The Politics of “Dunkirk,” and what every war movie is about

Comments (0) Culture, History

No safety on a hospital ship, hundreds sinking with it, in one of Christopher Nolan’s visions of terror in “Dunkirk.”

What every war movie is about

Every war movie is both a movie about one war, and a movie about war itself. What does Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” say about each? The second should matter more in the US today, a country always at war somewhere, with a trillion dollar “national security” budget;  a country now recommmitted to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen; a country threatening war against North Korea and Iran; and, on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a country barely remembering it launched history’s only nuclear attack. We have a war party in the government with plenty of support from editorialists and pundits, liberal as well as conservative — and a president promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to an approving audience.

We have a culture permeated with militarist values — count the images ennobling warriors and armed combat in movies and TV, not to mention comic books and toys, and the cop shows with urban warriors fighting urban terror.*

What we don’t have is an anti-war movement. So it matters whether films like “Dunkirk” show us an inspiring image of war redeemed by heroism and meaning, or the terror of desperate men helpless under bombardment. (more…)

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Gaius Julius Trumpus? Is this Caesarism, or just Orange Julius?

Comments (1) Art, History, Politics

“Is this Caesarism?”


Caesar’s body lies covered in a bloody toga, his murderers exit swords raised, and the senators all skedaddled. Jean-Louis Gérôme (1859) rejects the conventions of academic history painting, his figures off-center, not idealized or ennobled, seen not in  the dramatic moment of the murder but moving off in the distance afterwards. Meaning, please? 

“Is this Caesarism?” ask the pundits. Trump’s rise has been explained as Caesarism for over a year now (“An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh,” wrote the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf;  just google “Trump” and “Caesarism” for thousands of results). Authoritarian Populists often get compared to Julius Caesar, and “Caesarism” has become a term for rule by an authoritarian, charismatic ruler, claiming to come as a savior and embody the popular will. Trump?

Was it a burlesque waiting to happen when the Public Theater mounted Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” — a Trump-like Caesar with preening vanity and a red tie and blond hair, a Calphurnia speaking with Slovenian accent? Actually, the burlesque was in the right-wing media enrage by the image of Trump murdered; the Trumpenproletariat fulminated in social media and sent hate mail and death threats to the Public Theater and Shakespeare companies elsewhere — regardless of whether they were producing the play. Guilt by association with Shakespeare.

Facts don’t matter. Shakespeare’s play showed the assassination of Caesar not so much as an attack on tyranny as the beginning of chaos, civil war, and mass murder, concluding with a restoration of order by far more ruthless and murderous tyrants. Together after the murder, Shakespeare has Caesar’s avengers raising money for their army, coolly “proscribing” wealthy Romans they could murder for their property — and even including their own relatives on the hit-list.


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Three stories: Pilsen Murals gentrified; “Who needs copy editors?”; “Douchebag” explained

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 Casa Aztlan’s murals painted over by developers

“Pilsen Murals,” by El Machete (Eric J. Garcia). Copyright Eric J. Garcia, by permission.

Casa Aztlan in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood should have had landmark status, but instead developers are turning the historic home for Chicano activism into luxury apartments. The building was already lost to the community in 2013, but now the iconic murals gracing its exterior walls have been painted over.

The building was taken over in 1970 by Chicano organizers led by the Brown Berets, who opened a free clinic and opened living space for artists and activists and a meeting place for the community.The murals were painted soon after by Ray Patlan and neighborhood children, and they were maintained over the years by local artists Marcos Raya, Salvador Vega, and Robert Valadez.  For decades, Casa Aztlan was a home for community groups and hosted meetings, classes, help for immigrants and neighbors.

Community members, almost 150 according to the Pilsen Alliance, held a vigil in front of the blank wall. The pressure built up, and developer Andrew Ahitow of City Pads said he is asking Ray Patlan to recreate the mural or paint a new one on the building. Will the new mural, no longer on a community-controlled building, have anything like the revolutionary imagery of the original?

Community residents and the Pilsen Alliance have been meeting, demanding that some of the units be reserved for affordable housing. “The painting over of these murals is not just a metaphor; it is literally what is happening to brown neighborhoods in Chicago,” wrote artist and activist Ricardo Gamboa in a Facebook post. (Take a look at Gamboa’s supernatural thriller, the web series, “Brujos.”)

Photo by Seth Anderson, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The New York Times says, “We don’t need no soppy oditors!”

Tweet by Jenna Wortham @jennydeluxe, NY Times staff writer, joining copy editors’ protest. She is co-host of podcast Still Processing.

The New York Times will delete its copy desk. That’s 100 copy editors who will have to reapply for new editorial jobs, where one editor has to not only catch the factual, grammatical, spelling and style errors, but, says the Times, “all aspects of an article, including conception, sentence-level editing and fact checking.” This they call the “strong desk model” of editing.They are “streamlining the editing process and making the system more efficient and nimble,” the Times reports.

The copy editors wrote an open letter to executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn, and staged a 20-minute walkout,  with hundreds of staff joining the copy editors.

The demonstrators’ signs were ominous: “This sign wsa not edited.” “We kneed are editors! They make us look smart.”  “Without us, it’s the New Yrok Times.” “We all know who built the pyramids, but only editors can rebuild inverted ones.” “Visual journalist without photo editors?” “Copy editors save our buts.”

The Times earlier had “streamlined” its public editor, leaving no one with any authority to represent the interests of readers and field criticism from voices loud enough to be worrisome (such as the pesky Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).  Newspapers have lost over 20,000 jobs in the last 20 years. This has been blamed on loss of advertising to the web, but it is also the result of a wave of media consolidation, with revenues that could go to staff salaries going instead to service the massive debt incurred in leveraged buyouts. (Our home-town example: Real-estate genius Sam Zell’s purchase of the paper “saddled the Tribune with $13 billion  in debt, after the Tribune had already bought the LA Times for $8.3 billion.)

The staff at F Newsmagazine and other college newspapers will be glad to help the Times adjust to streamlining. Most of us don’t have public editors or copy desks (no room in the small newsroom for that extra desk). We have the one editor who does it all, even cleans the coffee pot. (Yeah, right!).

See Sophie Lucido Johnson’s very cool “illustrated time machine” on the extinction of the public editor.

Click here for the rest of “The Public Editor: An Illustrated Timeline” (in F Newsmagazine). Margaret Sullivan saw it and  tweeted, “I’m neither this blonde nor this thin; not complaining.” If only Sophie had a copy editor, she would have gotten the hair color right.

Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for,” says American Studies Prof.

Berkeley American Studies Professor Michael Mark Cohen gives social and historical context for the epithet “douchebag,” tracing its evolution through medical history, social stereotypes and pop culture, finally revealing the slur as the accurately descriptive epithet for the insufferably entitled white male.

He looks at what happens when you play “douchebag/not a douchebag” with a new definition based on white privilege, naming the names from Mitt Romney to Captain Kirk and Bruce Banner. Oh, and “when he slipped into the slave quarters at night,” Thomas Jefferson became “our nation’s douchebag founding father,” along with the rest of the plantation aristocracy.

Read it for insights into the history of racial slurs, an enlightening description of the way the word is used (what you probably meant by it without thinking about it), a list of the stereotypical males who fit the description, why hipsters are really quite different and even opposite, and what to do if someone you know or care about is a douchebag.

Cohen’s American Studies course is fascinating — I listened to it on iTunes U a few years ago, but Berkeley has taken nearly all its courses off iTunes. Cohen put some of the lectures on YouTube — I hope he puts more of them up. He also has a video talk on “Pynchon’s Paranoid California.” Check out the cartoons on his website for Art Young and the Cartoons of American Radicalism.

A sample from Michael Cohen’s “Cartooning Capitalism.” Art Young, The Masses, December 1912.  


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Framing the Grenfell Tower Fire: Lessons for US activists

Comments (0) Activism, Media, Politics

Not a front page you would see in a mass circulation daily in the US. The headline calls the tragedy a “crime” and blames the free market ideology and austerity economics which still dominate politics in the UK — and the US.

I’m trying to understand the horrifying enormity of the fire that devastated the 24-story, 600 resident Grenfell Tower in London, a housing “estate” for the very poor within sight of multimillion-pound apartments in the richest borough in the nation.

We have plenty of massive disasters here in the US — floods, tornadoes, wildfires, terrorist attacks, and some, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, that also create political shockwaves. But what is happening now in London seems very different, both in the way it’s being reported and in the political reaction, a powerful challenge to Conservative Party rule.

Bernie Sanders says we can learn from the Labour Party’s unprecedented election gains — and I think we can find similar lessons in the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. (more…)

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“Wonder Woman” — missed opportunities, ironies of casting

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fAll you need is … love superpowers: Wonder Woman may not need a lover, but Hollywood does

We see Wonder Woman and don’t need to see her lover, as Sophie Lucido Johnson illustrates her article in F Newsmagazine. (CC by 2.0.)

Why does Wonder Woman need Capt. Steve Trevor? F Newsmagazine editor Sophie Lucido Johnson argues that the movie’s women filmmakers missed an opportunity to modernize the feminist icon:

“There have to be more movies where friendship, nontraditional family, and non-romantic love are highlighted. Our world is ready for love stories that are bigger than that whole he-looks-good-she-looks-good-so-they’re-together-forever archetype. Wonder Woman is a unique hero because she is earnest, and she is driven by love and compassion. It cheapens her worth when enormous chunks of her story are wasted on an impossible-to-believe romance. Plus, wouldn’t Chris Pine make a great plucky platonic sidekick? Or better yet: How about his secretary?”

Sophie’s argument has some cool links to statistics on “Wonder Woman”‘s record second-weekend box office sales — and the failing box office for rom-coms, compared to superhero movies. (But I was surprised to see that the top grossing movie is still Titanic, that trite romance between a  ship and and iceberg. Though maybe that was the meet cute of all time.) “Wonder Woman has already surpassed Luke Cage and Black Panther in popularity,” John Hagedorn told me. “Score one for women in the race vs gender wars.”


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The Montana election, the Democratic Party failure and the progressive success; and some social movement history

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Partisanship at an election rally, with body-slamming and more. A campaign rally in Middlesex, England, 1768. For notes on the image and some social movement (and art)  history, click here.

It seemed impossible to win the Montana special election, and so the Democratic Party leadership chose not to fund Rob Quist’s campaign. But then he came close to beating multi-millionaire, right-wing nutter Greg Gianforte, who won by only 6 points in a state Trump won by 20. The money came in too late. So did Gianforte’s assault on the Guardian reporter who had the nerve to ask his position on the Republican health care bill; 69% of the voters had already cast their ballots.

Gianforte won by a margin small enough to suggest Democrats can win the house in 2018, or come close, according to FiveThirtyEight. You can see this as a Democratic Party loss, but also as a victory for progressives, who once again showed that without serious party backing they can mount a credible challenge in the most Republican states.

Here are a few angles from which people have been evaluating the results — some that may be familiar, but then one that interests me more and that I think needs more attention. (more…)

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The March for Science — moment or movement?

Comments (2) Activism, Politics

40,000 marched for science in Chicago April 22 . Photo: (CC BY 2.0)

The March for Science (MfS) was a peculiar demonstration — there had never been a mobilization quite like this before. This activism is not over individual issues, such as evolution or reproductive rights. It’s the culture wars raised to a new level — it’s about the place of science and evidence-based policy in society. The marchers frame their activism as reason and knowledge against prejudice and ignorance, evidence against fiction and lies. Now the organizers want to build on its success — hundreds of thousands of people marched worldwide — to turn it into a movement. What kind of march, and what kind of a movement?

We all knew one subtext of the “bipartisan” march was a protest against the Trump administration. Photo: (CC BY 2.0).

Some scientists criticized the march before it began for “politicizing science,” and some activists criticized the march organizers for a lack of diversity. Those criticisms can be revealing in many ways, but first here are some observations about the march from a social movement perspective.


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North Korea: To make war, they need us to forget history

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The use of napalm on civilians in the Vietnam War was widely known, its use in Korea widely ignored, hardly remembered. Anonymous Vietnam War poster.

The worst lies can be silence and forgetting, essential for all warmaking. A “bipartisan consensus”  is emerging in Washington that the US needs to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons with a military attack — even regime change. North Korea is another “rogue state,” with leaders so evil and irrational there is no point in diplomacy; if talk is pointless, military force must be the only option. Strange as the regime is, the demonization should make us suspicious; we’ve heard it before as a justification for horrors.

Tough choices, as our leaders like to say; and here are the tough facts which finally dissuaded previous US administrations from military attacks on North Korea.

  • There are 10,000 artillery in the mountains within range of Seoul, which has 1/3 of South Korea’s population.
  • North Korea has a vast underground network of military facilities.
  • North Korea positions 80% of their troops near the border, to frustrate both a nuclear attack and an invasion.
  • Now, added to these defensive advantages, North Korea has nuclear weapons, with mobile launchers and launch sites deep underground.

The Clinton administration negotiated a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and North Korea even agreed to sell off its medium and long-range weapons in exchange for an end to US threats and the beginning of normalization of relations. But then Bush named North Korea a part of the “axis of evil” and threatened regime change and nuclear first strike. Why ever did those crazy North Koreans rush to resume their nuclear program?

Bruce Cumings, a historian of the Korean War and its aftermath, says, “The simple fact is that Pyongyang would have no nuclear weapons if Clinton’s agreements had been sustained.”

We read about the North Korean provocations but not about their context. Many of them are responses to US threats, such as the yearly US-South Korea war games,  this year involving 300 000 South Korean troops, 17,000 US troops, with ground, air, naval and special operations services. These rehearse “surgical strikes on North Korea’s main nuclear and missile facilities and ‘decapitation raids’ by special forces targeting the North’s leadership.” This year they include Seal Team Six, the team that killed bin Laden.

North Korea agreed to a “suspension for a suspension” — a suspension of their weapons programs in exchange for the US suspension of war games; the US refused. Apparently the US again is waiting for the North Korea to either surrender its nuclear program in return for nothing — or maybe waiting for the regime to collapse, relying on China to impose sanctions to help it along. That hasn’t worked in the past, for fairly obvious geopolitical reasons. First, North Korea has shown remarkable stability, it is fiercely independent, and it has resisted Chinese pressure in the past. It’s not in China’s interest to see a crisis in North Korea that could bring hundreds of thousands of refugees into China.  China also values North Korea as a buffer state —South Korea is a US military ally with US bases, and the US strategy has long been to encircle China with bases in South Korea, Japan, Philippines (uh-oh), and maybe one day Vietnam and Thailand.

But the history the media forget, that is always present in North Korea, should tell us why North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. In the Korean War, North Korea lost 1/5 to 1/3 of its population, as the US carpet bombed the terrain, leveling almost every city and village, making the whole country into a free fire zone, even bombing the dams and reservoirs to wash away villages and people and destroy the rice supply. Strategic bombing failed yet again, as it did in the US wars against Germany, Japan and Vietnam; the North Korean response was to learn to live underground — they moved their dwellings, their factories, their military installations underground.

The Korean War was more devastating than the Vietnam War, forgotten here, not in North Korea.

Since then, after decades of economic warfare, threats of invasion and even nuclear attack, their response was to develop nuclear weapons. That was the lesson of the Iraq invasion to North Korea or any small country which wants to remain independent of great powers — if Saddam Hussein actually had nuclear weapons, would the US have invaded? Expect more nuclear proliferation, the price we all pay when the US threatens some other small country.

Where is the antiwar movement? Where are those millions of people, here and in Europe, who went into the streets to protest the Iraq War? The millions who forced Nixon and Kissinger to withdraw troops from Vietnam and showed our elites that they can never again send hundreds of thousands of US troops into a ground war?

We can thank Trump. “Resistance” is so focused on his removing him from office that it is hard to focus on any one area, and when we do, it’s his attacks on people in the US.

But we can also thank Obama for this deflection from US warmaking. He carried on the war policies of Bush at the end of his administration, which as you remember was forced to withdraw troops in Iraq, a withdrawal later completed by Obama. Obama sent 70,000 more troops into Afghanistan, our longest war, and then left Libya in shambles. But, then, this was Obama —he was a Democrat, he was the good president. He couldn’t pacify any foreign land, but he pacified us.

Now as US warmaking escalates in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, making new threats of military action against North Korea, we no longer have Obama in office. But there is still no antiwar presence.

Why do you think? Send me your thoughts.

To read more about North Korea:

Any of Bruce Cumings’ books, in particular: “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History” and “North Korea: Another Country.”


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Middlebury protest Part II: Evaluating tactics, including the school’s

Comments (0) Activism, Media

“Rough music” or the “Skimmington,” with townspeople assaulting their target with noise and insults. The victim is placed backwards on a horse, with his wife beating him with a ladle. Charles Murray got off easy, compared to this sorry bloke. Wm Hogarth, engraving, 1726.

[This is the second part of an article on the Middlebury College protest against Charles Murray. If you read it, please read it after the first part. The first critiqued stereotyped student protest reporting and the conventional wisdom about the rights of speakers on campus. This post looks at the tactics of college officials and student activists.]

Tactics: What else could school officials have done?

What else could the administration have done? Before the event, the campus newspaper published protest letters  from over 600 students, over 50 faculty and over 500 alumni.   The college’s response, to give Murray an enthusiastic and generous welcome, was so normal that few thought it odd that President Patton chose to do so despite such widespread opposition from her campus. School officials were clearly out of touch with their students and faculty, had no idea how serious the opposition would be, no idea how quickly they would lose control, and now are in the position of hunting down students whom many in their community feel should be honored. Bad leadership, egregious mismanagement, pitiful listening skills? Yet the college officials escape all criticism from the respectable commentators.

The school not only legitimized Murray and his views by allowing the invitation; they also hosted him and treated him as an honored guest, even taking him out to dinner afterwards. They arranged this as a major college event in a large hall; the school president introduced him, the political science department co-hosted  (over the strong objections of some of their faculty), and they made the format a collegial exchange of ideas between Murray and one of their professors. Would they have done more for a visit from a Nobel Laureate? This extra effort was so strange and foolish, so out of touch with the climate on campus, it requires an explanation all its own. (more…)

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The Middlebury protest: Do racists have the right to speak? Do students have the right to disrupt?

Comments (1) Activism, Media

The Latin caption, in translation: “Hercules and Iolaus defend their campus against hate-spewing Prof. Hydra.” Maybe the professor shouldn’t have claimed that Hercules was genetically defective. Hans Sebald Beham, 16th c. engraving, Wikimedia Commons.

The stereotyped student protest narrative

There is a mainstream version of what happened at Middlebury College when right-wing ideologue Charles Murray came to speak. The details hardly matter, because the narrative is so familiar and the conventional wisdom so clear. Student activists disrupt a guest speaker, the protest turns violent, the protesters deny his right to speak, and liberals and conservatives unite in condemning the affront to democratic values.

This sounds also like the Berkeley protest against Milo Yiannopoulos, but for that matter like any student protest against guest speakers that gets headlines. These speakers have included provocateurs like Iannopoulos, apologists for white supremacy and inequality like Murray, or people responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in unjust wars, like Condoleezza Rice or Ehud Olmert.

The received version repeats these details about the Middlebury protest: Conservative students invite Murray to speak; the Political Science Department decides to co-sponsor and Prof. Allison Stanger volunteers to hold a Q and A with him; Middlebury President Laurie Patton gets behind the event; students organize and demand the college not host him. He comes amid a large student protest; the hall is full of chanting protesters; he and Stanger move to a closed location and stream the event; then as he and Stanger leave, protesters block their way, Stanger suffers a neck injury when her hair is pulled by a protester, the car is surrounded, and they leave. And this is the one detail which everyone who remembers this narrative will remember: Protesters attacked and injured the professor.

Like many stereotyped narratives, you know the outline and the moral before you read it; no need for any effort at judgment, thinking or analysis because, as with all stereotyped narratives, you’ve done that long ago. You can read dozens of reports and opinion pieces in the mainstream media, and they mostly are the same.

Why there is always more to the story

Yet there is much more to each one of these stories, because they are all individual events with different people, different backgrounds, and details you won’t see even in the better mainstream reports. If you read the news critically, the way a historian would, you will ask questions such as, Did the reporter witness the event, and, if not, who did she interview? (“Consider the source,” always!)


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