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June 12, 2010

The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . .

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
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I’ve been reading Phillip Jenkins‘ political and social history of 1970’s America, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. The first thing I have to note is the striking similarities between our current period and the one Jenkins covers (focusing specifically on 1974 to 1977). But I really had an epiphany when I read about what Jenkins calls “The Terror Noncrisis.” He argues that the mid-seventies saw a wave of domestic terrorism in America. He writes, “In terms of the scale and frequency of attacks , America during the mid-1970’s was suffering one of the worst waves of terrorist violence in its history to that point.” He cites some well-known events, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the ’75 bombing of the State Department by the Weather Underground, as well as some which were news to me, such as the “Zebra murders” in San Francisco and a Puerto Rican nationalist group called the FALN, supposedly responsible for “over thirty bomb attacks in New York, Chicago, and Washington.” These groups didn’t really have anything to do with each other, but all could be broadly categorized as subscribing to some Leftish variety of radicalism. But Jenkins also notes that anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami “became the heart of a flourishing terrorist and guerilla subculture.”

So what is the point in linking all of these together under the rubric of a “terror wave”? 1970’s domestic terrorism as a single phenomenon has been largely ignored by historians (“as late as 1995, writers on Oklahoma City were still remarking that finally ‘terrorism had come to the United States'”) and, more shockingly from a post-9/11 perspective, was not high on the list of earth-shaking fears of Americans at the time. As I said, the various groups were not linked (except as they each represented the death-spasms of the New Left), but it is strange that it was not thought to be the case at the time (except by usual anti-commie suspects like the Birchers). A mere 10 years earlier every longhair with a peace sign was suspected as an agent of Moscow, but now that the longhairs were actually blowing things up, nobody thought the revolution was finally upon us?  And its not as if the seventies lacked the paranoid mindset. As Jenkins demonstrates, this was the decade when the conspiracy theory went mainstream. So what happened?

The short answer is that Richard Nixon happened. The revelations about Watergate, COINTELPRO, the American-backed coup in Chile, and other government scandals had everyone looking to Washington as the source of crime and corruption. “The near-total focus on abuses by government and law enforcement meant that political dangers of a kind that in any other political environment would have demanded an urgent response. . . . The powerful focus on evils committed by the state diverted attention from subversives or revolutionary threats, however well-documented those dangers.”

While Jenkins does not deny that government agencies brought it on themselves, he seems to lament that the CIA and FBI were weakened, and thus unable to deal with new terror threats. “Infiltration and surveillance of the sort that once would have been commonplace was now highly unpopular . . .” But that’s the rub! Every single terror group Jenkins writes about fizzled out within the decade. Precisely nothing came of these threats beyond the isolated events. There was no revolution, because it was not televised. Americans quite rationally feared being spied on by government, but they did not fear that the Symbionese Liberation Army would force them all to smoke dope in communes while having orgies in front of a Chairman Mao poster. But let’s say that the Feds had retained the organization and legitimacy to “mobilize public concern.” It might have been civil war, and people might have felt like the wheels were coming off entirely (as they arguably did in ’69-70, the time of the Manson Family murders and Kent State). Consequently, they would have demanded greater force and more expansive measures.

Obviously, we can learn something from this era. As it stands, we have a president who refuses to prosecute his predecessor, the latter being guilty of crime and corruption at least on the level, and probably far exceeding that of Nixon and LBJ. And, oh yeah, then there’s the whole police state thing. And what are we worried about? The Hutaree.

The terror wave of 1974-1977, unlike that of the 2000’s, was a “noncrisis” because terrorism doesn’t work if you don’t become terrorized.

November 23, 2009

A Song for Sunday (King-Kill) #33

John F. Kennedy was assassinated 44 years ago today. Texas is the reason.

It’s a bit in poor taste, I know, but today’s song is Bullet by the Misfits. I always misheard the lyric “Kennedy’s shattered head hits concrete” as “Kennedy’s shattered head: it’s complete.” It’s a creative mishearing. Lyrically, I think “Bullet” is one of Glen Danzig’s best, though he can’t refrain from sexual morbidity for long and ends the song with a verse about having sex with Jackie O. (But as we shall see, sex and death both attend accounts of the Kennedy King-Killing.)

For an extreme antigovernment libertarian-type with an attraction to revisionist history, I’m actually not much of a Kennedy conspiracy buff. My accquaintance with the facts of the assassination and the figures involved come primarily through works of ficiton. First is JFK, which I regard as a truly brilliant film, whatever its relation to the actual facts (and which I actually watched earlier today- my brother was assigned to write a paper on a historical film and picked this one off a list of suggestions and was unaware that it was the exact date of the assassination). Second is the Don DeLillo novel Libra, which presents the thesis that I’ve always wanted to see: that there was a conspiracy and Oswald did it (though that’s not really what the book is about). George Will famously, and fatuously, dismissed the novel as “sandbox existentialism”. I think it’s more lunchpail postmodernism myself. It’s pretty good. Come to think of it, DeLillo and Oliver Stone have a lot in common: each has made the only serious attempts at depicting football in fiction (Stone in the movie Any Given Sunday and DeLillo in the novel End Zone), and  both have a great deal of talent that they squander at least half the time. Finally, if you really want to wade in the wierd end of the pool, there’s the Grand Poobah of Paranoia James Shelby Downard’s “King-Kill 33: Masonic Symbolism in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy“, which employs language-analysis, mythology, and geography to show that the assassination was a ritual murder by the ubiquitous secret society. Enough to make Richard Hofstadter blow his stack. Of course you cannot take Downars seriously, but that does not mean he is not supremely entertaining.

I’ve long toyed with the idea of doing a half-joking essay presenting a Downardian reading of Stone’s JFK. Outlandish enough on its surface, the film is downright uncanny if you know how to watch it. With Downard’s thesis in mind watch, for instance, the long scene at the heart of the film where Costner’s as Jim Garrison talks to his Black Ops informant, Donald Sutherland’s X. They’re sitting on a park bench in front of the Washington monument. X urges Garrison to think about the big picture by asking the age-old cui bono: “Who had the motive? Who had the means to cover it up? Who?” At this precise moment, the film cuts to a wide shot of the monument. A certain breed of conspiracist believes the obelisk to be an important masonic/satanic phallic symbol, and central to the supposed occult layout of Washington D.C. (Obelisks as phallic symbols and occult architecture and city planning play an important role in another brilliant work of paranoid fiction, Alan Moore’s graphic novel about Jack the Ripper From Hell.) Watch closely also a scene where one of Garrison’s investigators is talking to a contact in New Orleans during one of those weird parades they have where everybody dresses up as a skeleton. Just as the contact reveals that the suspected co-conspirator and member of the New Orleans gay underworld Clay Bertrand was actually respected business figure Clay Shaw, one of the procession of the dead jumps out and spooks the two; then a cut to another meeting of Garrison’s team and one of them saying, “this is spookier than we thought”. Moments like that are like an alchemical element working throuhout the film. Spooks and death working just underneath the surface.

And don’t think I didn’t get a little shiver when I saw that this Sunday entry happened to be number 33.

I should reiterate, and underline (this is the internet, after all), that I am a conspiracy skeptic. My interest in paranoia is largely an aesthetic one (which is not to say that the Officially Accepted Narrative is not, as per usual, pure fantasy ficiton as well). My own hatred of the National Security State by no means rests on who killed Kennedy or why, and anyway I follow Gore Vidal in thinking that the coup d’état took place in 1947, not 1963.

October 7, 2009

True Crime

For anyone who hasn’t been following the Sibel Edmonds story, or is just interested in a shocking tale of corruption and intrigue, I highly recommend the cover story of the latest issue of The American Conservative, “Who’s Afraid of Sibel Edmonds?” A former translator of Turkish for the FBI, Edmonds tells a fascinating story of State Department officials selling secrets to foreign intelligence, members of congress being bribed and blackmailed, American university professors acting as foreign agents, and negotiations between the people in the American and Turkish governments over potential occupation of Iraq before 9/11! Oh yeah, and a bit of sex scandal too.

The main reason this story isn’t being picked up by major media outlets is that it serves no partisan utility. It indicts Democrats as well as Republicans. Yes it is in The American Conservative, but don’t let the name scare you. This is an important story. When asked whether she expects change from the Obama administration, Edmonds expresses skepticism, pointing to the continuation or escalation of some of the worst Bush policies (the State Secrets Privelege, most notably), and adds:

The other thing I noticed is how Chicago, with its culture of political corruption, is central to the new administration. When I saw that Obama’s choice of chief of staff was Rahm Emanuel, knowing his relationship with Mayor Richard Daley and with the Hastert crowd, I knew we were not going to see positive changes. Changes possibly, but changes for the worse. It was no coincidence that the Turkish criminal entity’s operation centered on Chicago.

As the old conspiracy-theory saw has it, this one goes all the way to the top.

June 17, 2009

Modern Procrustes, or consumerism is too important to be left to the consumers

mixed54Capitalism is dead, consumerism is king.
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The great disease of modern life is that coercive institutions, or institutions which ultimately derive from and reap the spoils of coercion, are justified to the masses on the basis that they serve the needs of people both collectively and individually. But even when they most obviously cease to do this (public education, high finance, national defense, representative democracy), they are not done away with, and only halfheartedly, slowly, and irrationally are they reformed. Indeed, it should be obvious to anybody upon a moments reflection that none of our institutions- not a one- actually serve any need of ours. We serve their needs. We must change for their sake, for they will never (barring a crisis, which may be forthcoming) change for ours. For instance, I wrote a couple of months back:

“Keynesian policy insists that if aggregate demand falls, producers should not scale back or close up shop, but rather the government should pump them full of funny money to keep them going. Does this not mean that we are to serve a preconceived, ideal structure of production, rather than having it serve us? Does it not make a fetish of ceaseless GDP-growth at the expense of actual human desires? . . . How is it that few have called this an absurdity on its face? I am reminded of Chesterton’s critique of his friend and intellectual sparring-partner George Bernard Shaw’s ideas of progress:

Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.”

I have just begun to read Kevin Carson’s book on organization theory, which begins by challenging assumptions shared, oddly, by many Marxists, corporate liberals, and libertarians, about economies of scale- in short, that a modern economy requires the organization of capital on a massive scale. To the vulgar libertarian, this means that gargantuan corporations are destined to stand triumphantly astride the globe, and only a motley crew of petty Washington bureaucrats and deluded left-liberal dreamers in American universities and the media conspiring with leftist demagogues and ignorant peasants in the third world could complain about it. To the vulgar Marxist this means that the bourgeoisie does their historically appointed role of dragging those same peasants kicking and screaming into the modern world before duly stepping aside and into the guillotine so that the proletariat can take over the means of production. The corporate liberal . . . well, we’ll get to that. I haven’t yet absorbed Carson’s full dissenting argument about economies of scale, but I find a quote from Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith which relates to my point about how the people are made to serve the institutions rather than the other way around.

The need to control consumer behavior is a requirement of planning. Planning, in turn, is made necessary by extensive use of the advanced technology and capital, and by the relative scale and complexity of organization. . . . Thus it comes about that, as the industrial system develops to the point where it has need for planning and management of the consumer that this requires, it is also serving wants which are psychological in origin, and hence admirably suited to management and by appeal to the psyche.

A feverishly paranoiac and primitive brain, such as the one I possess, would be tempted to recall Huxley’s infamous- but quite misunderstood- consumerist and administrative dystopia Brave New World where the needs and tastes of the public are not left to chance, but rather inculcated in the very womb- or rather, in public hatcheries where budding little humanoids receive behaviorist conditioning and  hypnopoedic instruction.

In the nurseries, the Elementary Class Consciousness lesson was over, the voices were adapting future demand to future industrial supply. “I do love flying,” they whispered, “I do love flying. I do love having new clothes, I do love . . .

This is Galbraith’s “planning and management of the consumer” taken to its logical conclusion. Of course Galbraith is famous for an essay called “The Dependence Effect” where he complains that corporations don’t really sell people what they want, but rather insidiously use advertising to tell consumers what they want. Hayek dismissed Galbraith’s claim as a “non-sequitir“, and Murray Rothbard concurred, but I think they should have taken him more seriously. After all, it’s not as if Galbraith, as a Keynesian corporate liberal, is against this manipulation per se, but only wishes it to entrust it to wise technocrats- the Mustapha Monds and Benito Hoovers of the world- instead of greedy Madison Avenue types (or perhaps in partnership with them). Far from wanting to abolish corporate capitalism, Galbraith sees some purpose in it other than that intended by the capitalists.BraveNewWorld_FirstEdition

. . . a benign providence . . . has made the modern industry of a few large firms an excellent instrument for inducing technical change. It is admirable equipped for financing technical development. . . . Technical change has long since become the preserve of the scientist and engineer . . .

Not for Galbraith a decentralized and competitive economy. You won’t see him bandying the rallying cry “Small is Beautiful” or desiring “human scale” technology and industry. Indeed, “there must be some element of monopoly in an industry if it is to be progressive.” Carson writes about how Galbrath’s “New Industrial State” takes the economy out of the hands of the consumer, whom it ostensibly serves.

For Galbraith, the “accepted sequence” of consumer sovereignty, or Misesean “dollar democracy,” in which consumer demand determines what is produced, has been replaced by a “revised sequence” in which oligopoly corporations determine what is produced and then dispose of it by managing consumer behavior. In contemporary terms, the demand-pull economy is replaced by a supply-push model.

But what is this progressive inducement of “technical change”? It behooves us to return to Huxley’s nightmare conception of the highest state of liberal technostructure. From his introduction to the 1946 to Brave New World (first published in 1932):

All the existing patterns of human life will have to be improvised to conform with the nonhuman fact of nuclear power. Procrustes in modern dress, the nuclear scientist will prepare the bed on which mankind must lie; and if mankind doesn’t fit- well, that will be just too bad for mankind. There will have to be some stretching and a bit of amputation- the same sort of stretching and amputations as have been going on ever since applied science really got going into its stride, only this time they will be a good deal more drastic than in the past. These far from painless operations will be directed by highly centralized totalitarian governments.

That the specific technology that concerns Huxley is nuclear power is irrelevant. What is relevant is how often the Procrustean theme is sounded in relation to technology. In playing the liberal technocrat as scientific Procrustes, Galbraith is in a long line going back to at least August Comte, and especially in America John Dewey, who saw the purpose of modern education as preparing the individual for the “conflict between institutions and habits originating in the pre-scientific and pre-technological age and the new forces generated by science and technology” (Liberalism and Social Action). These “institutions and habits” are clearly what Huxley meant by “existing patterns of human life” or in other words, what we would all be doing if scientific social planners didn’t come along to dragoon us into schools and corporations and the military. (Or, let me be more sophisticated about it, allowing us to choose which of these wonderful career paths we’d prefer after they’ve destroyed all the alternatives they don’t like.) Speaking of schools, it’s important to note that these precursors to Huxley’s mass hatcheries and conditioning centers are what dissident teacher John Taylor Gatto has called an “administrative utopia”, which he describes in Procrustean terms as,

a peculiar kind of dreaming by those in power, driven by an urge to arrange the lives of others, organizing them for production, combat, or detention. The operating principles of administrative utopia are hierarchy, discipline, regimentation, strict order, rational planning, a geometrical environment, a production line, a cellblock, and a form of welfarism. Government schools and some private schools pass such parameters with flying colors.

Huxley later called his World State the “welfare-tyranny of Utopia”, which is what Gatto appears to be describing. Actually, many of our institutions pass such parameters. It also recalls Michel Foucault’s famous observation, (glib and grandiose like most things he said, but resonates nonetheless) “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, and hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

(By the way, if you doubt the authoritarian streak in modern liberals, try an experiment and tell one that you don’t believe anyone should be forced to go to school.)

Carson addresses the issue of the Austrians dismissal of things like advertising and the dependence effect when it comes to corporations managing consumer demand, insisting that not only do the former get great assistance from the state but that they should be viewed as part of the same apparatus of propaganda as the government schools austro-libertarians complain about.

. . . government schools and the USDA were integrally involved in the effort to manufacture a mass consumer culture. The USDA through most of the 20th century conducted a large-scale barrage of cheerful, taxpayer-funded agitprop on behalf of the denatured, factory-farmed produce of corporate agribusiness, with propaganda handouts as late as the 1970’s dismissing as “myths” the belief that some foods (e.g., bleached white flour) were less nutritious than others, or that soil depletion affected the nutritional quality of food. Home economics classes from the 1920’s on stigmatized home-grown vegetables and home-baked bread as old-fashioned and atavistic, and heralded the modern, up-to-date housewife who fed her family scientifically out of tin cans.

Recall Dewey’s desire to rid the populace of its “pre-scientific and pre-technological” habits. The politics of food-production and consumption and its environmental and health effects have become important in recent years with popular books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Usually these issues are pushed by liberal critics of the market, and dismissed by its defenders. But as we see, not only is the situation not a natural outgrowth of free-market conditions, but is another instance (along with urban sprawl) of liberals trying to remedy a problem their intellectual predecessors helped to create.

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Taking our cues from Galbraith and Huxley, we really should see government and business leaders as co-captains of the corporatist ship, which explains why Keynesian economics, with its obsession with “full employment” and insistence on perpetual spending and no consumer saving, makes the most sense for this system. Carson quotes from Jeffrey Kaplan article called “The Gospel of Consumption” that describes how business leaders were upset to discover that the basic needs of consumers could probably be taken care of with “three days work a week”. National Association of Manufacturers President John E. Edgerton set the tone for elite opinion, both governmental and corporate:

“I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance. The emphasis should be put on work- more work and better work.” “Nothing,” he claimed, “breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”

Apparently it never occurred to Edgerton that one of the things which might make work happier is the subordination of its importance. At any rate, more work (if not better work) has always been at the top of the Keynesian agenda. Ever wonder why unemployment per se should really be such a vexing problem? What if we really don’t want to work all that much? Edgeton’s words could come right out of the mouth of Huxley’s World Controller Mustapha Mond, and indeed Mond, explaining the operating principles of Brave New World to John the Savage, describes their economy in similar terms:

“Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of Soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness taught people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them.” Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture. “And why don’t we put them into execution? For the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure. . . .

What compassion for the happiness of the workers! And Big Brother surely loves them, too. Perhaps also, though, the workers might in their leisure time, rather than drugging themselves with the state-provided intoxicant, contemplate what a bizarre society they live in and how it might be made different, and what exactly they needed these World Controllers for. Obviously that would be the beginning of the end for Brave New World.

Of course all this work should not indicate that there ought to be no play. One of the most prominent features of Brave New Worlders is their promiscuity, addiction to fleeting pleasure and childlike need for instant gratification. Mond says “Industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.” Spend spend spend! The thrifty are robbers of the public good! More credit! More debt! Hence also the obsession with never having “idle resources”. What a neat arrangement: Huxley’s Keynesian utopia simultaneously achieves the goals of the state, the corporation, and the counterculture. Huxley later wrote, “As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase. And the dictator (unless he nees cannon fodder and families with which to colonize empty or conqured territories) will do well to encourage that freedom.” I am amazed at how much Huxley got right. With the “unless he needs cannon fodder” proviso he even foresaw the neoconservatve program of family values!

Another text that is brought to mind is one that does not have a high reputation with libertarians: Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry” from Dialectic of Enlightenment. I must confess I reacted very strongly against it when I first encountered it. But it basically applies the Procrustean theme (and the Dependence Effect) to radio, movies, television, and publishing:

It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organization and planning by management.

When I first read this, I thought, “alleged by who?” But even then, in my vulgar libertarian phase, I should have known who. Of course Adorno and Horkheimer do not examine the role of the state in concentrating “production centers” or extol the virtues of a freed market. But in school I wrote a reaction essay about how they did not understand “how the market works” which involves feedback mechanism and Hayekian disbursed knowledge and so on and would not allow the culture industry such a captive audience, which I now see as an overly rosy view of the current market. That’s how culture would work in a free market, but we do not have anything close to a free market. The culture industry described by Adorno and Horkheimer is precisely the Galbrathian model “in which oligopoly corporations determine what is produced and then dispose of it by managing consumer behavior.” (I should note that in media we do have a much more competitive market than when the essay was written in 1944, and also that Adorno’s pessimism and snobbery colors everything he wrote, including and especially this essay. Even during that low period in modern life, culture never was quite “a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part” as bombastically claimed.)

1252202295Speaking of culture, I don’t want to get into where exactly the management of mass society is heading, but I would look to the denizens of Brave New World for a clue. Chesterton accused Shaw of desiring “a new baby” and the phrase is apt to describe both the products of Huxley’s “welfare-tyranny of Utopia” (as he brilliantly put it in the 1946 intro) and the culture industry of America today. (By the way, Jeffrey Herbener suggests in a speech* that Keynes’s Utopian goal with things like aggregate demand-management and the socialization of investment was to make people more present-oriented, less action-oriented, and to bring about a society of instant gratification. The old romantic dream of the death of homo-economicus could well become Huxley’s nightmare of “false, lying happiness” or Adorno’s “ecstasy without content”*.)

But the question should be asked, does technological society actually require reconstructing humanity? Not at all, if it is emergent, decentralized, voluntary. At the time he wrote his dystopia, Huxley gave us only one other option to the perpetual babyhood of consumerist civilization, which is the primitive mysticism of John the Savage, who ends the book flagellating himself like some visionary monk from the middle ages. The average libertarian, who is a committed rationalist (as I am) is likely to say, “No thanks, I’ll take my chances with the feelies and centrifugal bumble-puppy and sex-hormone chewing gum thank you.” (And no doubt many “cosmopolitan” Reasonoids would find Huxley’s World State a fairly groovy place to live.) But though Huxley never rid himself of his mystic streak or discomfort with technological civilization (which probably involved some family romance issues, given Huxley’s lineage), by his 1946 introduction he had come to regret not providing a “possibility of sanity”. For his third option he invoked two names well known to left-libertarians. “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and co-operative.” This would be close to the mutualism Carson is arguing for. Now I’m not a mutualist, but I have some mutualist sympathies, and certainly I’d take Carson’s, or even Kropotkin’s, version of anarchy over the Brave New World Order prepared by the Procrustean technocrat any day of the week.

*You’ll have to scroll to about 3/4ths of the way through to get to the part about Keynes.

* A phase which appears in a dour but fascinating Adorno essay from the 1930s called “The Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” which assails the taste for pop as well as a prototype of the tech-geek, the “ham radio enthusiast”.

June 3, 2009

A brief note on the sociology of conspiracy theories

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,Philosophy,State — rmangum @ 4:37 am
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In “Austrian and Marxist Theories of Monopoly Capital: A Mutualist Synthesis“, Kevin Carson laments that speaking in terms of a “Power Elite” from a leftist, non-Marxist standpoint tends to brand one a conspiracy theorist.

In making use of the “Power Elite” model of Mills and Domhoff, one must be prepared to counter the inevitable “tinfoil hat” charges from certain quarters. Power Elite theory, despite a superficial resemblance to some right-wing conspiracy theories, has key differences from them. The latter take, as the primary motive force of history, personal cabals united by some esoteric or gratuitously evil ideology. Now, the concentration of political and economic power in the control of small, interlocking elites, is indeed likely to result in informal personal ties, and therefore to have as its side-effect sporadic conspiracies (Stinnett’s Day of Deceit theory of Pearl Harbor is a leading example). But such conspiracy is not necessary to the working of the system–it simply occurs as a secondary phenomenon, and occasionally speeds up or intensifies processes that happen for the most part automatically. Although the CFR is an excellent proxy for the foreign policy elite, and some informal networking and coordination of policy no doubt get done through it, it is essentially a secondary organization, whose membership are ex officio representatives of the major institutions regulating national life. The primary phenomenon is the institutional concentration of power that brings such people into contact with each other in their official capacities.

I would say that “right-wing conspiracy theories” serve as a sort of poor man’s class conflict analysis, and I would defend them as having an advantage over Marxist in that they make history the realm of human action, where individuals and groups have goals and pursue them, rather than the realm of impersonal, abstract, and deterministic historical forces. The weakness of such theories is their moralizing, and tendency to ascribe far too much power of groups to control events (not to mention sloppy induction from historical research, however meticulous, riddled with logical fallacies). Like Marxism, they give little weight to forces of contingency, chaos, entropy, and simple human error, but unlike Marxism they also ignore what we might call “structuralism”, or the influence of institutional forces (which is the advantage of the more sociologically sophisticated “power elite” school of thought).

May 20, 2009

History as written by the losers

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 11:08 pm
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I’ve always had a problem with the History channel. At first, it was basically the World War II channel, but now we mainly get alterations of shows on UFOs and shows designed to take advantage of the release of any big movie release even tangentially related to history. Apparently though, the History channel is way better in other countries, as Americans undoubtedly can’t handle the truth.

Speaking of which, Jeff Riggenbach has a new book out on American revisionist history, which will be appearing on Anti-War.com.

May 13, 2009

Politics and the English Language

Here’s a euphemism that’s got to go: “enhanced interrogation techniques”. It’s called torture, folks. I understand, of course, why politicians use this phrase (most recently Nancy Pelosi), but why does the news media repeat it when a much more descriptive, accurate, and attention-grabbing word is available?

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
-George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, 1946

May 12, 2009

Dubya, the Movie

George.W.BushI just watched Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic W. I think it’s a fine movie, certainly the best thing Stone has produced in years. Josh Brolin’s performance is really amazing, and the voice is spot on. (This guy is really on a roll. He was also very good as Dan White in Milk, though I did not much care for the movie as a whole.) Most of the other performances are solid, the exception being Thandie Newton’s Condoleeza Rice, who seems like she’s doing an SNL parody. There is some comedy in the film, especially in the opening scene where Bush is discussing the “Axis of Evil” phrase with his cabinet. But I was surprised at what a serious tone most of the movie takes. It could have veered off into Dr. Strangelove absurdity, and I found myself hoping it would, though the movie is probably better for not doing that. Stone is genuinely interested in what makes Bush run, and that is the story he tells. Much of the dialogue is verbatim, and so will be familiar to those following the President and American politics over the last decade (which is practically everyone). But those who took issue with Stone’s speculative approach and use of controversial claims by Jim Garrison and Fletcher Prouty in JFK (Walter Cronkite and Arthur Schlesinger, for instance) might have problems with one scene where Dick Cheney takes over a meeting, laying out his case for the invasion of Iraq as a specifically Imperial strategy. They have oil, which we need. We also need to increase our military presence in the Middle East, to put the pressure on Iran by surrounding it with U.S. bases. Others are debating the right way to defend their country. Cheney’s mind is focused on the global endgame. But those who supported the Bush/Cheney Junta (to steal Gore Vidal’s phrase) will hate this film anyway, and as for the rest of us- well, haven’t we all been playing this scene in our heads these last several years? So I will refer to Roger Ebert’s defense of JFK, where he asserts that films are about emotions, not facts, even if they are based on real events, and that Stone’s film “is a brilliant reflection of our unease and paranoia, our restess dissatisfation.” But W. is also about Bush’s personal restlessness and dissatisfaction, a private drama that became a national one. How will it all end? We don’t know. Stone, not known for his subtlety, ends on an overtly metaphorical scene which I think works well. Throughout the movie there are scenes of Bush alone in a baseball stadium, a reference to his fantasy of being a baseball player as well as his ownership of the Texas Rangers. In the last scene a ball is hit, and Bush goes back into the outfield to catch it, but the ball doesn’t come down. It’s still up in the air.

April 6, 2009

Quotes of the Week

If 9/11 “Truthers” are wacky for believing the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government, what about the conspiracy theorists who tried to convince Americans that 9/11 was orchestrated by Saddam Hussein?

For starters, the 9/11 Truth conspiracists have arguably more circumstantial evidence for their case than men like Stephen Hayes or Dick Cheney ever did for theirs. But the most significant difference is that while 9/11 Truthers are relegated to the internet with no mainstream media support, 9/11 Saddam Hussein conspiracists like Hayes were the media, and worked in conjunction with the government to perpetrate their fraud.

-Jack Hunter, “9/11 Truths

The dividing line here is clear. Those who side with state and the establishment will always get the benefit of the doubt from the “watchdogs” in the media, no matter how far-fetched their conspiracy theories are. Those that challenge power get the noose.

Dylan Hales, “Conspiracy Theories

It is the fashionable belief that an idea is wrong in proportion to its “extremism” and right in proportion as it is a chaotic muddle of contradictory doctrines. To the professional middle-of-the-roader, a species that is always found in abundance, the demagogue invariably comes as a nasty shock. For it is one of the most admirable qualities of the demagogue that he forces men to think, some for the first time in their lives. Out of the muddle of current ideas, both fashionable and unfashionable, he extracts some and pushes them to their logical conclusions, i.e. “to extremes.” He thereby forces people either to reject their loosely held views as unsound, or to find them sound and to pursue them to their logical consequences. Far from being an irrational force, then, the silliest of demagogues is a great servant of Reason, even when he is mostly in the wrong.

-Murray Rothbard, “In Defense of Demagogues

March 19, 2009

The trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen

So Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Da Ali G Show and the movie Borat,  has a new movie coming out featuring another one of his characters from his show. This time it’s Bruno, the gay Austrian fashion designer. I have little doubt it will be a success. Reflecting on the previous movie, and Cohen’s general modus operandi, I am compelled to recall two seemingly disparate figures he has much in common with: first, the famous cultural Marxist, German expatriate, and one of the most pessimistic writers of the 20th century (no mean feat), Theodor Adorno; and second, the vapid boy pin-up turned MTV star and trucker-hat popularizer, Ashton Kutcher. This odd assertion I will explain momentarily. But first, a scene from the upcoming Bruno, which happens to feature a personal hero of mine, Texas congressman Ron Paul. Slate describes Dr. Paul’s “insane cameo”:

The scene with Paul, filmed in early 2008, occurs about halfway through the movie, after Bruno gets the idea that you have to make a sex tape to become famous. (Stop reading here if you want to see the movie unspoiled.)

Cut to a nondescript hotel suite where Bruno sits across from Ron Paul. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, a light blows out on the set. Bruno apologizes for the technical difficulties and suggests that he and Paul wait in the other room while the crew fixes the light.

The other room, it turns out, is a bedroom. The lighting is low, and the film is now grainy—not unlike a sex tape—as it cuts to a hidden spy camera. There’s a spread of Champagne and strawberries and caviar on a table.

Bruno tells Paul to make himself comfortable. Paul sits down on the bed. Bruno turns on some music and starts dancing. Paul is visibly uneasy but doesn’t say anything at first. He picks up a newspaper and pretends to read it. “You can tell at each weird gay detail, he [chalks] it up to, This guy is European,” says one of the attendees.

Finally, Paul asks what’s going on. “Don’t worry about it, Dr. Paul,” says Bruno, who then unbuckles his belt and drops his pants. At that point, Paul snaps up and storms out of the room.

As Paul is walking away, you can hear him say, several times, something like, “This guy is a queer!” “The word queer comes out of his mouth three or four times,” says an attendee.

A press secretary for Paul, Rachel Mills, claims Paul said “weird” and not “queer”. But perhaps we can assume that Paul shares an unfortunate prejudice with most conservative men his age. He has thus far not made it part of his political campaign, putting him way ahead of the Republican pack. Nonetheless, the scene will serve as ample reason for liberal cognoscenti and other dialectically illumined types to toss Paul back into the cave with Rush Limbaugh, David Duke, and all the other right wing troglodytes. (One wonders though, what Justin Raimondo, the openly gay founder of anti-war.com and a staunch Paul defender against what the late Murray Rothbard called the “smearbund”, would have to say. But then Raimondo will no doubt be said to suffer from an internalized, subconscious self-loathing common to black and gay Republicans and Jewish critics of Israel.) And all that without having to make a single coherent intellectual point in critique of Ron Paul’s politics. It is, in other words, a cheap shot. Am I reading too much into the scene? Should I don my tinfoil hat? I think not, based on what critics have read into Cohen’s previous movie.

I might as well admit that I am reacting to the embarrassment of someone I feel is one of the best hopes for anything resembling liberty in my lifetime. (I should point out as well that I also disagree with Paul on immigration and abortion, both of which I support and he opposes, but perhaps this is just special pleading.) I hope the reader will understand this in itself ought not diminish one iota the veracity of my critique. I also want to head off from the start two possible misconceptions about my complaints against Sacha Baron Cohen, and Borat in particular. I do not object, as some critics have, to his so-called “anti-Americanism”. In the first place, I believe the U.S. government since it emerged as an imperial superpower (especially since World War II, but even as far back as the McKinley administration) has been overwhelmingly a force for evil in the world, and has been oppressing domestic minorities since its inception. But then I no more identify the American people with its government than I identify a host with its parasite. As for the former, I see little to disagree with in H.L. Mencken’s estimation:

He  likes money and struggles to amass property, but his cultural development is but little above that of the domestic animals. He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are crudely identical. He is emotional and easy to scare, but his imagination cannot grasp an abstraction. He is a violent nationalist and patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beats the tax-collector if he can. He has immovable opinions about all the great affairs of state, but nine-tenths of them are sheer imbecilities. He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow’s. He is religious, but his religion is wholly devoid of beauty and dignity. This man, whether city or country bred, is the normal Americano.

I would add, though, that the same could be said about the great mass of people in any country at any time in history, a fact reviewers of Borat conveniently ignored. Apparently, they thought the movie revealed the innate and unique stupidity and hatred lurking in the “normal Americano”, and this is what I object to vehemently.

Secondly, many viewers found Borat simply gross and obscene. “Tasteless” is generally the preferred term. Well, fine for them, but I am not the artistic integrity police, and I believe in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that sex, violence, and fart jokes are the eternal stuff of human amusements and are justified in their own right. What I am against is the notion that Sacha Baron Cohen has anything to offer us beyond these, i.e. anything interesting or original to say about American society whatever.

I first saw Borat in the theater and, like everyone else, fairly laughed my ass off. (I will assume for my own convenience that everyone has seen the movie and therefore will not recap the plot.) Sacha Baron Cohen seemed to have a natural comedic timing, gift for conjuring ridiculous scenarios, and a commitment to his role no matter how absurd, that recalled Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman. Subsequent viewings on DVD, especially the cut scenes included on the special features (more on which later), and listening to what critics as well as Cohen himself in interviews had to say about the “meaning” of this movie, caused me to revise my opinion entirely, and I now find it to be a cheap, dishonest, and cowardly piece of exploitation, and its uncritical and near-universal celebration to be a sure sign of decadence (in the older sense of “decaying” and not the vulgarization connoting sensual indulgence the word acquired from being too often applied to late Roman emperors) in the liberal intelligentsia. Never has the bar been so low for being considered a satirist. Much applause was generated when the character Borat would say or do something sexist or anti-Semitic, and the hapless person he was interviewing would go along. Yet, interestingly, whether the person emphatically agreed (as in the case of the elderly cowboy at a rodeo who eagerly embraces Borat’s explanation of Kazakhstan’s medieval treatment of homosexuals), or whether they went along out of politeness (the vast majority of cases), or whether they became incensed at his behavior (as when a car salesman tells Borat that women in America get to choose who they sleep with), laughs are generated in any case. I am not the only one who found the supposedly “exposed” Americanos in the movie to be in the main polite bystanders. Christopher Hitchens wrote, in his original review also for Slate:

Oh, come on. Among the “cultural learnings of America for make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan” is the discovery that Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse. At a formal dinner in Birmingham, Ala., the guests discuss Borat while he’s out of the room—filling a bag with ordure in order to bring it back to the table, as it happens—and agree what a nice young American he might make. And this is after he has called one guest a retard and grossly insulted the wife of another (and remember, it’s “Americana” that is “crass”). The tony hostess even takes him and his bag of shit upstairs and demonstrates the uses not just of the water closet but also of the toilet paper. The arrival of a mountainous black hooker does admittedly put an end to the evening, but if a swarthy stranger had pulled any of the foregoing at a liberal dinner party in England, I wouldn’t give much for his chances. “The violence that Borat encounters on the New York subway after trying to greet male strangers with kisses is frighteningly real,” writes Gilbey [reviewer Ryan Gilbey of the New Statesman], who either doesn’t use the London Underground very much or else has a very low standard for mayhem.

Is it too literal-minded to point out what any viewer of the movie can see for himself—that the crowd at the rodeo stops cheering quite fast when it realizes that something is amiss; that the car salesman is extremely patient about everything from demands for pussy magnets to confessions of bankruptcy; and that the man in the gun shop won’t sell the Kazakh a weapon? This is “compliance”? I have to say, I didn’t like the look of the elderly couple running the Confederate-memorabilia store, but considering that Borat smashes hundreds of dollars worth of their stock, they bear up pretty well—icily correct even when declining to be paid with locks of pubic hair. The only people who are flat-out rude and patronizing to our curious foreigner are the stone-faced liberal Amazons of the Veteran Feminists of America—surely natural readers of the New Statesman. Perhaps that magazine’s reviewer believes that Borat is genuinely shocked when he finds—by video viewing—that Pamela Anderson has not been faithful to him and he will thus not be the first to “make romance-explosion on her stomitch.” (And either the love goddess agreed to stage the moment when Mr. Sagdiyev tries to stuff her into a “wedding bag,” or she and her security team displayed a rare indulgence to the mustachioed interloper.)

The joke, in other words, may well be on the prankster.

This is never more the case than in the most infamous scene, where Borat sings the song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” in a bar, to a crowd cheering and singing along. It was apparent, to me at least, that the crowd was mostly laughing at Borat and not with him. Even if this is not so, and Borat did expose some racism latent in the average American, this would still not attest to Cohen’s satirical gifts. I find nothing more emblematic of his approach than aforementioned scene in the confederate memorabilia store. Cohen shows something he knows in advance to offend the sensibilities of his intended audience, and then simply smashes it up. “High-five!”, as Borat’s catchphrase goes. Jonathan Swift this guy aint. His style more resembles the MTV hit Punk’d, (or for those of us old enough to remember it, Candid Camera), Ashton Kutcher’s show devoted to playing pranks on unsuspecting celebrities. This is pretty much the same thing Cohen does in the scene with Ron Paul I mentioned earlier, and in one from Borat where he offers Bob Barr some cheese, and after he tastes it reveals it was made from his wife’s breast-milk. You just got punked, Bob Barr!

That’s the cheap part (and the cowardly part too, for real satire and political comedy boldly skewers taboos and received opinions, makes human foibles seem absurd, and speaks truth to the powerful, while nothing can be more calculated to garner applause from the media establishment than saying that America is racist). The dishonest part is found in a couple of cut scenes included in the special features. In one, Borat tries to adopt a dog, asking the lady helping him if he could train it to attack Jews. “Probably not,” she says. “Jews are Jesus’ children. She probably loves Jews.” Well this is typical Christian sentimentality and definitely not funny, but it is a striking counterexample to the “the tacit acceptance with which Borat’s ghoulish requests are greeted”. No wonder it wasn’t in the movie. Neither was a scene which included some real (albeit unintentional) political commentary on racism in contemporary America, in which Borat and his friend run into trouble with the police while driving around the city (I think it’s Houston) in an old ice-cream truck they’ve rented. The cop explains to them that as long as they drive around in a vehicle like that, looking like they do (that is, like Arabs), they’re going to be suspected of being terrorists and are bound to have future confrontations. I should point out that although the term “anti-Semitic” now almost always connotes anti-Jewish animus, Jews are only one of a group of Semitic peoples hailing from ancient Mesopotamia, which includes extinct cultures like the Akkadian, as well as Arabs. I would venture to say that if there is fear and hatred directed at any Semitic group, it would have to be the latter. Rather than confront that reality, Sacha Baron Cohen would prefer to resurrect irrelevant Jewish stereotypes from the middle ages. Borat itself, while shrewdly making its title character a Kazakh and therefore not Arab or Muslim, is rife with crude sterotypes.

In seeming to expose a racist, hate-filled center beneath the polite, tolerant crust of American society, Cohen was preceded by Theodor Adorno, an influential writer of the Frankfurt School, and German emigre who fled Hitler to find himself in Los Angeles. Influenced by Marx and Freud (which is a common enough combination of influences now, but was novel at the time), Adorno was a highly educated product of European high culture and detested both American capitalism and the popular culture it produced. He spent much of his career writing a doom-laden version of what is called “critical theory”, an odd combination of Marxism, sociology, and literary criticism, but in 1950 he participated in a study that was published as The Authoritarian Personality. The Frankfurt School theorists had come to the conclusion that the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany had less to do with the state or political factors than with a certain psychology prevalent in the German middle classes, which sublimated sado-masochistic desires and anxiety over social status into a demand for authoritarian leaders. While there may be some validity to the claim (indeed, it jibes somewhat with Mencken’s diagnosis of homo americanus), what is disturbing about their approach is the tendency to claim abnormal psychology as the origin of ideas deemed politically incorrect, thereby circumventing the need for rational debate and leading to the conclusion that some beliefs are best dealt with through institutionalization. Conservative scholar Paul Gottfried writes, in After Liberalism, about how this redefinition served the needs of a class of social engineers:

By defining emotional well-being as both a social good and the overcoming of what is individually and collectively dangerous, the behavioral scientists have been able to impose their absolutes upon a culturally fluid society. In The True and Only Heaven [left-wing populist writer Christopher] Lasch explores the implications for postwar politics of The Authoritarian Personality. A chief contributor to this anthology, Theodor Adorno, abandoned his earlier work as a cultural critic to become a proponent of governmentally imposed social therapy. According to Lasch, Adorno condemns undesirable attitudes as “prejudice,” and “by defining prejudice as a ‘social disease’ substituted a medical for a political idiom.” In the end, Adorno and his colleagues “relegated a broad range of controversial issues to the clinic- to ‘scientific’ study opposed to philosophical and political debate.” . . . . The Authoritarian Personality speaks about the need to “indoctrinate” the working class “so as to modify those attitudes centering around authoritarianism, which are more pronounced in this group than in most others.”

Adorno & Co. claimed to be working to defend a liberal democratic society against the fuhrer-principle that arose in Germany , but this was disingenuous, as the majority of them were lifelong communists (unless you think that a communist can be a liberal). It is no surprise that only traditionalist and conservative attitudes arise as the result of mental illness. In the Soviet Union, we now know, political dissidents were often locked up in mental asylums after being declared insane by the State’s psychiatrists. Ironically, the authors of this study may have skewed their readings of the data because of a psychological factor:  paranoia over anti-Semitism. “Almost all the contributors, such as Paul Lazarfeld, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Loewenthal, and Bruno [Bruno, eh?] Bettelheim, were refugees from Nazism with Jewish ancestry.” Gottfried elaborates:

The obligatory focus in The Authoritarian Personality, anti-Semitism, skews the research in several ways. First, it exaggerates the depth and incidence of anti-Semitic prejudice in American life. It takes what even in 1950 was a residual bias, and probably not as widespread as anti-Catholic prejudice [or anti-Muslim prejudice today], and treats it as the leading danger to American political institutions. . . . They also link anti-Semitism arbitrarily to any critical attitudes expressed about the American welfare state. . . . More important than the assumption of unproved prejudice are the interpreters’ insistence that Mack’s [one of the interviewees] anti-Semitism typifies his attitude toward “outgroups like the Jews, Roosevelt and the Washington bureaucrats.” [I have to admit, I did a triple-take upon reading that Washington bureaucrats and Roosevelt, who nearly ruled as a crippled god-king in this land for over a decade, described as an “outgroup”- perhaps it was my anti-Semitism talking]. Curiously, Adorno himself in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, written during the war, had offered a far more devastating criticism of the modern bureaucratic state . . . Adorno attacked administrative collectivism as spurious democracy and identified it with a totalitarian development leading from the Enlightenment to Nazism.

I guess it never occurred to Adorno that if the average German in the 1930’s had been more suspicious and resentful of the Berlin bureaucracy, there might not have been a war or a holocaust. At any rate, Adorno was closer to the truth the first time around. Roosevelt’s New Deal was indistinguishable in all but cosmetic aspects and rhetoric from the fascist states of Germany and Italy. But then this would make its conservative opponents actually bulwarks against fascism, rather than its harbingers. But apparently a totalitarian bureaucracy is bad when “saving capitalism”, but okay if needed to combat anti-Semitism (as defined by those who run it, of course). Adorno was probably overreacting to the very real barbarism of Nazi Germany, but he may have helped give justification for a rise of a new secular priesthood of social engineers in the name of tolerance.

I am now back to where I began. Borat strikes me as a synthesis of The Authoritarian Personality and Punk’d. Cohen’s punking of Ron Paul serves far more effectively to marginalize his point of view, since those branded as crazy can be perceived as persecuted martyrs, while those who seem laughably un-hip have little chance, in this day and age, at being rehabilitated in the popular mind. Do I claim that this is what Cohen has specifically in mind? No, I really don’t think he wants anything more than a cheap laugh. But he serves as a useful proxy and frontman for the political class, such as Obama’s Attorney general Eric Holder who has accused the America of being a “nation of cowards” on racial issues. I might agree with that, though not quite in the way Holder thinks. According to Politico.com:

Holder said that the country is now a “fundamentally different” place than it used to be, but that the nation “still had not come to grips with its racial past, nor has it been willing to contemplate, in a truly meaningful way, the diverse future it is fated to have.”

Ominous words, those last. Accept the Brave New World your enlightened administrators have prepared for you, or stand accused of racial cowardice. As Robert Weissberg writes,

In a nutshell, if Holder and company get their way, white America is to be put on the couch and coaxed to confess its selective misanthropic urges, and that done, we can be properly weaned from the thoughtcrimes debilitating blacks.

And,

this focus on bad thinking breeds totalitarian measures just as it did in religious wars that decimated Europe. And make no mistake, if such forum come to pass, private life may return to the days when heresy regarding the official orthodoxy is a capital offense. Holder is right—we are cowards and for good reason, and it should stay that way.

The new Bruno movie will likely be the same contrived hatchet-job that Borat was, and considering the character probably doing for homophobia what the latter did for anti-(Jewish) semitism. It may be objected that I’m placing too much political baggage on a comedy. But other critics have already done that in praising Cohen’s brilliance. Although I think it’s possible to combine lowbrow comedy with political commentary, these films have neither the courage nor the intellegence for that. Admit that Sacha Baron Cohen has nothing worthwhile to say, that he excells in nothing more than madcap poo-flinging, and I’ll be rolling in the aisles along with the rest of you.

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