Thursday, March 31, 2011

Picket Lines: Maine Murals

Any lingering suspicion that the anti-union actions of Ohio Governor John Kasich, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or Florida Governor Rick Scott were merely coincidentally simultaneous sops to far-right voters and their anti-government sentiment was dispelled last week when Maine Governor Paul LePage's office announced the removal of a mural of Maine's labor history from the state's Department of Labor. The rights of laborers need to be so anathematized that even depicting the exercise of them becomes publicly offensive.

As with any GOP decision this extreme and senseless, the satirical responses outweigh any credible explanation. Just off the top of one's head, for a party obsessed with pushing the creeping influence of "Shariah Law" as a 2012 talking point, you have to adore the sudden need to remove forbidden graven images of humans in art. Just minutes ago according to the Republican clock, the only people in America hellbent on suppressing art were The Left's fifth-column political-corrections officers — the moral screws from Manhattan and Mecca — who were bending forward and eastward to make sure that artistic representations didn't offend anyone. Somehow this kind of protectionist pandering to interests is more dignified for being about money instead of something so shallow as religion.

But this decision supposedly reflected none of the negativity above. It was fair and balanced, according to Acting Labor Commissioner Laura Boyett (emphasis mine):
We have received feedback that the administration building is not perceived as equally receptive to both businesses and workers — primarily because of the nature of the mural in the lobby and the names of our conference rooms. Whether or not the perception is valid is not really at issue and therefore, not open to debate. If either of our two constituencies perceives that they are not welcome in our administration building and this translates to a belief that their needs will not be heard or met by this department, then it presents a barrier to achieving our mission
(The complaints sent to the LePage administration initially were described as faxes, in dozens of journalistic organs. Only after releasing an alleged complaint fax that looked nothing like a fax did LePage and personnel claim that the complaints they received were letters and counter the fax talk. It doesn't really matter what kind of complaints they were, though, since apparently valid complaints and specious, invalid bullshit must be weighed with equal consideration.)

At first glance, this might seem like reasonable stuff, making sure the Department of Labor doesn't evince an allegiance to any side in the eternal Labor vs. Management debate — that is, until you understand what a Department of Labor is actually for. Take this quick-and-dirty explanation, which admittedly about the federal labor department, but which says that it is
responsible for occupational safety, wage and hour standards, unemployment insurance benefits, re-employment services, and some economic statistics.
In short, those are all things won by labor, at the expense of ownership, through striking and aggressively campaigning for pro-labor legislation. These were not terms born out of Management Zeus' head but rather rights brutally deferred or denied by employers and strikebreakers, demanded and agitated for, for decades, by people with little income or safety nets. These are profound things, and they are all fundamentally labor.

To have these things and ascribe them to anything other than labor requires a personal dictionary where words are whatever you hope they will be when you look them up. You can't have a Department of Labor that is equally about ownership or the investor/developer class, because otherwise it would not be a Department of Labor and would probably be called the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Or the Chamber of Commerce. The Department of Labor's mandate is in its name. Nouns exist.

LePage and Boyett's claims are patently absurd. Business hardly needs pro-business illustrations in the Maine government when it already has the governor and his cabinet. The stuff on the walls of a mansion are irrelevant if the owner already signed you up for direct deposit from his bank accounts. When someone hands you a check, you hardly feel any necessity to take a photo of the exchange and make that person hang it in his home. Doing so doesn't create Super More-Real Bucks.

Consider how nitpickingly comical it would seem if the GOP demanded that federal departments ignore the mandates for their creation and stagily orient themselves to be "equally receptive to both sides" to make sure "that either of the two constituencies are... welcome." Consider a Department of Defense whose mission statement remained "Death Neutral." Or a Department of Transportation that tore down murals of planes, cars, boats and trains to devote thirty expansive and intimidating feet of canvas to "all those folks who just kinda like to stay put." The last thing we should do is affiliate the Department of Education with a first-class public school system. And if the GOP can just de-fund it more, we won't have to worry about that happening again anyway.

The entire gesture is just so callow and petty and mean-spirited. It's not enough to divest unions of their power, crush them with corporate governmental influence and reduce groups of like-minded people to mere individuals less able to pool their meager resources and seek a redress of grievances: now we have to eliminate even their nostalgia. It's as if someone determined to legislatively walk back the ferment of the 1960s also attached a rider to a bill that mandated destroying every extant copy of the Beatles' discography.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Criterion Recollection: A Kurosawa Crime Drama

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

A Question of Air Conditioning: Spine #24, High and Low (1963)

Thanks to the success of films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, many western viewers associate Akira Kurosawa with sword-wielding Samurai riding through feudal Japan. However, one of his finest films is a thoroughly gripping modern drama called High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku, which directly translates as "Heaven and Hell"). Though very loosely based on Ed McBain's King's Ransom, the film bears Kurosawa's inimitable auteur stamp: his ability to take a run-of-the-mill police procedural and transmute it into an existential, socially aware exploration of injustice.

Toshiro Mifune heads up a wonderful cast as Kingo Gondo, an executive director at National Shoes, who, despite having a name better suited for an uncomfortably large marital aid, leads us through the very serious social dilemmas of the film. However, one of Kurosawa's mottos, "a good movie should also be enjoyable to watch," comes to fruition in High and Low, which follows its own theme of amalgamated binaries as both an artistic triumph and a genuine entertainment. In addition to being a dense and heady indictment of social conditions across the world, the film functions on a basic level as an extremely watchable suspense-thriller.

High and Low explores dichotomies: heaven and hell, high and low, rich and poor, good and evil, law and crime. The film itself can be split into two separate sections; the first hour consists of a tight, claustrophobic chamber drama — almost exclusively in a single location, Gondo's living room — shot in long takes. The second section blows up into the police procedural, where the viewer is taken on a tour of "hell": the slums, ghettos and underworld of postwar Japan. The ethical crux of the film occupies the gap between these dichotomies, and at every turn Kurosawa asks how it is that these disparities can exist, and what are the consequences for human beings caught at either pole.

Ransom stories may seem cliché now, but High and Low is extremely clever in its presentation and structure: the fundamental nature of ransom acts as an objective correlative for the dangers of capitalism. In the world of ransom, money and life are interchangeable; we place a fixed, though arbitrary, price on a human being. Because Gondo leads a rich lifestyle and surrounds himself with cutthroat business partners, the line between money and life already blurs in his perspective. Kurosawa and his co-writers pepper the dialogue with zero-sum choices between life and money. Gondo's assistant Kawanishi embodies the modern businessman; he operates without any kind of moral compass, using his own professional success as the only measure of his actions. He says to Gondo, "If you pay [the ransom] it's suicide," and later rationalizes a betrayal to other executives with, "I had to protect myself." The complete conflation between money and life defines these businessmen. Gondo tells Kawanishi that he is "inhuman," and it is this lack of humanity that separates the other businessmen from Gondo, who is held up as an exemplary businessman — an ethical capitalist.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Twitter Ephemera: Hipster Sitcoms

Ever since receiving critical tweet acclaim on THE Huffington Post, I've been thinking about legacy and impact — the kind of twitcorpus I can leave to my children and yours. (And, if I can get really famous, perhaps the last two will be one and the same.)

In the meatspace, this has meant an investment in more than a few new ascots, as well as those fancy drinking glasses that kind of look like small fishbowls but with stems. You know you've hit the bigtime when you're only lifting soda to your face underhanded.

When it comes to saving things online, though, Twitter does kind of a bad job. It's difficult to navigate friends' feeds to find something more than a few weeks old, especially if you can't remember the wording closely enough to perform a search. Older tweets become unavailable, seemingly arbitrarily, past a certain number or time span. Cached Google searches rarely return anything useful.

Unless you know the exact link to a tweet from a year or two ago, chances are you will never see it again. Twitter claims that all back-content still exists and that a partnership with Google will make all archives searchable, but for such a wildly successful website, it's bizarre that they simply can't show you enormous amounts of the basic text that accounts for their sole purpose for being.

Of course, most Twitter content is pretty terrible and forgettable, and I know that applies to much of mine and my friends' as well. But every now and again, as with National Novel Writing Month Opening Lines, a bunch of people get together and riff on a few jokes that might be worth a second glance and a laugh some time later. The origins of both Shark Hitler — the world's most deadly animal, put inside a shark — and my strange obsession with Stevie Nicks' abuse of monoglot hispanic au pairs are now lost to time. I can't let that happen to such an important sociological document as "Hipster Sitcoms."

Because I am a lazy person, I didn't have the volition to go back and copy any more jokes from other people, but below you can find a list of silly jokes from me (with a few assists from my friend Robert). Also, because he's a funny guy, and because he wrote so damn many of them, I included a bunch from partner in twitcrime, Woodmuffin, who usually outclasses everybody when it comes to finding these trending topics jokes and going off on a spree.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wailing Walls: Slouching from Benghazi, Part II

Note: As Libya descends into civil war, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East. This piece is continued from Part I: The Skirt from Sirte.

The Magical Monied Muammar's Comeback Tour, or: 'The Most Disgusting Story Ever Told'

The only Tea Party worth a damn on this whole godawful planet is in Libya. And unlike our morbidly obese Rascal-scootering Glock fetishists ardently fighting for the right to die of untreated diabetes, the Libyan Tea Party is standing and fighting and dying and maybe going to lose. How fitting that a bloody, highly fluid totaler kreig is taking place today in Libyan cities like Tobruk, the same place that another Desert Fox, Herr Rommel, hunted the Brits for months during World War II. As Gaddafi regains military momentum to a degree I thought impossible, his forces sweep through recaptured cities like the sludge of a tsunami, smearing city blocks, whole families annihilated as if by the flick of the Colonel's finger.

I am positive that despite the crushing losses of cities like Brega, Ras La'nuf and Azawiya, rebel morale is higher than that of their adversaries — if only because, if the rebel front collapses, Benghazi and everyone in it will be subject to a Saddam vs. Shia kind of payback, a scouring that will make Hama seem like a mere urban redevelopment project.

In 1989, following the U.S. "Gulf of Sidra" air strikes, Gaddafi put down a brief internal revolt with ferocity, leaving a few unlucky protestors hanging like pirates on the lampposts of Tripoli. Gaddafi's odious war-criminal son, commando leader Khamis Gaddafi, subjected the city of Zawiya to a relentless artillery siege before taking it, concussing it into sand. The Khamis Brigade has since retaken the oil refinery port a half hour outside of Tripoli, and the retribution has been swift: mass executions, Sabra and Shatila style corpse-bulldozing, even the destruction of safe haven mosques. Now they surround Benghazi, seat of the revolution, trying to drive the revolutionaries into the desert and, failing that, demolish the city. There will be no mercy, as there hasn't been thus far.

I am torn on the issue of external military intervention. Perhaps it could provide Gaddafi the black eye the rebels need to slough him off. But it will mark the beginning of the Libyan War, full stop. And frankly, I doubt the motivations of intervention's most forceful advocates, and you should too. David Cameron is the kind of Tory who drove Lord Byron to die in Greece, and the egocentric Sarkozy still smarts from Gaddafi's role in strangling his beloved Mediterranean Union in the crib.

As I alluded to last time, Gaddafi has spent the past fifteen years ingratiating himself with the "good guys," flipping over small-fry terrorist schemers, churning the oil, scrapping his two-bit nuke program. This is a pretty impressive feat for a guy who made his name sponsoring full-throated bloody murder against American and British civilians. Those governments might not give a shit about anyone else in the world, but killing their people is sure as fuck off-limits. Gaddafi nearly killed Margaret Thatcher herself through his IRA support, hit U.S. servicemen several times in Europe, and downed Pan Am Flight 103, at a cost of two hundred and seventy Brits and Yanks.

We live in a world where Obama's kaffeeklatch with toothless ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers was a major campaign issue, yet Gaddafi — a man so radically unhinged and pathologically vainglorious that he makes Saddam look like Thomas Pynchon — was embraced by a startling coalition of Western elites. The difference was that he could buy them. These supplicants pocketed blood money ripped from the heart of Libya. The darkest stain, the damn spot that won't come out for decades, came from Gaddafi's billfold, crumpled and stuffed into the pockets of owl-eyed trans-Atlantic mediocrities dispatched to Tripoli with all the dignity of a bachelor party stripper van. Gaddafi has spent the last two decades buying respectability, and my, what a bargain it is when you know the right people. They deserve to be hounded into suicides for this, to never live this down. So let's name names.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Yankee Fans Boo Rick Scott?

I promise to write about something other than Rick Scott soon, but this struck me as interesting. Political boos at baseball games are pretty commonplace; in fact, finding a way to tie them to Barack Obama is apparently a cottage industry at the National Review. And most of the time, their origins are simple. A recent tax hike or hiring cutback sends fans jeering a governor or president when the policy might well have been the legislature's. Even by those uncritical standards, though, these boos seem a little odd, for four reasons:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaparties, Race and a Union Rally in a Tiny Tampa Park

Over the last few years, I've accrued pageloads for mocking mean-spirited teapartiers and their misspelled signs, slovenliness and ideological self-contradiction, going back to that well again and again and again and again. It's a cheap and easy recipe for attention-getting stuff. Take one (1) group of nasty people, add lots (lots) of photographic evidence of their being nasty, then add one (1) comment per photo about how they suck.

I've never posted any sort of counterpoint. The most obvious explanation is that reasonable people aren't very funny. You can't run dozens of photos of civil human beings and gin up a laugh. Less obviously: most liberal activists stayed home these last two years. Vindicated by winning an election, they stupidly abandoned the physical realm of protest to the teaparty. While teaparty goons shouted down town hall discussions on healthcare, liberals enjoyed the warm-crotch sensation of watching them on Youtube, from their laptops. They relied on a few people to attend these events and upload teaparty protest photos and fussy personal diaries on Daily Kos. Liberal public agitation has been token, intermittent, ethereal and impotent.

Thanks in part to union demonstrations and outrage in Wisconsin, as well as Florida Governor Rick Scott's criminal and imperial dismissal of the obligations of office, bizarre disdain for even bipartisan legislation and ruthless de-funding of public services, even Floridians have evinced anger strong enough to drag them out in public. Last Tuesday, thousands of citizens organized in dozens of cities across the state for simultaneous protests against Scott's fiscal war against the Florida school system and his ideological war against unions and collective bargaining.

Florida, like the rest of the south, has historically declined most unionization, never approaching the north's membership. Despite the AFL and CIO engaging in expensive unionization campaigns in the middle of the 20th century, the south didn't bite. Historians and anthropologists have furnished a host of reasons, from racism (northern unions were integrated) to an atavistic quasi-Scots-Irish tribalism, to "Cavalier" individuality. (Readers of Malcom Gladwell's non-science and non-history might remember his bastardization of David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed in the last example.) Economic context also played a part. Union proselytizing in the south, funded by unions' ascendency, was bound to be less persuasive because of that ascendency: when the worker was doing well in America, unions just didn't seem as necessary. That attitude worked doubly well in Florida, a state without an income tax, where lower wages were offset by lower tax obligations and where the bill for today's state services could be tied to tomorrow's home purchases or tourist taxes and fobbed off on the next influx of suckers.

Given the above, the protest turnout was stunning. A group called Awake the State — which was created via a partnership amongst Progress Florida, Florida Watch Action and America Votes — managed to get pro-labor Floridians outside and in front of government buildings even after work and during the dinner hour. In the public imagination, and frequently in reality as well, only teachers seem to march or gather in Florida union protests. But this time manual laborers and public-service workers showed up in force.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Profiles in Florida: Rick Scott's Daily Kill Count

Opening the front page of a newspaper in Florida these last few weeks has been like leafing through the crime report in a neighborhood with heavy prostitution problems: you just scan columns until you see if a name you recognize got fucked yesterday. This week's victims are children and the elderly.

Governor Rick Scott wants to slash the budget for Florida's Department of Children and Families, a menacing government octopus strangling the budget with an inane mandate for helping victims of child, spousal and elder abuse, as well as getting medicine and basic food services to the disadvantaged.

Unsurprisingly, Scott and DCF Secretary David Wilkins don't want to talk about the cuts, ducking questions whenever possible and, when cornered, answering them with the same weightless banalities that were the hallmark of Scott's campaign. Nobody likes it when kids starve or get used as sexual toys or punching bags, and in a state filled with elderly people, anyone cutting assistance to elder safety comes off like a monster. There's really no way to make DCF cuts sexy, unless you're playing to an audience of pedophiles or teaparty ideologues, both of which operate via single-minded lusts that overwhelm subtler considerations.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wailing Walls: Slouching from Benghazi, Part I

Note: As Libya descends into civil war, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East. In his free time, he enjoys saying very little about himself, because he's terrified of Kachist/Islamist extremist internet aficionados.

The Skirt from Sirte

If there's a Middle Eastern dictator most likely to be Ceaucescued, lashed with electric cable to the missus on Christmas morning and Kalashnikoved off this mortal coil, it's Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, Leader and Guide of the Revolution, Bedouin Father of Africa, a man with the vanity and physique of John Travolta, but with an even worse record in bombing.

Speaking in relative terms with the rest of the Arab world, Libya is a backwater, Tripoli a stodgy desert strip with a measly six million inhabitants (Cairo has twenty million in its environs). Gaddafi barely treads water against the sea of neighborhood Arab tyrant brethren. The Syrian Hafez al-Assad, "Butcher of Hama" and father of Bashar, always had the best torturers, frying recalcitrant Islamists on super-heated bedsprings or cracking their spines in the kampfy "German Chair." The urbane yet ruthless King Hussein of Jordan had the best spooks; no other country would have had a Mukhabarat handler in the room when an Al Qaeda double agent greased seven CIA agents with a bomb belt.

Even Saddam Hussein (believe it or not) led the Arab world in development, achieving ninety-plus literacy rates and nearly-First World medical access, prior to his Iranian misadventures. For a diva like Muammar, this is some rough hummus to choke down. Gaddafi was always the Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes of the Arab League: petulant, a little out-of-place, unbalanced, and jealous enough to burn down that which tested him. And now he's headed out like Left-Eye, hurtling into a ravine spinning over and over, his passengers strapped in and unable to bail out.