through all this tripe I had neither the energy nor the determination to ferret out the gleaming nuggets about this historically invaluable man. Even now, I'm still essentially clueless about the former Karol Wojtyla, and I blame the media.

The other thing Rich got me thinking about is the excitement and preparation of these death watches. And then the great vast release of the post-mortem. The pre-death coverage is all masturbatory -- the tension builds, we get fantasy shots of humans in agony, closing in on their ultimate breath -- and the death brings an orgasmic explosion equivalent to the wattage of the celebrity. Witness the nonstop Pope chatter relative to the dead Terri who? More importantly, Americans can now dream a new and improved American dream: Death, it's the new life. If I cannot become a celebrity in real life, to be hounded by reporters and paparazzi, my every moment catalogued and deconstructed and analyzed ad infinitum only to be devoured by the vapid, faceless millions, the new non-thinking will go, perhaps I can still be famous in death, if only for a day or two. I'm not kidding. Just you watch, soon some lucky reporter will come across a suicide note that reads: "I'm truly humbled by all of this attention. For further info, please contact my PR agent at..."



"So it's no surprise that global consumers respond to what they see as U.S. imperialism by shunning brands that trumpet their American provenance. According to a December poll by Global Market Insite (GMI), 50 percent of respondents in Asia and Europe said they mistrust U.S. companies, and 20 percent said they consciously avoid U.S. goods. The poll caps a wealth of anecdotal evidence, including calls by politicians for boycotts and stories of European restaurants turning down U.S. credit cards. "

And it's not just products, says Clay Risen's excellent piece on Brand America in the current issue of New Republic, which clarifies and magnifies an enormous issue for the Bush administration and the US in general. Risen talks specifically about multinationals suffering due to an American image problem abroad, but the subtext is all about the means and ends of American soft power, which has been popping up everywhere of late. In the March/April Foreign Affairs, foreign relations expert Steven Cook talks about the right way to promote Arab reform, and of course there's the UNDP's 2004 Arab Development Report (Executive Summary), which does attack the Bush administration somewhat, but is generally fair. The newest Bush tool, the Millenium Challenge Accounts, which supposedly delivers money to nations who show improvement in key developmental and political areas and most recently approved funding for powerful and so strategically relevant Madagascar, is essentially impotent, having coughed up a measly $110 million since its 2001 inception.

What we have to wonder is when this administration will wake up and realize that it is fanning, not extinguishing, a fire. The US is selling not only Royales with Cheese and Grande Mocha Lattes, but also democracy, and while some seem to be buying with gusto, some are reluctant to dive in, and still others offended. The problem with Bush and the neocon efforts is that their salesman do not use a sweet, seductive sales pitch but the butt of a gun, embargo threats, or other economic sanctions. Marketers for multinationals are able to adapt to anti-Americanism, and have even begun to do just that:

"Pepsi may have taken the new anti-Brand America strategy the furthest: According to The Economist, the soft drink-maker has launched an ad campaign in Bahrain that builds up Coca-Cola as an American brand while positioning itself as the local favorite."

Perhaps what is best about the CEO's and marketing VP's of major multinationals is that they have no policy power, and are thus unable to inspire fear. Here and now I call for a reversal of the strategy the Department of Defense employed to steal Robert McNamara from Ford for its Secretary position. Let's send our best foreign policy officials back into the breach, as heads of international marketing for McDonald's, Starbucks, and the like, and we might soon see understanding break over previously staunch global citizens. Wolfowicz' appointment as World Bank President is probably a step in the right direction.


The New Name of My Blog

Until I find something that I can settle into and live with longterm, the name of my blog will be a rotating series of somewhat random phrases. This current one has been lifted straight from Beck's new album, Track #2, Que Onda Guero, which means, in English, "where are you going, white boy?" Here in my blog the titular question refers primarily to me and to where I might take my thoughts, but also to my neighborhood, Williamsburg, my President, my country, and just about anybody else I choose.

Beck's song, on the other hand, is a funked out, riffed up, bouncy jive take on his own LA adolescence, with bits of Spanish lyrics and satirical shout-outs to Yanni, James Joyce and others. Like "Two Turntables" years ago, it is primed to become THE good times anthem of the Summer of 2005.


Iraqi Prez

Big news today from Iraq, where after two weeks of bickering and infighting the interim leaders finally settled on a President and two Vice Presidents to lead the new government, which will write the Iraqi Constitution. More importantly, the selections include a Kurd, a Shiite, and a Sunni, suggesting that these groups may be able to work together just well enough to stave off civil war. Insh'allah.
The Pulitzer prizes were announced yesterday and my first reaction was in regards to the dearth of awards for what most consider the best U.S. dailies, the NY Times (one prize) and the Washington Post (zero). But then I figured that these awards are bestowed not for general excellence, which these papers clearly produce, but for specific pieces, features, stories, articles, and investigations. And then I wondered whether this is a shortcoming of the Pulitzer prize system of its board -- that the awards do not accurately reflect the best journalistic outlets, merely the best individual pieces (and journalists). So, for instance, one might pick up Willamette Week (investigative prize) or the Star-Ledger (Breaking News) and expect masterful, thorough writing, reporting, and an excellent newspaper overall. Or envision top-notch coverage of geopolitics and international affairs and grab a Newsday (International Reporting). One would be vastly disappointed on all counts.

Does this suggest that the awards process is faulty or the list of prizes is less than comprehensive? Perhaps. But surely Joe Morgenstern of WSJ is a less insightful, referential, and just generally less enjoyable critic than both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the Times, not to mention New Yorker Anthony Lane.


Lost in Locke


Finally, Terry O'Quinn gets some press props in this Sunday's Times for his work as hunter, survivalist, and unpredictable Zen master John Locke on ABC's "Lost." I've been watching this show since Day One and can only think of two television actors who've been equally good in recent years: Ian McShane on HBO's "Deadwood," and James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos."

In a perfect meeting of actor and character, O'Quinn's worn yet available face and intense eyes are perfect for Locke's preternatural calm, anecdotal wisdom, and flinty gravity, which present a character somewhere between Clint Eastwood's drifter and Caine from TV's "Kung Fu." You're not sure what he'll do next, but you definitely want him on your team.

Thanks, Mr. O'Quinn. I'll be watching until they take Locke away from us.

Hirsi Ali, Women and Islam

A story in this week's Times magazine about controversial Somali-born Dutch Parliamentarian Hirsi Ali got me thinking again about global efforts to reform the religion and move it away from strict fundamentalism, which includes the oppression and mistreatment of women and often leads to Salafism, jihad, and, our favorite albatross, terrorism.

The article is essentially a straightforward piece of reporting on Hirsi Ali's life, politics, and handling of death threats, and I think it only touches on the heart of the tale, which is the powerful, compassionate, and fiercely beating heart of its subject. Her steely-eyed stare and ability to smile and charm through a time of torment during a recent "60 Minutes" interview made Hirsi Ali a great deal more enthralling than Christopher Caldwell's piece. Hirsi Ali is a strking woman, in appearance, tone, and words, and to practically ignore this power is to misrepresent the person. The attached picture proves this point.

Also, I would've liked less discussion of Holland and more placement of Ali's thoughts and politics into the international sphere, where they belong. Reading the article I couldn't help thinking about Canada's Irshad Manji, ex-Muslim and author of "The Trouble with Islam." Both have started a firestorm in their homeland and have the Muslim diaspora debating change and modernity and fundamentalism and jihad.

I wonder why I can look across the Western world and find no Muslim men taking a similarly vocal, tough, and transgressive stance. Where is the Martin Luther of Islam? Why have so few Muslim men stood up and attacked their faulty faith? Perhaps because female oppression within Islam -- genital mutilation, male bigamy, lack of social worth, public hiding and shame -- has bred a bolder strain. Suffering is often the midwife to courage and insight, and these two women would seem to be prime examples.

But that seems too simplistic a reason. For Hirsi Ali and Manji are keenly aware of their task, which is less about a clash of civilizations than a bridging of three cleavages: that between Islam and its new home, the West; that between moderate and fundamentalist Muslims; and that between men and women within the faith.

I'm thankful for their courage and their faith in the human capacity for change, but my guess is we will begin to see a real Islamic transformation when prominent Muslim men finally point the finger at their oft-misguided brethren.


My Bulls

nice article by the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith re my favorite nba team and their corralling of wunderkind lebron james and his cleveland cavs last night.

Sam Smith Story

i watched the whole game, and nocioni did some real nice work on lebron. but what smith doesn't mention is the cavs possession just before gordon's pass to chandler, when lebron was isolated against noci with the game tied and the clock ticking down to under 30 seconds. lebron faked right, went baseline, and noci slid over cat-quick. james, surprised to see the white boy there at what he thought was going to be his big moment, stuck out a forearm and gave a smallish shove for some separation. BEEEEP! whistle blows, offensive foul, we're goin the other way. incredible D. but i think if it were michael, or perhaps lebron in five years, they wouldn't have made that call. same thing michael did to byron russell to end finals 7 years ago.

anyway, the most impressive thing about this team is that they are the most nameless, headless, scrapping, intelligent basketball-playing unit i've ever seen. by that i mean there are no stars, no clear-cut leader on the floor, they play with passion and considerable intelligence. and most of all, they play together. their offense is unlike any in the league. they actually cut and move and screen and step out and dump in and whoever finally gets a good look takes it. antonio davis hits a jumper. then pargo. chandler gets a garbage hoop, noci hits a twenty-footer; hinrich draws a foul. maybe it was because curry didn't play, but i honestly don't think there was a first, second, or third option; it was the most egalitarian display of offense i've ever seen. i have yet to look at the box score, but when i do i'll be surprised to find that any one player outscored any other. they seem to exist in a vacuum, or in 1950. nobody has an ego, or an agenda, or a tattoo. they almost never dunk. they discuss strategy like ad-men. and scott skiles, i'm sorry, but the guy was born to coach. he doesn't open his mouth that much because his face is so expressive the players know exactly what he's saying. and he's a great leader. always focused and fierce, never flustered, right there with them in the fight. that they're bringing up other names for coach of the year is ludicrous.


And on the first day

a bird flew into my workspace from the living room this morning, followed immediately by a familiar cat. it bobbed and weaved through the air, threw itself headlong into my two windows several times, then retreated to the relative safety of a closet shelf. i continued working.

an hour later, i opened the top half of my window to what had become a gorgeous spring day and my flighty friend shot through. soon after, i followed her outside. i used the door.